By KEVIN OKLOBZIJA
Kobe Walker arrived at the Gene Polisseni Center on Sunday afternoon, aware it was a trip he might never make again as an RIT hockey player.
The Tigers were about to face off against Sacred Heart in the deciding game of the best-of-three Atlantic Hockey quarterfinals, and they weren’t exactly going into the showdown with a boatload of confidence.
They escaped from Game 1 on Friday with a 1-0 overtime victory, despite being badly outplayed. On Saturday they fell behind 3-0 in the first 29 minutes and couldn’t recover.
So here they were on Sunday, facing elimination. For the winner, it would mean a trip to the Atlantic Hockey Final Four in Utica. For the loser, the season would be over. And if RIT lost, so would the collegiate careers for the nine seniors in the lineup.
“Do or die, that’s what I’m thinking,” Walker said. “It’s all we worked for this whole season.”
Walker made sure his career would last at least one more week. The senior from Lloydminster, Alberta, scored the critical tying goal late in the second period, and in the process energized a team that for 167 minutes of the series had been snakebit with the puck.
Buoyed by Walker’s goal, the Tigers (18-15-4) struck for two more just 38 seconds apart in the third minute of the third period – by Carter Wilkie and Dan Willett – and RIT rode the wave of momentum to a 3-1 victory.
“He definitely put it right on his back,” center Carter Wilkie said. “He’s done it all year, and I’m only a freshman but I imagine he has his whole career because that guy has it in him. I’m just glad to sit next to him in the locker room because I hope some of that rubs off.”
RIT, the No. 4 seed in Atlantic Hockey, will play No. 6 Air Force in the semifinals at 7:35 p.m. Friday in Utica. Top-seeded American International plays No. 7 Mercyhurst at 4:05 p.m. Friday. The title game is at 7:05 p.m. Saturday.
“I read the team a quote after the game for next weekend,” Tigers coach Wayne Wilson said. “Anything less than everything is not enough.”
That was pretty much Walker’s mantra on his series-changing goal. Not only did he turn a nothing play into the scoring chance all by himself, he exhibited on the end-to-end rush an air of I-won’t-be-denied.
“Determination is exactly it,” Wilson said.
Walker took a pass from Ryan Nicholson in the circle to the right of Tigers goalie Tommy Scarfone and headed out of the zone to center on the right wing. At first, he wasn’t thinking goal rush.
“I was kind of late in the shift,” he said.
But defenseman Logan Britt gave him space to keep attacking, and at that point he kicked it into high gear, cut inside on Britt as he hit the blue line and then burst down the slot between Britt and defense partner Andrius Kulbis-Mariono.
Goalie Justin Robbins stopped his first shot but Walker was able to lift the rebound over the left pad and the score was tied 1-1.
More importantly, the Tigers once again believed they could score.
“That was our first goal a forward has scored this series,” Walker said. “It was big for us. We just had to make sure we didn’t take our foot off the gas.”
They definitely kept pressuring, even after needing to kill a penalty to start the third period. Then Wilkie scored the go-ahead goal 2:06 into the third period – the first time RIT would play with the lead in the series – and Willett followed with a rebound goal just 38 seconds later.
“Wilkie’s a big player and he scores in big moments,” Walker said.
“And then Dan Willett buries the next one and it takes everything out of them,” Wilkie said.
The Tigers then focused on shutting down Sacred Heart, with goalie Tommy Scarfone continuing his dynamic play. He made 30 saves on Sunday and stopped 89 of 93 shots in the series.
“We finally got some goals but he had to hold the fort,” Wilson said.
Wilkie’s 13th goal of the season came a minute or so after he thought he was going to score. In the first minute of the third period, Wilkie raced down down the left of the slot while killing a penalty and, as he was ready to deke, was clearly hooked. Except no penalty was called.
“I was hot,” said Wilkie, who screamed in frustration when Robbins covered the puck. “I had a move in mind and I feel like I got hooked but the referee didn’t think so.”
It was déjà vu on his next shift, with Wilkie streaking behind the defense again before he was hooked. This time a penalty was going to be called but there would be no need. The Tigers scored during the ensuing chaos with an extra attacker on the ice.
Jack Hamacher retrieved the puck behind the net, drove toward the crease and was poke-checked by the defense. The puck, however, slid directly to Wilkie at the right hash mark in the slot and he immediately fired a shot in under the cross bar.
For Wilkie, it was his sixth game-winning goal of the season, tying RIT’s Division I team record set by Tyler Brenner in 2008-09.
“There’s definitely a relieving feeling when you finally put one in,” Wilkie said.