The ice hockey team earned its first bid to Nationals with wins over Liberty and Bowling Green.
For the first time in the history of Temple ice hockey, the Owls will compete in the American Collegiate Hockey Association Nationals.
“When the season starts in September – there’s 190 teams,” coach Jerry Roberts said. “And the final weekend in Nationals only has 16 teams. To be a part of those 16 teams … it validates everything we do.”
The Owls beat Bowling Green, 4-2, on Saturday and Liberty, 2-1, on Sunday to earn a qualifying bid for Nationals at the ACHA Regionals this weekend. Junior forward Taylor Lockhart scored two goals on Saturday and netted the game-winner in the third period on Sunday.
“This is the best feeling I’ve had in my 15 years of hockey,” Lockhart said.
“It’s something very special between these 24-26 guys and the coaching staff,” junior goalie Will Neifeld added. “It’s never been done before. It’s very special, and we’ll never forget it.”
The ACHA Regionals were held at the Northeast Skate Zone and was a collection of the 3-8 seeds in the ACHA Southeastern division. The top two seeds from the regular season, Florida Gulf Coast and Miami, received automatic bids to Nationals, which will be held in San Jose, Calif.
Regionals were a single-elimination tournament in which the last two teams remaining join the top two seeds from the regular season at Nationals.
“We played phenomenally this weekend,” Roberts said. “Over the past three or four weeks we could just feel the team playing better and better. We felt like we were building up to our best hockey, which is what we got this weekend.”
The Owls were the No. 5 seed and began the tournament against No. 8 Falcons Saturday. The Owls never trailed in the game. Sophomore forward Joe Pisko gave the Owls a 1-0 lead eight minutes into the game on a pass from senior forward Steve Danno.
The first period ended with a tie after a Falcons shorthanded goal, but the Owls re-took the lead six minutes into the second on a sophomore defenseman Matt Benedetto goal dished out by Danno. Lockhart added his two goals to put a bow on the 4-2 win.
“It’s not about two goals. It’s about what you do for 60 minutes,” Lockhart said. “We won as a team. Everything we’ve been doing the past couple weeks, we’ve been doing as a team, as a family.”
Temple played No. 4 Liberty in the Regionals final on Sunday. After a scoreless, penalty-free first period, Liberty took a 1-0 lead on a power-play goal with a little less than 14 minutes left in the second period.
The lead held until the second minute of the third period when sophomore forward Nick McMahon scored a rebound goal off a shot by senior forward Ryan Frain. After a tense, back-and-forth 10 minutes of hockey, Lockhart deflected a shot from the point from junior defenseman Andrew Trainor into the net that proved to be the game-winner.
“Trainor controlled the puck at the point,” Lockhart said. “I just got in front of the goalie and tipped it in.”
Neifeld made 32 saves on 33 shots to go along with his 27 saves on Saturday. It was a fitting end to what ended up being an award-winning season – Neifeld was chosen as League Most Valuable Player and Best Goalie for the Mid-Atlantic Collegiate Hockey Association conference.
“[Nationals] means everything for the university, for the city,” Neifeld said. “This is something that’s special.”
“This is the best feeling I’ve ever had,” Lockhart added. “We completed our goal. We’re going to San Jose.”
The ACHA Nationals will take place during the week of March 13-19 in San Jose. Sixteen teams, four from each ACHA conference, compete in pool play with a playoff of the Top 4 teams taking place at the end of the week for the National championship.
Even though Nationals is unchartered territory for Temple, and it is unclear how long this run will last, the team has already come further than any Temple ice hockey team has in history.
“In order to win Nationals you have to win five games in five days,” Roberts said. “The way we play, we have such a deep bench, and we have so many players that can contribute – we’re built for that type of play. We’re built for something like this.”
“We’re not satisfied,” Neifeld added. “It’s not just getting there, we want to get there and win it. It’s going to take efforts like [Regionals] to give us the opportunity to go to San Jose and do it.”
Joseph Cranney can be reached at email@example.com.