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COLLEGE HOCKEY REPORT

by Jourdon LaBarber / Buffalo Sabres
RIT's Brad McGowan (Photo: RIT Athletics)

An incredible season for RIT ended short of a Frozen Four appearance, but not before the Tigers left their mark on the national stage. RIT knocked off top-seeded Minnesota State Mankato 2-1 on Saturday, before falling behind late in a 5-1 loss to Nebraska-Omaha to end their campaign in the quarterfinal round on Sunday.

The run marked the second NCAA Tournament appearance in RIT’s Division I history; the first came in 2010, when the Tigers played their way into the Frozen Four. With that experience in hand, head coach Wayne Wilson preached the possibilities of advancing to his players – if they played their game, then a first-round upset was in the cards.

“I didn’t want the guys to think Minnesota State being ranked No. 1 was going to be like the Detroit Red Wings,” Wilson said. “I wanted them to just feel like they’re just another good team that’s on our schedule and we’ve played some good teams and played them well, so we shouldn’t expect anything different.”

That message was received and the Tigers played the full 60 minutes with the same poise that helped them earn their Atlantic Hockey Championship. Junior Alexander Kuqali opened the scoring less than five minutes into the game and RIT killed three penalties in the first period to take a lead into the first intermission.

Once Minnesota State finally broke through, on a power play goal midway through the second period, the Tigers still didn’t waver. It’d be the first and only goal allowed by senior goaltender Jordan Ruby, who carried over his success from the Atlantic Hockey Playoffs with a 33-save performance.

The two teams took the tie late into the third period, until RIT finally struck with less than six minutes to play. A Mavericks player collided into Minnesota State goaltender Stephon Williams, leaving an empty net for RIT junior Josh Mitchell, who scored what would be the game winner following a video review.

Ruby made 16 saves in the third period and the Tigers eliminated the tournament’s top seed.

“I thought we played very well defensively and Ruby was obviously a very big part of that,” Wilson said. “And then we got the timely goals that we needed. When you’re in a tight game you just got to score and scoring first was, I think, in giving us our confidence and then getting that winning goal was obviously very big.”

RIT seemed to have the early momentum once again against Nebraska-Omaha, outshooting the Mavericks 10-7 in the first period and establishing confidence with a five-minute penalty kill early on. This time, however, the Tigers could not find the back of the net against goaltender Ryan Massa, who led the NCAA in save percentage this season. Massa and Ruby dueled throughout the game’s first two periods, and the teams entered the third in a scoreless tie.

Jake Randolph scored to finally break the tie in favor of Nebraska-Omaha just one minute into the third period. The Tigers fought back hard, outscoring the Mavericks 18-5 in that period, but Massa never broke. When Nebraska-Omaha scored their second goal with under five minutes remaining, things unraveled and two more Mavericks goals followed in the next two minutes.

“I really think that the first goal in that game, particularly because it was so late, was a big blow to us mentally. It was hard to score in that game and I think both teams weren’t able to generate as much offense as we both would’ve liked,” Wilson said. “Once they got the second goal, we’d lost a lot of our energy and we lost a lot of our mindset at that point.”

Despite falling just shy of a Frozen Four appearance, the upset of Minnesota State capped what had been a memorable season for the Tigers. They constantly improved in the regular season and won their second Atlantic Hockey Championship.

On the individual level, they had the Atlantic Hockey Player of the Year in senior Matt Garbowsky. On Tuesday, Garbowsky signed an amateur tryout contract with the Rochester Americans for the remainder of the 2014-15 AHL season. Also joining Garbowsky in the pros this season is Ruby, who inked a deal with the ECHL’s Toledo Walleye.

Even after defeat in the NCAA Tournament, Wilson was able to reflect on what this team meant to the RIT program.

“I’m really proud of this particular team,” he said. “Everyone’s always comparing it to 2010. That 2010 team pretty well led the league form start-to-finish, were the favorites in the playoffs, they had a lot of different things going for them. This year was about having to come from behind, and having to overcome things to prove ourselves. I’m proud of the way we came together as the season came along, never gave up on ourselves and had a great playoff run.”

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