By KEVIN OKLOBZIJA
The coaching staff had finished their spiel after the second period and left the dressing room when the players for Rochester Institute of Technology engaged in their own little chat.
Down 2-0 after two periods against seventh-place Niagara University on Saturday night, the Tigers were in danger of losing to another lesser opponent and falling out of first place in Atlantic Hockey. A loss would also almost assuredly knock them out of the USCHO.com Top 20 poll for the first time since early November.
And comebacks aren’t exactly an RIT specialty. Coming into Saturday, they were 0-4 when trailing after two and 0-5 when falling behind by two goals.
Except the No. 19-ranked Tigers were determined not to lose, not with the conference lead at stake and a near-sellout crowd of 4,123 packed into the Gene Polisseni Center. And not after they felt the Corner Crew had been disrespected.
Energized by Elijah Gonsalves’ goal 5:02 into the third period, RIT scored three times in a span of 5 minutes and 22 seconds, then clinched the 4-2 comeback victory when Gonsalves hit an empty net with 42.7 seconds remaining.
“During the second intermission we talked as a group,” Gonsalves said. The graduate student winger said he didn’t recall precisely what was said, “but it was definitely motivational.”
It must have been, because the Tigers dominated Purple Eagles for the final 20 minutes, scoring four times while outshooting Niagara 15-5.
First-year winger Christian Catalano tied the score at 9:18, then Gonsalves set up Aiden Hansen-Bukata at the right point and his wrister with traffic in the middle of the slot somehow found the net at 10:22, giving the Tigers the lead.
When Gonsalves scored the empty-net goal – tying him for the team lead with Gianfranco Cassaro at 12 – RIT was still on top of Atlantic Hockey with a 14-5-1 record and 43 points (they’re 18-8-2 overall).
In winning, they also defended the honor (?) of their loyal, boisterous faithful, the Corner Crew.
When Lars Rodne’s breakaway goal at 13:47 of the second period gave Niagara a 2-0 lead, the Norwegian-born winger immediately skated toward the Corner Crew, then turned around to show off his name and number while his teammates joined him to celebrate.
Of course, there was a little very recent history to Rodne’s exchange. When Niagara (8-8-2 AHA, 10-14-2) edged the visiting Tigers 5-4 in a shootout on Thursday, he was accused of throwing the butt end of his stick toward RIT fans.
So, when Rodne showed up in the Gene on Saturday, the Corner Crew greeted him with a sign, written in Norwegian, that translated to English, read “Norway’s worst export.”
Norde got a little personal revenge with his goal, but the Tigers – and the Corner Crew – laughed last.
“Honestly, that makes us mad,” Catalano said of Norde’s taunting. “That probably got us going more.”
The comeback was sparked by a strong shift from the Gonsalves-Carter Wilkie-Cody Laskosky line. Wilkie passed from the left corner into the slot but Gonsalves quick shot slithered just wide.
Wilkie retrieved behind the net and tried to bank it in off goalie Jarrett Fiske. The puck dropped into the crease and Gonsalves jammed it in.
“A lot of it is just getting to that area, putting ourselves in position to score those types of goals,” Gonsalves said.
Said coach Wayne Wilson: “That line was a big reason we changed the momentum.”
Catalano then tied the score with a snipe from a sharp angle as he charged toward the net from the right corner.
“We knew we were not going to get a highlight-reel goal,” Catalano said. “The coaches kept saying, ‘Get to the net, get to the net,’ and that shift I just wanted to do what I could to get to the net.”
Wilson was just glad Catalano opted to shoot rather than attempting puck wizardry.
“He’s been toe-dragging too much,” Wilson said. “One out of 10 times, he gets rewarded. The other nine times, the coach is yelling at him. That shift started with a strong move to the net.”
And it ended with him coming out of the right corner and moving toward the net again to score. As he charged to the net along the end line, he hinted that he might drive into the slot, prompting Fiske to leave just enough space on the short side above his left shoulder for Catalano to shoot at and hit.
Hansen-Bukata’s goal put the Tigers ahead just 64 seconds later.
“The guys stuck with it tonight, we didn’t get unraveled,” Wilson said. “Our leadership group did a good job of getting us going.”