Losers no more: NIU snaps 17-game skid

Walny: “It’s a Christmas miracle.”

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Skyler Kisellus

Players from NIU hockey celebrate around their goal moments after securing their first win of the season on Saturday. NIU defeated McKendree 5-3, splitting the weekend series. (Skyler Kisellus | Northern Star)

By Alex Crowe, Senior Sports Reporter

WEST DUNDEE – NIU hockey finally snapped its 17-game losing streak Saturday night, downing McKendree University by a final score of 5-3 to earn a series split.

The much anticipated win was the Huskies’ (1-17, 1-9 MCH) first of the season, and put an end to McKendree’s (7-9, 5-5 MCH) six-game winning streak.

Senior forward Hunter Pierce, who scored the game-winning goal, said seeing the team’s work ethic pay off made their first win even sweeter.

“It feels great,” Pierce said. “The boys have been working hard all season. It feels good to get the final dub (win) and see the work pay off.”

Sour start turns into early advantage

The game started off rough for NIU. Senior forward Drake Gieseke was ejected for butt-ending, putting the Huskies on the penalty kill for five minutes. McKendree freshman forward Alex Kent converted on the ensuing power play to give his team a 1-0 lead just over seven minutes into the first period.

The Huskies responded four minutes later on a power play of their own. Senior defenseman Alec Porzondek found senior forward Hunter Wahl with a cross-ice pass, and Wahl sniped it far side on McKendree sophomore goaltender Chad Purdy to even the game at 1-1.

The Huskies pressed the attack throughout the first period. NIU freshman forward Evan Rzeszutko found a loose puck in the left circle and squeezed a shot through Purdy for his first goal of the season to give NIU the lead after 20 minutes.

Rzeszutko said sophomore defenseman Keaton Peters’ effort to win a puck in the corner allowed him to find open ice and get a quick shot off.

“The puck just went into the corner, Keaton (Peters) hustled to get the puck – got around a guy,” Rzeszutko said. “It got through to me – I was all alone. Just tried to get a quick shot, and it went in.”

Keeping the energy

Saturday’s first period was the first time this season the Huskies held the lead after 20 minutes.

Freshman forward Evan Rzeszutko (12) watches the play during NIU’s loss to Illinois State University on Nov. 19. Rzeszutko scored his first collegiate goal during NIU’s 5-3 win Saturday. (Sean Reed)

Multiple NIU players, including head coach Brad Stoffers, have said they have struggled with staying positive after going down in games this season. But after going down 1-0 early, Stoffers said his team has learned from its past struggles and Saturday’s effort reflects their growth.

“There’s been lots of times like that where it’d be a tie in the first or it’s a tie game and the opponent will score and we’ll get so down on ourselves,” Stoffers said. “It didn’t happen today. Guys kept bouncing back, and that resiliency, something we’ve been talking about – and trying to have an awareness of and do better with – and today they did that, and they were rewarded for it.”

Pierce said keeping a level head and getting timely saves from junior goaltender Ben Vutci allowed them to stay focused and stay within striking distance.

“We didn’t let our emotions get a hold of us,” Pierce said. “Usually, you know, we let in one, and then two and then three (goals). We only let in one today, and we got the stops that we needed from Vutci.”

McKendree battled back in the second period. Goals from freshman forwards Joe McCormick and Anson Smith gave McKendree a 3-2 lead with six minutes remaining in the second period.

The Huskies’ newfound resiliency showed again. Senior forward Randy Apter’s shot from the slot hit the post, but the rebound came right back to him for an easy tap in. Apter’s goal held as the last of the period, putting the score at 3-3 heading to the final 20 minutes.

Leaving it all on the ice

With winning their first game at the front of everyone’s mind, Stoffers’ message to his team was simple: Empty the tank.

“It’s got to be the best 20 minutes of the year,” Stoffers said. “They got a month-long break after this, you know. Just leave everything out on the ice.”

As the Huskies zeroed in on their first win, Rzeszutko said the team’s mindset going into the third period was to focus on their drive to win and continue playing the right way.

“It’s all about will. We’ve been saying that for the last couple of weeks,” Rzeszutko said. “We just got to keep blocking shots, busting our ass … I think we really found our chip game today. We were working on the walls really well.”

In the third period, Vutci made three incredible saves, two on separate McKendree breakaways, to keep the score tied at 3-3.

With just over seven minutes remaining, junior forward Matt Martin found Pierce all alone in the slot, and Pierce sniped a shot past Purdy to give NIU a 4-3 lead.

Despite scoring the game-winning goal and being the hero for NIU, Pierce said he credits his teammates’ effort as the main reason he was able to score.

“It was really all my linemates. They shifted in deep. They really got to work; and I kind of just got lost, and then they gave it back to me, and it was a pretty open net,” Pierce said. “All my teammates. I was just there. It was 99% them, and I was just there for the 1%.”

McKendree desperately searched for the equalizer, but they couldn’t break NIU’s defense and Vutci.

Senior forward Rodahn Evans sent McKendree packing with 20 seconds remaining, scoring an empty-net goal to seal NIU’s first win of the season, 5-3.

That winning feeling

After earning their first win, Stoffers praised his team’s ability to get the job done and gain confidence for the rest of the season.

“There’s no better time to do it (win) before break,” Stoffers said. “Get some momentum heading into second semester. Guys did things the right way. They earned it, and I’m super proud of them.”

Everyone has that confidence now. In the locker room after the game, it was just positive vibes. We’re all so happy we won.”

— Junior forward Austin Walny

With NIU finally getting in the win column against a solid McKendree squad, Rzeszutko said Saturday’s effort shows what his team is capable of heading into the second half of the season.

“It shows us what we can do. It shows us we can win a game against a good team,” Rzeszutko said. “I believe they (McKendree) beat ISU (Illinois State University) earlier this year. They’re a really good team, so we know we can hang up there.”

The Huskies will have a month off for Winter Break before returning on Jan. 6 to Canlan Ice Sports in West Dundee for a non-conference battle with Roosevelt University.