As the Owls prepared for a five week break after wrapping up its final game at Penn State on Dec. 8, a 1-3 skid in their final four games had left something to be desired for all involved.
But nothing hurt more than yet another “what if” loss to their up-state rivals.
“We lost to Penn State and it was a big game for us at the time,” senior forward Jordan Lawrence said. “We had played [PSU] pretty tough early on [in a 4-3 loss at home on Sept. 30] and that was a disappointing loss because we just didn’t come to play. We finished on a downside and we struggled. The first half was a little disappointing but the season isn’t over yet.”
“It was frustrating that we didn’t play the way that we wanted to,” coach Jerry Roberts said. “In that game we did a lot of things that beat ourselves.”
In their quest to make it back to the American Collegiate Hockey Association regional playoffs after failing to qualify last season for the first time since 2005-06, Temple appeared to be well on its way early on with starts of 4-0 and 7-2 in its first set of games.
A 5-2 loss at Rowan on Oct. 13 that yielded three separate player suspensions, including a six-game ban on then-leading point scorer Joe Pisko, marked the beginning of a rocky, up-and-down stretch for the team, as it went 6-7 in 13 games before the break.
Freshman forward Cody Vassa has been nothing short of sensational in his rookie season, leading the team in scoring with 29 points while his 13 goals are second on the team behind Pisko (15).
“Going into the season, we talked [fellow freshman forwards Jayson Marbach and Greg Malinowski] and they’re both good players and at times better than we thought they would be,” Roberts said. “But to have a freshman in Vassa who wasn’t on our radar in September being top scorer toward the end of the year, that definitely raises some eyebrows.”
Yet nobody has pleasantly surprised Roberts more than his new starting goalie, junior Chris Mullen.
“Chris Mullen is the first and foremost, and probably the second and third [surprise] for us,” Roberts said. “Mullen had the edge going into tryouts, but no one had a guaranteed spot going in and he more than solidified himself in that first semester. Not only was he the strongest goalie, he was our most consistent player and probably our best player.”
Despite some sporadic individual surprises, the biggest surprise for this Temple team is that it finds itself in danger of missing regionals for the second consecutive season.
The Top 10 ranked teams in the ACHA Southeast region advance to the regional tournament. During the break, the Owls found themselves on the outside in the 11th spot.
Yet a much-needed 6-4 win Sunday in the latter half of a two-game set with the University of Maryland-Baltimore County gave the Owls a split over their rivals, as well as a crucial confidence booster.
“I think that we are taking things one shift at a time right now,” Roberts said. “The players are more excited than they have been in a few years for January hockey because we have a really challenging schedule ahead of us. We’re either going to punch our ticket or take ourselves out of the picture in these next few weeks.”
“The guys know that we very much control our own destiny ,” Roberts added. “We’ve been trying to get the players to focus on one shift at a time. We don’t want the players to be focusing on the games as a whole. We want them to be focusing on the task at hand for each individual shift.”
Any late playoff push from Temple will have to happen amid a difficult final schedule.
The Owls’ five final games include top conference opponents in Liberty (14-6-1), Virginia Tech (13-7-3) and Rowan Universities (15-4-2). All are apparent locks to participate in the regional tournament.
“We’re on the bubble,” Lawrence said. “We control our own destiny right now. We have a lot of games to play against teams that are above us and we need to come out and play hard day in and day out. Playing well against those teams will give us confidence and it works in your favor because you’re more prepared to play those teams come regionals.”
“At this point, we’re on the outside looking in to get to regionals and right now every game is a must win,” senior forward Kurt Noce said. “We’re taking it one game at a time.”
Andrew Parent can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @daParent93.