Hard to believe the team that didn’t suffer a loss in over a month was handed two crushing defeats and a tie in only a matter of days. After slaying opponents in October, November has not turned out as the Polar Bears’ hoped.
SRJC started the month hosting its fourth annual Wine Country Collegiate Classic Nov. 6-8. Bringing three American Collegiate Hockey Association teams to Snoopy’s Home Ice, the Polar Bears expected nothing less than a showcase sweep.
Competition began with a heated game against former Pacific Collegiate Hockey Association rival Santa Clara University.
Santa Clara struck first with a goal three minutes in, holding that 1-0 lead to end the first. Things started to look up for the Polar Bears as Josiah Nikkel scored 54 seconds into the second period. The team followed up with two more goals off the sticks of defensemen Eric Zagacki and freshman standout Josh Greenwell. But SRJC couldn’t finish, as Santa Clara sent the game to a scoreless overtime and an eventual shootout loss for the Polar Bears.
Hoping to bounce back the next day, SRJC faced College of the Canyons.
CoC lead the score most of the game, and it was evident the Polar Bears didn’t like trailing. SRJC struggled to gain composure after several questionable penalties, including five-minute majors for Zagacki (head butting) and John Keshishian (body check). At the end of two, the Polar Bears were down 4-2.
SRJC had a better sense of urgency and determination in the third period. Despite a more cohesive strategy and a goal from Nikkel, SRJC lost 5-3.
“We came in a little too cocky, thinking the game was going to be a breeze based on the two games we had [against CoC] earlier this season,” said Andrew Mason. “We kind of snapped out of it in the third period, but it didn’t end up being enough.”
With the first round of official ACHA rankings released Nov. 8, the #6 Polar Bears took on #8 University of New Mexico for the final game of the 2014 WCCC.
The team took an early 1-0 lead after Greenwell and Zagacki fed the puck to Nikkel for a goal. SRJC took five penalties over in the next six minutes of play, but the Polar Bears killed the constant 5-on-3 UNM advantage with their one-goal lead still intact.
Back-to-back power play goals by Blake Johnson increased SRJC’s lead 3-0 in the second period. The Polar Bears stayed out of the penalty box the entire period- marking the first penalty-free period all season. Chris Whitten added a goal in the third for a 4-1 lead and eventual win.
SRJC was definitely a different team against UNM, despite players insisting the approach was no different.
“Maybe we played with a little more desperation in our game,” Johnson said.
“Every team will go through a rough patch during the season, but the good teams minimize these slumps and get out of them quickly,” he continued. “Against UNM, we went out and played a complete 60-minute game and the scoreboard showed it. It's always a blast to come out on top of a competitive game against a good team, and to be able to do it at home makes it even sweeter.”
SRJC went 1-1-1 in its showcase; a letdown after sweeping the competition in 2013. But the team couldn’t dwell on it long as a new weekend of PCHA competition awaited.
Playing in an unfriendly Vacaville Nov. 14, the Polar Bears knew a win against UC Davis woudn’t be easy.
UC Davis took a 2-0 lead into the second period before Nikkel put SRJC on the board. The score was 4-2 to open the third period, and Greenwell brought the Polar Bears within one goal with 12 minutes left to play. Still, UC Davis handed SRJC a 5-3 loss and its first PCHA defeat of the season.
SRJC lost three players to injuries in the game. Both Zagacki and Brandon Bronze were sidelined early, and Jackson Waldron was forced off the ice in the third period after taking a hard hit in the defensive zone.
“It was tough losing Bronzy [Brandon Bronze] in the first shift, and losing [Eric] Zagacki. We were only playing with three D which hurt us,” Mason said. “But we could have won that game. We out shot them and out chanced them; we just didn’t finish.”
“What it comes down to is: we couldn’t put the puck in the net. I personally had four or five [shots] that completely missed,” said Matt Katicich. “Everyone had a good amount of chances; we just got to put it on net.”
That was not the only problem. SRJC gave up two early power play goals and struggled with shuffling their top three lines because of injuries. And like the WCCC games, SRJC did not work as a team and it proved costly.
“Our team’s intensity and commitment has been oscillating lately,” Zagacki said. “Beating the University of New Mexico after losing the two first games in our showcase brought us back into the mentality we needed. Unfortunately, the teamwork and drive needed to beat UC Davis was lacking so we fell short.”
“After getting injured and seeing the team-play from the outside, we need to start working a lot better together if we want to compete in the more challenging games coming up this season,” he went on. “We've been playing as individuals and if we want to succeed as a team, we need to play as a team. We need to trust our line-mates and move the puck around more.”
The Polar Bears returned home the next day against San Jose State University, looking to get back in the win column.
Mason and Nikkel notched two unassisted goals in the first period for a quick SRJC lead. Things looked a bit dicey as SJSU made it 2-1 before Polar Bear rookie Ryan Ellis scored his second goal of the year off a pass from defensemen Colin Ridenour. The goal marked Ellis’ first point since Oct. 3, and created a much needed distance between the two teams. From there, Keshishian and Greenwell each added two goals while Nikkel completed the hat trick to end the game 9-1.
“Saturday's game was big for me, not because of the competition, but because I knew I would be depended upon more than usual,” Ellis said, of his second period goal and increased ice time in the game. “It felt amazing scoring another goal, especially because my parents were in the crowd.”
The win over SJSU was huge, both from a statistical and mental standpoint. The past two weeks proved SRJC might not be as invincible as it thinks- especially against PCHA teams.
“These past two week have been kind of like a reality check for us. Our team understands that we can’t go in expecting to win just because we are better. We have to go out there and prove it every night,” Mason said. “That is something that is settling in with us, and going forward games will be easier knowing that.”