|The Spartans received some great news at the end of this past weekend as their 5-1-1 start to the 2nd semester was rewarded with a 3-spot jump up the West Ranking board to the #6 spot. This firmly places them in the Regional Playoff picture and they can start making preparations for the arduous task of winning 2 road games in Flagstaff, AZ to earn a trip to Marlboro, MA for the 2014 Men's Division II National Tournament.
The anticipation of that revelation might have been on many of the Spartans' minds as they entered Friday's contest against unranked USC. The Spartans took a 1-0 lead midway through the first period as Mason Console notched his 14th goal of the season, but they did not play up to their potential through much of the game.
The Trojans frustrated the Spartans at every turn with a suffocating defensively-oriented system and stellar goaltending from Harrison Xu. Many outside observers expected SJSU to roll through the 6-15-1 Trojans, but the Spartan dominance that has been seen in recent years did not materialize.
Instead, the Trojans hung around long enough to get a tying goal late in the second period from Cory Newman. A back and forth third period went the Trojans' way as James Huebner picked up a rebound with 2:36 left and deposited it past Mario Retana to stun the Spartans and the large home crowd on hand. Despite their best efforts in the final minutes, SJSU was unable to tie the score and shockingly the Trojans skated away with the 2-1 victory.
It should be noted that the Spartans were without some key contributors who were out of the lineup due to injury. Nicholas Matejovsky, Christian Rendino and Eric Jones all missed the game with various ailments. That being said, the Trojans traveled without their full complement of stars too as they were missing productive forwards Andrew Walkon and Zachary Zbar.
Spartan Head Coach Phil Hazelwood told SJSU Broadcaster Jonathan Wold before Saturday's contest that the team didn't show up to play the previous night and that a better effort would be needed to top the much improved Trojan squad. USC had troubled SJSU earlier in the season when the Spartans visited Anaheim and were only able to escape with a 5-4 victory.
Saturday night's contest saw the return of Rendino who had missed all but 2 of the team's first 8 games of the 2nd semester. He provided a needed boost on the blue line, which was needed with the healthy scratches of Sam Shayesteh, Brant Haddon and Neil Schumaker, all of whom hadn't performed up to Coach Hazelwood's expectations on Friday night. Bryan Toma also got the start in goal in favor of Retana. It was Toma's first start since January 11th at UNLV.
The heavily altered lineup didn't pay dividends early on as the Trojans got goals from Alexander Bradley and James Huebner to take a 2-0 lead into the locker room at the first intermission. The Spartans came out in the second period looking stronger than they did in the opening frame and earned a power play 3 minutes in. They weren't able to make anything of it though and it ended abruptly as Rendino was forced to take a tripping penalty to prevent a shorthanded breakaway with 27 seconds left on the man advantage.
One of two turning points in the game came less than a minute later when defenseman Salvatore Barranco blocked a shot and sprinted past the last Trojan defender to retrieve the loose puck. Barranco made the most of the shorthanded breakaway opportunity as he ripped a shot past Xu to get the Spartans on the board. It was Barranco's second shorthanded goal in as many weeks as he notched a shorthanded penalty shot goal against Texas A&M last weekend.
The goal was a much needed shot in the arm for the Spartans that led to the second turning point with 6 minutes left in the second period when it appeared the Trojans had extended their lead to 3-1 on a point shot that was tipped in the high slot past a sprawled Toma. However, after a short conference the officials determined that Toma had been clipped by a Trojan passing through the crease and the apparent goal was disallowed. The vehement argument from the USC bench actually resulted in an Unsportsmanlike penalty that helped push the momentum back in SJSU's favor.
In the third period the Spartans got what they hadn't received the previous night: timely scoring from their stars. Captain Sam Cimino, who had been held off the scoresheet on Friday night (only the 3rd time this season), took a head-man pass from defenseman Michael Stivers, toe-dragged the puck around a USC defender into a shooting position and then fired an absolute laser over the glove of Xu under the crossbar.
That knotted the score at 2-2 with 16:11 remaining in the period and the Spartans began to take control of the bulk of the play. USC's defense and Xu in net held strong, but eventually were felled by the slick skating Mason Console. Console netted his second goal of the weekend, this one turning out to be the game-winner, after picking up a loose puck at center ice and skating around the USC defense before cutting cross-crease and slipping the puck between Xu's legs.
Five tense minutes followed, but Toma was a rock in goal, making 32 saves to shut the door and seal a 3-2 victory. The win improved Toma's record to 3-2-1 on the season and upped his save percentage to .899.