Next Saturday, the WCU Golden Ram hockey team will make the long trek up to Rochester, N.Y, and will attempt to make some more school history as they try to win their first ever national championship. Coming off the heels of their first Eastern Collegiate Hockey Association playoff championship, the Rams will look to continue their hot streak against a familiar foe, the University of Rhode Island Rams.
WCU was swept by URI this season, losing 4-3 in a shootout in the first game and then getting crushed 7-2 the following day. However, the two teams have gone in different directions since that fateful meeting at Brad Boss Arena at URI.
West Chester is 22-4 since that series, including wins over four teams that will be participating in the National Tournament. Some of the more notable wins include a 3-0 mark against Stony Brook and CHMA champion West Virginia, ranked 15th and 14th respectively. Other impressive wins include a 7-3 win over No. 6 Liberty University and a two game sweep of ECHL champion Robert Morris.
In that same time span, Rhode Island has seen its level of play deteriorate with losses against No. 4 Delaware, No. 3 Penn State, No. 15 Stony Brook, No. 6 Liberty, No. 16 Robert Morris and Arizona State. URI went 0-4 against both Delaware and Penn State this season, and have struggled to find consistency down the stretch.
The Golden Rams have the potential to be national champions by the time this tournament comes to a close, but there are a plethora of questions that must be answered about this team.
Can Jim Gehring and Pat Johnson continue their torrid scoring streaks against some of the country’s top teams? Will players such as Drew Mervin, Mike Longo and Robert Bushman continue to chip in offensively? Is the defensive corps strong enough and balanced enough to shut down some of the country’s top offenses?
For the record, I do believe that all three of those questions can be answered with a resounding yes. Gehring and Johnson are two of the country’s finest players and should be able to score against the big boys, as they’ve done all year. Gehring leads the ACHA with 102 points in merely 35 games, and Johnson is right behind him with 90 points in 33 games. The third-ranked scorer in Division I is nearly 40 points behind Gehring, a shocking disparity.
As far as the issue of balanced scoring goes, it has slowly diminished into a near non-issue.
The Golden Rams saw nine players register at least 15 points this season and also saw five players with at least 12 goals. In addition, the Golden Rams have received significantly better contributions on offense from their defensemen lately.
Jeff Shockley, Steve Jones and Chris Orlando have all raised their offensive game of late, and the second half addition of offensively gifted defenseman Shane McGarry gives the Rams four defensemen who can score at any time.
That same defensive corps has been maligned at times this season for erratic and spotty play, but they have stepped up their game a few notches down the stretch.
They have held opposing teams to three goals or less in seven of the past 10 games, a stretch that included some very good teams such as Stony Brook, Robert Morris and West Virginia. If the defense can step up their game yet another level, watch out.
On the back end of that defense is one of the ACHA’s finest goaltenders. After struggling a bit at the beginning of the season, Corey Hackney has played himself into his trademark late-season form with some outstanding hockey of late.
Hackney, known for his tremendous goaltending in big games, could very well steal a national title for the Rams. In the ECHA finals, Stony Brook threw everything but the kitchen sink at him, but Hackney stood tall with a whopping 36 saves on 38 shots.
A big part of this team’s fate hinges on Hackney as he will need to be spectacular for the Rams to contend. Hackney will be playing in front of a large contingent of fans as his hometown of Watford, Ontario isn’t too far from Rochester. Perhaps that will provide him with extra motivation to dominate.
Along with great goaltending, great teams always have great special teams and if these games come down to special teams, the Golden Rams should have the edge. Their power play is one of the nation’s elite, led by Johnson’s school record 24 power play goals. That mark shatters Gehring’s record from last year when he tallied 14 times on the man advantage. West Chester has four players with at least eight power play goals, and the defensemen do a great job of quarterbacking the power play.
Perhaps the most unheralded group of the team is the penalty kill specialists.
Kenny Bergeron and Adam Jordan are the best in the penalty killing business. Bergeron eats power plays for breakfast, and Jordan is a tenacious shot blocker on the kills. The duo has given up less than five power play goals on the year, a truly outstanding mark considering 13 Golden Ram players have amassed at least 20 penalty minutes. ECHA Coach of the Year Mark Gonsalves never has to worry about his penalty kill, as the odds are very good that Bergeron and Jordan will kill it. Bergeron has to be in the top five penalty killers in the country. His instincts and determination on the kill are one of a kind, and he is one of WCU’s lesser-known weapons. Jordan and Bergeron may not light up the stat sheet like Gehring and Johnson, but they probably keep as many off the board for the other team as Gehring and Johnson put on the board for WCU.
The Golden Rams do face a tough draw as the tournament’s No. 8 seed, however. They start off with URI, a team that they have struggled mightily to beat in recent years. If they do win that game, they will play the No. 1 ranked University of Illinois Fighting Illini, a team that has lost exactly zero games this season. Illinois is the fastest team in the country, but how they adapt to the smaller NHL size surfaces for a whole tournament remain to be seen. Their home ice is a wider Olympic-size rink where they can use their explosive speed and quickness to their advantage.
Should WCU get by URI and Illinois, they would be re-seeded and then play the highest seed remaining. If I were a betting man, I’d say Delaware and Penn State are both good bets to stick around for the Final Four. Delaware is likely the second fastest team in the country behind Illinois, and Penn State has been in the national title game every year for the past decade. They have been bridesmaids for the past four years, so they will be desperate for their sixth ACHA Division I national title.
The Golden Rams will not be the most skilled team in Rochester, not even close to it. But they may end up being the best team there. Their combination of scoring, defense, special teams and goaltending will give teams fits, and if Hackney can steal a game or two, watch out for this team. Competition doesn’t tell you who the best team is. Rather, it weeds out the weak and allows the elite to rise to the top. Can the Rams be elite?
Matt Chandik is a third-year student majoring in Spanish with a minor in journalism. He can be reached at MC618553@wcupa.edu.