SYRACUSE — Playing in their first game with a clean bill of health in nearly three weeks, the healthy Rome Free Academy hockey team put on a display during their Section III Division II quarterfinal matchup in about as complete a hockey game that the Black Knights have played all season.
Maybe even as complete a team can play all season.
"Everybody is finally good now, and we are going to be hard (to beat) now," said RFA junior tri-captain Max Bartell.
"We’ve been preparing for two weeks for this game. We did everything perfectly tonight," he added.
Near-perfect they were.
Bartell had a goal and two assists while Garrett and TJ Reilley combined for two goals and three assists and the Romans played aggressive defense to go with their strong netminding from Mike Endres as the No. 3 seeded Black Knights pummeled the second-seeded Corcoran Cougars, 6-3, on Thursday night at Meachem Arena.
RFA, which improved to 12-7-2 overall with the win, snapped their two-game losing streak and will face the winner of tonight’s quarterfinal game between No. 1 seed New Hartford and fourth-seeded Christian Brothers Academy/Jamesville-Dewitt at 6 p.m. at the New Hartford Recreation Center in the semifinals next week.
The higher seeded team will host the game.
Bartell got RFA off to a fast start with two assists in the opening frame as the Romans mounted a 3-1 lead with scores from junior forwards TJ Reilley and Ryan Fanelli.
Fanelli slapped in the second Rome goal in off a rebound from Corcoran goaltender Jason Frier to bring the score to 2-1 with 3:40 left in the first for Rome.
Bartell then ripped a shot on net 36 seconds later that Frier gave up yet another rebound on and Garrett Reilley was there to tap in to light up the lamp and put the Black Knights ahead by two goals.
The visitors, which defeated the Cougars 3-2 in overtime in the two teams only matchup of the season, carried their two-goal 5-3 lead into the final seven minutes, where the Romans’ defense had to test their mettle.
Bartell was called for a penalty- one of two for Rome in the final stretch- to give the hosts a power-play opportunity.
Endres stayed tough in between the pipes and stopped three straight rocket shots in front of the net and held on to the puck during two different scrums in front of the posts to keep the puck from touching the back of the net.
Endres, whose record now sits at 6-4 overall in the net, made ten of his 20 saves in the final period, including six on the Cougars’ power-play opportunities, and has now only allowed an average of 3.5 goals per game with a 0.88 percent save percentage for the Black Knights this season.
Rome cleared the penalty but not before they were called again for another one, this time by eighth grade defenseman Joey Rutkowski, to set up a second power-play for the Cougars.
RFA captain defensemen Matt DeMatteo and Kyle Williams were both looked to again to keep the lead.
The defense was on point again as DeMatteo and Williams smothered their foes and forced some tough-angled shots to remain ahead before Cougar forward Erik Kurz was called for a 1:30 unsportsmanlike penalty to ward off their power play and bring the skaters even at 4-on-4 with around four minutes left to play.
The Black Knights thwarted off seven penalty kills in the game, while the hosts were only whistled for penalties twice, both coming in the third period.
The senior DeMatteo recalls those moments down the stretch for Rome to get the win.
"We had the momentum, but when we got those penalties we really had to hold them back. If they were going to come back, that was the time. We stood our ground, played great defense and held them off," DeMatteo said.
"Defensively we were real tough. They were bigger than our defense, especially our younger guys on this team, but they played tough, in front of our net especially in not giving up those garbage goals," he added.
"Everybody knew that this was the biggest game of the year and everybody did a great job at doing what they were told to do."
RFA head coach Greg Cuthbertson also couldn’t have been more pleased with his team’s heart and determination during that seven-minute stretch.
"They limited everything to the outside, they picked people up in front, they played tough in front of our net, they cleared people out and they did a great job of that tonight," Cuthbertson said.
"We knew we had to play fast. They are the type of team that they kind of hang people, catch you, and lull you to sleep. So we were trying to play a possession game, but a fast game. It just worked out for us," he added.
After all the penalties were cleared, Rome sophomore forward Robbie Waller added an empty-net goal with an assist from Rutkowski to put the game on ice. Rutkowski finished with two assists on the night.
"It was nice to see the scoring from our other lines tonight," said Cuthbertson. "That’s what we needed. Second group has just started to gel and they are doing some things out there and they are finally getting rewarded," he added.
"That’s huge for us when we can throw three lines out there. I’m very proud of the kids."
The Romans jumped all over their opponents in the opening period and the crisp, clean passes and skating with authority didn’t stop there. The Black Knights came out with the same intensity in the second period with break away goals from Bartell and Nic Tardugno.
Bartell broke his with an assist from Garrett Reilley with some quick moves along the boards and beat Frier with a wrist shot, while Tardugno sailed his in over the stick of the keeper to put Rome ahead, 5-2, inside the first four minutes of play in the second.
"We needed to have a good start. The past couple games it seems like we just had a slow start and we were playing catch up, so we wanted to get off to a fast start. We were prepared. The game plan was there and the kids went out there and executed it," said Cuthbertson.
Endres then got beat on his right side with a score from leading Cougars scorer this season James Cathers with an assist from Edmund Cathers.
Andrew Jackson knotted the score at 1-1 in the first with a goal off an assist from teammate Steve Young while Chris Carlson also found the back of the net at the start of the second period with a 5-hole score to slice the lead to 3-2 before the hosts were shutout in the final period.
Frier finished with 23 saves on 29 shots faced.
The Cougars, which were riding a five-game winning streak heading into the game, ended their season at 14-6-1 overall.
Rome will now await their next opponents in their first sectional semifinal game, but are hinting that they want to face their archrival New Hartford for the fourth time this season. The Spartans won the previous three meetings, but are eyeing maybe a different outcome if the two teams meet this time around.
"It’s been way too long," DeMatteo said about beating the Spartans. "Nothing would make me happier than to beat New Hartford before going in to college. There isn’t a graduation gift that would top that. It really wouldn’t," the senior added.
It will be the Black Knights’ first semifinal game since they fell to the Spartans in the 2006-2007 season, but Cuthbertson doesn’t care who the Black Knights face. "We’re going to prepare the kids as best we can, no matter who it is," he said.