OSWEGO, N.Y. — The Potsdam State Bears may be the most surprising team at the start of the 2015-16 season in Division III hockey. They came into Saturday night 5-0, facing their toughest challenge of the year so far on the road against perennial contenders, Oswego State Lakers.
Potsdam passed the test with flying colors after a convincing 4-1 victory thanks to a pair of crucial goals by Todd Thomas and once again outstanding goaltending by Brendan McMenimen, who made 44 saves.
The Bears may not have dominated play, or even been the better team at times (they were outshot 45-22), but they dictated the style of play, which frustrated Oswego and took the large crowd completely out of the game.
Potsdam played a very conservative, patient game. They never pinched defensemen. They used just one forechecker while the rest of the team waited at center ice. They didn’t get fancy in the offensive zone, which could open space up for Oswego to counterattack.
Potsdam did not give Oswego much room to work its offense, as Bears defenders were always on top of them bumping them, getting their sticks in the way, and quickly clearing rebounds, and they maintained this the entire 60 minutes, not once breaking from their strategy.
“We talk about our structure, their investment, and they’ve been following that game plan,” said Potsdam coach Chris Bernard. “That’s a credit to them to have that focus and discipline.”
“They are playing with confidence,” Oswego coach Ed Gosek said. “When you’re winning, you gain that confidence. It’s a credit to them. They are a good team. Their goalie played well.”
Potsdam took advantage of the first power play of the game at 4:03 of the first period. Sean Kacerosky’s shot from the high point produced a rebound that Tom Plese finally put in on a second swipe.
Thomas got his first goal, which proved to be the game-winner, on a controversial play at 8:39 of the second period. It appeared Oswego’s goalie, Justin Gilbert, was bumped by a Potsdam player, pushing him off the near post. This opened up the space needed for Thomas to jam the puck in. The referees met, but decided to allow the goal.
Oswego got frustrated at the end of the second period, committing three roughing penalties to one for Potsdam. This gave the Bears a two-man advantage to start the third. That was quickly and partially nullified when Matt Thompson was called for interference.
When all the penalties were up, Thomas put the dagger in Oswego with a weak goal at 2:35. Carrying the puck down the left side, well past the dot, he shot it through Gilbert’s five-hole, a goal reminiscent of a key goal Oswego gave up the night before to Plattsburgh.
“He’s a terrific player, terrific leader,” Bernard said. “Just glad he’s on our team.”
Oswego pulled Gilbert, putting in Adrian Ignagni.
The change briefly worked, as the Lakers broke the shutout at 5:13 when Andrew Barton jammed in the puck with a large crowd in the crease.
However, four minutes later, a terrible defensive mistake gave Potsdam the final clincher. After a defensive giveaway in the slot area, Dylan Vander Esch was alone with the goaltender. He deked twice and lifted a backhander past Ignagni for his sixth of the season.
“You get a little momentum and maybe you got a prayer when it’s 3-1 and you turn it over,” Gosek said.
“They’re a good hockey club; we’re glad to get two points,” Bernard said.
Oswego now has a three-game losing streak and falls to 1-3-1, both overall and in the conference.
“We’ll address the mistakes we’re making and move forward,” Gosek said. “Hey, 20 games to go.”
The Lakers have a home-and-home series against Morrisville next weekend.
Potsdam faces another key test next Saturday at Plattsburgh. The Bears are now 6-0, one short of their greatest start in school history when they went 7-0 in 1995-96.
That was the year they won their only SUNYAC championship.