By Brandon Scalea
The Rider club ice hockey team officially clinched a spot in the Mid-Atlantic Collegiate Hockey Association (MACHA) playoffs following games against Virginia Tech and Wagner on Jan. 30 and 31.
The weekend didn’t start the way the Broncs (18-10, 11-8 MACHA) wanted as they hosted Virginia Tech. Back in November, Rider was able to pull out a 6-2 win on the road in Roanoke, Va. The Hokies would not let this happen again, as they spoiled the Broncs’ first game of its big weekend by shutting out Rider 4-0. The Broncs were outshot and outplayed, but still trailed just 1-0 after two periods. In the final frame, Virginia Tech scored three quick goals on senior goaltender Nate Kholodenko for the convincing win.
Virginia Tech will also compete in the MACHA playoffs as the No. 2 seed.
After the loss, Head Coach Sean Levin made it clear the Broncs’ play was unacceptable.
“We came up flat against Virginia Tech,” Levin said. “When you put yourself in a situation where you can’t score goals, you’re not going to make it easy for yourself.”
A slow start against Wagner in the next game threatened to hurt Rider for the second straight night. After a win on the opening face-off, the Seahawks controlled possession and then found the net just 59 seconds into the contest. The Broncs were able to settle in quickly and drew a tripping penalty two minutes later. At the 3:16 mark of the first period — just 20 seconds into the power play — senior forward Chris Daley, as he has done so many times this season, made a play. He netted the power-play goal to tie the game at 1, with assists from junior defenseman Connor Fox and senior forward Luke Liddell.
The game slowed down after that, with the two teams fighting for possession for the remainder of the period. The Broncs were able to kill off some penalties, due largely to strong goaltending by Kholodenko. The score would remain 1-1 through two periods with Rider leading 11-7 in shots on goal.
In the final 20 minutes of the regular season at Louck’s Ice Arena, the Broncs aimed to take charge and defend their house. An early penalty cost them, however, and Wagner took an early 2-1 lead. The Broncs looked to be in trouble when senior forward Pat Grilli went to the box just moments later, but Chris Daley came through with assists from his brother — sophomore forward Max Daley — and freshman forward Chris Johnson, scoring a shorthanded goal to tie the game at 2.
The Seahawks, however, didn’t come all the way from Staten Island to get pushed around. They quickly regained the lead 3-2 and quieted the home crowd, but another tripping penalty against Wagner made them shorthanded just moments later. With less than 12 minutes to go, Chris Daley scored yet again, completing the hat trick and tying the game at 3. The momentum would not swing back again. With 10:13 remaining, senior forward Pete Malamud joined the scoring sheet and gave Rider its first lead of the game.
After coincidental minors, Rider took advantage of the 4-on-4 hockey and took a 5-3 lead on a goal by Johnson, who was assisted by freshman forward John Martino and freshman defenseman J.J. Santagata.
Inspired by the offensive eruption, Kholodenko stood tall in the cage for the rest of the game.
“No matter who it is, it seems like everyone shows up at the most crucial time,” Kholodenko said. “That’s what makes this team special. Those are things you can’t teach.”
After a Broncs timeout with 1:05 to go, Wagner pulled its goalie for the extra skater. Grilli saw this as an opportunity to put a cap on a great sendoff. He won a foot race for the loose puck and poked it in the empty net for the 6-3 win.
On a night where the seniors were honored in their final home game, Levin felt very proud of his soon-to-depart players for stepping up.
“This is probably the best senior class in this program’s history,” Levin said. “We have threats on all ends of the ice with guys like Grilli, Daley, Kholodenko and Hags [senior goalie Mike Haggerty]. They’re fun guys to be around and they put Rider on the map. They will be missed.”
The Broncs are projected to be a No. 4 seed in the MACHA playoffs and to play Penn State on Feb. 13 in Abington, Md. Until then, the Broncs will finish their regular season with a road trip to Ohio, with games against Bowling Green and the University of Toledo, a team consistently ranked in the top five in the region.
Levin sees this as a great test for his team.
“This is a nice way to end the regular season, in my opinion,” he said. “Bowling Green is always tough and physical, and Toledo is always a competitor for nationals.”