BYU hockey falls to USU in regional finals

Dmitri Wheeler takes a hit from a GCU defenseman in a game March 1. BYU came out on top of both games against GCU in the 2018-2019 season, including its win at regionals. (Mindy Pitcher)

BYU hockey came one step closer to nationals in Tempe, Arizona, as the team shut out Grand Canyon University at the ACHA West Regional Tournament March 1. However, the team fell to USU in the finals, marking the end of record breaking season.

The 2019 season brought drastic changes to BYU hockey, including a new head coach and a 19-9 record, a program high. Last season, BYU finished the season with a 12-12 record.

Team captain Barber Nixon said he felt this season would be different and had faith the team would make it this far.

“We didn’t go into this season thinking, ‘Oh, we want to finish ranked’ or ‘We just want a high record,’” Nixon said. “No, we wanted to go all the way.”

The Cougars and Lopes faced off Nov. 9 on GCU’s home turf and BYU won 2-1. Last year, No. 7 BYU went head-to-head against No. 6 GCU at the 2018 Western Division Regional Playoffs at Oceanside Arena, resulting in a 2-0 loss for the Cougars.

Since then, BYU captured the Wasatch Cup and the Mountain West Conference title for the first time in program history. This success led senior captain Ashton Shimbashi to believe the 2019 regional matchup would turn out differently.

“The team feels pretty confident because we’ve grown so much,” Shimbashi said. “We’re healthy and we’ve done so much preparation.”

The Cougars rewrote history by shutting out GCU 4-0 in the exact same arena March 1. Replacing former head coach Ed Gantt, new head coach Dave Pitcher said he knew this win would be important for the team’s morale.

“Grand Canyon was ranked slightly higher than us and we wanted to prove that we were capable and able to play at the national tournament,” Pitcher said. “I think we sent that message by shutting them out.”

BYU headed into regionals on a six-game winning streak and the team’s momentum proved to be intact. Within the first 16 minutes of the GCU game, the teams remained even until right winger Chase Christensen found the back of the net, scoring the first goal of the game.

His groove carried into the second period when within five minutes, Christensen struck again. A mere three minutes later, he logged a natural hat trick, leaving the Lopes trailing 3-0.

BYU gave GCU several opportunities to even the score because of penalties; however, GCU failed to convert during various power plays. With only 1:28 left in the third period, BYU topped off its win with one final goal by junior Chandler Cattelain, bringing the final score to 4-0.

Heading into the game, Pitcher said he felt the team would have the greatest success if no GCU player went without pressure.

“I told the boys before the game that I wanted a blue jersey on those guys every time they touched the puck and that’s what we did,” Pitcher said. “We were all over them.”

In addition to Christensen’s standout performance, junior Jared Manzella logged a shutout, stopping all 25 shots on goal.

A particular advantage Pitcher felt his team had over GCU is that BYU is accustomed to playing on olympic sized rinks. According to measurements, an olympic hockey rink is 15 feet wider than an NHL sized rink.

“My feeling is that our boys are pretty quick on olympic size ice and when we get on NHL size ice it makes them even faster,” Pitcher said. “At least quicker to the puck because the rink is that much smaller.”

The game marked the first time in the last two years the gap surpassed two goals between the rivals. It was also the first time the Cougars had only one game holding them back from advancing onto the ACHA D2 National Tournament.

Heading into the final game of the tournament on March 2, BYU prepared to face No. 9 USU for the seventh time this season. BYU won all but one of their six previous matchups. Winning the Wasatch Cup and the regular season title in the Mountain West Conference included beating out USU in both occasions during the final game. 

On Feb. 9, BYU beat out USU, taking the Mountain West Conference champion title. (Photo by Mindy Pitcher)

Headed into regionals as the ninth seed, USU needed to win three games in order to advance. On Feb. 28, the Aggies beat out No. 12 University of Texas-El Paso 6-4. The following night, USU scraped by with a 3-2 win against No. 4 MSU Denver, propelling them toward the finals against BYU.

Less than four minutes after the puck drop, BYU’s freshman Hugh Blum put the puck in the net, but USU quickly replied with a goal of its own. The Cougars successfully converted a power play late in the first period, giving them a 2-1 lead heading into the middle frame thanks to a Christensen goal.

USU took a 3-2 lead during the second period after scoring a pair of goals. Meanwhile, BYU hit a dry spell. In the final period of the game, the Aggies doubled their lead with a goal on the power play. BYU fought until the end, bringing the score to 4-3 with 31 seconds left in the game. In the end, the Aggies received the payback they desired after BYU beat them out for the previously mentioned titles.

Even though the team didn’t end regionals on a high, Pitcher walked away with an important lesson: BYU belongs.

“We can definitely compete at that level,” Pitcher said. “We all felt that we could win because we shut out GCU and they’ve been ranked in the top 10 all season long.”

Pitcher is grateful to have a nearly identical team along with a few potential newcomers, as only two seniors will be leaving.

“The boys are close and we’re tight knit,” Pitcher said. “We’ll carry that over into the next season and be off to a good start.”

With the road to nationals closed, BYU can celebrate the fact that its season ended one step further than the last.

“I told our players after the game that we have to look at all the good things that happened this season,” Pitcher said. “It had a lot of positives, a lot of big firsts.”

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