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COC hockey finishes 5th

Cougars win twice before falling to eventual national champion at ACHA Division III tournament

Posted: March 14, 2010 8:52 p.m.
Updated: March 15, 2010 4:55 a.m.
How does a hockey team make up for a disappointing showing at the national championship tournament?

Try winning twice and skating evenly with the eventual champions for most of the game.

That’s what the College of the Canyons men’s ice hockey team did at this weekend’s ACHA Men’s Division III National Championship tournament in Fort Myers, Fla.

The Cougars beat Florida 8-3 this past Wednesday evening and then beat Robert Morris 7-4 on Thursday. On Friday, COC fell to eventual national champion Saginaw Valley State 4-1 in a game that would have sent the school to the national semifinals.

A total of 16 teams took part in the tournament in four different brackets, each with four teams. The winner of each round-robin would move on to the semifinals.

After winning just one game at the 2009 national tournament and finishing 14th in the final ACHA Division III national rankings, the Cougars were ranked fifth at the end of this season.

“We’re ecstatic,” said COC head coach John Taferner, “and the thing is, all the guys are committed to coming back next season, too.”

Taferner said all but two players are returning next season for COC (23-4), which is made up entirely of Santa Clarita-based players.

He also said it took some time for the team to adjust to Germain Arena, the rink on the campus of Florida Gulf Coast University where the tournament was held.

“I thought we didn’t come out very strong in the first period,” he said of the team’s opening win against Florida. “We were getting used to the conditions, getting used to the ice. I think what we did is we came out with our game.”

That strategy involved using team speed against Florida’s aggressive forecheck, and the adjustment paid off as the Cougars scored eight times.

“I thought we did better and we were clicking more,” said COC forward Alex Brodetsky, who had seven total points on the weekend (one point is awarded for both goals and assists.) “We just had a chemistry throughout the season.”

Forward Andrew Jakiel had eight points to lead the Cougars at the national tournament, while forward Todd Hopkins also had seven.

Taferner also praised defenseman Kevin Kline.

“He cut off the neutral zone and passing lanes and he controlled the boards down low,” Taferner said.

COC was able to control Robert Morris for most of the game despite struggling in the first period.

The Cougars used their superior conditioning to wear down the Colonials and beat them to the puck for most of the second and third periods.

Taferner stresses conditioning given the requirements of college hockey.

“At the higher level, it’s all got to do with game awareness and speed,” he said.

The Cougars were plenty aware of the challenge that awaited them in their third game against defending national champion Saginaw Valley State.

“We knew what we were getting into,” said COC forward P.J. Gilmore. “We were pretty hyped.”

Saginaw Valley State returned most of its players from the 2009 national championship team, but COC stayed with the Cardinals for two periods before they broke the game open.

Taferner said that the Cougars even had a five-minute power play but they couldn’t capitalize, hitting the post several times and failing to score on two breakaways.

He also said that the older Saginaw Valley State players were physical and tried to get under the young Cougars’ skin.

“Those kids don’t get rattled as easily as our kids do,” he said. “If I was the coach of Saginaw Valley, I’d do the same thing he did.”

Despite the loss, the players and coaches gained confidence from the Saginaw Valley State game, and Taferner also believed his team could have beaten Hope and Florida Gulf Coast, two of the other semifinalists.

Several COC players were selected to play in the Division III all-star game on Saturday, and Taferner said that goaltender Michael McGrath was very impressive.

Gilmore said this year’s squad handled the environment of the national tournament much better than last year.

“Last year, we came in inexperienced and young,” he said. “We upset Albany and then we were tired and didn’t know what to do.”

Brodetsky said he hopes that COC’s success will encourage interest in the program and help the Cougars get deeper.

Last season, the team felt like it was disrespected by schools from the country’s more traditional hockey hotbeds.

That wasn’t the case this season.

“We sure gained a lot of respect when it came to the teams that had never seen us before,” Taferner said.


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