As the San Diego State University men’s ice hockey team embarks on its maiden voyage at the American Collegiate Hockey Association Division 1 level, the Aztecs are quickly finding it’s a completely different game from what they’ve been accustomed to during their long stay at the Division 2 level.
But it’s something that could be a good fit in the coming seasons.
“Moving up to the level has been an unknown,” SDSU head coach Phil Bateman admitted.
“We didn’t really know how to prepare other than to do video scouting. But video only tells so much of the story. Getting out there, I think our guys ran the first period with adrenaline. We had a couple good scoring chances and could have been up 2-0.
“But that’s the difference between Division 2 and Division 1 — you don’t have second chances. You have to make sure you’re pretty tidy in what you take care of. We squandered that.”
The University of Colorado Buffaloes, the Aztecs’ season opening opponent last weekend at the Kroc Center Ice Arena, may have been bigger and stronger but not necessarily faster. It’s the latter attribute that kept the hosts in the two games.
The Buffaloes, perhaps not unpredictably, swept the two-game series by scores of 3-1 last Friday and 9-6 on Saturday. But it’s fair to say the Aztecs were not outclassed.
It will be interesting to see where the teams match up after SDSU has had a chance to get a couple of Division 1 recruiting classes under their skates.
The Aztecs showed their determination early. The opening period in the series opener ended in a scoreless draw with SDSU holding a 10-8 edge in shots. But the second period belonged to the visitors, who rang up a decisive 16-4 advantage in shots and a two-goal lead.
Returner Luke Desmarais scored the first goal of the season for the Aztecs at 8:45 of the third period. Colorado skated with a 2-1 lead for more than seven minutes before finally putting the game away at 16:03 of the period on Drew McConaughy’s second tally of the contest.
The Buffaloes out-shot the hosts 34-23 as goaltender Parks Owensby, one of the team’s 10 incoming Division 1 recruits, racked up 31 saves in his SDSU debut.
“We had our chances,” returner Michael Pellegrino said. “Everything is faster now. Everyone completes their checks.”
The Aztecs scored the jump goal in the second game as returner Neil Murphy dented the net at 6:02 of the first period. Returners Isaiah Tano and Lucas Bellig drew the assists.
The rematch proved to be more of a free-wheeling offensive contest with goals scored often between the teams — 15 in total. Both teams took 12 shots in the first period, eight shots in the second period and 11 shots in the third period to finish the game knotted at 31 shots apiece.
The first period ended in a 1-1 standoff after Colorado’s Jack Ferguson beat Owensby at 8:22. Tommy Kleinman gave the Buffs a quick 2-1 lead at 1:16 of the second period. Aztec newcomer Gavin O’Bryan scored his first goal of the season at 2:45 to knot the teams in a 2-2 standoff. At this point, it looked like the hosts might have a reasonable chance to win the game.
But that quickly changed.
Ferguson (three goals, one assist) and Kleinman (three goals, two assists) scored back-to-back goals to push Colorado out in front 4-2 before Desmarais netted his second goal of the weekend on a power play to trim the visitors’ lead to 4-3. But Paxton Bunting’s first goal of the season for Colorado with just 18 seconds left in the period staked the Buffaloes a 5-3 advantage through two periods.
The two-goal cushion proved critical down the stretch run.
Michael Eng, SDSU’s top returning scorer, scored at 2:23 of the third period to make the score 5-4 and pump up the excitement level in the building. But Kleinman responded with a goal at 6:49 to restore the visitors’ two-goal edge.
Returner Ian Stentz scored the first of his two goals in the game for the Aztecs at 10:59 on the power play to once again narrow the score to a one-goal game at 6-5. But the Buffaloes rattled off the next two goals to take a three-goal lead at 8-5 that proved insurmountable for the hosts.
Stentz scored a power play goal at 18:03 to make the score 8-6. But Bunting netted his second goal of the game with exactly one minute to play to keep Colorado’s three-goal lead intact.
Owensby made 22 saves on 31 shots to fall to 0-2 between the pipes. Bellig finished the two- game series as SDSU’s scoring leader with five assists.
“It’s a learning process for the guys,” Bateman emphasized. “This whole year is going to be about information gathering.
Everything is a half-step faster. These are men they’re playing against. It’s a lot more professional game, guys finish their checks, a lot more of a physical game. That’s exciting for us. We now know what the barometer is. Last year we were able to get away with things and run teams out of the rink. This is good for us as an evolution as a program.”
The Aztecs host Northern Arizona University’s Division 2 team this weekend at the Kroc Center. Both games Friday and Saturday face off at 8 p.m.