By Gina de Haan
COLUMBUS, Ohio – The Calvin men's hockey team punched its ticket to the 2017 ACHA Division III National Championship, coming back in the third period to defeat Florida Gulf Coast University 3-2 on Friday night. On Saturday night, the Knights will meet a familiar opponent, Michigan Collegiate Hockey Conference (MCHC) rival Aquinas College (33-5-1), who defeated Bryn Athyn in the other semifinal by a score of 4-2.
Both the Eagles and Knights entered the semifinal matchup undefeated in pool play, Calvin as the number-one seed overall and in the North Region and FGCU the number-one seed in the South Region.
The Eagles earned wins over Adrian College, Southern Connecticut State and Marquette University to advance to the semifinals before their season was ended by the Knights.
"Our team refuses to quit," said head men's hockey coach Mike Petrusma. "Despite outshooting and out chancing FGCU all night, we found ourselves down 2-1 with seven minutes left. The boys battled through the challenge."
The Knights got on the board first just after the 10-minute mark when sophomore Keegan Weckesser (East Lansing, Mich./Lansing Capitals NAPHL) scored from Nick Hirst (Waterloo, Ont./Waterloo Siskins GOJHL) and Frank Moreschi (Malden, Mass./St. Thomas More School D1 NE Prep).
Calvin held the Eagles scoreless for nearly the entire first period, but lapsed with 42.1 seconds left in the first period when Vince Dinunzio capitalized off the rebound of Colin Malone's initial shot. Heading into the first intermission, the teams were knotted at one.
Neither team found the back of the net in the second period, despite numerous Calvin scoring opportunities.
As the midpoint of the period neared, the Knights had a flurry of chances, but were unable to put the puck past FGCU goaltender Jared Burch. With 9:54 left in the second period, Austin Huizenga (Grand Rapids, Mich./Listowel Cyclones GOJHL) was called for the first penalty of the game. Despite having the man-advantage, FGCU was unable to convert its chances into goals.
FGCU nearly scored another goal late in the period, but Malone's attempt with just under two minutes on the clock was denied by Calvin goaltender Alex Gross (Fort Worth, Texas/Northern Cyclones EHL).
The Eagles pulled ahead with 9:49 into the final period off a goal by Brett Sutton.
The Knights maintained their composure and showed resilience as senior captains Austin Kath (Milwaukee, Wis./Milwaukee Jr. Admirals T1EHL) and Cameron Bell stepped up.
With 6:31 remaining, Hirst fed Kath in the high slot and he buried the shot to tie the game at two. Shortly after the tying goal, the Eagles called timeout.
Despite the attempt to break up Calvin's momentum, the Knights continued to pour on the offensive pressure, and their efforts were rewarded with just under three minutes to play when Bell roofed the puck into FGCU's net. Keenan Kennedy (Barrie, Ont./Espanola Express NOJHL) earned the assist on the game-winning goal.
The Eagles attempted to even the score by pulling their goaltender with just over a minute to play. However, after coincidental penalties resulting in four-on-four hockey, Burch returned to his net.
Once the Eagles had a faceoff opportunity in Calvin's zone, Burch came off again for the extra attacker. FGCU won the faceoff, but was unable to capitalize as the Knights tied the puck up along the end boards until time expired.
Calvin outshot FGCU 45-26 in the victory, scoring three goals against a team that had only given up four goals in its three pool play matches. Gross recorded 24 saves on the night. Through four games, Gross boasts a .962 save percentage and 1.26 GAA on 101 shots faced.
Tomorrow's championship game will mark the third meeting of the season between the two West Michigan teams. In early February, the Knights and Saints battled for the MCHC West Division crown in a two-game series. Calvin clinched its second consecutive conference championship in the first game, taking a 4-3 road win over Aquinas. In the return matchup, the Saints handed the Knights their first home loss of the season with a 4-2 win.
In early March, the Saints claimed the defeated Michigan State University 6-3 in the post-season conference tournament finals to claim the MCHC Vezina Cup.
Last season, the Saints knocked the Knights out the national tournament in the semifinals, but fell in the championship game. This year, Aquinas is the number-three seed in the North Region.
"We are looking forward to tomorrow's national championship game against Aquinas," said Petrusma. "It seems funny that the championship comes down to two colleges less than five miles apart.'