Crash Course: Spartans live up to potential, knock off #1

The #7 San Jose State Spartans had a tough challenge going in to last weekend's Gold Rush Showcase. The Spartans had to play four ranked teams in four days, including the #1 team in the West - Utah State. And they were up to the task, going 3-0-1 at a crucial point of the season.

The showcase started on Thursday, with the #14 Oregon as the first opponent for SJSU. It was the first look I've gotten of the Ducks, and I have to say, they impressed. Despite not having the strongest schedule, the Ducks showed they were a solid contender in the West. It may have caught the Spartans off guard. Oregon took a quick 2-0 lead off of goals by Patrick Thornton and Matt Hanlon. The Spartans were forced to play catch-up, and the Ducks did not make it easy. Oregon netminder Danny Cockriel was fantastic, as was the defense in front of him, stopping 40 of 43 shots.

Slowly but surely, the Spartans were able to chip in to the lead. Nicholas Matejovsky and Christian De Jesus had goals late in the first and second periods, respectively, to tie things back up in the third period. Matejovsky was then able to grab another goal with 4:21 remaining in the game to come up with the victory. It would be the start of nearly unstoppable run for Matejovsky.

I asked Mario Retana how he'd try to stop Matejovsky. "The two-pad stack, the splits," said Retana. "You have to do those kind of things to really stop his shot."

Even with the strong play of Matejovsky, things didn't get any easier for SJSU. Friday night brought a rematch with the #10 San Diego State Aztecs. The Aztecs were looking to get revenge in the Spartans' barn after SJSU recently defeated them down in San Diego. Once again, the Spartans opponents came out quick, taking a 1-0 just 1:22 into the game. Again, the Spartans were able to mount a comeback with powerplay goals from Mason Console and Nicholas Matejovksy to make it 2-1 midway through the third.

Unlike when these teams met in San Diego, the Aztecs were able to get a second goal against Spartan goaltender Mario Retana. Retana, who stopped 39 out of 41 shots for the second night in a row, let in a goal just 28 seconds after the Spartans took the lead, but shut the door after that. The teams traded chances in the third and overtime periods, but the game would end as a 2-2 tie. Well, sort of.

The ACHA, unlike the NHL, still recognizes ties after five minutes of sudden death overtime. In some conferences, a shootout is held for tie-breakers in the standings, but it does not (or should not) affect the voters of the ranking committee. That being said, the Spartans and Aztes are independent of conferences in ACHA D2, so no shooout was required. But that doesn't mean the fans in attendance weren't treated to some extra action. After a lengthy delay determining if they could stay on the ice, the teams decided to to play a shootout. And just like the rest of the game, the Aztecs and Spartans continued to match each other step for step. The first, third, and sixth shooters scored for each side before Aztec shooter Ryan Williams was finally able to take down the Spartans in the seventh round.

Satuday brought the big test for San Jose State. After dismantling UNLV and Texas A&M by a combined score of 24-5, the #1 Utah State Aggies found a much tougher challenge in the Spartans. Remember how I said Nicholas Matejovsky was nearly unstoppable this weekend? Yeah, it's mostly from this game. The Spartan center was involved in every SJSU goal on Saturday - assisting on the first goal before earning a hat trick before the end of the second period.

"I'd have to say, it's probably the game of my career," said Matejovsky. "I haven't scored that many hat tricks in my career, and to have such a huge game against a highly ranked opponent, that's never really happened to me before."

After working a successful counter-attack in the first, and a solid puck possession game in the second period, the Spartans held on for dear life in the third period. Utah State's Brian Gibbons, who is second in ACHA D2 scoring, carried the Aggies kicking and screaming back into the game, carving up the Spartans defense on multiple occasions. But Mario Retana came up huge again - this time stopping 42 of 45.

Retana credited his defense for "pushing out the opposing players, letting me see the puck." But his teammates have to admit that he's been having a pretty good stretch himself. "That third period, he just played out of his mind," said Matejovsky.

It was a huge win for San Jose State. It's a game the Spartans will remember for a long time. And it's the marquee victory the team needed to ensure a bump up in the next set of rankings. But let's not get ahead of ourselves here. Because there was still one more game in the weekend.

The #15 UNLV Rebels had nothing to lose. Due to injuries and other scheduling conflicts, the Rebels were without three of their top four skaters and only brought thirteen skaters to San Jose. Unsurprisingly, the team was 0-3 at the Gold Rush showcase, losing a combined 29-6. And things weren't going too much better through two periods. Despite a less than energetic start from the Spartans, SJSU still held a 5-0 lead thanks to a hat trick from Kyle Dutra and another goal from (who else?) Nicholas Matejovksy. Spartan Mason Console took advantage of a bad turnover in front of the UNLV net just thirteen seconds into the third to give a seemingly insurmountable 6-0 lead to San Jose State.

I said 'seemingly insurmountable' because UNLV came a lot closer to surmounting it than they should have. The Spartans usual back-up, Justin Linn stopped 36 of 40 shots, but those 4 goals came in a stretch of 2 minutes and 10 seconds, forcing a relief appearance from Bryan Toma. "I thought Linn did phenomenal," said Retana, who was watching from off the ice. "In that third period, Linn just seemed to be getting hung out to dry. I'm sure there was a few he wished he could have back." The Spartans would hang on to win 6-5 despite flirting with a disaster that would have undone most of the good from the previous night's game.

It ended up being one of the craziest, most exciting weekends of hockey I've ever seen. The three wins against quality competition should vault the Spartans up a couple spots in the rankings and give the team an easier draw when they reach the regional playoffs.

Before they get to the post-season, there's still a few chances to see the Spartans at Sharks Ice. The team gets set for a two game series against the UCLA Bruins tonight at 7:30 and Saturday at 7:00 pm. Both games will be broadcast on Black Dog Enterprises.

The key to the weekend is not overlooking UCLA and continuing to work hard, said Matejovsky. "We have to have a mentality that it's playoff season. It's about to be Regionals, and we want to go to Nationals, so we have to play like that."

Fight on, Spartans!