Men’s Hockey Ends Season in Cinderella ECAC Playoff Run

Jaime Heilbron

The Colgate men’s hockey team’s Cinder­ella story run in the ECAC Hockey playoffs ended with a 4-0 loss to No. 3 Yale in the conference semifinals, which took place in Atlantic City, N.J. last Friday. First-year goaltender Eric Mihalik stopped 36 of 39 shots faced, including 18 in the second pe­riod, to keep the Raiders in the game. The Bulldogs scored once in the second and twice on even strength in the third, be­fore adding an empty net goal to cap off their victory.

“We can’t use exhaustion as an excuse for why we lost,” senior captain Brian Day said. “Yale is a great team and we had our chances. We had a goal reversed and had another shot hit the post. If one of those had gone in the back of the net I think it would have been a different game. Credit must be given to Yale, which is clearly an elite team in the country, which further proved that point by beating up on Cornell 6-0 in the Championship game.”

The following evening ‘Gate dropped the consolation game to No. 15 Dart­mouth 5-3. After sophomore forward Rob­bie Bourdon gave the Raiders a 1-0 lead with his 12th goal of the year 7:41 into the game, the Big Green scored three un­answered goals, including two on a power play to take a 3-1 advantage early in the second period. Senior assistant captain François Brisebois scored his career-high 17th goal of the campaign 12:57 into the stanza but Dartmouth answered back three minutes later. Both teams traded tallies in the final period of the season, which in­cluded Bourdon adding his second of the evening to record his first ever multi-goal game, as the game ended 5-3 in favor of the Big Green.

“The team showed great perseverance and proved that we were a team of charac­ter by getting to the semifinals,” Day said. “While there were many lows during the season, we as a team always found a way to pick each other up and keep battling. We practiced hard and kept on grinding until things finally fell into place.”

On the weekend of March 4, Colgate traveled to Troy, N.Y. as the 12th seed in the ECAC Hockey Tournament to take on the fifth-seeded and No. 15 Rensselaer En­gineers. The series did not end the way the Raiders were hoping it would, as the En­gineers came out of the gate strong in the initial period of the first game, taking a 3-0 lead to the locker room and finally walking away with a 4-2 win.

The following night Colgate entered R.P.I.’s Houston Field House with its back against the wall. The Raiders needed to win to keep their season alive and a strong start would go a long way towards achieving that goal. Just 1:51 into the game, Colgate got the jump it needed when junior forward Nick Prockow put the puck past York af­ter grabbing it behind the net and shooting it in on the wraparound. The Raiders con­tinued to dominate the rest of the period, which enabled them to take a 1-0 lead to the locker room.

“The start was very important because we wanted to carry on momentum from the end of the previous game,” Brisebois said. “A lot of playoff hockey is mental and we didn’t want them to get any hope of getting a quick sweep.”

The Raiders battled to preserve their lead toward the end of the tilt, while the Engi­neers worked to tie up the score. Two empty net goals in the last minute and a half by Prockow and Brisebois sealed the deal, as

Colgate forced a third game with a 5-2 victory.

The following evening the Raiders found themselves facing elimination once again. Tensions were high and thus a strong first period would be needed to set the tone. At 13:08, Colgate picked the best possible time to score its first short-handed goal of the sea­son after Smith set Mayer up on a breakaway for his fourth tally of the year. The Raiders would take the 1-0 lead into the locker room.

In the second period, first-year goaltender Eric Mihalik put forth one of his most im­pressive performances of the season. Mihalik faced 12 shots in the period, and it was not until its very end, after minutes of relentless pressure that Rensselaer was finally able to score at 18:48.

The third frame was intense from the start. Given how tight the series and the third contest in particular had been, the next goal would prove to be crucial in determining the series victor. Both Mihalik and York stood tall, however, and the two teams went to overtime for the third time in the year. Col­gate dominated from the beginning, and put pressure on York and forced him to come up with incredible saves to keep his team alive. After 20 minutes of bonus hockey, another session would be needed to decide the vic­tor. 10:06 into the second overtime Bourdon scored his tenth of the year, off assists from junior defenseman Corbin McPherson and Wagner to send the Raider bench into frenzy and his team to a quarterfinal date with top-seeded Union. Mihalik’s 40 stops and overall performance throughout the weekend earned him ECAC Goaltender of the Week and National Player of the Week accolades.

“I think we went in with the momen­tum we had gained from tying up the series,” Brisebois said. “We had a nothing to lose attitude that played to our advantage.”

The following weekend Colgate traveled to the Capital region for the second straight-weekend to take on regular season champion No. 4 Union in its home ice, a place where the Raiders had not won since 2007.

Colgate’s only goal of the contest came 13:09 into the second period, when Wagner scored his eighth of the year to break Keith Kincaid’s shutout streak of 100 minutes and three seconds. The rest of the game belonged to the Dutchmen, who added two goals in the third period to take the first contest of the series 4-1. Mihalik stood tall for the Raiders, stopping 38 of 42 shots.

The next night Colgate found itself in the same position as the previous week as they once again faced elimination. Union boasted a 16-1-2 home record and a 13-game un­beaten streak going into the contest, so the Raiders faced a task of gigantic proportions. Just like the previous night, things did not start off well for Colgate. The Dutchmen got on the board early in the first period and pro­ceeded to control play throughout the game’s first 20 minutes.

The second period did not go the way the Raiders wanted it to either. Union increased its lead to 2-0 and peppered Mihalik with shots to outshoot Colgate 10-6 in the period and 18-10 in the game up to that point. The Dutchmen held a seemingly insurmountable two-goal lead going into the final 20 minutes of the game.

From the moment the puck was dropped it was easy to tell that something had changed in the Raiders’ mind. ‘Gate came out of the locker room fired up and seeking to find the offensive touch that had been missing throughout the first five periods of the week­end. Colgate’s resurrection began 5:48 into the frame when Mayer scored off assists from junior forward Matt Firman and Wagner. Five minutes later Wagner scored the Raiders’ first power play goal of the weekend, assisted by Day and Bourdon. At 14:48, Bourdon gave Colgate its first lead of the weekend putting the biscuit past Kinkaid with a between-the-legs backhand shot. Day sealed the victory by adding an empty net goal with 38 seconds remaining in the game. The tide had turned.

“The comeback in the third was obviously the turning point in the series,” Poplawski said. “We were one period away from being eliminated by the top team in the league, and they apparently hadn’t blown a lead in the third period at home all season. We knew once we tied it up that we had all the mo­mentum and we managed to come out on top, which did a lot for our confidence in game three.”

The following evening the Raiders had their strongest start to a game since the sec­ond game of the first round series. While Colgate trailed 1-0 after the first 20 minutes it had set the tone for the rest of the game with its offensive mindset and physical play.

The Raiders got on the board 2:57 into the second stanza when Smith scored on the man advantage assisted by Price and Brise­bois. A little over two minutes later, Union tallied on the power play to retake its lead. Colgate answered several minutes later with another tally on the man advantage. This time it was Bartliff scoring off assists from Price and Poplawski.

Early in the third frame, the Dutchmen grabbed their third lead of the contest. The Raiders refused to go down without a fight, however, and when the end of the season loomed with only two minutes left in the game, Brisebois scored the game-tying goal, after it bounced off a Union defenseman and past Kinkaid into the net. For the sec­ond straight Sunday, Colgate would need the extra session to vanquish its opponent.

This time it was Poplawski’s turn to play the part of hero. Fresh off a line change, Poplawski skated towards the left faceoff dot, where he received the puck from Firman and blasted it past Kinkaid to send the Raiders to Atlantic City with his first goal of the sea­son, making Colgate the lowest seed ever to advance to the ECAC Hockey Final Four.

“Anytime you can contribute towards a win it feels pretty good,” Poplawski said. “I was just so happy that we accomplished what no one thought was possible before the start of the playoffs. Scoring the game-winner was just the icing on the cake.”

While the season as a whole may not have gone the way anyone expected it to, the Raiders’ post-season run will serve as a foun­dation for future success. Rookie Chris Wag­ner emerged as an offensive threat, scoring a third of his nine goals and 19 points in the playoffs. Eric Mihalik also improved on his already strong play from the previous month to become the first rookie goaltender to win two post-season series for Colgate.

The 2011-2012 campaign will begin on October 7 in the University of Nebraska- Omaha’s Maverick Stampede.