Pioneers lose playoff overtime heartbreaker
UTICA — After storming back with two late goals to tie the game, the Utica University men's hockey team lost 5-4 in overtime in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Division III playoffs Saturday night at home.
It was a rematch of last year's quarterfinal between the same teams in the same building. New England won that game 2-0. Top-seeded Utica was out for revenge and was in a situation where the next goal would win the game but the result ended up being the same, an upset loss to the Nor'easters.
"We blew it, blew it again," said Utica head coach Gary Heenan after the game. "Came out apprehensive" and passed up some shooting opportunities early. "We didn't feed off home ice. We didn't come out the way we we're capable of." He added, "We were flat, which is inexcusable."
After a scoreless first period, things heated up in the second. Utica looked to be on the verge of breaking through when New England took a second penalty 36 seconds after its first of the period, giving the Pioneers 1:24 of five-on-three advantage.
And while Utica did convert 21 seconds later, it didn't last. Buster Larsson scored to give the hosts a 1-0 lead on assists from Regan Cavanagh and John Moncovich.
Before the fans were done celebrating, New England scored shorthanded to tie the game 1-1. Anthony Sciucco finished the play after Utica turned the puck over in the neutral zone. A pass on a two-on-one gave Sciucco room in front and he deked goalie Bryan Landsberger and put a backhanded shot past him for a goal.
Heenan said the team wanted to get two goals from the situation and instead let New England get one back. "The shorthanded goal is the moment," he said. "Our power play at 29% cooks," and could have converted twice in that sequence. "There's your moment."
The rest of the period belonged to the Nor'easters. Despite being outshot, the visitors got two more goals, the first a power-play tally by Garrett Devine just over halfway through the period then Kevin O'Keefe with 5:44 left.
Heenan said the team made "egregious errors" in the second period and wound up two goals behind.
When New England's Logan DiScano scored 45 seconds into the third, the pressure was on for Utica. Trailing 4-1, the Pioneers had a long way to go to get back into the game. With just over 14 minutes left in regulation, they began their comeback.
Justin Allen got the packed crowd at the Adirondack Bank Center back into the game when his point shot got through traffic and into the back of the net past New England goalie Billy Girard to make it 4-2. Larsson and captain Dante Zapata earned assists.
With less than three minutes remaining and still down two goals, Utica was running short on time. That all changed in 42 seconds. With 2:29 left, Brandon Osmundson grabbed a rebound and fired it home for Utica to make it 4-3. Then Larsson got his second goal of the game when his shot from the faceoff circle hit bodies in front and trickled across the goal line at the far post to tie the game. Connor Fedorek and Zapata got assists.
"We battle back, which is a gutsy effort. We had all the momentum," Heenan said. The Pioneers outshot the Nor'easters 43 to 23 in regulation and 20 to six in in overtime. But it wasn't enough.
With 6:54 left in overtime, Sciucco scored a wild goal. "Puck went behind the net. I threw it out front trying to look for a guy, maybe get a stick on it. Hit the goalie's back and went in," he said after the game.
"Any team could have packed it in there down three in the third period," said New England head coach Kevin Swallow after the game. "They just kept fighting, kept coming. They had us back on our heels big time there late in the game. They had a little bit of the momentum at the start of overtime. I thought we started to claw back and get some of the momentum back and ultimately got the goal there."
Swallow added, "Last year they underestimated us for sure. So we were able to come in and play our game and catch them off guard. I do not think there was any element of surprise this year. They knew that it was going to be a good hockey game. They came out flying. They wanted revenge."
At the end of regulation, Swallow said, "We held on. Luckily got out of the that period tied. They were all over us." His message to the team during the intermission before overtime was: "If I told you guys at the beginning of the year that we have overtime in Utica to go back to the Frozen Four, would you guys take that situation? And every single guy, obviously, took that situation." Then, "We hit the reset button" for overtime.
"It seems like we're destined to fail," Heenan said of the loss to the same team for the second straight postseason. "We allowed them to steal it from us again." He added, "We have to be better than that." And concluded, "Outcoached, outplayed…We've got to win this hockey game and we failed at it twice. And that's on me."
Girard made 59 saves in the win. Landsberger stopped 24 shots in the loss.
Utica ends the season 25-3-1.
New England (21-6-2) advances to a semifinal game against Adrian College of Michigan on Friday in Beverly, Massachusetts.
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