Men’s Hockey Fights To The Bitter End In NCAA Tournament

Alex Clark

The Colgate men’s hockey team, led by nine seniors and driven by heart to the team’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in four years, lost another heartbreaker, 6-5, last Friday to third-ranked Colorado College at the Midwest Regional in Grand Rapids, MI. The defensive-minded Raiders, who allowed less than two goals a game during the season, probably hoped to avoid a shootout with the high-flying Tigers. Colorado College forwards Marty Sertich and Brett Sterling lead the NCAA with 64 and 63 points, respectively, and their squad averaged nearly four goals per contest. Many questioned whether Colgate could keep up with its heavily favored opponents in a high-scoring affair.Yet, the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament provided nothing but surprising games, and Colgate’s battle against Colorado College proved no different. The Tigers got on the board first with a power-play goal less than three minutes into the game. Six minutes later, the Raiders found themselves shorthanded again and scrambling to keep the puck away from the sticks of the WCHA’s two best offensive threats. Raider junior Jon Smyth jumped on top of a blocked shot, however, and sped towards Colorado College goalie Curtis McElhinney on a breakaway. Smyth deked to his backhand and slid the puck into a wide-open net for a game-tying shorthanded goal.The Tigers leapt back into the lead with two quick goals scored within a minute of each other, however. Aaron Slattengren fought through multiple Colgate defenders to tip a loose puck through the legs of Raider senior goaltender Steve Silverthorn, and Sertich took advantage of confusion in front of Colgate’s cage to stuff the rubber into an open side, giving his team a 3-1 lead.”I’m sure [Silverthorn] would have liked to have had a couple of those goals back,” Colgate head coach Don Vaughan said. “But we wouldn’t have been able to keep the game close after that without him. He made some incredible stops that had Colorado shaking their heads.”Smyth cut the lead in half before the end of the first period with another beautiful goal less than a minute after Sertich’s tally. Colgate’s second-leading scorer redirected senior defenseman Justin Spencer’s low shot over the glove of McElhinney and under the crossbar, bringing the score to 3-2 after one period.Colorado College regained a two-goal edge on Lee Sweat’s rocket-like slapshot early in the second period. But the aggressive penalty killing of the Raiders paid off once again, as the team cashed in for its ninth shorthanded goal of the year and second of the game.”This year we have a very experienced group of guys killing penalties,” Vaughan said. “That lends itself to having more offensive opportunities, because they know when they can go and when they can’t. They have the experience to anticipate the play, and that’s why we’ve had success this year shorthanded.”Senior Adam Mitchell barreled in towards McElhinney with a defender draped over his back. Yet the tri-captain, who played in all 152 Colgate games throughout his career, used all of his strength to lift the sliding puck under the arm of the Tiger goalie and into the net, drawing the Raiders within one at 4-3.Mitchell had to fight off more than just Colorado College defensemen last Friday, as he joined a growing list of injured Raiders thanks to a bad cold and a twisted ankle suffered early in the contest with the Tigers.Down by just one goal entering the third period, Colgate felt confident that it could topple Colorado College. The Raiders improved their physical play against the speedy Tigers, finally slowing down stickhandling forwards and breaking up laser-like passes while still pressing to tie the game.”We finally found our game after a shaky start,” Vaughan said. “We knew we had to play physical, and we started to do that. But it’s tough to play that game when you have to play catch-up. If we had taken a lead we may have been able to settle into our trap. But we had to open it up to get back into it.”Colgate suffered a serious setback less than six minutes into the third period when referee Conrad Hache whistled junior Kyle Wilson for holding while the Raiders were already killing a separate penalty. The Tigers buried their lone chance on the short two-man advantage, giving them a 5-3 lead.”It was two guys battling for ice, and one guy fell down,” Vaughan said of the penalty call. “If you’re going to make that call, there’s some room for both to go. You can argue that it was a penalty, but I could also easily argue that their guy should have been called as well.”The crowd in Van Andel Arena, composed mostly of Michigan fans awaiting the Wolverines’ upcoming match-up with Wisconsin, believed Colorado had finally escaped from the Raiders. Yet Colgate refused to end its season quietly.”On the occasions when we got down 3-1 and 5-3, I’m sure a lot of people thought we were going to pack the tent and go home,” Vaughan said. “But that’s never been in our vocabulary, and it didn’t creep into it that night.”Spencer drew Colgate within a goal with a low shot that crept between McElhinney’s pads midway through the period. Four minutes later Mitchell buried his second goal of the night, slamming a rebound through the legs of McElhinney. The relatively large and boisterous Colgate crowd, along with most of the impartial Michigan fans, cheered the momentous comeback. Colorado College seemed stunned to have allowed the Raiders to creep back into the game. The Tigers, therefore, began taking risks in an effort to avoid being surprised in the first round. Unfortunately for Colgate, one such risk finally paid off. Tiger Richard Petiot knocked down a waist-high clearing attempt with a diving effort and threw the puck towards Sterling, who redirected it past a surprised Silverthorn. “On the game-winning goal, the guy took a huge risk to keep the puck in the zone,” Vaughan explained. “They always play on the offensive side of the puck, which is kind of fun. If that puck gets by him, we’ve got a 3-on-1 the other way. But he made a great play.”Silverthorn surrendered six goals on 39 shots, which – despite several spectacular saves – proved unusual both for him and the normally solid defense in front of him.”I was a little bit surprised that they were able to get six by us,” Vaughan said. “As good as they are and as explosive as they are, I’m still surprised that we gave up six goals to anybody.”Colgate created several chances within the waning minutes of regulation to tie the game once again. With Silverthorn pulled in favor of an extra attacker, Colgate nearly found twine thanks to the gritty effort of injured first-year Tyler Burton.”People didn’t know how banged up he was,” Vaughan said. “A lot of guys wouldn’t have even played. He was very courageous to battle as he did. He made an incredible play on his back with 20 seconds left to pass the puck to Jon Smyth, and we almost scored to tie it again.”The Raiders failed to draw even with Colorado College for a third time, however, and finished their season with yet another one-goal loss.”I really felt when we tied it up that we were going to win,” Vaughan said. “We’re never going to be satisfied with a loss. I was satisfied with our effort, and we need to be very proud of how we battled back and never quit. But we thought we could win that game, and we put ourselves in a pretty good position to do that.”Colgate’s 25 wins marked the second most in team history, and the nine seniors advanced deeper into the playoffs in each of their four seasons with the club. In this respect, the Raiders’ season became an amazing success despite the loss to the Frozen Four-bound Tigers.”The tough loss to Colorado marked the end of a career for nine guys in that locker room,” Vaughan said. “But we talked about the journey. It’s not about one game or one loss. You want them to walk away understanding that it’s the process that matters. They’re going to have some time to reflect on just what they accomplished both on and off the ice.”