In sports, if a team rises from the bottom, it’s usually the case that they will need to overthrow the top team to prove their worth. You have to beat the best to be the best, they say.
The Drexel roller hockey club team’s most recent game was against Saint Joseph’s University, a squad that has dominated the Philadelphia Collegiate Roller Hockey League for the last few seasons. The Hawks have been Drexel’s white whale since November 2009, the last time the Dragons marked a win against them.
Earlier this season, Drexel fell to St. Joe’s 7-1 for their only loss in an otherwise perfect schedule of results. Boasting a 6-1 PCRHL record, they had another chance to slay the beast Feb. 23, with a Sunday evening match against the Hawks at Marple Sports Arena in Broomall, Pa.
Drexel’s pregame plan was centered on Hawks star forward Sean McArdle, who many of the Dragons called the best player in the league.
“We game plan pretty much to stop him, we know he’s their main guy,” senior Drexel forward Steve Utain explained. “He’s their leading scorer, he’s the guy who makes them run. When he turns it on, he’s very hard to stop.”
But by the time the final buzzer sounded, it was a familiar result for Drexel, with St. Joe’s up 5-2 behind a hat trick from McArdle and two goals from forward Dom Anastasia. Senior forwards Pete Albano and Corey DeMarco paired well, splitting the only two goals and assists for Drexel, while senior goaltender Adrian Orio recorded 31 saves on 36 shots.
“Our chemistry just wasn’t there. Every time we play them we seem to be a little tight and that seemed to be the main factor this game,” Utain said. “Adrian played well, he always plays well. It’s not the matter of our goaltending, it’s the matter of getting shots on their goalie.”
The Hawks got on the board with 12:30 left in the first period, as Anastasia deked past a defenseman and buried one past Orio. The Dragons took a penalty late in the first period, but DeMarco took a lead pass from Albano and fired a wrist shot underneath the crossbar to tie things up 1-1 with 3:00 to go.
Off the next faceoff, McArdle gave his team the lead, cradling the puck through the Drexel defense and the five-hole for a 2-1 score. The Dragons were shut out for the next 30 minutes as St. Joe’s built a 5-1 lead on two more goals by McArdle and another from Anastasia.
“It took us way too long to get into our game plan,” senior defenseman and team captain Zak Harrison said after the game. “We came out way too flat and too slow. The forecheck wasn’t there until late in the third, and that’s when we started to actually generate opportunities.”
With 3:15 remaining in the third period, DeMarco fired a low shot that Albano deflected into the net to set the score at 5-2, where it would stay. Drexel had a few tough breaks as time wound down, including a slap shot from junior defenseman Brendan Mullen that hit the crossbar with about 2:00 left in the game.
As Utain explained, Orio was the reason the Dragons stayed within striking distance in the game. The goalie made 11 saves in the first period, 13 saves in the second and eight saves in the final frame. The majority of the goals he allowed were on odd-man rushes and one-on-one opportunities.
“My helmet made a few saves, like four or five saves,” Orio said as he cleaned the black scuff marks off his new headgear. “But we can’t back off on them when they’re skating into our zone. … We have to step up at the blue line.”
Going into the game, many of Drexel’s veteran players thought this was their best chance for a win against the stellar Hawks squad, which they haven’t beaten in their careers in Blue and Gold. Even though the Dragons are 0-2 against their rivals in the regular season, they expect to see St. Joe’s again in the playoffs in April.
Harrison, Orio and Utain believe that if they do face the Hawks in the playoffs, they will have to execute head coach Dane Ward’s game plan better: get out to a strong start, make better decisions with the puck, and don’t give St. Joe’s — especially McArdle — too much respect in the rink.
There are still a handful of games in the regular season — including those against Kutztown University and Villanova University March 2 at 7 p.m. and 10 p.m., respectively — but anything before the playoffs is essentially a technicality for the Dragons at this point. They’re excited for a chance to knock off the league’s best team when it matters most.