In front of a packed crowd at the Morgantown Municipal Ice Rink on Senior Night, the WVU club hockey team snapped its three-game losing streak and clinched a postseason spot by defeating Pitt 5-2, completing the season sweep of the Panthers.
This year’s Backyard Brawl in Morgantown was an intense battle from the start, but the Mountaineers prevailed by responding positively to adversity early on and elevating their game according to head coach AJ Sturges.
“Across the lineup, guys really stepped up and got better as the game went on,” Sturges said. “We were really focused on playing as sound of hockey as we can and sticking to a gameplan and making sure that we do things right so we could have success against a really good team.”
A hard fought first period by both teams nearly went scoreless until sophomore forward David Polinski got the Mountaineers on the board first, scoring a goal that was assisted by sophomore defenseman Alec Hnat and sophomore forward Ryan Zujkowski with only 44 seconds left in the period, giving WVU a 1-0 advantage heading into the first intermission.
A goal at the 9:40 mark in the second period by junior forward and assistant captain Vince Fornes, assisted by sophomore forward Austin Crane and Hnat put the score 2-0 in favor of WVU.
Pitt then answered back with a goal of its own by Joseph Griffin with 1:53 left in the second period to cut its deficit to one goal.
The Mountaineers would then rally, racking up three goals in the final period and ending all hopes for a Pitt victory. Junior defenseman Brennan Adams scored early in the period on a power play and sophomore forward Eric Keefe netted a goal at the five-minute mark to give WVU a 4-1 lead.
Pitt scored its second and final goal of the night with less than three minutes to play, but then an empty net goal by senior forward Nick Olds settled the score at 5-2.
It was the performance of WVU’s defense that was key to victory. Coming into Friday night’s game, Pitt had scored 28 goals in its past four conference matchups combined. The Mountaineers held the Panthers to just two goals despite being outshot 32-26.
“They moved the puck very well,” Sturges said. “There are a lot of things kind of on the regroups and the breakouts that I was happy with and they’re becoming a very tough unit to play against.”
The performances of sophomore goaltender Ryan Wickiser and junior forward Sean VanDamme also played a critical role in shutting down numerous power play opportunities for Pitt and helping the Mountaineers create scoring chances according to Sturges.
WVU has now earned a spot in the College Hockey Mid-America tournament that takes place next weekend at Robert Morris University.
“We’re in,” Sturges said. “We want to get more points so that we can get a better seeding and have our standing in the conference reflect some of the success that we have had because this is a good hockey team and we want to make sure that we’re continuing to look forward and continuing to grow.”