October is not exactly clutch season for hockey. Even if a skater can put together mammoth numbers, who's going to remember that come March? But Colorado College went into their season opener, a non-conference game to boot, playing like they were fighting for survival in the NCAA Finals tournament.
Maybe the Tigers simply picked up where they left off last year. Last March, CC led by a goal in the quarterfinals over Michigan State University with less than two minutes remaining, only to be heart-broken when MSU scored two goals within 32 seconds to steal victory from the Tigers and advance to the Frozen Four.
The veterans have had six months to simmer over that defeat, replaying the final minutes in their minds, plotting their revenge with all the deliberateness of Hamlet on ice, kept from action only by the damnable duration of the off-season.
Even the freshman felt like they hit the ice with secondhand baggage inherited from their vanquished predecessors. "I watched that game probably five times," freshman defender Tom Preissing recalled, with all the weariness of an innocent bystander confronted by someone's vacation photo album from the Old World museums of another country, the past. Finally, thanks in part to a second-period goal by Preissing, last year's gut-wrenching defeat is history.
The lopsided background between the Tigers and the MSU Spartans has long seemed overwhelming to the local favorites. Although CC leads the all-time series 42-33-1, it has been 20 years since CC last found a way to exact defeat from MSU. The last time the Tigers beat the Spartans, it was Ron Mason's first season as the MSU head coach and just a half-season after first-year Tiger coach Scott Owens played his last game as a CC goaltender. Twenty years later, Mason is the all-time winningest coach in college-hockey history, with 837 victories and a .692 winning percentage. Owens is 836 victories behind Mason, but he can boast a 1.000 winning percentage for at least another week.
"It's something you'll always stop and look back upon," Owens sighed after the game. "It's nice to be rewarded right away and get a vote of confidence." And nothing wins votes like an electrifying defeat over an age-old nemesis -- a team ranked third in pre-season polls and No. 1 on the Tiger hit list.
So the Tigers are ahead of schedule. An early start to the season left both teams looking shaky in the early minutes. Three-and-a-half minutes into the game, Jesse Heerema, a sophomore from Ontario, brought the crowd to their feet with the season's first goal and lead, but sloppy play suggested that neither team is up to peak form yet. As each team fought to get their game plan into place, stiff sticks and a loose sense of control were reminiscent of table-top hockey where the players can move up and down and spin around, but otherwise are just pushing pucks and ricocheting off each other, saving finesse for another day.
After drawing first blood with Heerema's goal, the Tiger's began to settle down and take control of the puck. They dominated the first period, getting twice as many shots on goal as the Spartans and matching them penalty for penalty, though MSU ultimately found inhabiting the penalty box the one area in which they could excel. The nearly full house seemed uncharacteristically shocked by the rough and unsportsmanlike conduct endemic to the game, but it is early in the season yet. CC played the perpetual victims of their violent visitors and maintained the tradition of the noble skaters forced to raise their airborne elbows to counter MSU's underhanded approach.
Perhaps the Spartans were simply feeling charitable when Jon Insana caught a Tiger by the tail, sending helmets flying while anxiously awaiting a penalty that never came. The Tigers use penalties as a fund-raising opportunity, donating money to charity whenever the team scores a goal on a power play or kills their own penalty by keeping the other team from scoring when CC's a man down. The Spartans seemed all too aware that playing a clean game would be uncharitable, and did their best to offer to be beneficent when their offense could not otherwise be potent.
Despite the crowd's thirst for revenge, they were less likely to cheer for CC hits than for the hits the home team absorbed, sending MSU to the penalty box and giving CC the opportunity to score on three of the nine power plays that resulted. And when the Spartans went to the penalty box, the Tigers employed their secret weapon, the overlooked "seventh man." Any misbehaving Spartan faced the wrath of a Tiger-jersey-clad kid about 11 years old, sitting on the opposite side of the glass, making faces at the ostracized skater, taunting him as only a fifth grader can and gradually wearing down the opposition.
Among the standouts of the game were CC goalie Jeff Sanger, who played 60 minutes and made 20 saves, showing up MSU's first-string All-American goalie Joe Blackburn, who let in three of CC's four goals. Cam Kryway also shone, making up for a goal denied him by the referee with his two assists to Mark Cullen and Tom Preissing. Kryway admitted how excited he was to play and that he relished the chance to get "a little revenge for last year's game." And although he didn't figure directly in the scoring, team captain Toby Petersen looked sharp in his triumphant return after suffering two broken legs last season. Petersen's great stick work enabled him to pull out of the pack, establish the control game and help set up his teammates.
Nobody was more surprised than freshman Tom Preissing to find the back of the net in his first college hockey game. "Never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd score," Preissing admitted after the game, adding, "I don't know if comfortable is the right word" to characterize his transition after two years in the United States Hockey League, pointing out that "it's a big jump from juniors." He impressed his coach, who commented that "Preissing looked like a veteran out there," singling him out from the handful of CC rookies on the team.
Owens also admitted that the full-size rink at the World Arena can sometimes give them a slight edge over teams accustomed to playing with shorter dimensions. "It's a big sheet," he explained, and opposing teams are often worn down by covering the extra ground. Nevertheless, Owens sees room for improvement, citing control of the neutral zone as an area to target as the season progresses.
The World Arena is anything but neutral, however, and visitors to the Tiger ice are up against a season of vengeance and smoldering passion.
Upcoming CC Tigers Home Games
WHERE: All games at the Colorado Springs World Arena
INFO: Fridays at 7:35 p.m., Saturdays at 7:05 p.m. Call 576-2626 for tickets.