By Jesse Vineyard/GCU Staff
After falling behind the eight ball early Friday night, Grand Canyon University Men’s Ice Hockey made the most of the time they had left in the game. With a valiant effort, the Lopes erased a 4-0 first-period deficit to tie the game in the third period, but couldn’t complete the comeback, falling to the No. 3 Utah State Aggies, 5-4, in the semifinals of the Mountain West Collegiate Hockey League Playoffs in Provo, Utah.
It was a first period to forget, and Lopes’ Head Coach Danny Roy let his team know about it during the first intermission. GCU fell behind with a Utah State goal 40 seconds in, and it set the tone as the Aggies continued their rushes throughout the period, scoring three more times for a 4-0 lead. From Roy’s vantage point, it wasn’t just what Utah State was doing right, but plenty of what GCU was doing wrong.
“We just weren’t ready to play or compete,” Roy said. “They wanted to press, compete and outwork us to pucks, and we just didn’t have an answer for it. There was a lot of talk and no walk, so my message was, ‘Show me that you care.'”
The Lopes received the stern message, and came out with more precision play in the final two periods. It took until under two minutes left in the second, but focused passing and tighter defense led to GCU’s first goal. GCU’s Trey Greene picked up a loose puck at the side of the net and put it between the post and the pad of the USU goaltender Colter Pritchard, giving the Lopes noticeable life.
GCU picked up right where they left off to start the third period. Thirty seconds into the period with time remaining on a late second-period penalty from Utah State, GCU’s Wyatt Grant wristed a shot from the blue line through traffic to bring the Lopes within two. Five minutes later with GCU crashing the net, the Lopes’ Brett Kramer popped in a rebound to make it 4-3.
Utah State gave the Lopes more momentum with a slashing penalty one minute later, and GCU capitalized on the man advantage. Matt Tweten’s point shot took a deflection off the end boards and fell to the stick of Greene to tie the game with 12 minutes remaining.
From the first goal at the end of the second to the tying goal, the Lopes scored four times on eight shots.
“We got it quick, and that left us close to a full period to cut down the lead,” Roy said. “We could see their bench was getting frustrated and nervous. When we’re competing, we’re a tough team to play against. They weren’t done proving to me that they do care.”
The Aggies spent their timeout after the tying goal, and found their stride to retake the lead with 8:20 remaining as Utah State’s Frank Flight beat GCU goaltender Michael Barabash to a rebound in the low slot. Equal play from then on earned both teams chances until a Utah State penalty with under a minute left started a wild finish. The Lopes called their timeout, and pulled Barabash for a 6-on-4 advantage. Greene, Grant and Jeffrey Payne cycled the puck from point to point, spreading out the Aggie defense. With five seconds on the clock, Grant took a pass from Greene and fired a slap shot on net from the top of the blue line, but Pritchard made a high glove save with a second left to end it.
“Just make something happen,” Roy said. “Doesn’t matter what, doesn’t matter how pretty it is, just make something happen. We gave ourselves a chance to get the win.”
USU outshot the Lopes 52-34, but Barabash kept GCU in the game with a 47-save performance.
The regular-season finale against Division I University of Arizona on February 10 is all that’s left for GCU before a wait-and-see on the regional playoffs to be revealed February 14. By rule, games against a Division I opponent don’t count toward the rankings, but Roy knows there is plenty to be taken away from this loss and put into the next matchup with the Wildcats, and ultimately the regionals.
“Let’s learn from our mistake where we had one period of not being ready,” Roy said. “We shouldn’t ever have a ‘what if’ question. We knew we had a chance at a championship in our first year, but we know our journey isn’t over.”
The Lopes will host Arizona at 6:30PM this Saturday night at AZ Ice Peoria. Admission is free.