By KEVIN OKLOBZIJA
For the moment, Rochester Institute of Technology owes the athletic directors across Atlantic Hockey a debt of gratitude.
In the previous 19 seasons of the Atlantic Hockey tournament, the top-seeded Tigers would have been eliminated by Friday’s 1-0, overtime loss to seventh-seeded Holy Cross in the semifinals.
But because the ADs pushed for a shift in playoff format, wanting the entire tournament to be played on campus, RIT’s season continues, albeit from the precarious position of trailing 1-0 in the best-of-three series.
They’re in a desperate position because Holy Cross instantaneously turned a Tyler Mahan turnover in the offensive zone into a Liam McLinskey breakaway goal at the other end 8:01 into overtime on Friday.
Thus, in order to advance to Atlantic Hockey’s one-game title game on March 18, the Tigers (24-11-1) must win Saturday’s 7:05 p.m. rematch with the Crusaders at the Gene Polisseni Center, and then prevail in the winner-take-all deciding game at 5 p.m. Sunday.
“It’s do-or-die now, every game’s a one-game elimination,” sophomore center Carter Wilkie said.
At least they have that opportunity for redemption. In the past, the semifinals were part of the one-weekend AHA Final Four, with every game an elimination game.
“It’s a luxury and were going to take every inch of it and show we deserve to be in that championship game,” Wilkie said.
RIT actually probably deserved to win on Friday. The Tigers outshot Holy Cross 40-23, including 27-7 through two periods. They just couldn’t finish against junior goalie Jason Grande, who posted the first shutout of his collegiate career.
“We kind of had him down and out, he was in some really awkward positions, but we couldn’t score,” RIT coach Wayne Wilson said. “When he was at his most vulnerable, we shot it back into him.”
In reality, the Tigers, regular-season AHA champions, couldn’t have played much better, certainly not in the first two periods. And while they didn’t score, there was really no reason for frustration because they were dominating play.
“The frustration comes after the game, when he have to deal with the loss,” Wilson said.
Perhaps the game’s first shift provided an omen. Cody Laskosky had an open net to shoot at from the bottom of the left circle but, as his waist-high wrister headed in, a spinning, diving Grande somehow deflected it away.
There were plenty of other great chances as well, but none found the net.
“The goalie made some unbelievable saves and we missed a few,” Wilkie said. “We just thought we’d eventually score but the goals never came.”
By the third period, the Crusaders began to match the Tigers shot for shot and chance for chance. They actually had the best two scoring opportunities, both by McLinskey: a dangle around goalie Tommy Scarfone only to have the puck swept away from an open net by defenseman Ryan Nicholson at 11:20, and a one-timer on a power play at 14:50 that Scarfone stopped.
That momentum continued in overtime, which included killing off an RIT power play.
The winning goal then came when it looked as though Mahan might be creating an outnumbered situation down low in the Holy Cross zone as he darted in on right wing.
Instead, defenseman Nick Hale stripped Mahan of the puck in the circle and immediately made a long outlet pass to the tape of McLinskey at center, and he charged down the left of the slot on the breakaway.
He made it appear as though he would pull the puck to his forehand as he cut left to right across the deep slot. Then, rather than move the puck with him, he deftly just let the momentum of the puck carry it into the net between the legs of Scarfone. Or, his mishandled it and that was nonetheless the end result.
Either way, the puck was in the net and the Tigers now find themselves on the brink of elimination.
“If it was still that single-game tournament, this would be hard to swallow if it was our last game after the season we had,” Wilson said.
Notes: This was the third 1-0 overtime playoff game in RIT Division I history. They lost to Niagara in the 2019 semifinals and defeated Sacred Heart in Game 1 of the 2022 quarterfinals. … RIT is just 2-4-1 in OT this season. … In RIT AHA playoff history, the Tigers have lost the first game of a series four times and ended up winning the series three times: in 2009 against UConn, in 2012 against Bentley and in 2019 against Sacred Heart. The series lost was to Niagara in 2017.
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