By CLAUDE SCILLEY
Too many times over too many years, hockey teams from Royal Military College would be scrapping to stay in a hockey game, only to give up a questionable goal, the kind that causes shoulders on the bench collectively to droop.
Saturday night at the Rogers K-Rock Centre, RMC gave up just such a goal at a pivotal point in the annual game with West Point. As the Paladins tried to be fancy with the puck in the centre zone, they lost it, and Josh Roberts of the U.S. Military Academy Black Knights gobbled it up, took off on a breakaway, and scored a goal to give his team a two-goal lead.
What happened next was atypical. Instead of sagging, RMC came to life. The Paladins tied the game before the second period ended, and to the end of the game they played perhaps their best hockey of the year.
Sadly for the home team, however, the game would not end in victory. A goal in the seventh minute of the third period—on a play where the Paladins missed an easy opportunity to clear the puck out of their zone—gave the team from West Point a 4-3 victory in the 80th renewal of the historic series between the two military academies.
It was the eighth win in the last nine games for Army, which now leads the oldest international rivalry in the sport 44-29, with seven games tied. RMC has not defeated West Point since 2002.
It was the undoubtedly the best game of the five that have been played since the series was revived in 2012, featuring, as it did, end-to-end action, several good scoring opportunities, a 41-save performance by Paladins goalkeeper Matthew Beirnes and, despite there being lots of hard hitting, not a single penalty.
“It was a well played game by both teams,” Army coach Brian Riley said. “It was played with a lot of energy. I tip my hat to RMC. It was the best team I’ve seen them have in a while.
“Their goalie made some big saves in the first period and as a result it turned into a dogfight. It was anyone’s game. Both teams competed very hard—just a well played game.”
Twice in the game, RMC fell behind by two goals. West Point scored two goals in the first eight minutes of the game, the first on a soft backhand from the right wing circle by C.J. Reuschlein, the second right off a faceoff by Ian Mansfield.
It took less than three minutes for RMC to answer, when rookie Owen Gill lifted the puck high over Army goalie Cole Bruns from close in, and the first period ended with West Point holding a 2-1 lead.
Roberts’ breakaway goal restored the two-goal Army lead, but it took less than a minute for Bennett Huber to score, when the puck took a strange bounce from the left wing corner to Huber in front of the West Point goal. The Paladins took the play to Army at that point, and before the period ended Scott Domenico stole the puck from a West Point defenceman behind the net and fed it in front to John Livingston, who put it behind Bruns for the tying goal.
Army had taken 30 shots on Beirnes in the RMC goal in the first 26 minutes of the game but with their renewed vigor, the Paladins allowed the Knights to take just 15 more in the remainder of the game.
“We allowed them to score on the next shift (after taking the 3-1 lead), which instead of making them feel some pressure of being down two, they never felt pressure,” Riley said. “Give them credit. That was a great response by them.
“Our guys had to figure out a way to win a period and we did that.”
Lim said the Paladins, despite their 3-16-3 record in conference play, are a resilient bunch. “They never give up,” he said. “They’ve done it time and time during the year.
“I wish we could get a lead and keep going like that, but it seems like once our backs are to the wall, we really come together. I told the guys (after Army’s third goal), ‘Hey, that’s a freebie, get back on our toes, and start playing our game.’ We’ve got to dictate the pace, dictate it with the puck, stop being reactionary and impose our will on them below the hash marks.
“We had a couple of good shifts, back to back, and we just built on it. Matt made a couple of good saves at the other end to keep it close.”
Domenico, who assisted on two of RMC’s three goals, said the fortuitous bounce that led to his team’s second goal was just the catalyst the Paladins needed to regain some life.
“Once we calmed down on the bench, the leaders did their role,” the fifth-year forward said. “They talked to the younger guys and the smaller guys, said just stick to our game plan, stick with the simple plays … and the goals and the bounces are going to come.
“That was one of our best periods.”
The third period was evenly played. There was probably just the one egregious error, the aforementioned failed clearing attempt, and it wound up as the winning goal, scored by Mansfield, who was left alone to the left of Beirnes and converted a dandy feed from the Joe Kozlak, the senior from Duluth, Minn., who had beaten a couple of defenders to work the puck free from behind the net.
It was the second goal of the game for Mansfield, a freshman from Lakewood, Colo., who hadn’t scored in 18 games before Saturday night.
Of West Point’s 22 games this year, nine have gone into overtime and Riley suggested his team’s familiarity with close hockey games stood the Black Knights in good stead during the third period Saturday.
“On the bench there wasn’t any real panic, just because it seems we find ourselves in these games every weekend,” he said.
Generally, the Paladins felt good about themselves after the game.
“It’s a tough one but we’re heading in the right direction,” Lim said. “The boys went all the way; there’s not a lot of regrets. We made a couple of mental mistakes, and they’re definitely opportunistic. Every time we seemed to make a mistake, they put it in the back of our net.
“We gave them three pretty easy ones, which is the only disappointing part, but it’s been a while since we’ve had that good a game against West Point. It was a really good hockey game. I actually caught myself being a fan, and just watching the hockey at times.”
Domenico said that in his five years at the college, this is probably RMC’s best team. Losing the game, he said, “is a bit of a dagger in the gut,” but at the same time, he’s proud of the direction the team is taking.
“As a fifth-year, you’re looking for different things, not just personal perspective,” he said. “There’s always that little bit where you’re disappointed on a personal note, but you’re thinking more about the team itself and the future.
“I’m pretty happy with the way we played. We brought our best energy. There were a few hiccups and a few bad mistakes defensively, but overall we played a good game.
“Both teams brought their energy. You couldn’t have asked for anything more.”