By KEVIN OKLOBZIJA
The Rochester Institute of Technology Tigers have found the absolute worst time of the season to go into a scoring slump.
And if they can’t figure out how to find the net on Sunday evening, their season will end far sooner than they ever expected.
Sacred Heart sprinted to a 3-0 lead in the first 29 minutes and then held off a late surge by the Tigers to win 3-1 on Saturday night at the Gene Polisseni Center, knotting the best-of-three Atlantic Hockey quarterfinals 1-1.
Puck drop for the deciding game is 5:05 p.m. Sunday at the Gene, with the winner advancing Atlantic Hockey’s Final Four in Utica next weekend while the loser packs up equipment either for next season or forever.
“It wasn’t a single-game elimination, but it is now,” said RIT coach Wayne Wilson, whose Tigers fell to 17-15-4 while the Pioneers improved to 15-17-4.
Defenseman Gianfranco Cassaro scored RIT’s goal, blasting a slap shot past goalie Justin Robbins on a power play at 12:33 of the second period.
It was just the second goal of the series for the Tigers – both by defensemen – and just their second over the past 190 minutes and 57 seconds.
The Tigers actually are lucky to still be playing. If not for the big-save goaltending of freshman Tommy Scarfone in Game 1 on Friday, this series would be over. Instead, after he stopped all 39 Sacred Heart shots, Dan Willett scored at 10:17 of overtime to give RIT the 1-0 victory.
But on Saturday, Sacred Heart winger Dante Palecco solved the Scarfone riddle early. Attacking on left wing, he whipped a shot from the left circle the zipped in under the cross bar at 12:07 of the first period.
Adam Tisdale pushed the lead to 2-0 at 7:21 of the second period, sweeping a rebound into an open net.
“We didn’t play with the urgency we needed and they did,” Wilson said of the first 20 to 30 minutes.
Referees Michael Schubert and CJ Hallman then were a factor in the Pioneers third goal. Kobe Walker blocked a slap shot – seemingly just above his shin pad above the left knee – and immediately fell to the ice, writhing in pain and clearly unable to get back up.
The puck caromed off Walker in the middle of the circle to Scarfone’s left and slid all the way to the Sacred Heart zone, just short of the faceoff circle.
Schubert continued to watch Walker, who was still on the ice and in distress. But rather than stop play, he said play on, and the Pioneers quickly sprinted into the Tigers zone 2-on-0 with Braeden Tuck scoring the third goal.
“When the puck is still in the zone, it’s hard on the referee to know whether to stop play,” Wilson said. “But when the puck leaves the zone, the whistle blows.”
Walker did return in the third period, though he seemed to still be in some discomfort.
The Tigers did attempt to mount a comeback when Cassaro scored at 12:33. But despite a five-minute power play early in the third period, the Tigers couldn’t score. They also failed to score on a five-minute power play in the first period on Friday.
“I thought we were good early on the power play (Saturday) but then we started getting cute and trying to saucer pass through seams,” Wilson said. “You get frustrated and that happens.”
There was some good news for the Tigers. Leading-scoring Will Calverley, who played sparingly in Game 1 on Friday after pounded to the ice on an illegal check, did play a semi-regular shift late in Game 2.
Notes: Does playoff history matter? The Tigers better hope not. In 2018, RIT hosted Sacred Heart, won the first game and then lost the next two. In 2019, the Pioneers hosted RIT, won the first game and then lost the next two.