Prior to Senior Night, the #5 San Jose State Spartans (23-7-2) had to be considered heavy favorites against Santa Rosa Junior College (19-9-01). Both teams have been hot in the second semester, but the Spartans are an ACHA Division 2 team, while the Polar Bears are in Division 3.
That was not the case, however, on Friday night. Whether it was a matter of SJSU looking past the game into regionals, or Santa Rosa just playing a very solid game, the Polar Bears pushed the Spartans to the limit. Although SRJC did score the first goal of the game, the Spartans controlled the first half of this game. Special teams play led the way for San Jose State. Sam Cimino had a natural hat-trick by the mid-point of the game with a short-handed goal and two more on the power play. That would be the third consecutive hat trick for Cimino, by the way.
But by the late second period, the momentum had turned. Santa Rosa started pounding shots on net, and the Spartans saw their 3-1 lead turn into a 3-4 deficit with under four minutes left in the game. By then, you could tell SJSU was really trying to tie things up for their seniors and the packed house at Sharks Ice. Honestly, though, things weren't looking so good. The Spartans played sloppy and wasted some quality time.
Luckily, a late push forced Santa Rosa's Bryan Vrba to take a high-sticking penalty with just 47 seconds left in the game. Despite time quickly ticking off the clock, the power play stayed patient for the Spartans. Eventually, Mason Console would feed a puck down low for Ian Seidl, who fired a sharp angle shot low through the legs of Santa Rosa's Chris Tomaszewski. The Spartans tied it up at 4-4 with just 16 seconds left in regulation.
From that point on, the crowd was electric, and the team was too. " I can't even explain the feeling I get when we're playing for our home crowd," said Spartan rookie Arthur Arias. "This has been a very tremendous ride."
Playing in his final game at home as a Spartan, captain Kyle Dutra jumped on a loose puck early in overtime and took it back behind the Santa Rosa net. Dutra would find a wide open Sam Cimino (Honestly, who else could it have been in this game!?) for the game winner just 42 seconds in to overtime. It was a thrilling game for the players, the crowd, and to broadcast. And it was an exciting way to send off Spartan seniors Kyle Dutra and Christian De Jesus.
As for Cimino, he'd finish the final three games with 10 goals, bumping him over 30 goals for the second straight year. It was great to see the Spartan sniper get back to his scoring ways after being slowed down the previous weekend. "Maybe the other teams focused on the top line," said Cimino. "But it's all well when everybody else is scoring and we're winning the hockey games."
This win helped cap off an undefeated second semester for the team (11-0-1). It was a great run and helped the Spartans finish with the solid ranking of #5 in the West. "I think we got where we deserved. We weren't consistent all year (mostly in the first semester), and we showed that against weaker teams," said Arias.
But now that the Spartans have wrapped up the regular season, it's time to look ahead to the postseason. In ACHA Division 2, there are four regions: West, Central, Northeast and Southeast. Each region sends four teams to Nationals. The two highest ranked teams automatically move on to Nationals. The two other spots are up for grabs in each region for the teams ranked three through ten. They play two rounds of a single-elimination bracket to determine the other qualifiers.
In the West, #1 Utah State and #2 Arizona State get the auto-bid. The Spartans will take on a familiar foe in the first round: the #8 San Diego State Aztecs. This comes after a 2-1 win and 2-2 tie for the Spartans in the season series against the Aztecs this year.
"It will be a fun first round game, because we've got buddies on that team and we know its always a close game and it can go either way," said Cimino. "It's an okay draw, we're not scared of them or anything. We'll be ready to play, and I'm sure it'll be an excellent game because I'm sure they'll be ready to go too."
Other first round games will include: #3 Colorado State versus #10 Texas A&M, #4 Weber State against #9 Denver, and #6 Northern Arizona taking on #7 Utah. Assuming the Spartans can take down their in-state rivals next Saturday, they'd likely face Weber State, Utah, or Northern Arizona next Sunday.
"Man! I guess I don't really want to play Utah," said Cimino. The Spartans swept the Utes 3-0 this year, but Utah is a solid team, and you have to figure they're due for a win sooner or later. As for Weber or Northern Arizona, "I'd be okay with either of those two teams, to be honest. Any of them, I feel like we could beat, but I'd probably prefer NAU just because I haven't seen them."
But, first thing's first, the Spartans cannot and will not look past San Diego State. "There's no room for mistakes anymore," said Arias. "I just hope this run continues."
The Spartans have this weekend off to rest before they head out to Salt Lake City for the ACHA D2 West Regionals next weekend. Next week, I'll continue the playoff preview and talk with SJSU Head Coach Matt Adams before the Spartans hit the road and try to continue the quest for their first ACHA national championship.
Fight on, Spartans!