The Georgetown club hockey team was worried.
The team it was set to face in the ACC Hockey League finals, North Carolina State, had overpowered Duke in the semifinals 5-2. Now, the Blue Devils were making mincemeat of the Virginia Cavaliers, whom the Hoyas had struggled to beat the round before. Suddenly, their status as tournament favorites was in doubt.
Especially after the puck dropped.
“The first five minutes were really bad,” senior forward and captain John Ryder said. “They were all over us.”
But an early Wolfpack goal seemed to spark the Hoyas, and the team’s third line of junior AndrewToporoff, junior Lazar Zdravkovic of Sweden and freshman Chad Heal started the charge with a solid shift of cycling and physical play in the offensive zone. The rest of the Blue and Gray fed off of it, and soon enough, Georgetown would have a pair of goals of its own.
Ryder would add a third after that, and, in a complete turnaround, Georgetown found itself up 3-1 going into the second intermission.
Twenty minutes away from a second consecutive ACCHL championship, Head Coach Brad Card addressed his players in the locker room.
A Capitol Hill lobbyist and former public policy firm manager, Card knew that he had to draw from his full motivational arsenal.
“I simply said that we had played the entire season — since September — to make it to this game and be in this position,” he said. “I reminded the guys that this was the last game our seniors would be playing at Georgetown and to keep pressing the play.”
Unlike on the varsity level, the leading players are tasked with much — and often all, depending on the sport — of the coaching for Georgetown’s club teams. And Ryder and his fellow seniors wanted the repeat badly. They wanted to close the deal.
It wouldn’t come easily.
A deflection made it a one-goal game, and the tournament was shaping up for a tense finish. With just over a minute left, N.C. State pulled its goalie and proceeded to threaten junior goalie Connor Brogan’s cage time after time.
But Brogan, who came through in crunch time the year before, shut the door, and the Hoyas were able to get the puck out with five seconds remaining. Players on the bench looked ready to celebrate, but, before the siren could sound, the puck was touched at the far end of the ice by an opposing defenseman.
Icing. With two seconds left.
There would be a draw in the Georgetown zone, and while a faceoff loss would likely give the opposing team one final chance, a win would seal the deal. And there was only one man that was going to step up and take it.
“It was on my right side, to the right of our goalie, and I’m right-handed so it was my side,” Ryder said. “I was just going to lift his stick and hope to block it.”
But instead, the puck was deflected back to the slot, and a hurried Wolfpack shot darted just a foot wide of Brogan’s cage. The horn went off; it wasn’t pretty, but the Hoyas had done it.
As relieved teammates climbed over the bench to mob Brogan, Ryder could be heard whispering to a linemate on the ice.
“That’s not how we drew it up.”
And it rarely ever is. Such is the beauty of the sport. It makes winning just that little bit more special, because nothing is ever assured.
“As often happens, we suffered some early and mid-season challenges,” Card said. “However, our team captains really stepped up to re-energize the team, and [in] the last few weeks of the season, we came together.”
“We’ve had a really close team each year,” Ryder said. “You remember the games and stuff, but having a close team — that’s probably the best part of it.”
For the program’s six seniors, this was a chance to come out on top. For Brogan, Toporoff and the rest of the team, a shot at a three-peat — something no team has accomplished in the ACCHL’s history — awaits in 2014.
“Every player on our team, from our all-stars to our practice players, are really exceptional young men,” Card said. “Georgetown University should be extremely proud of not only the players that play for the university but also for the quality individual each student-athlete is. It is special to see young men grow from freshmen to seniors and go out on top.”
When the Georgetown club hockey team hits the ice once again next year, Card will hope to lead his next crop of seniors to a similar fate.