By Ryan Kaczmarski
In a somewhat controversial decision, officials overturned a first-period goal by the Amherst Comets that would have tied the game at 1-1, and the Rocky River Pirates scored a second goal just two minutes later to go up 2-0. The Pirates never looked back as they defeated Amherst 6-4 to capture the Division I sectional hockey championship at the John M. Coyne Recreation Center in Brooklyn Thursday night.
“The whistle blew, and the puck wasn’t in the net yet,” Rocky River head coach Chris Cogan said. “They blew (the whistle) and the goalie had the puck, then the puck went in the net. That’s how I saw it, and I don’t know how it changed from the time (the official) left my bench and said it was a goal, to it being reversed.
“Obviously it was huge for us,” he added. “Then we went down the ice and got a second (goal). Those were a big two goals for us.”
The Pirates (27-6) started the scoring with 8:03 left in the first period on a goal by junior forward Eric Sperli, who had three goals in the game. Rocky River sophomore forward Tyler Harkins scored the second Pirates goal with 2:27 left in the first period, the first goal of his hat trick.
Rocky River had the lone second-period goal when Sperli slapped in a medium-range shot past Amherst goalkeeper Eli Branscum with 11:03 left in the period, to make the Pirates’ lead 3-0.
Things got interesting in the third period as there was a back-and-forth scoring barrage by both teams, with Amherst (31-3) getting on the board 3:10 into the final act on a goal by Austin Reid. A few minutes later, Sperli knocked in his third goal, followed by Harkins’ second goal, to give the Pirates a 5-1 lead.
With three minutes left in the game, the Comets’ Kevin Burgett found the back of the net to cut Rocky River’s lead to 5-2.
There was a flurry of action in the final minute of the game, as Amherst scored with 51 seconds left, then the Pirates answered right back with Harkins’ third goal – of the empty-net variety – to make the score 6-3. The Comets added a late goal with 0.06 seconds left, just before the horn sounded, to make the final score 6-4 and the Pirates sectional champs.
The late Amherst push did not sit well with Cogan.
“We weren’t competing like we should be, and I definitely let them know it (in the locker room),” he said. “In the second period, we gave them the momentum for six to eight minutes by not doing the little things, like not getting the puck out of the zone. I told them they can’t do that in the third, and they did it again in the third.”
Pirates senior center and captain Max Lurie chipped in with four assists on the night. Rocky River’s goalkeeper, Jake Nicholson, had 32 saves, while Amherst’s Branscum tallied 25.
The competition will not get any easier in the district semifinals.
“We’re going to be up for another big challenge, and this was a good step for us,” Cogan said. “Now we’ll get ready for our next game against whomever it may be, and go from there.”
In other Division I hockey action, Westlake was knocked out of the tournament by fifth-seeded Strongsville 4-0 last Wednesday night.