Itâ€™s no secret that the Vanderbilt Commodores ice hockey club hasnâ€™t gotten off to the greatest start, with a 1-6-1 record through the first half of the semester. With one final game before fall break, the club was looking for something to build on with a stretch of SECHC games fast approaching.
Only a week removed from a last second heartbreaker to Indiana, the players and coaches both knew they were so close to a victory. That feeling only grew as the game began.
Georgia Tech played a very similar style to the Commodores. While most teams that Vanderbilt has faced off against so far have played a grind-it-out, hard-hitting style, GT was a skilled, opportunistic squad that generated its offense on one-off chances.
After a two goal lead evaporated by the end of the second period, the team was rattled. But the words spoken in the locker room seemed to focus the team around one goal: play simple hockey.
â€œEach individual player was trying to do too much,â€ noted Captain Anthony Bilotta. â€œI think we just needed to settle down and play a simpler game. Sometimes we get wrapped up in the game and think we have to try to make plays that arenâ€™t there.â€
As the team came out onto the ice for the third period, it was obvious the players had bought into the gameplan. The team came out flying, with countless scoring chances that simply wouldnâ€™t go in. Finally, halfway through the period, freshman defenseman Andrew Dellapina intercepted a pass in the neutral zone and took it over the blue line. He made a move around one Georgia Tech player before getting knocked off of the puck by another. Sophomore transfer Bandar Alsaif locked on to the loose puck and fired a slapshot that beat the goalie glove side for a go-ahead goal.
â€œI saw an opportunity and jumped at it,â€ said Dellapina, who recorded his fifth assist of the season on the play. â€œI was able to get around one guy, but the second one flattened me. I looked up just in time to see Bandar wind up and unload an absolute bomb.â€
Unfortunately, the bad luck that seems to have plagued the team reared its ugly head, with Georgia Tech capitalizing on a loose puck after a scramble in the corner to tie the game up with only 5 minutes left. The two teams continued to trade chances in the final five minutes as well as the ensuing overtime, but this game would require a shootout to determine the winner.
After an initial three rounds which couldnâ€™t decide the game, Vanderbilt goaltender Bo Korpman, who stopped a whopping 42 shots during the game, was the victim of more bad luck as he stumbled backward in the middle of Georgia Techâ€™s shootout attempt, which gave the shooter an easy tap in for a goal. Bilotta was called upon to answer Georgia Techâ€™s goal, but his shot, which to most people in the building appeared to cross the goal line, was waved off by the official.
â€œIt was pretty incredible,â€ said Coach Jon Holston after the game. â€œEveryone on the bench was in disbelief. I thought it was pretty obvious that it was a goal, but it was just the latest in a string of unlucky events.â€
Although the ending took the air out of the team, everyone acknowledged that the final 25 minutes of hockey were some of the strongest the team had played all year. The plan was to enjoy fall break and come back ready to improve.
In the week and a half between the GT game and the next practice, some players relaxed. Others, like Junior Doug Kirkpatrick, kept the energy up. â€œI ran about 175 miles over fall break,â€ recalled Kirkpatrick, who always leads the rest of the team in the pre-game lap by at least 20 yards. â€œIf I canâ€™t go to sleep at 2 in the morning, I run a few miles. If I get a Computer Science problem wrong, I run a few miles. Pretty much the solution to any problem is to run a few miles.â€
When the team returned to practice on Wednesday night, there was a new surprise waiting for them. Club President Jack Delehey, who skated in full equipment on Wednesday for the first time since his knee surgery, was waiting in the locker room with brand new equipment bags for each player. The bags featured each playerâ€™s name and number on one side, with the Vanderbilt logo and â€œVanderbilt Hockeyâ€ on the other.
â€œThe bags are fresh,â€ commented Tucker Rhodes, who was proclaimed by Coach Thomas Bernstein to be the teamâ€™s best passer on Wednesday night. â€œEverybody knows that 90% of hockey is looking good, so itâ€™s nice to see that weâ€™re stepping our game up.â€
The aforementioned determination by Coach Bernstein was a result of passing being the focus of this weekâ€™s practice. He stood up in the stands, meticulously marking down each pass made by each player and whether or not it was caught by the recipient.
â€œPassing can open up our game in so many different ways,â€ said Coach Bernstein of the importance of connecting on a higher percentage of passing plays. â€œIf we can make smarter passes in games and keep possession for longer, weâ€™ll tire other teams out much more quickly and spend more time in the opposing teamâ€™s zone.â€
The Commodores will look to put that theory to the test on Sunday as they take on the University of Georgia at 10:25 AM at A-Game Sportsplex in Franklin. With 8 games left in the first semester, 4 of which are League matchups.
â€œWeâ€™ve got six more league games to play,â€ advised Alternate Captain Jack Gibbons, â€œand thereâ€™s no reason to believe we canâ€™t win all of them.â€
Added freshman John Longman, who leads the team with 11 points in 8 games, â€œWeâ€™re on the verge of turning this thing around. Weâ€™ve just got to stay focused and play our game and these losses will turn into wins.â€