Union freshman forward Matt Wilkins turned 22 on Saturday, and he gave the 19th-ranked Dutchmen a nice birthday present.
Wilkins scored a power-play goal with 36.8 seconds left in the third period, snapping a 2-2 tie and giving the Dutchmen a 3-2 victory over Capital Region rival Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the inaugural Mayor’s Cup game before 5,959 fans at the Times Union Center.
“That’s a heck of a birthday present for him,” Union coach Rick Bennett said. “Happy birthday, Matt, for us, and the team and the Mayor’s Cup.”
The win was the Dutchmen’s eighth straight over the Engineers over the last two seasons. And this one came down to the final minutes, after RPI had tied the score with 4:24 to play.
Wilkins got the power play started for the Dutchmen (13-8-4). After coming down the left wing and dumping the puck into the RPI zone, Wilkins attempted to skate past Engineers defenseman Nick Bailen.
Bailen knocked down Wilkins, and he was called for interference with 1:23 left. There was a similar play that went against Union earlier in the third, when defenseman Sebastien Gingras knocked down CJ Lee along the right-wing boards in the neutral zone.
As time was winding down and the possibility of overtime looming, center Josh Jooris got a pass from Mat Bodie and skated down the right wing into the RPI zone. As Jooris got to the faceoff dot, he spotted Wilkins going to the net.
Wilkins outraced two RPI defenders, arriving at the same time Jooris’ pass, and he simply redirected it past goalie Jason Kasdorf to snap the 2-2 tie.
“That’s good. It’s nice,” said Wilkins, who has scored goals in consecutive games after getting just one in his first 18. “To get [the game-winner] on my birthday is very special.”
RPI coach Seth Appert wouldn’t provide his thoughts on the call against Bailen. But he wasn’t happy that Wilkins was allowed to win the race to the net.
“At the end of the day, their kid made a play, and we had two guys that didn’t execute very well there,” Appert said. “It’s a play that should have been easily defended. We had two guys made mental mistakes in big moments, and they have to grow up from that.”
Jooris returned to the lineup after missing Tuesday’s 4-1 win over Harvard because of an upper-body injury. He took a stick to the facemask early in the third period of last Saturday’s 2-1 victory over Colgate. He didn’t want to miss the Mayor’s Cup game.
“I was pretty fired up,” Jooris said. “Anytime you sit out a game, it [stinks]. You want to be out there helping your team [and] contributing. It was nice to get back out there and help the team.
“On that goal, it was a nice play by ‘Matty Bods’ to get it up to me. It was a great bust by Matty Wilkins. Everyone said it was a nice pass, but he made it really easy. It was a clear lane. I dished it to him, and he put it in.”
Union was fortunate to win this game. RPI (8-11-5) dominated the majority of the play for the first two periods.
After giving up an early first-period power-play goal to the Dutchmen’s Daniel Ciampini, the Engineers kept up the pressure. They ended up outshooting the Dutchmen, 16-7, in the first period. And that momentum spilled over into the second.
Ryan Haggerty tied the score 16 seconds into the period. After goalie Troy Grosenick turned aside a Lee shot, Haggerty was alone on the doorstep to put home the rebound.
“It always seems like we take a penalty early and get scored against them, and we did,” Appert said. “It played out, pretty much, how you anticipate [it]. But we responded really well in that first period. Sometimes, that has set up back for 20 minutes. You saw how much we outshot them the rest of that first period. . . . I thought it was a great response by our team. It shows we’re growing up.”
Union snapped the 1-1 tie early in the third period when Greg Coburn’s long shot from the high slot handcuffed Kasdorf and beat him. But the Engineers continued to press, and it resulted in the game-tying goal by Mark McGowan with 4:24 to go. Lee put a shot from the right wing on net, and Grosenick stopped it. But he kicked the rebound right on to the stick of McGowan, who was going to the net. He fired it past Grosenick.
“The puck went wide to Lee, and I was driving the net,” McGowan said. “I got the rebound right on my stick.”
Already having the nation’s best power play at 26.3 percent (31-for-118), Union’s penalty kill is one of the country’s best, too. The Dutchmen went 5-for-5 on the penalty kill against RPI, and they have killed off 91.2 percent (93-for-102) of opponents’ power plays. That is tied for second in the country with ECAC Hockey-rival Quinnipiac.
Union was outshot, 38-20. Bennett knows his team was fortunate to escape with the victory.
“I know we didn’t have our ‘A’ game, and you’re going to have those nights,” Bennett said. “But we stuck with it, and it was a great win.”
RPI 0 1 1 — 2
Union 1 0 2 — 3
First Period — 1, Union, Ciampini 8 (Coburn, Simpson), 3:34 (pp). Penalties — Leboeuf, RPI (cross-checking), 2:00; Dolan, RPI (contact to head-roughing), 5:02; Ciampini, Uni (tripping), 7:33; Boyle, Uni (interference), 17:08.
Second Period — 2, RPI, Haggerty 10 (Lee, Bailen), :16. Penalties — Dolan, RPI (roughing), 3:04; Wilkins, Uni (roughing), 3:04; Bubela, RPI (boarding), 13:32; Simpson, Uni (hooking), 14:56.
Third Period — 3, Union, Coburn 8 (Simpson, K. Bodie), 1:51. 4, RPI, McGowan 5 (Lee), 15:36. 5, Union, Wilkins 3 (Jooris, M. Bodie), 19:23 (pp). Penalties — Gingras, Uni (interference), 5:41; Wilkins, Uni (cross-checking), 9:06; Bailen, RPI (interference), 18:37.
Shots on Goal — RPI 16-9-13 — 38. Union 7-6-7 — 20.
Power-play opportunities — RPI 0 of 5; Union 2 of 4.
Goalies — RPI, Kasdorf 4-2-2 (20 shots-17 saves). Union, Grosenick 9-6-4 (38-36).
A — 5,959. T — 2:05.
Referees — Tim Kotyra, Bob Ritchie. Linesmen — Ryan Knapp, Dan Taggart.