The past two weekends of hockey for the Icers saw January become one of the hardest months of hockey in recent memory. If starting the month at rival Ohio wasn't a harsh snap back to the ACHA season, the Icers found themselves with home weekends against top-ranked and defending champion Illinois, followed by rival and ESCHL opponent Rhode Island. It had all the makings for a tough slate of weekends. So let's get started, shall we?
What Happened: If there is any time to jump on the #1 team after a 12 hour bus ride from Illinois, it's right as the game starts. Luckily for the Icers, Steve Peck was there to take on the task, scoring against the Illini just 58 seconds into the game. Freshman Ryan Paradis would add to the lead, taking a 2-0 advantage into the 2nd.
In the 2nd period, the Illini made their response - a goal 28 seconds in to the period. But the Icers offense would turn the tide again with two more goals, including one from Tim O'Brien as time expired in the second. A third period goal from Matt Kirstein, and more outstanding goaltending from senior Nick Signet gave the Illini just their 3rd loss in about 2 years, 5-1.
The Icers would keep the pressure up Saturday, finding the net 3 times in the first period, forcing Illinois to make a goalie change to start the second period. The two teams traded goals before a couple of sloppy Icers penalties led to 2 Illini goals. With momentum on their side, the Illini would drill home one more goal past sophomore goalie Teddy Hume, tying the game at 4-4. The near-sellout crowd needed something to finish this weekend right, and there is nobody better than senior Luke DeLorenzo to set things right. Almost halfway through the period, DeLo steals an errant pass at the Illinois blue line, and puts it past the Illini goalie. That would be all the Icers needed to take the game, 5-4, and sweep the weekend.
With no time for an off weekend, the Icers found themselves hosting Rhode Island. After splitting the weekend at URI earlier this season, the Icers looked to supplant their place as the top dog in the ESCHL. Another strong crowd was on hand to watch the Icers pull out to a quick 2-0 lead in the first 5 minutes. A goal by the Rams a couple minutes later would leave the Icers with the 2-1 lead heading into the 2nd period. And the 2nd period was one that belonged to the Icers. The Icers turned up the pressure with 3 goals in the period, including Steve Peck's 2nd and 3rd for the hat trick, and carried the 5-1 lead into the intermission. I've seen a lot of hockey in my day, and I've never watched a team look as tired and sluggish for a period as URI looked that 2nd period - and they even drove down the day before. The teams would trade meaningless goals in the 3rd period, giving the Icers the 6-2 win.
Saturday brought about a much tighter game. URI would take the early lead with the only goal in the first period, before the Icers would respond with the only goal in the second period. Luke DeLorenzo would break the tie 5 minutes into the 3rd period, giving him 200 career points as an Icer. But some more sloppy penalties would keep the Icers from sweeping weekend in front of some Icer alumni. A late 3rd-period delay of game penalty negated a Penn State power play. The Rams would take advantage of the 4-on-4 with a game-tying goal just 1:35 left in the game. The overtime period was moving along until a Chris Pronchik penalty gave the Rams the highly advantageous power play in overtime. The Icers were seconds away from killing the penalty, and from taking the game to a shoot-out, before a deflected Rams' shot found its way past Nick Signet, handing the Icers their first lost of the semester, 3-2.
What it Means: Coach Scott Balboni wanted the Icers to work this semester - wanting to make every weekend a challenge. If the January schedule says anything, he did just that. There were also a few people calling us "overrated" - I think the 5-1 January record against quality opponents speaks for itself. And the sweep of Illinois might very well find us back at the top position with the newest rankings to be released this Friday. The question remains to be seen if we jump Lindenwood - a team that split their matchup with Illinois earlier this season.
The split with URI keeps us atop the ESCHL standings, 3 points ahead of Delaware. The ESCHL standings don't mean as much to us as some of the other leagues. The league champions get auto-births into the National Tournament, but it looks like our ranking will be more than high enough to keep us in the show.
Just some points of clean-up from the past few weekends.
- Both weekends saw sizable crowds, which is always nice to see.
- Luke DeLorenzo currently sits at 99 goals and 101 assists. He was hoping to grab the 100th goal this weekend as well, but will likely be forced to pick it up on the road next weekend.
- Depth on offense is very nice right now. The line of Peck-O'Brien-DeLo is putting up huge points; Berry and Kirstein are playing well together; Zimmel and Rubeo aren't putting up the points, but continue to keep up the intensity; and Cera, Paradis, Pronchik, and Polidor continue to string together solid play.
- Defense is pretty set, which is no surprise considering 6 of our 7 starting defensemen are seniors - Thurston, Magulick, Tranter, Brooks, Mills, and Dakan. The other is John Conte, and he's a junior. Yeah, there's a bit of experience and chemistry there.
- Goalies continue to rotate. Teddy looked good against URI, but let in a few weak ones in the Saturday Illinois game. Signet looked very good in the win against Illinois, and good in the OT loss to URI. Unless Balboni changes something soon, I expect this rotation to continue all the way through the tournament.
- Icers broke out a new third jersey for alumni weekend - much better than the flame-riddled alternates from last year. All were auctioned off on Saturday - here's to hoping this remains a regular event.
Yes, I was up for both weekends. Yes, I did more stats work during URI weekend - apparently "alumni weekend" means they put the alumni to work. (Yes - I enjoyed every second of my return to stats.) And yes, I did pick up one of the auctioned third jerseys - #23 Mike Diethorn. I was able to get to know his parents over the seasons he's been on the team (they used to sit next to where I did stats), so it was a cool jersey to grab.
What's on the Horizon: In terms of rankings, I expect us to only jump to #2 - the loss to URI will keep us behind Lindenwood (only 2 losses). Still, we'll be in fine position for the rest of the season.
To end the month, we head to Liberty for two games. This will be a chance to beat the team that gave us an early exit from last year's tournament. Liberty is on a downward slide - word on the street is that their top scorer left at the end of last semester. They've gone 3-4 in January, including a win over Delaware, but losing both games against D2 Davenport. Should be a good couple of games, but Penn State is rolling well right now and should take both.
The following weekend finds us with another home series, this time against #4 Delaware. UDel has been playing very well, and the winner of that series will likely go into the ESCHL tournament as the top seed. At this point, I would not be surprised at another split weekend.
After that, it's two more weekends of regular season, the ESCHL playoffs, and a final game to fill the time until Nationals. Also, I'll be having a separate posting for the World University Games, where three of the Icers (Luke DeLorenzo, Jaime Zimmel, and Steve Thurston) will represent the USA.