By CLAUDE SCILLEY
It was cold Wednesday night in the Constantine Arena. With the heaters not on above the stands, it was about as cold as it used to be when it was just the Constantine Rink, the kind of cold where you have to go outside in the middle of February to get warm.
A bystander asked Queen’s Golden Gaels hockey coach Brett Gibson how he was feeling, as he passed by on his way to the bench for the third period of his team’s game with the Royal Military College Paladins. “I’m as cold as my team,” he said, brusquely.
Clearly, Gibson was not pleased with his athletes and they did nothing in the third period to warm the cockles of his heart, or anything else, for that matter. They may have scored a late goal to tie the game, but that just served to buy the coach nine more minutes of frustration, as Queen’s went on to drop a 4-3 double overtime decision.
It was a bitter defeat for the Gaels, who played as if they’d already spent the point they squandered before they actually put it in the bank of the Ontario University Athletics East division standings. As it is, the one they salvaged lifted them one ahead of Ontario Tech in the battle for fourth place, with each team having two games to play.
That was small comfort to Gibson, who described his team’s performance as “pathetic.”
“They’re making every excuse in the book to be a pretender instead of a contender,” Gibson said of his players. “Every other team in the league has exams. I guess ours are harder than other schools.
“Full marks for RMC. They outworked us; they outplayed us. They got two points.”
Indeed, it was a landmark victory in many respects for the Paladins. Though the win was just their fourth of the season, the four victories makes this the most successful season at RMC since the five-win campaign of 2010-11. It was the Paladins’ first win at home since Jan. 30, 2014—also an overtime victory, also 4-3, over Nipissing—and, a detail that seemed quite important to the players, it was the first time in five years—to the day, as it turns out—that the Paladins were able to send their graduating seniors off with a victory in their last home game.
“Every game against Queen’s is very important, but for our graduating players it was their last (home) game tonight so we really wanted to win one for them,” said Mathieu Lavallee, who got his teammates that victory with a goal at 1:26 of the second overtime period.
After a long lead pass from John Livingston sprung Lavallee down left wing, he beat Queen’s goaltender Kevin Bailie with a 30-foot wrist shot to the far top corner, over Bailie’s glove and just under the cross bar.
“As much as I love overtimes, I hate them at the same time because they’re so nerve-wracking,” Lavallee said, “but we stayed calm. A lot of times we’ve had the lead in the third period but we’d make mental mistakes and they’d end up in our net, but not this time. What made the difference in the third period was we kept our composure.”
RMC's Eric Bouchard scored the game’s first goal, but Ryan Bloom tied it for Queen’s with 15 seconds left in the first period. The Gaels came out with energy to start the second period but though they took the lead, when Darcy Greenaway came off the bench after Queen’s penalty expired and beat RMC goalie Matthew Murphy on a breakaway, something was amiss. Twice before the period was half over the Gaels hit a goal post, and three times in the early going Murphy left a rebound at the feet of a Queen’s forward who was simply muscled off the puck by an RMC defenceman.
Goals by Dylan Giberson and Jake Bullen, three and a half minutes apart late in the second period, gave RMC a 3-2 lead to take into the third.
Paladins defenceman Aiden Orbinski said the atmosphere among the RMC players was good at that point.
“It was energetic but we were able to stay poised,” he said, “There was a lot of hockey left to play and they’re a great team.”
As is often the case, the whiff of a potential upset appeared to invigorate the last-place Paladins, who, by the third period, were dominating all aspects of the game. You could see it even in the line changes: RMC players sped to the bench like their last meal was waiting for them, and replacements came over the boards like their pants were on fire.
Queen’s players, meanwhile, plodded off like penguins with eggs to protect between their feet. Gibson’s discouragement was palpable behind the bench, as he appeared to utter barely a word or move nary a muscle the entire third period.
“We haven’t played well in three weeks,” he said after the game. No kidding. The Gaels have lost six of their last 11 games, four of them to teams with poorer records than they had.
After an 8-2 start, Queen’s has played .500 hockey.
“Maybe it is what we are, and I’ve got to find some more grit next year,” Gibson said, “or maybe for these guys, this is rock bottom.
“This is rock bottom for this coaching staff. I just hope (the players) feel the same way.”
The Gaels got absolutely nothing in the way of an energy spurt from Bloom’s second goal of the game, one that tied the game 3-3 and ultimately forced overtime. It was one of the few times in the final 20 minutes the Gaels managed to sustain any pressure on the RMC goal.
“Ryan Bloom is the only one who wanted to play hockey tonight,” Gibson said. “He was great. Full marks for his effort. Our goaltending was simply not good enough. Our defence? Just because our all-star defenceman was out of the lineup doesn’t mean we have to try to be stuff we’re not. We tried and we weren’t good. Our forwards were brutal.”
The aforementioned Spencer Abraham was hurt on the weekend in Waterloo. He could be out for the remainder of the year with what Gibson would only describe as a lower body injury (ed. note: Whatever happened to ‘He hurt his ankle/knee/foot?’).
“We better learn to play without him,” Gibson said.
Such lamentations from the Queen’s camp did nothing to diminish the good feelings from the RMC dressing room, where the atmosphere was not one of unbridled joy, loud music and whooping it up, but one of quiet self-satisfaction from a group that was happy to have won but aware that this sort of thing has to happen much more often before people around the college get too excited.
“We’ve been trailing a lot of times this year but we never gave up,” Lavallee said. “We didn’t always get rewarded for our effort but tonight all the passes came our way and it paid off.
“It’s not always easy to win four or five games each year but we have such a great group of guys,” the third-year history major from Quebec City continued. “We’re slowly getting that RMC identity back, by having a hard-working team, a fit team. There’s a lot of positives for next year.”
Before the game-winning goal, Queen’s actually had the best two chances of overtime. Both came early in the second extra stanza, as the teams played with three skaters a side.
The first came when Taylor Clements walked out of the left wing corner untouched and took a close-in shot that Murphy snared with his glove. Seconds later, Joseph Luongo, on a 2-on-1 break, was also denied by Murphy’s gloved hand.
Perhaps the most striking characteristic of RMC’s performance is that the Paladins didn’t wilt when Queen’s scored with less than six minutes left to tie the game.
“Unfortunately, we’ve been in that situation too many times this year,” coach Richard Lim said. “We’ve got three overtime losses, and we had the lead in all three. We’ve lost another four games where we’ve lost in the last four minutes.
“We can hang with them. We were playing a very good Queen’s team but we stayed on top of them and didn’t back down. I told the guys they’re good, but don’t give them too much respect. Take away their time and space and don’t be afraid to make mistakes.”
Lim said it’s something the team’s leadership group has been preaching: When things get tense, just keep playing, don’t change anything.
“That’s when we get in trouble,” Lim said, “When we’re on our heels, reacting to plays, instead of dictating the pace and trying to make it organized chaos on the ice. That’s when, as a team, we’re at our best.”
That’s something, he said, that’s more easily done in a small rink like the Constantine.
“When we’re playing in a shoebox like we’ve got here, it’s only two strides to any point in the rink,” Lim said. “When we’re playing at the Memorial Centre or the K-Rock, all of a sudden, it’s three or four strides. Here, when we make mistakes, we’re close enough that we can recover, whereas when we get to a big ice, it’s a little tougher.”
The Paladins graduate just three seniors from the current team: Captain Eric Louis-Seize, and fifth-year men Scott Domenico and goaltender Matthew Beirnes.
“It’s a great way to send these guys off,” Lim said. “Not many guys at RMC get a win in their last game at Constantine.”
RMC closes its season against the Carleton Ravens Saturday in Ottawa. The Gaels, meanwhile, will be temporarily displaced from the Memorial Centre for their final two regular-season games. Queen's will host sixth-place Nipissing Saturday night and eighth-place Laurentian Sunday night at the Invista Centre.