Late in the second period, Gonzaga winger Terence Schmutz skated to the penalty box to join fellow senior Patrick Fergus. The Eagles had dominated in the early going of Friday’s matchup with O’Connell, outshooting the Knights by 15 in the first period. But Gonzaga had just one goal to show for it, and now O’Connell was gifted a two-man advantage.
But as two of the top-ranked Eagles’ key contributors sat in the box, goaltender Jalen Greene bailed them out. The freshman kept No. 8 O’Connell off the board for the duration of the 49-second, two-man advantage, and Gonzaga survived a frantic end to the second period and shut the door in the third to bring home a 3-0 victory.
“During the first period, it wasn’t coming to them, but in the second they looked like a new team, and they started putting a lot of shots on net,” said Greene, who made 13 saves in the shutout.
“We’re really aggressive when we are trying to kill a penalty. We don’t give anyone time or space.”
O’Connell (10-6-4) called a timeout to set up its power play but failed to record a shot during the two-man advantage as Gonzaga’s defense dove, slid and stretched to clear the puck. Toward the end of the power play — which lasted more than three minutes — the Knights forced Greene into three saves as they were finally able to maintain possession in Gonzaga’s zone.
“In the timeout I told them, ‘Look we’re going to win the faceoff, and we’ll get two or three icings, and we’ll be fine. Just clear it,’ ” Gonzaga Coach Bill Slater said. “It’s all about puck battles and desire. All the kids on both teams are good, so at the end of the day it’s the small battles. It’s nothing pretty.”
O’Connell junior netminder Zach Hale flashed his glove and stuck out his pads to make 27 saves and keep the Knights within striking distance for much of the game. But in the third period, Fergus took over, which has become routine in Gonzaga’s recent wins.
As O’Connell desperately threw bodies forward in search of a third-period equalizer, Fergus won a loose puck between the circles and found linemate Mackie Wheeler open on the doorstep to give the Eagles a 2-0 lead with 12 minutes to play. Fergus’s 19th assist of the season gave Gonzaga some breathing room, and 48 seconds later, his 24th goal crushed any hope O’Connell had of a comeback as he executed a precise finish between Hale’s legs on a breakaway.
O’Connell managed a 1-1 tie with the Eagles on Dec. 28, but the Eagles (17-2-2) have won four straight after suffering consecutive losses to end the National Capital Hockey Tournament.
“Watching from the penalty box is nervous, but we take an absurd amount of penalties, so we’re used to killing them. I trust our defensemen out there,” Fergus said.
“I know I have speed; I use that to my advantage on breakaways. The goalie went for a poke check, so I saw that and went five-hole.”