Men's hockey splits conference pair
Center ice, pressure on, alternate captain Eric Neiley ’15 goes right, left, right and comes back left to bury the puck in the back of the net — the Big Green’s first goal off a penalty shot in 12 years. Just over a minute into the first period, Neiley’s shot gave Dartmouth its first goal, setting the tone for the 5-2 win over Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
“[The penalty shot] was huge,” wing Grant Opperman ’17 said. “A lot of emphasis should go on that, I think, because when you start off like that with a big goal it’s easy to keep momentum going, and that’s what we did.”
When asked about the shot — which played an inarguable role in establishing a rhythm for the game — Neiley didn’t start by talking about the pressure an early goal places on the opposition, the flagrant trip he suffered on the breakaway or the joy of putting it through the five hole. Instead, he focused on the help he had to make such a strong play.
“Brandon McNally [’15] gave me a beautiful pass right up the middle,” Neiley said, referring to the play leading up to the penalty.
While players and fans remember the glory of the goal, the chemistry of Opperman, Neiley and McNally was the real story of the game. The line scored four of Dartmouth’s five goals on the night, two coming from Neiley. Comprised of hard-hitters in Neiley and McNally and sped up on the wing by Opperman, the line realized its full potential by playing to each others’ strengths, Neiley said, which the trio has come to know after large parts of two seasons together.
The line, which played together late last season, had only played together in three other games this season leading up to this weekend — against Union College, Rensselaer Polytechnic University and American International College. Of the eight goals scored in those three games, the line was responsible for only one — Neiley’s third period goal against AIC. Pointing to the Brad Schierhorn ’16, captain Tyler Sikura ’15 and alternate captain Eric Robinson ’14 line as the source of most of the team’s points, Neiley hopes to complement that first line in order to make the team’s offense a more dangerous threat for its opponents, he said.
“Opperman is a perimeter guy,” Neiley said. “I mean he can get in there, too. He can battle in the corners, but more of his game is speed up the wing. He’s got a good shot he can finish. Me and McNally will get in the corners and battle a little more. We really like to get involved in the little scrums that are going on, so we all can make plays. McNally’s vision is unbelievable. So when you’re out there and he has the puck, you know that if you find some open ice, [McNally] is going to find you.”
The three will have to prove that Saturday night’s showing against Cornell will be closer to the rule than the exception moving forward, but the threatening second line couldn’t have resurfaced at a better time for Dartmouth, looking down the stretch toward the playoffs, Robinson said.
“I think there’s just a sense of confidence,” he said. “I think we have struggled to produce offensively this year, and I don’t think anyone has been able to put their finger on it as to why we’ve been struggling. Knowing that there are a number of guys that can score four points, like Neiley, gives us a lot of confidence going into any game.”
Neiley’s second goal came early in the second period and caused the referees to take a delayed look at the goal line, ruling the shot a goal 40 seconds after it occurred on a power play. Defenseman Ryan Bullock ’16 took a shot that sailed wide and rebounded to Neiley off the boards with enough space for Neiley to be able to pop his shot off. The review found the puck crossed the crease before the goalie could pull it out.
“We thought the goalie just made a great save, and at the bench we couldn’t believe we didn’t score,” Neiley said.
The slanted victory over Cornell came one night after the team tied No. 15 Colgate University 2-2. Colgate is the third team Dartmouth has played ranked 15 at the time. Dartmouth has been unable to secure victories in any of the previous match-ups. Falling behind 2-1 early in the third period, Dartmouth fought back for a tie with a goal from Schierhorn 10 minutes into the third, which, Robinson said, showed an important come-from-behind ability in Dartmouth.
The three-point weekend came at a critical time for the Big Green, which hadn’t won a game since its Jan. 2 shootout victory over then-No. 11 University of Denver. While it feels good to have cut through one of its less impressive stretches of hockey this season, the team, Opperman said, is still searching to be better.
“You want to win, especially when you have chances to win, and it felt like we should’ve won that game,” he said. “A tie is never really satisfying. The Cornell game was satisfying, though — to beat those guys in their rink and get that three-point weekend on a road trip was good. Four points is ideal, though, and four points is realistic, so there is a little bit of an unsatisfying feeling.”