By Matt Williams
---- — SALEM — A look at the MASCAC standings shows just how important last night’s contest against visiting Fitchburg State was for the Salem State men’s hockey team.
The tight-checking, rivalry atmosphere brought out the best in the Vikings, who topped Fitchburg 2-1 at Rockett Arena last night to hold on to first-place in the MASCAC.
“It was an emotional game for both teams and there wasn’t a lot of give on either side,” said Salem State coach Bill O’Neill. “You really need to bring it emotionally in these situations and be willing to pay the price, and we were. I was pleased with the effort from start to finish.”
Salem (now 10-7-1 overall with 15 points in league play) had a favorable edge in puck possession and shots on goal (34-20), but the Falcons (8-10-0 overall with 10 league points) got outstanding goaltending from Ryan Wysocki to stay in it.
Fitchburg pulled the goalie for the last 90 seconds in an effort to tie the game with the extra-attacker. Crucial offensive zone faceoffs won by John Needham and Sutton Wilson and some sound team defensive kept the puck out of the cage and ensured the Vikings came away with two points.
“When the puck comes, you have to get in front of it. Anything you can do,” defenseman Keaton Cashin, a sophomore from Boxford, said of the final minute. “This was a first-place type game and we needed it to help separate us from the group to get that home ice advantage (for the MASCAC playoffs). Every game the rest of the way is a big one.”
Eric Defelice opened the scoring when he banged in a crisp pass from Chris Mastopietro in front of the cage in the first. Salem clung to the one-goal lead despite a bevy of opportunities in the second, and finally extended their advantage in the middle stages of the third.
Sophomore Andrew Bettencourt jumped on a Fitchburg miscue at center ice and burst into the offensive zone. He cut to the net and put it over Wysocki for what turned out to be the game-winning goal with 13:09 to play.
“It turned over at center ice, the puck did, and he grabbed it,” O’Neill said of Bettencourt’s goal. “He has some speed and some skill, and he drove to the cage and made a good play.”
The Falcons got within one on a power play goal by Max Lorenzen with 10:45 to go, but didn’t create many quality scoring chances the rest of the way. Salem State’s Ryan Sutliffe stopped 19 shots, including a tough 2-on-1 chance in the second and a masterful sliding save early in the third.
“I thought when we had the puck we made some opportunities and their goalie played big and strong. They defended well,” said O’Neill. “Our guy Sutty played well too. He made important saves in all three periods.”
Salem State rebounded nicely from a non-league loss to St. Anselm earlier in the week. Each of the Vikings’ lines and defensive pairs were in sync and played well both with and without the puck.
“It shows what kinds of team we have. We knew we needed to regroup and play 20 minutes every period,” said Cashin. “Overall, the team came to play. The forwards were playing good defense and the defense was moving the puck up the ice to them.”
After an early penalty kill, Defelice’s goal gave Salem State worlds of confidence to go along with the lead. Chad Goodwin, Kris Faric, Alex Minter, Mark MacDonald and Kyle Phelan played well at forward while defensemen Ian Canty and Cam Banwell were also strong.
“These days, when you get the lead it’s a different game than if you’re chasing to tie it up,” said O’Neill. “When you have that lead, you play with the puck more, it seems, and you play with more confidence.”