March 3, 2023 | SPORTS | By Michael Braithwaite, Co-Editor-In-Chief
While most Colorado College students were off enjoying their Block Break adventures, the men’s hockey team faced off in a weekend series against the University of North Dakota at Ed Robson Arena. While a 2-1 loss and a 0-0 tie (1-0 UND in the shootout) may look uneventful on paper, both games highlighted the Tigers’ mental toughness, even amid offensive inconsistency.
After a pregame fire alarm delayed Friday night’s matchup by just over 10 minutes, CC began the contest aggressive and fast on their forecheck, keeping UND on their heels and tallying eight shots on net to the Fighting Hawks’ three. Coming into the matchup winless in their previous nine games, the Tigers’ fast start was intentional – a way to generate some much-needed offensive momentum.
However, CC was unable to find the net, and the game remained tied going into the second period, despite the Tigers’ early offensive advantage.
“I thought we controlled the play in the first period,” said head coach Kris Mayotte postgame. “Then, they flipped the script, and we didn’t have much of an answer in the second and third.”
Both teams traded goals in the second period, with CC’s coming on a shot by defenseman Ethan Straky ‘26 from just above the blue line. However, UND stifled much of that early Tigers’ offensive attack while administering their own. With a combination of puck control and accurate passing, the Fighting Hawks successfully kept possession on their end throughout much of the final two periods, mimicking a children’s game by playing ‘keep away’ with the puck and CC’s forwards.
This consistent possession by UND brought, in turn, offense. Between the second and third periods, the Fighting Hawks fired an astounding 30 shots on CC’s net, with the Tigers returning just 10 of their own. Despite UND playing as if they had a man-up advantage for the latter half of the game, none of those 30 shots found their way into the back of CC’s net, thanks in large part to the phenomenal play of goalie Kaidan Mbereko ‘26.
With his teammates unable to stop their opponents’ offensive barrage, Mbereko stood pat and defended the net as if his life depended on it, preventing any shot from finding its way into the back of the net as a one-man defense. When the buzzer sounded at the end of the third period, it was miraculously still a 1-1 game.
“If we don’t have the goalie that we do, that’s a 5-1 game,” said Mayotte.
The matchup thus went into a five-minute, 3-on-3 overtime. However, not 30 seconds into the extra period, UND forward Jackson Blake, who had scored the Hawks’ earlier goal in the second period, got around Tiger forward Noah Laba ‘26 to fire a shot past Mbereko for the game-winning score.
With such a dismal defeat on Friday, it would have been easy for the Tigers to roll over and accept another loss on Saturday night.
But that was not the case.
Unlike the previous night’s strategy of starting quick, the Tigers borrowed a page from the Hawks’ playbook, trading in the quick, hit-and-run plays for a more balanced approach.
In Friday night’s game, they prioritized getting the puck into the offensive zone quickly and having plays develop there, trying to create scoring opportunities on the fly. On Saturday night, they emphasized puck control and retention, only breaking from that norm when scoring opportunities presented themselves.
One notable difference between Friday and Saturday’s game was the player in net. Mbereko, who had near single-handedly carried the team to overtime the night before, suffered a lower-body injury during that contest that forced him to sit out of Saturday’s matchup. While Mayotte noted that Mbereko would be “day to day” with the injury in Saturday’s postgame press conference, he did note that the goalie would likely have played if CC were playing in a game with more significant playoff implications.
Despite the downplayed nature of his ailment, Mbereko did not dress on Saturday night, opening the door for veteran goalie Matt Vernon ‘23 to make his first start in net in almost two months.
Vernon competed with Dominic Basse last season for the starting role, only for Basse to transfer to St. Cloud State University last April. However, Mbereko impressed enough to win over the starting job as a first year early this season, forcing the elder Vernon back into a bench role.
However, despite these continual setbacks, Vernon took his surprise start late into the year and ran with it. In an incredibly even game on both fronts, the veteran goalie made multiple highlight-reel saves to keep the Tigers in the matchup.
Despite both teams making valiant efforts throughout the contest, neither could score during the regulation period, with UND notching just one more shot on goal (26) than CC (25). In another 3-on-3 overtime period, the Tigers held firm and Vernon put on a show, making multiple brilliant saves including this one late in the period against an unguarded attacker.
The game thus went into a penalty shootout, and on the sixth total try, UND finally notched the first score of the night – one that ended the game as the Hawks took home an extra point in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference standings.
Despite the hard-fought nature of the game, Coach Mayotte was not pleased with his team’s performance.
“I know we’re not scoring,” said Mayotte after Saturday’s game. “Yes, our goalie was good. Yes, our [penalty kill] was good.”
Saturday’s matchup resulted in only the second 0-0 game in CC history, both of which have been shutouts by Vernon, and account for two of Vernon’s three career shutouts.
The overall theme of the weekend was thus mental fortitude. Both Mbereko and Vernon were stars in net despite defensive shortcomings, especially without a full student section to give the team energy. Moreover, the Tigers held the best power play unit in college hockey to zero power play goals in eight opportunities, providing the necessary defensive help to sustain their currently flat offense.
“You see guys that are gripping [the stick] tight because when they get the looks, they’re missing the net,” said Mayotte postgame. “You just gotta go out and play – we gotta figure it out and we don’t have much time.”
The Tigers will next take on the University of Denver Pioneers in Denver on Friday, March 3, and again at Ed Robson Arena on Saturday, March 4 for the team’s senior night and last home game of the season.