By KEVIN OKLOBZIJA
There was so much promise, so much potential for this Rochester Institute of Technology hockey team, what with the offensive weapons, the terrific goaltending of Tommy Scarfone and a mobile, add-to-the-attack defensive corps.
And now, there is just so much disappointment.
After steamrolling Atlantic Hockey competition in the regular season – winning the conference championship by 10 points – the Tigers find themselves on spring break along with the rest of the student body at RIT.
Their season came to an unceremonious end on Sunday evening when underdog Holy Cross revived the program’s ghosts of playoffs past and played giant killer once again, defeating the Tigers 5-1 in the deciding third game of the AHA semifinals.
And just like that, the regular season champions are out, finishing 25-13-1. Bracketologists are deleting RIT and filling in (AHA playoff champ) as the 16th seed in the NCAA tournament.
“It’s definitely an accomplishment to win the regular season, the team hadn’t won one in 13 years (12 actually),” captain Andrew Petrucci said, “but obviously you want to lift the real one.”
While this upset hardly carried the magnitude of Holy Cross defeating the nation’s second-ranked team, Minnesota, in the 2006 regionals, it nonetheless was Atlantic Hockey’s seventh seed against its No. 1.
And the top dog, or top Tiger in this case, is now left to ponder what if?
What if the goal Gianfranco Cassaro scored 9:58 into the first period had been called a goal by referee William McGoldrick III? Instead, he waved it off, apparently because his vision of the puck crossing the line was blocked by the skirting at the bottom of the net. And since video replay was inconclusive because the upper skirting obscured the position of the puck, there was no conclusive evidence it had crossed the line.
“The goal was a goal, the puck was in the net,” Tigers coach Wayne Wilson said. “Everyone saw it but the referee. I’m not condemning that, but it was in.”
So instead of a 1-0 lead, the Tigers and Crusaders were still tied.
“The game could have been completely different,” Petrucci said. “But that’s the game of hockey and you have to be ready to deal with whatever comes your way.”
There were plenty more what-ifs? What if RIT had somewhere along the way managed to eradicate a season-long penchant for taking foolish penalties?
What if, instead of needing to kill nine minutes of penalties in the first 15:37, the Tigers were able to use their confidence and the Corner Crew’s exuberance to build early momentum?
What if, instead of expending immeasurable energy to kill Carter Wilkie’s senseless major penalty for kneeing starting at 10:37 of the first period, they were simply able to play five-on-five and create scoring opportunities, forcing Holy Cross to expend energy defending?
What if the officials had assessed the kneeing major but didn’t add on the discretionary punishment of a game misconduct and toss RIT’s top scorer?
“I thought it could have been a major without the game,” Wilson said. “But now you’re wearing out your top players (on the kill) and then you don’t have your top player when you’re trying to come back.”
And what if they didn’t then need to kill a hitting-from-behind major assessed to Cody Laskosky 43 seconds into the third period? That only made the burden or erasing a 3-1 deficit even more unlikely.
“You can’t be taking two five-minute majors in an elimination game,” Petrucci said.
Of course, the Tigers are the most penalized team in the country, averaging 17.6 minutes a game. Lady Bing voters left the Gene Polisseni Center months ago.
On Saturday, when RIT won 4-3 in overtime despite taking penalties with four minutes left in regulation and two minutes into overtime, Wilson said, “We’ve taken a lot of penalties all year. I was afraid we were going to die on the sword.”
It turns out they did, just one night later. The final period was a mere formality, with Holy Cross scoring a pair of empty-net goals to inflate the score.
“I tip my hat to Holy Cross, I thought they played great,” Wilson said.
These upsets are becoming a habit for the Crusaders. They ousted No. 2-seeded American International in the quarterfinals.
The Tigers actually were within striking distance on Sunday. Grady Hobbs, filling in for Wilkie on a line with Tanner Andrew and Laskosky, scored at 9:09 of the second period to pull RIT within 2-1. On the next shift, Caleb Moretz raced down the slot alone but couldn’t beat goalie Jason Grande.
Grayson Constable then delivered the dagger for Holy Cross (17-20-3) with a goal with at 18:34 of the second period.
“Getting into the locker room down one goal would have been so much different,” Wilson said.
Instead, Holy Cross was able to just play shut-down defense and did so to perfection.
“It’s hard to win two championships,” Wilson said of the regular season and playoff trophies. “One championship is still something to be proud of.”