By Jon Pino and Kristie Kahl
The third time was the charm for Rider’s hockey team on Friday night, but a second chance to overtake the top-seedcwas not granted to them the following day during the MACHA playoffs.
After falling to The College of New Jersey (TCNJ) twice earlier this season, the Broncs came out with vengeance in the third and most important game between these two squads, knocking their cross-town rivals out of the playoffs 5-4.
The Broncs carried the early momentum and silenced the Lions’ roar after sophomore forward D.J. Nork put Rider on top with a 1-0 lead just minutes into the contest. Then, with 10:08 remaining in the first period, senior forward Merlin Thompson fed junior forward Tom D’Aurizio, who beat sophomore goalie Joe McCarty through the five-hole.
“They have great offensive power so we knew right away that we needed to stay on top of them,” D’Aurizio said. “It’s different playing ahead of those guys because both times this year we were fighting from behind. So, playing ahead was different but we tried to stay on them as much as possible.”
Rider continued to pounce on the Lions with every opportunity that came their way. Less than two minutes after D’Aurizio scored, freshman forward Connor Dragone started his playoff résumé on the right note by beating McCarty to make it 3-0.
“It was very important to come out the way we did tonight,” Thompson said. “If we’re going to lose, we’re glad we lost in the regular season and not in the playoffs.”
After dropping both regular season games to TCNJ by scores of 8-2 and 7-5, and dropping its last two games of the season, a rejuvenated Rider squad looked determined to knock its adversaries out in the opening round, as they headed into the locker room leading 3-1.
With a relentless attack, it took Rider less than one minute to get back on the board as Thompson recorded his first goal of the night.
“It’s very important to get a lead against any team you play against,” Thompson said. “Once you get ahead it’s the key to success in the end.”
Following back-to-back TCNJ penalties midway through the second, the Lions started gaining momentum, which eventually led to TCNJ outshooting the Broncs 29-20 and a goal by senior defensemen Alex Gorden with 5:52 remaining in the second period to cut the deficit to two.
The third period opened with a costly penalty by D’Aurizio, giving the Lions a power play that they executed 14 seconds into, as senior defensemen Eric Castellazzo connected to pull within one.
“It’s a playoff game and the refs had to make tight calls, but we knew we had to get it back and had faith in the guys,” D’Aurizio said. “We had to take advantage of the rest of our chances and we got it done.”
The third period possessed many scoring opportunities for TCNJ, but the Broncs’ defense foiled almost everything senior goalie Bobby Kovarovic didn’t eat up. Kovarovic stopped 31 of the 35 shots fired on him.
“Bobby’s the backbone of this team; we pretty much ride his wave,” Thompson said. “How he plays dictates if we’re going to win or lose. He fought the puck in the beginning but in the end he was able to get the job done.”
In addition to the win, Kovarovic also added hardware prior to the game. The Sewell native received the co-award for goaltending wins, collecting eight alongside Wagner’s freshman goalie Chris Hausel.
Thompson continued his rampage as he housed his second goal of the night, squeaking by McCarty.
With time winding down, TCNJ inched closer. After pulling their goalie to gain the extra man, sophomore forward Ellie Klein found the back of the net to make it a 5-4 game. Despite the slight scare, Rider buckled down, letting the playoff beards grow another day.
“We played 60 minutes of our best hockey, we didn’t shut down at all, we stayed on them the whole time and we had great pressure,” D’Aurizio said. “We didn’t give them too many scoring chances on Bobby so once we got on top of them with the lead we didn’t want them to come out on top.”
Unfortunately, the fifth-seed Broncs could not gather up a win against top-seeded Wagner in the second round, as the Seahawks knocked the Broncs out with a 6-2 win.
Six minutes into the first period, Wagner freshman left wing Nick Lampson started off the scoring with a long shot from the attack zone. Lampson dumped another goal in the net off an assist from senior center Mark Schofield during a line of four on four.
A little over a minute later, D’Aurizio answered back for the Broncs on a power play to put Rider on the board with 6:40 left in the period. Rider notched another goal off an assist from Nork to Dragone to tie the game.
“We just wanted to stay competitive and show [Wagner] that it wasn’t a fluke that we beat them last time,” D’Aurizio said. “They definitely came out real hard in the first period because they wanted to pay us back for the loss earlier in the season.”
The Seahawks answered right back with a goal from freshman right wing Julian Mikola over Kovarovic’s right shoulder to make it a one-goal deficit at the end of the first period. Wagner outshot the Broncs 17-11, as Rider had some problems clearing the puck from its zone.
The second period saw crucial penalty kills with the Rider defense coming alive as neither team could net a goal.
At one point, Wagner pulled its goalie, forcing the Broncs to reckon with a six on four line-up. Rider’s defense woke up to clear the puck from a crowded zone to save the Broncs from a two-goal deficit.
Rider excelled at killing time as the Broncs were only able to get three shots on goal the entire period. Kovarovic took a beating and became the all-star of the period as he saved the Broncs from 21 shots on goal.
“Any time you can keep Wagner off the score sheet for a whole period is a win in itself,” D’Aurizio said. “We took some bad penalties but our penalty killers really did an excellent job of killing them off. Bobby really stood on his head for us too in that second period. He was our best penalty killer.”
In the third period, Wagner’s defenseman Jamie Gardner took advantage of a Seahawk power play. The Seahawks didn’t take long to continue their momentum, as the team began to put the game out of reach with another goal to make it 5-2.
With just under three minutes left Wagner took advantage of a two on one situation as freshman center Josh Newberg posted the team’s last goal for the final score in the second round of the postseason.
“Even though we were knocked out of the playoffs by losing the game, I don’t really have anything negative to say about it,” D’Aurizio said. “We battled and stuck with them for 60 minutes. We made them earn every inch to get the win.”