By Scott Kinville/315 Hockey
The rematch many fans have been waiting a year for took place on Saturday night at the Adirondack Bank Center as the number one ranked Utica Pioneers Men’s Hockey Team hosted the ninth-ranked New England Nor’Easters in the Quarterfinals of the NCAA Division III Tournament. 364 days ago, the Nor’easters upset the then-second-ranked Utica Pioneers at the Adirondack Bank Center in the Quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament, knocking out a team that was a favorite to win the national championship.
As fate would have it, the two teams would collide once again on Saturday night back at the Adirondack Bank Center once again in the Quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament. The Nor’Easters entered this game ranked number nine in Division III, but this time the Pioneers had even loftier expectations – as they came into the contest ranked number one in the country. The rematch was the talk of the Central New York hockey world.
The 315 Hockey preview of this game: #1 Utica Pioneers vs #9 New England Nor’Easters Game Preview 03-18-2023
“We blew it again. We lost this game in the first period, came out apprehensive”, Utica Head Coach Gary Heenan said after the Pioneers lost 5-4 in overtime which ended their season. “You’re really upset with a team that stole it from us last year and we allowed them to steal it from us again”.
The Pioneers controlled play for the first ten minutes of the game, although New England killed a two-minute power play they gave the home team with 12:23 remaining in the period. The Nor’Easters had some pushback after they killed the penalty, but Pioneers regained the momentum in the closing minutes. New England goaltender Billy Girard was able to thwart the Utica attack and the game went into the intermission a scoreless tie.
The Pioneers opened the scoring early in the second period on a five-on-three power play when Buster Larsson blasted a shot past Girard from the left circle. Eighteen seconds after the Larsson goal, the Nor’Easters stunned what was a rocking Adirondack Bank Center crowd when they got a shorthanded goal from Anthony Sciucco – his first of two goals of the night.
“Came down with Chad Merrell on a two-on-one (he) threw a perfect sauce right on my tape, had some patience there, and brought it to my backhand,” Sciucco said of his goal that tied the game at one.
Four minutes later, New England took the lead on a power play goal of their own when Garrett Devine tipped a Collin Heinold shot past Utica goaltender Bryan Landsberger and into the net. Another four minutes after that, Devine set up Kevin O’Keefe who beat Landsberger with a shot from the bottom of the left circle that appeared to be redirected by a Pioneer defender. Despite being outshot 23-16 through the first two periods, the visitors took a 3-1 lead into the second intermission.
“We play our best hockey when we’re very aggressive and hard on the forecheck”. New England Head Coach Kevin Swallow said of his team’s performance. “I thought we executed that well tonight”.
It took the Nor’Easters just forty-five seconds into the third period to extend their lead to three goals when Logan DiScanio beat Landsberger from in close. After the DiScanio goal, the switch seemed to flip for the Pioneers and they became the ones dominating play. Five minutes after the DiScanio goal, Utica got one back when Justin Allen launched a shot from the left point that went through a screen set by John Monocvich and past Girard to make the score 4-2. With the Allen goal, the Adirondack Bank Center was buzzing once again.
With under three minutes remaining and still down two goals, Utica’s Brandon Osmundson put a rebound off of a Dante Zapata shot past Girard to make it a one-goal game. The deficit was erased forty-two seconds later when former Utica Jr. Comet Buster Larsson scored to tie the game and ultimately send the game to overtime. The spirited comeback by the Pioneers had the home crowd as loud as it’s ever been.
The Pioneers started the overtime period with the gas pedal squarely on the floor. They poured shot after shot on Girard, but the home team could not solve the junior goaltender. After surviving the barrage, the Nor’Easters began to get some chances of their own. With seven minutes remaining, the Adirondack Bank Center held its collective breath as a shot by Daniel Winslow got through the Utica defense and just trickled wide of the left post. Sciucco tracked the puck down along the end boards and flung an innocent-looking shot at the Utica crease from behind the goal line.
“I threw it out in front trying to look for a guy to get a stick on it, it hit the goalie’s (Landsberger) back and went in,” Sciucco said of his second goal of the game that would prove to be the game-winner.
As the puck bounced off of Landsberger and into the Pioneer’s net, time seemed to stand still for a brief moment. Then, while the Nor’Easters burst out in celebration, a dejected Utica Pioneers team and capacity home crowd realized their season had come to a close.
“We didn’t come out the way we’re capable of,” Heenan said. “The second period, we finally get a goal, then we gave up that awful chance to go up two to nothing with all the momentum building. Then the shorty and us with some egregious errors, but we battled back which is a gutsy effort”.
“They (New England) do a great job of pressing low, smother defense, so you have to go high. We didn’t take advantage of winning puck battles and get it to the point. Our forecheck was effective, and our o-zone play for what we wanted was there. We just didn’t capitalize”.
After the game, New England Head Coach Kevin Swallow was impressed with the Utica comeback and his team’s finish.
“Any team could have packed it in there down three in the third period. They just kept fighting, kept coming, had us back on our heels big time there late in the game and they had a little bit of momentum at the start of overtime. I thought we started to claw back and we started to get a little bit of momentum back and ultimately we got the goal by DiScanno. They played a great hockey game. It could have gone either way but ultimately we got the result”.
Utica outshot New England 19-5 in the overtime period and 62-28 for the game.
“It’s an excuse, but it seems like there’s something there” Heenan replied when asked if the two-week layoff between games had an effect on the Pioneers. “We’re old, you know, we’re veterans. The right guys had pucks on their sticks in the first period, we just didn’t handle it the way we should. We passed up scoring opportunities”.
Despite bowing out in the Quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament, the Pioneers had a tremendous season nonetheless. They achieved the number-one ranking in the nation for the first time in the school’s history, set several school records, and were awarded many individual conference honors.