Anxiety — that may be the best word to sum up many fans' emotions before the game began. After the legendary 2009 to 2010 season that RIT Men's Hockey gave them, it was all too easy to imagine supporters' massive expectations being let down. After all, the Tigers lost many of their all-star players, and few fans knew just how RIT would perform with a lot of fresh faces out on the ice.
It seems, however, that the Tigers' faithful can stop their worrying. Delivering a solid 3-1 win over the Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks, RIT proved that they still bring serious hockey skills to the rink. Although the team will need a bit more polish if they're going to repeat their Frozen Four appearance, RIT once again has the foundations of a championship bid on their hands.
It began with a hard-fought first period, a scoreless affair that saw the puck spending most of its time on Wilfrid Laurier's side of the ice. The Laurier goalie, Ryan Daniels, performed well in the net, stopping all 13 shots that came at him, even handling two RIT power plays. The Tigers' goalie, fourth year international business major Jan Ropponen, also came up with a handful of stunning saves that kept the scoreboard tied at zero. Despite the daunting size of the shoes Jared DeMichiel left him to fill, Ropponen came out and showed RIT fans that he knew his way around the net.
It must be said that the Tigers might not have shown the same finesse and skill that brought them such success in last year's postseason. Passes went past sticks, pucks slid around sprawling players, and the Golden Hawks darted in to fill gaps that should have been held by Tiger players. But it's unfair to say that this year's team isn't up to the same bar as last year's; it was, after all, their first game of the season and an exhibition game. It's reasonable to expect some rough patches, which will no doubt be ironed out in the hours of drills and practicing that will surely follow.
Despite these bumps along the way, RIT delivered a score to the elated fans only six minutes into the second period. Third year biomedical sciences major Chris Haltigin drove in a shot for the Tigers, the first power play of the period, ruining any hope the Hawks might have had for a shutout. However, Tiger fans had to cut the celebrations short when Wilfrid Laurier's Benjamin Skinner found his way past Ropponen and tied the game at one only 36 seconds later.
After 30 minutes in the net and 15 saves, Ropponen skated off to be replaced by another RIT goalie, Josh Watson, a first year business major. Ropponen was later named the third star of the game for his admirable performance in goal.
Deep into the second period, after one fruitless power play by Wilfrid Laurier, Jeff Smith, a second year biomedical sciences major, broke away with the puck and, with the Tigers shorthanded, went solo against the Golden Hawks' goalie to rifle it in. It took the wind out of Laurier's second power play of the period, to say the least, as well as handed the lead back to RIT. The Tigers ran out the rest of the penalty and, despite a power play to end the period, could not find their way to a third score.
The third period was defined by a shorthanded Wilfrid Laurier team. For 14 out of 20 minutes, at least one Hawk was seated in the sin bin. RIT took advantage of that fact, shutting down the Hawk's offense and testing the defense time and again. Daniels continued to perform in the team's goal, but he couldn't keep the Tigers out forever — 11 minutes in, seconds after RIT pulled their goalie to add an attacker, Adam Hartley, a second year business major, nailed a third goal on the board. With less than 10 minutes left to play, it seemed to put a Hawks comeback out of reach. In fact, Wilfrid Laurier managed to put only one more shot on the goal, which was saved by Watson without much drama.
As the clock ran out, the Tigers came away with their first of what will surely be many victories. Despite the nature of the game — delayed by a late-arriving opposing team and an exhibition match to boot — RIT fans filled the Frank Ritter Ice Arena and made their voices heard. If you haven't bought your jersey yet, buy it now — smart money is on this season being another one for the history books.