Photo Credit: Scott Kinville/315 Hockey.
By Scott Kinville/315 Hockey.
The #1 ranked Utica Pioneers Men’s Hockey Team has ripped the UCHC this season, putting together a perfect 20-0-0 conference record in the regular season. They then tore through the UCHC Tournament defeating Arcadia 5-2 and bludgeoned Manhattanville 11-0 to advance to the Final. Standing in the way of a second straight UCHC Tournament title and a perfect season in the conference was the number two seed Nazareth Golden Flyers.
The Pioneers and Golden Flyers played a home-in-home series at the end of January, which Utica won by scores of 6-1 and 4-1. If Saturday night’s game was supposed to be easy for the Pioneers based on regular season results, someone forgot to tell the Golden Flyers. They came out with a purpose in the opening period and stunned a raucous crowd at the Adirondack Bank Center when they scored at the 9:47 mark on a redirection by Michael DiSchiavi that trickled by Utica goaltender Bryan Landsberger. They nearly scored again four minutes later, but Landsberger made a big save on a three-on-two chance for the Golden Flyers. The Pioneers wound up outshooting the visitors 14-9 in the first period, but it was Nazareth that took a 1-0 lead into the first intermission.
“I just thought we were out of sync,” Utica Head Coach Gary Heenan said of his team’s first period. “We weren’t making plays, we weren’t lugging pucks. We were playing just kind of hesitant. I think the players thought it might come a little easier than that, and so we came out a little lax (It) was not a first period we liked. We talked about it in between and we’re a veteran team so we made some adjustments”.
The Golden Flyers continued their aggressive play to open the second period, but it didn’t take long for the between periods adjustments the Pioneers made to show. At just 1:45 into the second frame, Brandon Osmundson took a pass from Regen Cavanagh and snapped a shot past Nazareth goaltender Raphael Provencher from the left circle to tie the score at one. Jayson Dobay drew the secondary assist on the goal and leads all of Division III in assists.
Thirty seconds after the Osmundson goal, Utica’s John Gutt was assessed a five-minute major and game misconduct for checking from behind. Despite the lengthy penalty kill, the Pioneers were able to keep the momentum from the Osmundson goal going. After Landsberger made a sprawling save on a blast by Nick Charron, the Pioneers took the lead when Dante Zapata redirected a Buster Larsson pass from the bottom of the left circle and in for the shorthanded goal.
“You go to your guys who can get it done in that time,” Heenan said of the penalty kill on the major.
After killing off the major, it was the Pioneer’s turn to go on the power play. they wound up with fifty-five seconds of a five-on-three advantage and cashed in when Larsson wired a shot past Provencher from the left circle off a pass from Osmundson. Less than two minutes after the Zapata goal, Kimball Johnson made it 4-1 for the home team when ripped a shot into the Nazareth net from the right circle. A very loud Adirondack Bank Center was settled down a bit when Blake Frost was able to get a shot past Landsberger with less than three minutes in the frame, and the teams went into the second intermission with the score 4-2 in favor of Utica.
“The message for us was just not to panic,” Zapata said when asked what the message was to the team in the first intermission leading to the four-goal explosion. “We understand what we’re capable of. We know that if we play our game the right way they’re not gonna be able to keep that pace”.
The third period was not as wide open as the second was, but with eight minutes remaining Nazareth got a goal from Logan Tobias to get within one goal. Tension gripped the crowd as the game was suddenly very close, but Zapata scored into an empty net with a minute to go giving the Pioneers an insurance goal. Sixty seconds later the celebration was on as the final buzzer sounded and with their 5-3 victory the Pioneers have been crowned UCHC champions for the second straight season.
After the celebration on the ice moved to the locker rooms, two long-time Pioneers reflected on what the win meant for the team and what the team meant to them.
“It’s a surreal feeling,” senior Captain Dante Zapata said when asked how he felt about being named the MVP of the tournament. “I’m very appreciative of the opportunity but I couldn’t do it without my teammates, and I’m just thankful that we have a great group of guys and we all believe in each other”.
Senior defenseman Justin Allen agreed. “We’ve got a good mix of guys, a couple of us, me and Regen have been here for five years. We have a bunch of fourth-year seniors, and then a bunch of seniors that came in to transfer, but I think the camaraderie and chemistry we built both on and off the ice. We’re such a tight-knit group and I think it shows on the ice”.
The effect of the home crowd was not lost on the pair either.
“It’s always exciting being in front of that crowd” Zapata stated. “When that final buzzer goes off and you get those chills up your spine, it’s definitely a cool feeling for sure”.
Allen summed it up by saying “I’m just super thankful to be able to be on the ice with all my brothers out there and win the championship in front of the greatest hockey city in the world”.
Notes: Dante Zapata (two goals), Brandon Osmundson and Buster Larsson (one goal and one assist), and John Moncovich and Lucas Herrmann (two assists) each had two points for the Pioneers…Dante Zapata was named tournament MVP, and he along with Jayson Dobay and Bryan Landsberger was named to the All-Tournament Team…The NCAA Division III Tournament brackets will be revealed on Monday at 10 am.