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The Tangerine

The Student News Site of Utica University

The Tangerine

The Student News Site of Utica University

The Tangerine

Men’s Hockey Takes Home Third Straight UCHC Title, First NCAA game on March 16

Photo courtesy of YSM Media
Photo courtesy of YSM Media

The men’s hockey team continued in the driver’s seat after defeating Stevenson University 3-2 on Saturday, winning their third consecutive UCHC title and fifth overall in program history.

Jakob Breault won 20 of his 28 faceoffs in the evening to give the No. 2 Pioneers an abundance of additional possessions. Eric Vitale led Utica with five shots on goal, one goal, and one assist. Breault and Griffen Barr each had one goal. Preston Brighton had one assist, while Drake Morse and Kimball Johnson both had two.

Not only did goalkeeper Ethan Roberts walk away with 28 saves, with 17 of them coming in the last minute, he was also named the 2024 Tournament’s Most Valuable Player.

“I’m just happy that I truly got an opportunity to prove myself this year and show that I can win the big games,” Roberts said. “My defense makes it relatively easy on me, so the award is more for the whole D-core than it is just me.”

Utica meant business in the opening seven minutes of the first period after a turnover. A brilliant play in the offensive zone set up Vitale’s goal, which Utica took 1-0 lead thanks to assists from Johnson and Brighton.

“Scoring the first goal and hearing the levels of the crowd will be a memory never forgotten,” Vitale said. “Throwing my gloves and helmet off was one of the best feelings ever as it was my first league championship win in my hockey career.” 

The two teams spent a large portion of the next play in the neutral zone, with each goalie stopping several great opportunities for both teams. The Mustangs, however, tied the score at 1-1 after taking advantage of a power play and a pass during a three-on-one. To conclude the first period the Pioneers led the shooting war 11 to 8, and the score was tied 1-1. 

In the second period, the Pioneers wasted no time with assistance from Morse and Vitale, Barr hit the ground running with a shot from the blue line just 37 seconds in, giving the team a 2-1 lead.

Around the 12-minute mark, Utica was awarded a power play. Despite having few good opportunities, the Stevenson defense held firm.

Due to holding, Utica received yet another opportunity for a power play, and the Pioneers made sure to take advantage of it. With less than five minutes remaining in the second half, scoring his tenth goal of the season, Breault blasted home a rebound off assists from Johnson and Morse to increase Utica’s lead to 3-1.

A slashing penalty gave the Pioneers their third power play of the half with two minutes left. The Mustangs’ defense continued to stand strong, stopping Utica’s few chances to score. 

The teams engaged in a possession battle in the neutral zone during the first few minutes of the final period. About five minutes into the third period, Utica was awarded another power play, but they were unable to convert.

The Mustangs’ goalie made several excellent saves to preserve the game 3-1, but the Pioneers remained aggressive and controlled the puck in the offensive zone. Stevenson continued getting closer, and at the last second, they scored a rebound goal to reduce Utica’s advantage to just 3-2.

“The crowd really carried us home,” Roberts said. “When that puck dropped they were so loud the whole rest of the game it gave me goosebumps and really flipped us into another gear to dig deep and win a huge game for the city.”

Winning the conference championship, the Pioneers received an automatic bid to the NCAA Division III Tournament, which begins on Saturday, March 9 with a game between Plymouth State and SUNY Cortland. Utica will hit the ice again in the NCAA quarterfinal on Saturday, March 16 at 7 p.m. at the Adirondack Bank Center, hosting  the winner of the Plymouth State and SUNY Cortland game. 

“It’s the plays away from the puck such as blocking shots, laying big hits and bringing the energy on the bench that transitions us to finding the back of the net,” Brighton said. 

Head coach Gary Heenan intends to get the team ready for both scenarios. It’s about their method of play, not the team they’re playing against. 

“There has been such a turnover in roster so winning the league and getting into NCAA’s was unexpected heading into the year,” Heenan said. “I’m super proud of this young group.” 

Heenan said although he is proud of the team, he understands that they will need to make some adjustments in order to succeed in the NCAA tournament.

“This validates all our team’s hard work and dedication all year,” Vitale said. “Winning created a huge positive momentum for our team and I can feel our team will be more assured in our skills and abilities which will translate to our upcoming performance.”

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