Despite strong start, Gators hockey outplayed against San Jose State

The Gators hockey club played some of its best hockey of the season against San Jose State University Friday night, but an inability to play consistently ultimately cost them in a 15-3 loss to their South Bay rivals in Oakland.

The Spartans notched their first goal only eight seconds into the game on a turnover after a SF State face off win, but the Gators didn’t wait long to start throwing punches either. The first 10 minutes were played at a dizzying pace, as both teams traded scores like a game of ping pong.

“I thought the first period was pretty good, to be honest,” said Head Coach Kevin Barlow. “Everybody was clicking.”

Jacob Graham, the Gators’ leading scorer, wristed one past the opposing goalie’s stick just 1:30 in, and SJSU’s Charles Tacchi struck back one minute later. Then it was Matan Geller for the Gators, who took a beautiful cross-crease backhanded pass from Andrew Duenes and slid it past the blocker to re-tie the game.

SF State goaltender Cillian Variot allowed another goal just 30 seconds later, but stopped a flurry of shots in impressive fashion on the very next shift, knocking one shot aside with his blocker and another with his mask.

The latter caused a wardrobe malfunction for the net-minder, and the game faced a long intermission while the Gators worked to fix Variot’s mask. By the time the game resumed, SF State was cold and the Spartans answered in kind, pushing the lead to 6-2 by the period’s end.

“The stoppage definitely slowed us down,” Duenes said. “It messed us up a bit.”

San Jose State furthered the damage in the top half of the second frame, getting goals from Zach McKeithan and Patrick Melville. But the tide seemed to turn for the Gators after Graham scored his second goal of the night on a breakaway, and Duenes laid a nasty hit that sent the Spartan tumbling across the ice and the home crowd into pandemonium on the next shift.

What ensued was the Gators’ best hockey of the season, as they systematically handled the puck in the defensive zone and ran line after line into San Jose State’s zone, throwing shots at Spartans’ goaltender Dylan Neu and collecting rebounds for second chance shots.

“That’s hockey – it’s totally a momentum changer,” Barlow said of Duenes’s hit. “We have to work on hitting more. We have some big guys that haven’t been throwing the body enough.”

Neu did well to hold off the Gators’ onslaught and hold them scoreless, and the Spartans knocked in one more before the second period and several more before the game ended. It was a typical scene for the hockey club’s faithful crowd, who’ve seen the third period go bad for this team far too many times this season.

Barlow understands that, with his team at 0-7 in the season, it’s all about seeing the kind of improvement that his team showed on Friday.

“We’re working to improve,” Barlow said. “We started practicing and trying to do systematic hockey, but you can’t do it without a foundation.”

The playoffs may be a distant and fading hope for this team, but Duenes said there is still hope in his hockey team.

“A lot of us, we still care, we are still fighting,” he said. “No one is giving up.”