CICERO — The Rome Free Academy hockey team’s offense sputtered at the end of the season, scoring just once in its last three contests.
That one goal came in Friday night’s 3-1 opening-round loss to Cicero-North Syracuse in the Section III Division I playoffs at Twin Rinks, bringing the Black Knights’ season to an end.
Rome was outscored by a 12-1 margin in its last three games, including regular season shutout losses to Clinton (4-0) and Syracuse (5-0).
RFA was the No. 3 seed out of the National Division, while C-NS was the No. 2 seed out of the American Division.
Friday’s result was similar to the teams’ regular season meeting on Dec. 18, which also ended 3-1 in favor of the host Northstars.
In both cases, C-NS forward Jake Den Bleyker dominated the scoresheet.
Friday night, Den Bleyker opened the scoring with 7:04 left in the first period when he swung in on the left side and fired a shot low that beat RFA senior goaltender Ethan Siderine to put CNS ahead 1-0. Assists went to Daniel Quick and Logan Ungelich.
RFA got on the scoreboard with 10:48 left in the second period, when sophomore forward Kyle Lubey put home a rebound to tie the game. The play started with junior defender Danny Mecca rushing the length of the ice and getting an initial shot. Junior Aaron Simons collected the rebound and put another shot on goal. That was also stopped by C-NS goalie Jack Doren, but Lubey poked home the third shot. Mecca and Simons both collected assists on the score.
The game was tied for 35 seconds before Den Bleyker again put the Northstars back on top.
This time he was low on the right side when he cut across in front and sent a shot back across his body that found the back of the net. Assisting on that score were Robert Mitchell and Carter Wisely.
RFA’s lone power-play opportunity came during the opening sequence of the third period, when Griffin Eychner drew a roughing penalty by Ungelich as he fought for the puck deep in the C-NS zone only 12 seconds into the final frame. The team failed to score on the advantage.
In a flurry of action late in the game, Siderine made stops on two chances to keep the Black Knights within striking distance.
With 3:48 remaining, Den Bleyker broke out after RFA had several scoring opportunities.
Den Bleyker shot high but Siderine turned it aside with his blocker. Twenty-one seconds later, Den Bleyker cut across the ice from left to right but Siderine laid out and smothered the puck.
Then with 2:53 left in the game, Den Bleyker led the Northstars on a two-on-one and snapped a cross-ice pass to Matt Cramer from the right side. Cramer slid a shot low past Siderine as he cut to the right side, putting the score at 3-1. Assisted went to Den Bleyker and Wisely.
RFA took a timeout with 1:41 left in the game then sent out six attackers and left the goal empty in an attempt to get a quick goal and then try to tie the score. But C-NS held the fort, and the game ended with the Northtstars holding their two-goal advantage.
“We were a young team and you didn’t know what to expect. They surpassed my expectations,” said RFA head coach Jason Nowicki after the loss that ended the season.
It was a team stocked with freshmen and sophomores was led in scoring by a junior and backstopped by a senior goalie, “with great play from our seniors,” he said, calling them “great character kids.” He continued: “We played with a lot of grit every night. We battled with the biggest and the best teams in the league.”
Nowicki said, “There’s really not the perfect words for when a season ends,” but for all but the seven seniors who will graduate from the program, the message was about how to get better for next years.
He said he told the team after the game that he knew even before the regular season that he was looking forward to the campaign. The young team was “willing to show up every day and do whatever to get better. I’m going to miss this team a lot for how much they’ve grown and how they got better.”
On Friday, he said, the team “couldn’t get a lot of offense going.” Most offensive opportunities were stifled by the C-NS defense’s ability to push puck carriers to the corners, he said. RFA was outshot 32-11.
The offseason plan will be to get bigger and stronger, but, he said he told the underclassmen, “don’t change your will to get better.”
Nowicki said the season was “definitely a success” it just “didn’t end how we wanted.” But this was a season that was measured in “more than just wins and loses.”
Siderine stopped 29 shots and took the loss. The team ends the season 8-11-2 overall and 5-7-1 in the league.
Doren stopped 10 shots to earn the win. The team improves to 9-9-2 overall and 8-5 in the league.
The Northstars move on to play No. 1 National seed Syracuse on the road next week in the semifinals, with game time and date to be announced.