Hockey, like baseball, is a game of inches sometimes.
You score a goal by a matter of inches, you make a save by a matter of inches. You get the goalie to move an inch and you score. That’s the way it was on Friday evening in game one of the first-round playoff series between Capital District rivals Rensselaer and Union.
The Engineers scored twice on breakaways in the second period and held off a determined Dutchmen squad to take game one of the series on the Dutchmen’s home ice, 2-1.
The Engineers got 37 saves from Nathan Marsters and stopped Union seven times on seven power plays to grab the 1-0 series lead.
Said Union coach Kevin Sneddon, “We made a couple of mistakes to give them the goals but other than that I thought we controlled the game. We had some scoring opportunities and I was pleased with our effort. We have to produce on our power play — they won the battle, but they didn’t win the war.”
“I thought it was a very well played game on both ends. It was wide open at times and tight checking at times,” said Engineer coach Dan Fridgen. “We ran the gamut of every situation there was in that game. We got a couple of goals up on them and held the lead, did a great job of keeping the shots to the outside and playing defensively. When we did give up some gap and some opportunities, Nate was there to make the saves for us.”
The game stayed scoreless through the first period — a period with a lot of icings and whistles. But halfway through the second period the Engineers got on the board, on a breakaway goal by Vic Pereira.
The Engineers swung the puck from behind their net and Keith MC[nl]Williams found Pereira behind the defense. Pereira made one deke and the put it low. Kris Mayotte got a piece of it, but not enough to keep it from going into the net as it slid under his body. An inch more with a block and the game would have stayed scoreless.
Just three and a half minutes later the Engineers capitalized on the power play. As a four-on-three power play was turning into a five-on-four power play, the Dutchmen made another mistake.
Scott Seney came out of the box for Union and went into the Union offensive zone. Ben Barr came out of the box and straight to the bench. Meanwhile Kevin Croxton was trying to find space. In the mass of bodies, Croxton got lost and Nolan Graham found him for a clear breakaway from center ice. Croxton deked the shot, got Mayotte to move a few inches, and then went high over the shoulder of Mayotte to give the Engineers the 2-0 lead with a power play goal.
“They sent a d-man up on the play and I just got a beautiful pass,” said Croxton. “I saw what he did on Vic’s goal, he dropped his shoulder, so I tried to make him move first. Then I went right up top.”
“We got a little overanxious on the forecheck,” explained Sneddon on the two goals. “We had three forwards up and the defense made the pinch and then Croxton made a great play and I don’t think our defense even knew he was back there. Two big mistakes cost us the game.”
The Dutchmen went into the locker room down two goals, but came out in the third buzzing until they cut the lead to one.
Max Seel made a spin move at the blue line and put the puck towards the net. It took a hop over Marsters, hit the post and sat on the goal line just about an inch from going in. That’s when Chris Konnick’s swipe pushed the puck over for the goal.
“We had a lot of shots on goal, but nothing to show for it,” said Konnick. “Max made a nice play and put it towards the net. I thought we had the momentum at the point and it felt like we were going to get another one.”
Another one was what the Dutchmen and Joel Beal thought they had on the power play with about nine minutes left in the third period.
Nathan Gillies’ initial shot was stopped by Marsters and the puck found its way loose. In the scrum Marsters lost his stick and glove and left the net wide open. That’s when Beal stepped in and rocketed a shot that Marsters dove back to stop from going over the goal line.
“I was hollering for the puck and then there were two guys coming at me,” said Beal. “I didn’t think much and fired it at the net. But I put it right back into his chest. I was just trying to get it by the two guys and over an inch. It’s a 2-1 game and you want to put that in to tie it, but that’s just the way it went.”
“I saw that he had the open net and I was just waiting for him to shot it,” said Marsters. “I just reacted; sometimes you have those games when you get lucky and the puck was finding me all night.”
The Dutchmen continued to press but could not find the net again and the Engineers won their first road game since a win at St. Cloud during the first weekend in November, and their first ECAC road game of the season.
“The first goal of the game was going to be a big goal, but there was still a lot of hockey to be played,” said Fridgen. “It was key when we got that second one and we didn’t let up. We kept going and we concentrated a little more on a defensive side of it. We got a couple of big goals early and we capitalized on our opportunities.”
The star of the game was Marsters, who won two back-to-back games for the first time this season.
“I struggled a lot with my confidence this year and at the end of the season I felt it coming,” said Marsters. “The playoffs are a whole new season, it’s a fresh start.”
“He made some big saves at key times and that’s why he’s in there,” said Fridgen. “It’s been a confidence builder for him and a process and for us as a team. This is a time when you want that process to take hold.”
Game two will take place on Saturday.
“The guys in the locker room know that they lost the battle, but there’s a lot more to come,” said Sneddon. “That’s why these series are two out of three.”
“It’s playoff hockey,” said Fridgen. “Enjoy this one and then put it behind you because it’s only one step. They’re going to come out real hard, they didn’t quit when they were down 2-0. They’re a good hockey team and we’ll have to play as well as we did tonight because they’ll be pressing.”