By CLAUDE SCILLEY
Two things quickly become apparent, with even just a superficial perusal of the U.S. Military Academy hockey team’s record.
For one, the Black Knights play an awful lot of close games. Army has played 22 times this year, and nine times they’ve gone to overtime. Experience in such proceedings could well be the sort of thing to stand them in good stead Saturday night, in their match with the Royal Military College Paladins.
The other, however, may be a little more troublesome. Army clearly has an awfully tough time scoring goals. In their last five games, the Knights have scored but one goal in four of them; in the other they didn’t score any.
In a one-game showdown for international bragging rights, that could be a bit of a handicap.
“The good news for us is we’ve been really competitive,” Army coach Brian Riley said, “and that’s part of the process here, where we’re trying to get with this group.
“Our goal is to be playing our best hockey as we get ready for the playoffs. Certainly in our league, we’ve shown that we can play with anybody. Even out of conference, we’ve had four games, all against Hockey East schools, and we’re 2-2.
“We have done some good things. We just need to find a way to score some more goals.”
The team comes to Kingston from West Point with an overall record of 5-11-6. In terms of winning, Army is in the midst of a difficult stretch: just one win in its last eight games, most recently a loss and a tie with Air Force last weekend.
Unquestionably, though, the Knights are playing well defensively. In their last six games, they’ve allowed just 11 goals.
“At the start of the year we were actually scoring some goals but we weren’t playing as well defensively as we would have hoped,” Riley said. “Now, we’re playing well defensively but we haven’t been putting the puck in the net.
“We’re getting opportunities, we’re getting shots on net, but you know what? In college hockey, all goal scoring is down, and part of that is everybody has a good goalie now, at least one, some more than one. It’s hard to score. That’s part of the nature of the game right now.
“We need some puck luck, but puck luck is usually created through hard work. We have to keep working at it.”
In the context of his team’s season, Riley says it’s a chance to step out of league play and focus on his own team, rather than dwell on countering what an opponent does.
“If you spend too much time worrying about the other team, I don’t think that’s good. The focus has to be on us and do the things that we need to do to be a good hockey team. I don’t know anything about RMC, other than it looks like they’re probably playing their best hockey right now, just looking at what they’ve done the last couple of weekends.
“The opportunity to play RMC is a great opportunity for us.”
Though, as of Thursday afternoon, Riley hadn’t decided who would be his goaltender Saturday night, junior goalie Parker Gahagan has been playing well of late. The product of the Buffalo Junior Sabres program, Gahagan was in goal for a 3-2 win over Merrimack in late December, when that team was ranked No. 20 in the U.S. He was in goal for both games last weekend, giving up just a goal in each against Air Force.
“He’s been really good,” Riley said. “He seems to have a lot of confidence and he’s been very calm in goal, and when he’s calm, it just creates a calming effect for all of us.”
The RMC series holds a special spot in Riley’s heart. Since 1950, no one not named Riley has coached the Army hockey team. Brian was preceded by his father, Jack, and his brother, Rob, at the helm of the Black Knights.
“This is a great opportunity to play in a game that has a lot of rich history and tradition, and be thankful that we’re a part of it,” Brian said.
“It’s good to have the game back because, ultimately, these guys could be sitting across a table some day in far, far away places, doing much more important things than playing hockey, and to be able to talk about the tradition of being part of this series is pretty neat.
“What these guys will do after they graduate makes all of them pretty special. For our players to be able to experience what it’s like in Kingston, to play a game in what will be a great atmosphere … it’s something that no other school here in the States can say they’re involved with.”
Game time at the K-Rock Centre is 7:30.