FOUR-PEAT. FOUR-PEAT. FOUR-PEAT.
That was the chant echoing through Snoopy's Home Ice Jan. 30 as the SRJC Hockey team defeated UC Davis 7-3 to take home its fourth straight Pacific Collegiate Hockey Association Championship title.
Playing in front of a sold out, home crowd for the first time in their PCHA tenure, the Polar Bears couldn't have been more confident going into a championship match. The team beat Davis 9-5 just the night before, thanks in part to excellent goaltending by Jacob Pavsek and Josiah Nikkel's four-goal night.
"We knew we could beat them [UC Davis]. Playing against them in Vacaville is always tough, because it's more about a battle against the officials than anything else. Davis is a good team, and gave us a good fight," Nikkel said, who has scored back-to-back-to back-hat tricks in three weekends. "But being down three goals and being able to come back and win by a few goals is the biggest confidence boost we could have gotten heading into Saturday."
Friday's momentum took its time getting to Saturday's game as UC Davis got on the board first seven minutes after puck drop. The team held that 1-0 lead for four minutes until SRJC's alternate captain Stephen Wolmarans notched his first goal of the night.
"We knew we were outplaying them. It was the same thing in Friday's game, where we were outplaying them but they scored first. But we were out working them in all three zones, and we just tried to keep firing," Wolmarans, who said SRJC's 2-1 lead to end the first period helped solidify the team's confident play. "I got some bounces on Saturday that I didn't get on Friday. It felt good to see the hard work pay off because we knew that we were the better team."
Rookie points leader Max Brownlee put the Polar Bears up 3-1 to open the second period on a wide open pass from line mates David Lundgren and Evan Hastings that he backhanded to the net.
UC Davis' Kaz Machida threatened that lead halfway through the period with a swift goal over the right shoulder of Polar Bear goalie Chris Tomaszweski. Machida, off passes from captain Gordon Dickson, accounted for all three UC Davis goals.
"We stepped up to the blue line a little earlier; if we let him skate into the zone too deep it gives the opportunity to do what he wants," said defensemen Colin Ridenour, on controlling Machida's production as the game went on. "We stepped up on him earlier and tried to put a forward on him as soon as he entered the zone."
Brownlee added one more as the second period ended, giving the Polar Bears a nice 4-2 cushion. The freshman center once again came up big when the team needed him. He's produced multiple points in some of SRJC's biggest games this season.
"When my point streak ended, it was like a little bit of pressure was lifted off me. Going in Saturday with no streak, with just one thing to worry about — winning that game and trying to do my best — that was it. I didn't have any kind of mental shift. It was just a relief of pressure so that way I could go out there do what I needed to," he said.
Not once since UC Davis' first goal did SRJC's lead look fragile, until three minutes into the final frame. Referees handed starting goalie Tomaszewski a 10-minute game misconduct, which head coach Blake Johnson had him serve and inserted Pavsek.
Putting in a cold goalie in a close playoff game is not exactly a coach's first choice, but Pavsek was exactly the spark the Polar Bears needed.
"I felt confident. I had the support of everyone and those guys were just on top of the game the whole night," Pavsek said. "I wasn't as warmed up as I wanted to be, but once I got out there, I quickly got in the zone and felt great. I felt good coming in the game when it was close. I just knew that if I stayed on top of my game and kept track of the puck the whole time, we would get through the rest of the game with a win."
As he saved 10 of 11 shots in the remaining 17 minutes, his teammates put three on the board and never looked back. Wolmarans completed the hat trick, freshman winger Larry Hansen netted his 11th goal of the season, and then Nikkel closed out the game with his team-leading 29th goal.
The crowd counted down the final seconds, erupting in cheers and applause as the Polar Bears rushed Pavsek. The 7-3 victory sealed SRJC's fourth-straight PCHA title, tying College of the Canyons for the most consecutive division titles.
Winning on home ice in front of the Polar Bears faithful couldn't have been more perfect, players said. But for one player, in his final home game of his SRJC career, it meant a little more.
"It was extremely special, humble experience. Over the last two and a half seasons, I've played a lot of home games, but this was the most energetic," Wolmarans said. "The PCHA championships are the most intense games, and being able to have one of those in our building and see the energy that our fans brought really made this the most fun home game that I've been a part of. It feels great to see that cup go back to Westside [Bar and Grill], and get engraved with another title.
While winning another title is the highlight to their season, the Polar Bears are concentrated on what's coming next.
"It is a surreal feeling. It's been a long time since I've won a championship in my hockey career; it feels good to finally taste victory again. This has to be the most satisfying season and team that I've been a part of," Hastings said. "Our team worked so hard to prepare each week to face our opponents. Through each late night practice and road trip we came together as a group to accomplish our goals. We are already thinking about next season and working towards our five-peat."