Hockey faces growing pains on opening weekend

Defensive miscues and untimely penalties hurt Huskies in first game under new leadership

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Beverly Buchinger

NIU senior forward Rodahn Evans navigates the puck against John Carroll University junior defender Clayton Gazdak during a game on Sept. 17 at Canlan Ice Sports in West Dundee. (Beverly Buchinger | NIU Hockey)

WEST DUNDEE — The Huskies hockey team (0-2, 0-0 MCH) dropped their season-opening series to John Carroll University (2-0, 0-0 CHMA) by a final of 7-1 Friday and 8-1 Saturday.

Slow start in season debut

Friday saw both teams put shots on net and throw the body around early. Huskie sophomore goalkeeper Grant Goodson, who finished the game with 30 saves, was up to the task. The Huskies created offense thanks to strong forechecking, but neither team found the net after the first period.

JCU opened the scoring five minutes into the second frame, when a point blank shot got past Goodson. The Huskies responded five minutes later when senior forward Rodahn Evans rifled it past the JCU goalie.

Evans said he intended to put a shot hard off the goalie’s far pad to an open teammate on the far side of the play. Instead, the shot made it through the goalkeeper’s legs.

“Easy two-on-one,” Evans said. ”I tried to go P.O.P (pass off pad) and completely missed. It went straight through the goalie and in.”

That goal was all the Huskies’ offense could muster, however. The remaining eight minutes saw the Huskies break down defensively, leading to three JCU tallies that proved to be the difference.

The Huskies battled in the third period, but couldn’t find the back of the net. A JCU power play helped put any doubt to bed and go up 5-1. JCU added two more to walk away with a 7-1 win.

Series ends in Saturday smackdown

The first period on Saturday was similar to Friday’s game, as both teams traded chances in the first period but went to the dressing room scoreless.

JCU struck five minutes into the second. A shot from the high slot beat Huskie junior goaltender Ben Vutci, who finished the game with 30 saves. JCU controlled play after the opening tally and rode the momentum to a 3-0 lead heading into the second intermission.

The Huskies wouldn’t quit, though. Senior forward Randy Apter found a hole in the defense and slammed home his first goal of the season to get the Huskies within two goals.

“I was just hanging out at the point,” Apter said. “Then (Evans) took a shot, and I just saw the rebound sitting there and went and got it.”

That was as close as the Huskies would get. JCU buried five more goals in the remaining twelve minutes and headed back to Ohio with an 8-1 win.

“It’s not the start you want, right?” head coach Brad Stoffers said.

Had the Huskies buried one or two goals early, Stoffers believes the scores would look different.

“We had a couple chances we didn’t bury and a couple open nets, and we just got to bear down and be tougher and stronger on our sticks in those areas,” Stoffers said. “I think if you bury those to take a lead into the first intermission, that potentially changes the pace of the game and potentially the outcome.”

This team hasn’t had a lot of success in the past couple of years, so we’re trying to change the culture here. This is a new era of NIU hockey.”

— Head coach Brad Stoffers

Defensive miscues also hampered the Huskies. Miscommunications from the defense led to turnovers in their own zone. Stoffers saw those miscues as a point of emphasis this weekend.

“I thought there were some times that our defensemen fumbled the puck – not even under a ton of pressure,” Stoffers said. “There were numerous times where you make a simple play and it for some reason didn’t bounce our way.”

Evans described the difficulty in keeping the energy up on the bench.

“It’s hard to do that because a lot of kids get down on themselves,” Evans said. “So it’s really hard to keep the game going. But the biggest thing is who’s keeping the energy up on the bench.”

Huskies embrace a new era

Despite the scores, Stoffers praised his team’s work ethic and believes they can build on lessons learned and apply them the rest of the season.

“I was proud of our effort all weekend,” Stoffers said. “I think the scoreboard wasn’t as indicative as how the game went… I don’t think we really gave up all weekend. So, I think those are two things that we can build on moving forward with the season.”

Apter echoed his coach’s sentiment, describing the team’s game-to-game improvement and carrying that into next weekend.

“I think we did improve a lot from the first game to the second game,” Apter said. “We learned a bunch of things about our team. We got some new guys, and I think it’ll be a lot better next week.”

Even when down late, Huskie players cheered for blocked shots, saves and hard-fought battles in front of the net. Stoffers says that’s the kind of culture NIU hockey is trying to build.

“It’s a testament to our locker room,” Stoffers said. “Our bench energy, still continuing to work hard even when we’re down three, four or five goals late. Our guys didn’t give up which, as a coach, I can’t ask for much more than that.”

Stoffers said he believes in order to build a winning identity, the team must embrace the details.

“This group of guys needs to learn how to win,” Stoffers said. “Doing things the right way. Doing the little things. Continuing to stay positive… This team hasn’t had a lot of success in the past couple of years, so we’re trying to change the culture here. This is a new era of NIU hockey.”

The Huskies continue their season next weekend when they face the DePaul University Blue Demons (0-0, 0-0 MACHA) in a home-and-home two-game series. Puck drop for the first game is set for 7:30 p.m. Friday at Canlan Ice Sports in West Dundee.