RIT Adds Another NCAA Magic Moment
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
ALBANY, N.Y. At some point, perhaps we'll no longer be surprised by these results. After all, in the last six NCAA Tournaments now, the Atlantic Hockey representative has won half the First Round games.
But can you blame people? RIT didn't win a non-league game this season, playing against teams like Clarkson, St. Lawrence, Colgate and Minnesota State. And Atlantic Hockey teams still lost an overwhelming amount of games in non-league play overall.
"If you go back and look at some of the boxscores, St. Lawrence and Clarkson, it was pretty one-sided from a shot standpoint, but we lost the games," RIT coach Wayne Wilson said. "We went through some tough times with our play, but we never rattled. We had a strong belief in ourselves at that time.
"I thought Mankato was a turnaround — they outplayed us in two games out there. That was kind of a wakeup call, because things were going well right before Christmas, because maybe we were full of ourselves. So we regrouped and figured what we needed to do to get better."
And get better the Tigers did, obviously, as evidenced by Friday's 2-1 win over mighty Denver in RIT's first NCAA appearance as a Division I team.
"We really didn't think like it was David and Goliath," Wilson said. "It was Denver. We didn't say, 'We get no respect' — it wasn't like that. It was a very professional business-like approach to a good team."
Clearly, senior goaltender Jared DeMichiel was not fazed by the enormity of the moment.
"I can't pronounce half the guys' names on Denver, I just knew they were a good team," said DeMichiel, not noting the irony that people consistently can't pronounce his name.
The man responsible for the game-winning goal, sophomore Cameron Burt, is a native of Detroit — site of this year's Frozen Four. His third-period power-play goal gave RIT a 2-0 edge at the time. But Burt was not allowing himself to get carried away with visions of Ford Field.
"I'm not really thinking about Detroit right now, we've got a big game tomorrow against one of these great teams," Burt said. "I just want to rest and focus on tomorrow."
There really is no judging how a group of older, experienced players, with great chemistry, can come together when the chips are down. We've seen it time and again. And this time, it was enough for RIT to upset Denver. RIT does not have a teenager on its roster. Its goaltender, DeMichiel, will be 25 in a couple of weeks.
"We're just 16 teams here trying to win a hockey game, we don't really look at conferences," Burt said. "We put our skates on just like they do."
It was, however, a couple of freshmen — albeit a 20- and 21-year old — that shined the brightest.
First, Chris Tanev, a 6-foot-2 defenseman who led the nation in plus-minus this season (plus-32), intercepted a clear, used two players as a screen, and beat Denver goalie Marc Cheverie for an early 1-0 lead. All of a sudden, you could hear people saying, "Here we go again." Another crazy NCAA Tournament had begun.
"I saw the guy coming around the net, he shot it around the boards, I jumped it sort of, and I saw a lot of traffic around the net and I just shot," Tanev said. "I didn't really know where I was shooting."
Then there's Adam Hartley, who will be 22 next week. He took all of the defensive zone draws in the last couple minutes of the game, protecting a 2-1 lead. Denver was able to stall effectively in those final minutes, and keep the fearsome top line of Joe Colborne, Rhett Rakhshani and Tyler Ruegsegger on the ice, and Denver switched off taking the draws. But Hartley kept winning them.
"We played all four lines," Wilson said. "In this game, it just so happens he's winning the draws on the right side. We took an icing and had a draw on the left side, but we just showed faith in him at that point. Brent Alexin was his right winger and Scott Knowles was his left winger, and we didn't try to get all different people out of position, we just said, 'Let's go with this.'"
And then there's DeMichiel, whose .922 save percentage this season is not that far off the lofty numbers of a couple of Hobey candidates that are in this Regional — Cheverie and Cornell's Ben Scirvens. Wilson didn't know for sure how his team would react in this environment, but DeMichiel's loosey-goosey attitude was clearly infectious, not to mention his poise, his great stick-handling, and his control of angles and rebounds. He was the leader of an entire team that played poised from start to finish.
"Coach has impressed upon me to have fun with it, and it's game, you can't forget that," DeMichiel said. "You have to take every single game like it's your last and just have fun with it. And if you play, good things will happen."
Wilson said, "We watch the other team to see if there's tendencies, but against a high-powered team like Denver, we could've went in to become a trapping team, but that's not us. So all of a sudden we become some other team, (but) we want to be RIT. We like the way we play. It's a special group, because you don't know how each is going to respond to special situations."
It would be another mistake to think this run is over. Last year, Bemidji State made the Frozen Four, while Air Force took Vermont to double overtime before losing.
"I don't think we have to prove that, to ourselves we've already proven what we can do," DeMichiel said. "I don't know if Atlantic Hockey will ever get the respect it deserves. Eventually we hope to be a big program, and every single win helps."