The Vanderbilt Ice Hockey teamÂ ushered in a new era in its history this past weekendÂ when it kicked off its 2014/15 campaign at the Ford Ice Center, the program’s brand new, state-of-the-art home arenaÂ located just outside of Nashville in Antioch, Tennessee. The club’sÂ opponent, SECHC East rivalÂ South Carolina, proved every bit as tough as their reputation heading into theÂ weekendÂ as the two clubs split the series one game a piece. The Commodores fell 4-2 on Friday, only to bounce back with a resounding 7-3 win on Sunday morning.
Discipline a Factor in the Opener
Friday’s opener had all the buzz of a late season battle prior to the contest. Twitter and FacebookÂ wereÂ lit up about the game, the highlight being aÂ tweet from ESPN anchor and renowned hockey fan John Buccigross.
For the Vanderbilt players, the excitement was driven in large part by the unveiling of the club’s brand new locker room. With 21 locker stalls surrounding three sides of the room and jerseys from years past hung from the rafters, the new spaceÂ made a huge impression on the boys – both for the growth that it signified andÂ also for the connection it maintained with the club’s alumni and history.
The game itself lived up toÂ expectationsÂ as the Gamecocks jumped to an early 1-0 lead in the fourth shift of the game. A defensive zone breakdown left South Carolina’s leading scorer Eric Patterson alone in the slot to hammer home the game’s first goal.
Vanderbilt would respond with some tremendously physical (and, at least in the early phase, clean) play. The club would draw a series of penalties and ultimately net the equalizing goal, a top shelf laser from the stick of defenseman Zach Satin at 12:16 in the second period. The sophomore’s goal was assisted by rookie transfer Bobby Mallon and sophomore Nick Honkala.
The game would devolve from there with a litany of penalties and undisciplined play fromÂ both teams. Despite a stout penalty kill performance throughout the night, the ‘Dores would yieldÂ a man-down goal to start the third.
South Carolina added an even strength goal at 9:32 in the final stanzaÂ to go up by two goals, seemingly icing the game … that is, until rookie transferÂ Ryan “Superstar” Doppelheuer cut the lead to 3-2 with 1:12 left in the contest.
Unfortunately for Vanderbilt, South Carolina would fire in an empty-netter from long distance to seal the win for the squad from Columbia. Final score, 4-2 Gamecocks.
Rebounding with Purpose
VanderbiltÂ entered Sunday’s tilt with a sour taste in its mouth. Had they played more five-on-five hockey, which was an opportunity fully within the team’s own control, the result may have been different.
Sunday would follow a more favorable script.
Leading off the scoring was senior Anthony Bilotta, assisted by Doppelheuer and last year’s “Murph” award winner as the club’s most valuable player John Longman. Patterson knotted the score at 1-1 at 13:13 of the period, only to see Doppelheuer score a pair and Longman notch his first of the season. It was 4-1 after 1.
Firing into the second period, it was all Bilotta, Doppelheuer, and Longman as all three tallied another to extend the lead to 7-1. The team was also aided by the play of junior Matt Neurohr and sophomore Tucker Rhodes who logged valuable minutes applying a ruthlessly effective forecheck as well asÂ killing penalties.
The finalÂ score, 7-3, proved to the club that if it could stay disciplined and simply worry about playing hockey, it could beat a quality opponent like South Carolina. Given the team’s schedule inÂ 2014/15, a brutal slog through many of the South region’s most challenging opponents, that confidence will come in handy.
Locking Down the Net
One particularly bright spot throughout the weekend was the play in net of rookie transfer Ryan Kellenberger, a nominee for the ACHA South region’s Player of the Week honors.
KellenbergerÂ allowed just 3 goals in each of theÂ two games while making 33 saves and 28 saves on Friday and Sunday, respectively. 3 of his 6 goals allowed were power play goals.
The club counted on KellenbergerÂ to help set the tone for both the weekend and season and boy did he deliver. Both performances wereÂ exceptional, and were it not for Friday’sÂ penalties and undisciplined play, heÂ may have swept the weekend. Not surprisingly,Â Kellenberger received the game puck following Sunday’s win.
In the Driver’s Seat
Despite Friday’s loss, the CommodoresÂ still control their own destiny in the SECHC East division ifÂ they can win out versus Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee. Of course, winning six straight in the divisionÂ will be no small feat as Florida is returning the majority of its 2013/14 rosterÂ whichÂ went deep into Regionals while Georgia and Tennessee are both well on their way to building the foundations for success this season. If the Commodores can battle and win all six, they’ll own the tiebreaker with South Carolina based on goals scored and goal differential and subsequently avoid perennial West powers Arkansas, Alabama, and Ole Miss in the first round of February’sÂ SECHC tournament.
There will be no rest for the weary as the Commodores will immediately dive back into SECHC East division play versus Florida this weekend. The clubs will face-off at The ICE in Cumming, Georgia, a neutral site that accommodates the travel demandsÂ for both teams.
If you’re in the area, please drop in Saturday night at 10pm ET and Sunday morning at 11am ET as it should be another pairÂ of hotly contested battles.
Thanks to all who came out to cheer on the club on Friday and Sunday. The crowds wereÂ beyond engaged which was awesome to see. Please keep the support coming, have a GREATÂ week ahead of next weekend’s games, and, of course … ANCHOR DOWN!