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Utica Pioneers win third consecutive UCHC crown

Credit: Scott Kinville.

The #2 Utica Pioneers Men’s Hockey Team defeated #12 Stevenson 3-2 on Saturday night to win its third consecutive UCHC Championship.

The number one seed Utica Pioneers met the number two seed Stevenson Mustangs on Saturday night at the Adirondack Bank Center with the UCHC Championship on the line. Although the Pioneers dominated the stat sheet, they would have to show their mettle in closing out Stevenson with a 3-2 victory in front of a jam-packed Adirondack Bank Center. The win gave Utica its third UCHC crown in as many years.

“I am so proud of this young group, they’ve come a long way,” Pioneers head coach Gary Heenan said after the game. “They believe and they bought in”.

That young group would be tested on Saturday night. The Stevenson Mustangs tied the Pioneers earlier in the season in this building and posed a legitimate threat to the Pioneer’s hopes of a third straight UCHC title.

“They were the ones we were worried about,” Heenan said of the Mustangs. They’re a big, heavy, team. (Liam) McCanney is a special player. The goalie (Ty Outen) obviously is the real deal. Stevenson is a heck of a hockey team, obviously well coached.”

The Pioneers got on the scoreboard first at just over seven minutes into the first period. Eric Vitale flung a shot from the right-side goal line that eluded Stevenson goaltender Ty Outen and found its way into the net. After the Vitale goal, Utica continued to pressure the Mustangs, forcing Outen to make several key stops holding them to one goal for the period.

“We were fortunate to that early goal, and get the party started and get the building involved,” Heenan said of Vitale’s goal. “That’s why you have home ice. The building really got us going, and vice versa.”

The Mustangs tied the game with 1:36 left in the first, by taking advantage of a power play. Frank Vitucci sent a cross-ice pass from the left side to Kyle Lightfoot, who hammered a one-timer from the right circle past Pioneers goaltender Ethan Roberts and in. The teams went into the first intermission with the score 1-1 and the home team holding an 11-8 advantage in shots on goal.

Utica’s Eric Vitale hunts down a puck during Saturday night’s game. Photo credit: Scott Kinville.

Utica took control of the game in the second period, firing 17 shots on Outen and scoring two goals. The first came at just 37 seconds into the period when Griffen Barr blasted a one-timer from the point through traffic and past Outen to give the Pioneers the lead. The barrage continued after the Barr goal, but Outen made a valiant effort to keep his team in the game. Utica got its third goal when they connected on the power play with 5:23 remaining in the period. Jakob Breault banged home a rebound off of a shot by Kimball Johnson to send an already electric home crowd into a frenzy.

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Roberts only faced four shots in the second period, turning aside all of them to ensure his team took a 3-1 lead into the locker room after 40 minutes of play.

Although reeling, the Mustangs were not out of the game. They came out in the third period with a purpose, peppering Roberts with 18 shots of their own. They broke through with their second goal with 9:56 remaining as Vitucci slid a rebound off a shot by Jack Karlsson past Roberts to get his team within one. Stevenson continued to press after the Vitucci goal, but Roberts and the Pioneers would yield no more. They hung on and punched their ticket to the NCAA Tournament with the automatic bid from the UCHC Championship win.

The Utica Pioneers celebrate seconds after the final buzzer on Saturday night. Photo credit: Scott Kinville.

After the game, Heenan reflected on how this UCHC Championship was different from the ones his teams have won in the past.

“I actually think that this one means a lot more because we were completely gutted. There’s no way anyone in this league thought we would do this,” the Pioneer bench boss said. “They were licking their chops thinking we graduated everybody. I mean, 18 guys off that last game last year are no longer here.”

Although he is so proud of how his young players performed, he is equally proud of his veterans – especially team captain Brian Scoville.

“I think Scoville deserves a ton of credit,” Heenan said. “He was the veteran guy that led our team in scoring as a D. He didn’t play power play his entire career until this year. He’s leading us in power play points as well as plus-minus is on the moon. He’s the one in the locker room, so he deserves all the credit for putting a young team on his back. I’m just really, really proud of him. He’s a quiet guy who leads by example, and boy did he lead us this year for sure”.

The Pioneers will find out on Monday who and when they play in the NCAA Tournament. Heenan, however, does not see his team as the favorites.

“We get another kick at the can,” he said. “We’re kind of underdogs in my eyes. I mean, this is a team that shouldn’t have been in the NCAA’s to start the year with all the young guys we have. So I think we just go for it and have some fun.”

For more information about the Utica Pioneers, including playoff schedules, visit https://uticapioneers.com.

Credit: Kayleigh Sturtevant / Utica University.
L to R, The All-UCHC Tournament Team: Ethan Roberts, Brian Scoville, Griffen Barr, Eric Vitale, Jakob Breault, Kyle Lightfoot, and Ty Outen. Photo credit: Scott Kinville.
Utica goaltender Ethan Roberts was named the MVP of the UCHC Tournament. Photo credit: Scott Kinville.
The Utica Pioneers receive their UCHC Championship trophy. Photo credit: Scott Kinville.

All photo credits: Scott Kinville.

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