Sacred Heart men’s hockey takes five-game win streak into weekend
BRIDGEPORT — His team is on its longest winning streak in nine years, 7-1-1 since the middle of January, and Sacred Heart men’s hockey forward Austin McIlmurray sees the Pioneers finding their identity.
“I think all the guys are committed,” McIlmurray said. “The young guys, they obviously see the past and want to fix the past. That was a big part of what our class came in wanting to do was fix the past. We wanted to create a winning culture here.”
A five-game winning streak began Jan. 29 with a 2-1 win at UConn. It continued with weekend sweeps at both Robert Morris and Niagara.
If the Pioneers can take two games from RIT this weekend at Webster Bank Arena, Friday morning at 11 and Saturday afternoon at 2, they’ll match the longest winning streak in program history, back to 1993.
Those two wins could, mathematically, leave them tied for second in Atlantic Hockey (with Bentley, which has won seven in a row) with four regular-season games to go. Two wins would also secure their first 14-win season and their first .500 conference season since 2009-10.
Sacred Heart (12-13-3 overall, 11-9-2 AH) has had stretches in the past few years where it seemed poised to put everything together. Could this be the breakthrough?
SACRED HEART vs. RIT
— MICHAEL FORNABAIO
“Our belief is growing within the room in each other, and dealing with adversity,” coach C.J. Marottolo said.
“This past weekend (at Niagara), we got behind. We didn’t get the first goal each night. The guys were poised on the bench: ‘We’ll break through.’ ”
The Pioneers came back to win 4-2 and 6-3. It had been almost four years since the Pioneers even won four in a row; this streak is their longest since February 2010.
To find the last six-game winning streak takes you back three seasons earlier. The program record is a seven-game winning streak, Jan. 30-Feb. 20, 2004.
Coincidentally, or maybe not, 2004 and 2010 are Sacred Heart’s only appearances in the Atlantic Hockey championship game. The Pioneers have yet to win one.
“We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us,” Marottolo said. “RIT is a point ahead of us in the standings. They’re a good team. They’ve got a lot of high-end skill. Their special teams are good. It’ll be a big challenge.”
Looking for a game where he saw something clicking in his team, McIlmurray pointed to the Pioneers’ last meetings with RIT, up in Rochester in early December. Sacred Heart won both, 4-3 and 6-4.
“We came together. It was a tough weekend for us,” McIlmurray said. “We weren’t playing our greatest hockey, but we found a way to win. C.J. always harps on, you can play bad games, but you have to find a way to win when you’re not playing well.
“We’re finding a way to win. We’re putting pucks in the net. We’ve got some great depth. I think our top five scorers all have seven, eight, nine goals.”
Eight players have at least six, and none, indeed, has more than nine. Freshman Austin Magera leads the team with 21 points, but nine players sit between 12 and 16.
“We saw glimpses of greatness at times, but we’ve really found some consistency,” Marottolo said. “A lot has to do with, we have really great depth on this team. We have 12 forwards playing each night. Each line, if it’s not this line getting it done tonight, it’s these other two.”
Freshman goalie Josh Benson is 10-7-2 in 19 games with a .907 save percentage. That freshman class has meshed well with the group, which Marottolo credited to the Pioneers’ senior leaders.
And he said the team has committed to conditioning, which has helped outscore opponents 9-3 in the third period over this winning streak.
Sacred Heart is tied for fifth in Atlantic Hockey with six games left; it has a home-and-home with Army next weekend and a two-game set at league-leading AIC to close the season. The top five teams get a bye to the quarterfinals. Seeds 6-8 host first-round series, and the quarterfinals are also at the higher seeds.
The Pioneers have hosted a playoff series only once since 2010.
“Obviously this feeling of winning is 10 times better than going on a skid,” McIlmurray said. “We’re hoping to carry this momentum forward and push it into playoffs.”
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