Hockey nabs win No. 2 to cap Roosevelt series


Beverly Buchinger | NIU Hockey

Member of NIU’s Division I hockey team celebrate during its season-opening match against John Carroll University on Sept. 16. (Beverly Buchinger | NIU Hockey)

By Alex Crowe, Assistant Sports Editor

WEST DUNDEE – Key players returned for the Huskies’ hockey team, helping them to bounce back from Friday’s loss with a come-from-behind win over the Roosevelt University Lakers (6-10, 4-6 GLCHL) by a final score of 3-2 Saturday.

The win was NIU’s (2-18,1-9 MCH) second in their last three games and gave them a series split with Roosevelt.

The game started even, as both teams put shots on each other’s net. The Huskies killed off an early Roosevelt power play thanks to great shot-blocking by senior forward Nick Gonzalez and sophomore defenseman Luke Marks, as well as saves from junior goaltender Ben Vutci, who made 39 saves in the game.

NIU was unable to convert on two power plays late in the first period, and the teams headed to the locker room scoreless.

Roosevelt took advantage of a slow start to the second period by NIU. Lakers forward Danny Bdzoch scored the opening goal at 4:46 into the period and Lakers forward Chase Caravella tallied three minutes later to give Roosevelt a 2-0 lead.

The Huskies got an opening four minutes after the Lakers’ second goal when Roosevelt sophomore defenseman Nate Brown was sent to the penalty box for roughing. A great passing play started by junior forward Austin Walny and finished by senior forward Hunter Wahl cut the deficit to 2-1.

Wahl said the passing play that led to his goal involved some inspiration from another sport.

“Puck went up top to Austin (Walny). Rhodie (senior forward Rodahn Evans) set a nice pick in the middle. It was like a screen play in basketball,” Wahl said. “It got sent down to Gonzalez on the goal line. Gonzalez threw a fake shot, pulled it around the guy, sent it across the crease, I caught it back door and … just went upper-decky.”

NIU senior forward Hunter Wahl in the Huskies’ season opener versus John Carroll University on Sept. 16, 2022. (Beverly Buchinger | NIU Hockey) (Courtesy NIU Hockey)

Just over one minute later, senior defenseman Alec Porzondek found a loose puck in the left circle and roofed it high, far side on Lakers goaltender Paolo Suppa to draw NIU even at 2-2.

Despite two more power plays in the second period, NIU was unable to convert and settled for a 2-2 score heading to the final 20 minutes.

After going down 2-0, NIU was able to find its game and recover from a slow start to the period to tie the game.

Head coach Brad Stoffers said he wanted the team to get back to doing the simple things after Roosevelt’s goals and playing how they did during Friday’s third period.

“We were trying to maybe do too much. Like, we started flying guys to the far blue line and stuff and defensemen trying to make these long stretch passes,” Stoffers said.

The Huskies are no strangers to playing from behind this season, and Gonzalez said those experiences helped them stay in the game.

“We’ve been in positions like this before, so we’ve just learned to stick with it,” Gonzalez said. “A lot of teams underestimate us. So, we just go out there and put our hard hats on and just go to work. We don’t stop until the last buzzer ends, and we just put in the hard work in practice all week. So, we’re glad that it’s finally helping us in games.”

Both teams had scoring chances throughout the first half of the third period. Vutci turned away all of Roosevelt’s 19 third-period shots, including a heroic breakaway save with 11 minutes remaining.

NIU broke the deadlock with 6:36 remaining in the game when a Walny point shot was tipped over Suppa’s shoulder by Gonzalez and into the net. The goal gave NIU a 3-2 lead and was Walny’s third assist of the game.

Gonzalez said non-verbal communication with Walny helped set up the game-winning goal.

“I saw Walny – me and him made eye contact – and I made sure to have my stick on the ice,” Gonzalez said. “I just saw him shoot it right at me, put my stick down, hit off my backhand and went bar down.”

With NIU clinging to a one-goal lead late, Stoffers said playing passively in the offensive zone in order to keep pressure on Roosevelt’s defenders but also ensure no attackers snuck behind the NIU defense was the key to escaping the last six minutes.

“Keeping a third forward high in the offensive zone,” Stoffers said. “Making sure we’re still back-checking while still pressuring pucks and doing things like we normally would but just being a little bit more defensive-minded.”

NIU was able to kill off a Roosevelt power play with six minutes remaining and survive a last-second five-on-three disadvantage to secure a 3-2 win and a series split.

Saturday saw senior forward Hunter Wahl, freshman forward Cam Pathana and senior defenseman Alec Porzondek return to the lineup after missing the team’s first game after the month-long winter break.

After their benching, Wahl said he and his teammates’ re-entry into the lineup gave the team more speed and caught Roosevelt by surprise.

“You had me, Porzondek and Pathana yesterday that had to sit out for being irresponsible – we didn’t make practice on time,” Wahl said. “It takes a lot of speed out of the game. So, that team (Roosevelt) came in today thinking they were playing the same team and we put a little more speed on them. I think we caught them off guard and, I mean, the outcome came out in our favor.”

Stoffers emphasized the importance of getting key players back in the lineup and needing a full team to be successful.

“They’re important pieces … it was a team win,” Stoffers said. “But those three guys (Pathana, Porzondek and Wahl) I think gave us a boost – if not physically, definitely mentally. Just having them back, guys knew that we can get into more of a rhythm.”

With six weeks remaining in the season, Gonzalez said getting a win early in the second semester gives the team a much-needed confidence boost to finish the season strong.

“To be able to win the game today and split with this team builds a lot of momentum going forward because last semester, we waited until the end to get our first win,” Gonzalez said. “It takes all that weight off our shoulders and it just allows us to go to work, look forward to going to work at practice, and then just building on that next week.”

NIU has a tough test next Friday when the fourth-ranked University of Jamestown, who defeated the Huskies 6-0 and 8-0 in early November, visits West Dundee for a two-game series.