Too Close to Call
58% of games were decided by 2 or fewer goals in 2018-19 seaonSCHL February 28th, 2018 at 11:46AM March 7th, 2018 6:18PM
Heading into this season many may have felt the outcomes were predictable and played out. Texas Tech was going to be the D1 Champion by default. Arkansas still had the tools to dominate D2. Louisiana Tech can give anyone a run for their money any game and knows how to finish games. After missing several seasons Sam Houston State was a wild card, but one would expect experience to separate the veteran teams from the rookies. If any of the teams thought this, it didn't show. From the onset this season looked like it would be unlike any other in recent memory. After the first weekend all but 1 game was decided by 2 or fewer goals. On Sunday Nov 19th, every game was a one-goal game. This was going to be a sprint to the finish.
At the start of the second semester, the trend of close games continued, but the preseason plot lines held true. Arkansas was the team to beat, only losing 1 game in 2 events. La Tech was finding ways to win and battling Arkansas tooth and nail each match up. Sam Houston was struggling against their D2 opponents, going winless in D2 games through 2 events. By the time the dust settled after the event on Feb 3 & 4, Arkansas looked like they were solidifying their spot as D2 champions winning by 3, 5, 5 & 2 goals during the event. A shorthanded La Tech team struggled through the weekend and Sam Houston was able to take advantage of the situation to notch their first D2 win of the season.
By the end of the last regular season event it looked like D2 may be up for grabs. After losing their first game Sam Houston went on to win their remaining games by 2, 6 & 3 goals. Louisiana Tech showed they had depth by going .500 on a weekend where their goalies weren't goalies until they put on the pads before the game. Rookie goalies allowed them to be competitive in losses on a Houston rink known for high scoring games. By the end both SHSU and La Tech walked away knowing they had a chance to compete for the D2 championship.
Rolling into Championship weekend D2 teams would play a round robin, which included Texas Tech, to seed for elimination. This provided every team the opportunity to earn a bye directly to the championship. Early in the first game tragedy struck La Tech who lost their goalie in the second period. Without a backup on the bench, they had to play with an empty net and only surrendered one goal. Their new goalie gave up a goal on the first shot he faced, but kept SHSU from finding the back of the net the remainder of the game. Unfortunately, those 2 goals proved to be the difference as La Tech fell 6-4 to Sam Houston. Arkansas rattled off 2 wins in a row, dominating Texas Tech 9-2 and beating La Tech 7-5, putting La Tech in the 3rd seed. Sam Houston followed their big win against La Tech with a disappointing loss to Texas Tech 7-6. This set up a winner take first seed game later that night against Arkansas. Arkansas prevailed 5-3, securing their bye and putting Sam Houston on the brink of elimination against La Tech.
Sam Houston came out firing in the first scoring 3 goals in under 4 minutes. Louisiana Tech found their answers scoring the next 3 goals of the period. Sam Houston was able to pot a tally late, taking a 4-3 lead into the second. Sam Houston scored the only goal of the second. From there the goalies took over holding each team scoreless for almost 15 minutes of game play. For Sam Houston this was a blessing, for La Tech a curse. After the final buzzer, Sam Houston found a way to win and La Tech found a way to compete despite their starting goalie missing the game due to injury. Both goalies stole the show: Sam's Timothy O'Sullivan showed that he's been in these situations before and could carry his team. Justin Mitchell showed he is fearless. Giving up 3 early goals can throw off the most seasoned net minder, but Justin got better as the game progressed and gave his team a chance to win.
The matchup for the championship was set. Arkansas, despite only skating 5 players, had gone undefeated in round robin and earned extra rest. Sam Houston battled and found a way to beat an experienced La Tech team who was facing adversity, but still knew how to play as a team. Sam Houston struck first. 3 minutes into the game Brad Duggan scored and again 3 minutes later he struck again. Down 2-0 Arkansas needed an answer and found it in a goal from Ryan Heidrick at 9:11 in the 1st. Sam Houston closed out the period strong scoring 2 goals late almost a minute apart. Zachary Blohm scored at 10:22 and Ryan Lusssier on the PP at 11:25. After 1 period, the result was a surprising 4-1 lead by Sam Houston State. The benches were complete opposites. Sam Houston's was loud and energetic. Arkansas was quite, but not deterred. They had a job and they know how to win. The second period saw Ryan Heidrick net the only goal of the frame cutting the deficit to 2. Moving into the 3rd period the benches remained the same. Sam energetic, ready for the fight. Arkansas focused, ready to break their opponent’s hearts. 3:09 into the 3rd Hutton Kalik scored quickly followed by Spencer Stuckeman at 4:07. In less than a minute Arkansas did what they quietly set out to do at the end of the first...even the score. The tide had shifted. Arkansas was pounding SHSU’s O'Sullivan with shots, 16 of their 41 in the 3rd period, but O'Sullivan wouldn't give. At the end of regulation, each team was experiencing some level of surprise. Sam Houston, surprised their lead had disappeared. Arkansas, surprised they were only able to tie the game despite outshooting Sam 34-11 in the final 2 periods.
In a season where 58% of the games were decided by 2 or fewer goals, a one-goal game is a fitting end. Arkansas came out and quickly tested O'Sullivan who swallowed up the puck forcing a faceoff. Little did he know his job was done. He made his last save of the championship. On the ensuing faceoff, Sam Houston gained control and Brad Duggan raced down the rink carrying the puck and more. Sam Houston is an original member of the SCHL, a Division 2 school that moved to Division 1 to compete at the highest level, multiple appearances at nationals, and a team he resurrected and built from scratch. The kind of weight that players may not ever realize they carry, but can ride on their shoulders. He'd scored twice to put his team ahead early and now he was seconds away from bringing it all together: the hat trick, the win, the championship, the return to glory. With a blistering shot, Duggan found a hole in Arkansas’ steadfast Oliver Eklund. In a blink, the bid for 5 in a row was gone for Arkansas. The wild card was played perfectly. Striking at the right moment as they had during the tail end of the season. After the celebration, Arkansas was still in shock, glued to their bench. Ryan Heidrick, showing tremendous leadership, shook his team from their daze and as expected Arkansas proceeded through the handshake with the humility and class, one would expect from a championship caliber program.
Despite the outcome, I would hesitate to say there was a changing of the guard, passing of the torch or any other cliché that marks the end of an era. The end of this season marked the start of a battle. This is now any team's league and hopefully for the near future, it's too close to call.