DII Huskies fall short of championship

By Kim Wrona

2/17/15 – DeKalb, IL  |  The DII Huskies traveled down to Webster Groves, MO for the MACHA Gold playoffs over the weekend.  The Huskies had a bye in the first round, causing them to kick off the weekend on February 14 as NIU played Southern Illinois University — Edwardsville in the second round.

The Huskies got out to a big lead in the first period of Saturday’s game as junior defenseman Troy Heurlin, freshman forward Eric Svejda and senior forward Justin Rucinski scored about four minutes apart.  The Huskies held their 3-0 lead going into the last minute of the opening frame, but SIUE was able to break senior goaltender Alex Hare’s shutout bid and made it 3-1.

The Huskies continued their goal scoring in the second period as senior forward Joe Serpico made it 4-1 at the 11:01 mark of the sandwich stanza.  Sophomore forward Jake Jauch tallied 4:59 later to make the score 5-1 in NIU’s favor.

Rucinski completed his hat trick with two goals in the third period to make the score 7-1.  SIUE was able to tack on a marker later in the period to make it 7-2, but the Huskies were able to hang on for the win.

With the victory, NIU advanced into the championship game against Missouri State University on February 15.

“Coach [Chuck Rinaldo] told us we had to send a message,” Svejda said.  “That’s basically what we did.  We stayed cool, actually.  We didn’t take dumb penalties like we usually do.  …  We capitalized on almost all of our power plays.  We just basically took it to them; that’s why we beat them 7-2.”

“I think we came out really well,” Serpico said.  “We got the first three goals really quick.  I think we just played consistently.  That was probably one of the best games we’ve played consistently all year.  We played a full 60 minutes.  No five, ten minute lapses or period lapses.  So, we came out hard and stuck through it the whole game.  That’s why the score was 7-2.”

In the Huskies’ previous two meetings with Missouri State this season, NIU had been shutout by scores of 6-0 and 4-0.  They were looking to better those numbers in order to earn the MACHA Gold championship on Sunday.

Unfortunately for the Huskies, they were only able to score twice in the last minute of regulation, courtesy of Serpico and Rucinski, and Missouri State took the victory by a score of 3-2.

“It was tough going against Missouri State because we knew they were one of the best teams in the country,” Serpico said.  “They were a much bigger and faster team than we’re used to playing.  So that was something that we had to not get psyched out about.  We played pretty well all game long.  Again, we played consistently through 60 minutes.  They got a lucky tip on the first goal, second goal was a power play goal and I think maybe the third one might have also been a power play.  But, being down 3-0 with a minute left, it was nice to see that the guys didn’t quit; we didn’t give up.  We at least got it back to 3-2, got at least two goals on them for the season; couldn’t get shutout three games in a row against them.  That was tough.  It was good that we kept fighting until the end.”

“It was really cool being a freshman and making it to the MACHA championship my first year here,
 Svejda said.   “It seemed like Missouri State just got bigger because all of them were huge and fast and they’re a really deep team.  Plus, we had a lot of injuries, so maybe if we had our full team, we could have made it a better game.  But for a team that is going Division-I next year, and probably will be one of the best teams at that level, I think we did a really good job of containing them and almost making a comeback in the third period.”

The Huskies will have to put the championship loss behind them as they have the ACHA Central Regional Tournament to look forward to on February 28-March 1.  NIU will play SIUE in the first round of regionals.

“I think we just have to do what we did this week,” Svejda said.  “We just have to keep our cool and let them take the penalties.  We have to work hard because they’re going to be mad since we just beat them at the MACHA.  That’s really about it.  We just have to work hard and not take bad penalties.”

“[We have to do] exactly what we did on Saturday,” Serpico said.  “[We have to] come out early and keep our foot on the pedal the whole way.  I think they’re a little beat up … as are we, but I think that if we just do what we did on Saturday, we’ll beat them again.”

The regional game against SIUE will take place on February 28 at West Meadows Ice Arena in Rolling Meadows; the game time has yet to be determined.