UC Irvine engineers one of the greatest comebacks in NCRHA history.
Posted: April 12, 2008 3:32PM; Updated: April 18, 2008 6:39AM
by Richard Graham
Outside the Tour Inline Hockey Arena in Colorado Springs, it was gray and cold as the players from the UC Irvine Anteaters and the Stony Brook University Seawolves warmed up for their elimination-round game in the 10th annual National Collegiate Roller Hockey Championships. Perhaps the chill was a contributing factor to the Anteaters’ slow start, because Stony Brook grabbed a 2-0 lead just 53 seconds into the game on goals by Tom Cartwright and Greg Horne. Even a power-play opportunity for UCI failed to stop the Seawolves’ momentum; Steven Zawalich scored an unassisted short-handed goal to put Stony Brook up by three.
Getting an early lead was probably something that the Seawolves’ coaching staff had emphasized in preparing for this game. Making UCI’s five skaters expend precious energy catching up was just good strategy; if the skillful Californians had to work hard early in the game to close the gap, perhaps they might fade during the stretch.
“It’s too early for Stony Brook to celebrate,” said a prescient John Pellegrino of Ace Sports, one of the NCRHA’s event sponsors. “There’s a lot of hockey left to play.”
UCI certainly didn’t expect to be down by three this early in the game – they’d rarely had to play from behind the entire season. Now, their team character and heart would be put to the test.
On the same power play, UCI finally got on the scoreboard, making it 3-1 on a goal by Fabian Mueller, but Anteaters’ goalie Kevin Leonard left a fat rebound in front of the crease, and Dan Castellano popped it home for a 4-1 Seawolves’ advantage.
Irvine’s smooth-skating Mike Tasch made a series of great moves to get into scoring position, but an even better save by Stony Brook’s goaltender kept Irvine from closing the gap.
With time winding down in the first period, Irvine cut the Seawolves’ lead to 4-2 when Charlie Middleton roofed a snap shot from the top of the slot with 2:40 to go. Stony Brook’s Jim Tamburino made a great pass to an open teammate in the slot, who got off a great shot, but an even better save by UCI’s Kevin Leonard kept the Anteaters within two, and the period ends with a 4-2 score in favor of Stony Brook. [This story is based on notes made by this writer; there is at least one discrepancy between those notes and the official box score. –Ed.]
UCI started out the second period on an early power play and got several chances, but Stony Brook pounced on the rebounds first. From his spot next to the northeastern corner of the rink, Ace Sport’s John Pellegrino said that the Anteaters needed to walk the puck down and control the play, but that their attempts at making long-bomb passes was a strategic mistake.
On a delayed penalty to UCI, Stony Brook’s players made a bit of a tactical error of their own, giving UCI’s players a rest by holding the puck so long in their own zone. A couple of penalties taken by the Seawolves gave Irvine a 3-on-2, and a one-timer by Middleton cut Stony Brook’s lead to 4-3. It seemed that it was anyone’s game again for the first time since the puck dropped to start the game, but the Seawolves reeled off three straight power-play goals to take a 7-3 lead. After an unpopular call against Middleton for attempting to jam in a puck after the whistle, the Anteaters killed the penalty, but shortly after, Stony Brook scored again on a goal by Tom D’Ancona to increase their lead to five goals, 8-3.
As time clicked down to less than a minute remaining in the second period, things were looking very dark for UCI, especially when Mike Tasch took a hooking penalty at 11:06. However, UCI’s hotshot sniper Charlie Middleton made a short-handed goal to cut the deficit to 8-4, and that was how the second period ended.
It took nearly four minutes, but UCI scored a power-play goal of its own when Middleton potted another goal at 3:48, and it was an 8-5 game. But how much gas did the Anteaters have left in their tank? They were out-shooting the Seawolves 23-18, but Stony Brook’s shooting percentage was close to 50 percent, and the Anteaters were skating hard to try and get back into the game.
Now it was Stony Brook’s turn to parade to the penalty box… a slashing call to Ryan Keane at 4:43 and a double minor for hooking and interference to Tom Cartwright led two more power-play goals by Middleton, the last one with 2:09 left in the period. Now it was 8-7, Middleton had six of UCI’s seven goals, and the wheels were coming off for the Seawolves.
UCI clanged a shot off the post on an attempt to tie the game, and Mike Tasch made a great individual effort that was stopped at the goal-line, before Irvine took a timeout and got a minute’s rest. When would they pull their goalie?
After a brilliant save by Stony Brook's goaltender, and a rush and a shot by Jim Tamburino, UCI got the puck back and, at 1:04, pulled goalie Kevin Leonard. Stony Brook fired a clearing pass that was gloved down to the rink surface by an Anteater, leading to a UCI shot that went off the side of the Stony Brook net. With just 20.1 seconds left in regulation, Mike Tasch found the puck on his stick and fired a shot that made it to the back of the net – game tied, 8-8!
“Cal - i - fornia. Cal - i - fornia. Cal - i - fornia.” is the chant from the stands.
“U-C-I. U-C-I. U-C-I.”
That was the chant as the overtime period began. How long would it go? Would Stony Brook stop the bleeding and score the game-winner, salvaging a horrible third period? Would Irvine finish their incredible comeback with six straight goals? How long would the suspense last?
In the first couple of minutes, Anteaters’ goalie Leonard made a nice shoulder save and followed it up with an aggressive poke check to keep Stony Brook off the scoreboard. One of the Seawolves fired a shot at a rolling puck, and Leonard made another save. He was definitely making up for his slow start at the beginning of the game.
Now the puck was in the Stony Brook end, and Middleton passed the puck to Fabian Mueller, whose shot clanked off the iron. But the rebound finds its way to Alex Frecker, the Anteater’s little-used fifth man, and he buries it! Goal! UC Irvine has done it! With 9:26 left in the overtime period, they’ve overcome a five-goal deficit to make one of the greatest comebacks in NCRHA history. Final score, UC Irvine 9, Stony Brook 8.
The Anteaters advance to the next round. The Seawolves stand in stunned silence as the west-coast leaning crowd roars.
The crowd’s final chant is: “West Coast! West Coast! West Coast!”
And just about the time that UC Irvine scored to win in overtime, the sun came out for the first time in days.
The Beach Boys could have written a song about these guys.
“When we were down 8-3, I thought we were going to lose. Once Charlie started getting those power-play shots in, that got their confidence building back up, and that got the rest of the team going. UCI, all this season, has refused to lose, and this is a classic example of them hanging on and finishing it off. It was fabulous.” – Dan Middleton, the father of Charlie Middleton’s father
“That might have been the greatest comeback in the history of NCRHA. They were down 8-3, but they just kept rolling and rolling and eventually came all the way back to win in overtime. Middleton was unreal. I think he had six goals, and he set up the game-tying goal. It was unreal – five guys and a goalie against a full bench in this altitude. I have no words to explain it.” – Nabeel Gerges, Revision Wheels
“At 8-3, I thought we were going to lose, but we just kept battling back. We got a lot of power plays; I think they gave us some make-up calls. We got some bad calls early, but we got ‘em back. We capitalized on the power play.” – UCI’s golden boy, Charlie Middleton
“We started off slow, but I knew we’re going to catch up, tie the game and win in overtime.” - UCI’s Mike Tasch, in a facetious mood after the game
“I was thinking it was a horrible save percentage. I don’t know what it was; I came out a little flat-footed, they got in my head real quick, but my boys played some defense in the third period and we shut ’em down.” – UCI’s goaltender, Kevin Leonard, when asked what he was thinking after Stony Brook had scored eight goals on 16 shots
“Earlier today, I bought a new stick. It was $204 well spent. I want to say that the crowd really helped us out – Long Beach, UNLV; those guys… thanks a lot. I got a pass by T-Money (Mike Tasch), I looked up, felt the shot, boomed it.” – UCI’s Alex Frecker, who scored the game-winning goal in overtime
“I played a little weak, and came out bad, but it was only the second time we’ve been down all season – we don’t play from behind. We had a game-winning goal in OT against UNLV; that’s the only other time we had to come back against a team this year. We proved we can still do that; we don’t have to go up early.” – UCI’s Jeff Pollock
“They took it to us early, but we took it to them late, and we came back won the game. We still haven’t had our best game; we’re going to bring it to our next game.” – UCI’s Fabian Mueller
“These guys were looking forward to coming here and proving themselves in Division 1. To have a four-goal lead after the second and to take a couple foolish penalties… and some selfish play… we got our backs up against the wall. They put some pressure on us, we weren’t able to overcome the pressure… and next thing you know, we’re in an OT situation with some more pressure on us… and they found the net. It was a real tough loss for us; big time. There’s always next season, of course, and we keep pushing forward.” – Stony Brook Coach Joe Tamburino
“Irvine was very impressive. They have a couple of guys who can really snipe the puck, and for a short bench, to show their stamina and skill level, and to keep pushing and keep burying the puck, they deserve it. We let up, they gave us a good game, and it’s anyone’s show out there… so, they took the W. It’s down to two teams, and whoever gets that W deserves it more. They were able to overcome the obstacles of a short bench and fewer legs and were still able to take the win.” – Stony Brook Coach Joe Tamburino
“It was disappointing to let that one go, because we had ‘em. We just kept making mistake after mistake; I don’t even know what to say at this point. We’ve taken bad penalties in the past, but I thought by now we wouldn’t do something like that. We weren’t using our heads at times, and it really cost us. That was the whole game – special teams – and it definitely cost us. It’s unbelievable what they can do with five guys. We have a bench with about 10 guys, and we were winded. They just kept plugging away. That Charlie Middleton, he just kept putting it home, every time. I’m out of words.” – Stony Brook’s Jim Tamburino