By Collin Bolebruch
After a six-year hiatus, Plattsburgh men’s hockey is back on top of the SUNYAC. The championship drought was the longest in team history and the win marks the first trophy since Head Coach Steve Moffat was hired. The Cardinals now have 24 conference titles, 14 more than any other SUNYAC team.
No. 6 Plattsburgh (20-5-2, SUNYAC 12-3-1) beat the No. 12 Oswego Lakers (17-9-1, SUNYAC 12-4) 2-1 in Oswego. The win is the first time the Cards have beat the Lakers in its home rink since 2018 and gives Plattsburgh an automatic bid to the NCAA Championship tournament.
Goaltender Eli Shiller was awarded the SUNYAC Tournament MVP and defenseman Jack Ring and forwards Bennett Stockdale and Carson Gallagher were named to the All-Tournament team alongside Shiller.
“Everything we’ve been through all year, for it to pay off like this,” Shiller said. “It’s awesome, man, it means the world.”
Forward Adam Tretowicz and Gallagher each scored once and forward Trey Thomas and Stockdale recorded one assist. Plattsburgh dug deep into its defensive unit, as Spencer Bellina led the team with a plus-two plus-minus. Jack Ring had four blocks, Kevin Weaver-Vitale had three and Ryan Hogg and Bellina both had two.
First-year Shiller earned his second-straight playoff start, getting the nod over veteran Jacob Hearne. He saved 26 of 27 shots, good for a 0.946 save percentage and 1.35 goals against average. Over the course of the tournament, Shiller had 67 total saves, 0.945 save percentage and 1.36 goals against average.
“When the team has confidence in me, I have confidence in them every time we step on the ice,” Shiller said. “We have three amazing goalies here: it could be me in net, Jacob or Kyle [Alaverdy]. We all have confidence in each other and the team has confidence in us.”
Goaltending has been the X factor for Plattsburgh all season. During its drought, the Cardinals were looking for solid play in the net. The arrival of Shiller and the rise of Hearne now gives Plattsburgh two solid options. Moffat views the two as interchangeable.
“Honestly, we could have went with either goalie. Just kind of went with a gut feeling last Saturday and he played well so we just kind of, we’ll ride a hot hand,” Moffat said.
This season, Shiller has recorded a 0.946 save percentage and 1.35 goals against average. Hearne sits just behind Shiller, with 400 fewer minutes played, with a 0.920 save percentage and 2.20 goals against average. The two have combined for a 20-4 record and Hearne is second in Division III in win percentage, standing with a 0.944 mark. Ultimately, Shiller bore the responsibility in both playoff games.
“We knew we could have played either one of them. When you have that much confidence in your goalies, that you could play either one, it just gives the team that much more confidence,” Moffat said.
The defense-oriented game showed in the box score. Plattsburgh had just 20 shots to Oswego’s 27, a significant change from the Cardinals’ average of over 40 per game. Neither team scored on 14 total minutes of power play, eight different players saw penalty minutes and Plattsburgh fell behind in faceoffs 28-63.
Graduate student and team captain Matt Araujo has been with the team since before Bob Emery was coach. He’s seen the team through its dormant period and in his last year, he gets to bring it back to the top.
“I sat [the team] down: ‘Listen, we’ve had our ups and downs, but this here is the team to do it. We have the guys, we have the talent, we have the skill, we have the work ethic,’” Araujo said. “Here we are, we did it.”
Tretowicz opened the scoring early, putting the puck in the net just 1:45 into the first period. The senior skater stole the puck from a Laker, skated to the left and scored the goal with a backhand shot on the short side in the three hole.
Tretowicz’s goal proved crucial. The next score by either team didn’t come for almost an hour of game time.
“The last few times we’ve been here, they scored the first goal and then they got all the energy,” Tretowicz said. “To score that early in the game and get a lead, I think it kind of settled us in and kind of fired it up, everyone that was here, in the stands and on the bench. I looked over and everyone was on fire, it meant a lot.”
Oswego’s student section participated in a “whiteout,” wearing white shirts. Plattsburgh’s all-red attire stood out against the sea of white behind the near goal. Laker fans went all out — they hate Plattsburgh.
Chants of “we can’t hear you” directed at the lone Cardinal fan section, and “fuck you Plattsburgh” dominated the arena. When a Plattsburgh player was penalized, Oswego fans shouted, “You can’t do that.” When Plattsburgh returned to full strength they’d say, “They still suck.” Fans wore shirts that said “flip the bird” and “puck Flattsburgh.”
The Cards weren’t bothered. The team held its ground, playing strong defensively. It kept the Lakers out of the net despite falling behind in shot attempts.
“It took the whole team. It was a battle of a game. They hemmed us in, we had a lot of good chances. They’re just good defensively and they’re always tough to play against,” Tretowicz said. “It was a great game and an unreal win for us and the program.”
Gallagher sealed the game with just under four minutes remaining. Thomas sent a pass forward to Stockdale and Gallagher, who took off in an odd-man rush. Stockdale, from the right side, hit Gallagher in front of the net. Gallagher then put it between the goaltender’s legs.
“It was a battle of a shift, we were kind of in our own end and the puck got chipped out. I saw Stocky [Stockdale] go in for it,” Gallagher said. “I just busted my butt and got right to the slot and he made a beautiful dish. I was lucky enough to put it in.”
Oswego responded with less than a minute left. Tommy Cahill beat Shiller and the goal horn sounded for the first time all day. It was suddenly anyone’s game. The Lakers pulled its goalie with 30 seconds left.
A stoppage of play was called, and it took longer than usual to set a faceoff up. There were 10 seconds left on the clock. It was changed to 11. Oswego won the faceoff, juggled the puck, and got a shot off. Shiller saved it. He was immediately tackled by the entire bench.
The Cardinals have faced the Lakers four times this season, with the championship game evening the season series 2-2. Plattsburgh lost the first two games 1-5 in Oswego and 1-2 at home in the Comfort Inn Complex Winter Classic Championship Game. Having lost only three conference games all season, the Lakers accounting for two of them made for a difficult matchup.
Plattsburgh, then ranked No. 13, won the third game 6-1 over the then No. 6 Oswego in Plattsburgh. The late-January victory may have been the most important all season, as it gave the Cardinals precedent for sinking the Lakers.
“I felt like they honestly had a little bit of pressure considering we beat them last time at our barn,” Gallagher said. “We just stuck with it.”
A pile of red bodies formed over Shiller and gloves, sticks and helmets littered the ice. Players were shouting, embracing each other and sharing congratulations with one another. The players eventually formed an opposite line from Oswego and awards were announced.
“I’m glad we could get it done, it’s the first one of my career,” Araujo said. “It took five years, long enough. I’m happy for the guys, real all-around effort from us.”
Plattsburgh got together for a team photo with the trophy and banners. Players took turns hoisting the trophy before the fans and using the banner as a cape. Players hugged, took pictures, shared kind words and celebrated with one another, coaches and fans on the ice for the next few minutes. The tall task of the NCAA Championship stands before them, but for now, they are champions.
“The guys have bought in since day one here. This year, we’ve taken it day by day,” Moffat said. “We’ve had great leadership. Our leadership group has been amazing.”
The Cardinals are slated to face the No. 10 Norwich Cadets (19-6-2) at home March 11 at 7 p.m., its first home NCAA Championship game since 2011, when it hosted Norwich. The Cadets and the Cardinals have a history this year, splitting two games in the span of two weeks earlier this season.
Plattsburgh beat Norwich 3-1 in the FirstLight Shootout Championship at Norwich Nov. 26. The game served as Shiller’s coming out party, winning the FirstLight Shootout Tournament MVP. The Cards then traveled back to Norwich Dec. 6 to different results, losing 1-2. The Cardinals are ranked higher, but there is no clear favorite as they travel back to the Ronald B. Stafford Ice Arena.
“They’re set. Eli Shiller, Jacob Hearne. They got it on lock down,” Araujo said. “These young studs that just came in this year and helped us progress us towards this final and this trophy. Unbelievable man. They have a bright future ahead of them at Plattsburgh.”