By KEVIN OKLOBZIJA
When NHL teams play the Washington Capitals, they know Alex Ovechkin is posting up in the left circle on the power play and they know the howitzer slap shot is coming.
They just can’t stop it.
Now you know what it’s like for Rochester Institute of Technology opponents.
They know Gianfranco Cassaro will be positioned high in the right circle, and they know he’ll be unloading his rocket one-timer, yet the shot often finds the net, just as it did in overtime on Saturday night.
Cassaro’s power-play goal 3:09 into sudden death capped a comeback 4-3 victory as RIT completed the two-game sweep of Mercyhurst in the Atlantic Hockey quarterfinals at the Gene Polisseni Center.
“When I can get it in his hands, I know it’s an opportunity to score every time,” said Tigers junior winger Cody Laskosky, who scored the tying goal early in the third period and made the perfect pass to set up Cassaro in overtime.
The victory sends RIT (24-11-1) into the AHA semifinals next weekend at The Gene against an opponent to be determined. The other three quarterfinal series all will need a third and deciding game on Sunday.
RIT appeared headed for that same fate. The Tigers trailed 2-1 after the first period – with both goals coming off sloppy turnovers – and found themselves in a 3-1 hole when Marko Reifenberger scored 5:03 into the second period.
“We were going for the home run and kept getting into trouble,” Tigers coach Wayne Wilson said. “It wasn’t easy and we didn’t think it would be easy.
“I give credit to our team, to our leadership. We stayed poised and calm, with the exception of the silly penalty with four seconds left.”
Oh, yeah, that boarding penalty by RIT senior Elijah Gonsalves as the third period was coming to a close. Wilson was being kind calling it silly. But the Tigers killed it off, giving up only one high-quality chance while playing a man short for the first 1:56 of overtime.
“Our PK’s been unbelievable all year,” said Cassaro, who also set up RIT’s second and third goals. “No matter who’s out there on the PK, there’s no worry in the world.”
Maybe that’s because the Tigers have had so much practice. They have been short-handed more than any team in the country, having faced 161 opposing power plays during the regular season.
But that penalty kill also was second-best in all of NCAA play, with an efficiency percentage of 87 during the regular season.
Once the penalty ended, it was Mercyhurst’s turn to make what turned out to be a critical mistake. The Lakers were caught with too many men on the ice at 2:21 and RIT ended the game and the series 48 seconds into the power play.
After a flurry, Caleb Moretz tracked down the puck in the left corner and moved it to Laskosky near the top of the left circle. He quickly passed across the high slot and into Cassaro’s wheelhouse. One instant slap shot later, the puck was clanking into the top left corner of the net and the Tigers were celebrating advancement.
En masse they danced on the end boards in their own end before saluting the Corner Crew.
“That was a pretty special night, a pretty special crowd,” Laskosky said.
After a pretty special shot by Cassaro. Then again, the senior defenseman has made a habit of scoring goals this season. A year ago, as a transfer from UMass-Amherst, he scored three goals in 38 games. This year, he shares the NCAA lead among defensemen with 13 in 36 games.
Perhaps most amazing: he released the shot on 11 of those goals from inside the right circle.
“I’ve got the easiest job out there – I stand there, it comes to me and I shoot it,” said Cassaro, who has scored six power-play goals.
It’s the work by the entire power play unit that creates those goals, he said. “We have a lot of great players on the power play and so much work goes into it before the puck gets to me.”
In setting up Cassaro’s game-winner, Laskosky was returning the primary-assist favor. Early in the third period, it was Cassaro who darted to the net, shot from a sharp angle, regained possession, circled behind and started back up into the left circle before passing into the slot.
Laskosky quickly fired a shot past goalie Tyler Harmon (41 saves, 88 in the two games) and after trailing for a little over 31 minutes, the Tigers had battled back to tie the score 3-3.
“The same as a couple times on Friday, we had total trust in each other,” Laskosky said.
The big boost actually came at 18:13 of the second period, when first-year center Simon Isabelle fired home a shot from the slot on a power play to cut Mercyhurst’s lead to 3-2.
“We had to close the gap and that goal gave us a lift,” Wilson said.
Said Laskosky: “We got that massive goal from Izzy and we took off from there.”
While the opponent for the best-of-three AHA semifinals isn’t known, the days and times are: 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and, if necessary, 5 p.m. next Sunday. If the Tigers win the semifinal series, they would host the one-game, winner-take-all championship at 7 p.m. on March 18, with the winner earning a berth in the NCAA tournament.