New Hartford – After a slow start, the Clinton Warriors are firing on all cylinders heading into the Section III playoffs. On Friday night in New Hartford, the clock was the only thing that stalled the Warriors’ engine, and that was because it stalled itself.
The Spartans scored with just nine seconds left in regulation, but it was the Warriors who ended up with win. Clinton dominated most of the game and relied on junior forward TJ Elsenbeck to bring them home, all but securing the third seed in the sectional playoffs with a 2-1 overtime win at the New Hartford Rec Center.
“I’m sure it wasn’t intentional,” Clinton head coach Jon Davignon said. “It is what it is. We’re happy our kids came away with the win.”
“It was close all night,” Elsenbeck said of the game. “But it’s nice to get the win.”
In a supporting role, both goaltenders played admirably, with New Hartford’s Juliano Macera stopping 31 of 33 shots, while Clinton’s Brian Saunders stopped all but one of the 15 shots he saw. The New Hartford junior was especially resilient, putting up with several flurries from the Warriors.
“He’s been there all year for us,” New Hartford head coach Carson Cunningham said. “He’s a rock in net. The guys rally around the fact that he will give you an A-plus game.”
The Spartans needed him early and often in the first period, especially on the penalty kill, when Ed Rayhill was called for slashing just three minutes into the game. The Warriors peppered him early and often, but every single shot was turned away by the junior. Unfortunately, the Spartans could not pepper Saunders in the same way, not getting a shot for the first six minutes of the period.
“Part of our struggles is that we haven’t gotten shots,” Cunningham said.
Unfortunately for the Spartans, the puck luck went Clinton’s way late in the period. After the Spartans killed off another penalty, this time an interference call by senior Michael Fiorentino, the Warriors continued to pressure Macera from all sides. Late in the period, the Warriors finally got on the board on a wraparound from sophomore Antonio Fernia. Taking a pass from senior Garrett Frank, Fernia was able to keep the puck behind Macera for several seconds before finally burying it in the left corner to put the Warriors up 1-0. Suddenly, the visiting student section was extremely fired up, and according to Elsenbeck, that was a big boost for the Warriors.
“The student section helped us win tonight,” Elsenbeck said of the students who made the trip in the blowing snow to watch their Warriors play.
The score would stay that way for two periods, but as for shots, the Warriors clearly remained in charge, only allowing one shot in the first period. Even as Clinton started the second period as they had the first, Macera was still up to the challenge, as was the power play. After Elsenbeck was sent to the penalty box for roughing, the Spartans began finding their stroke, peppering Saunders with shots from all over the place. Despite the Warriors leading in shots 7-4, the Spartans found themselves on the good end of several two-on-one breaks. Unfortunately, Saunders stopped all four of their shots in the period, and the score remained 1-0 at the second intermission.
When the players took the ice for the third period, the script seemed to flip. Now, it was the Spartans applying pressure to Saunders from all sides. The junior was up to the task, even as the New Hartford power play bore down on him, desperate to get the equalizer.
Then, late in the third period, a strange thing happened on the way to the Warriors’ win. A clock malfunction forced the time to freeze and in a moment of quick thinking, the referees began to keep time on the ice. This allowed New Hartford to find new life late, grabbing several shots as the clock ran down. Finally, with nine seconds left, Fiorentino was able to poke the puck past Saunders to tie it up late, much to the chagrin of the Warriors’ bench and the student section. Despite all the yelling from all sides of the rink, the goal was allowed to stand and the game headed into overtime.
“I think it just made us want to win more,” Elsenbeck said. “Coach just told us to play our game and we’ll get a chance to win it.”
“Our mindset was to keep fighting,” Cunningham said. “We haven’t had a lot of puck luck this season, but something finally went in.”
The Warriors did get their fair share of chances in the overtime period, but the puck managed to carom back and forth for most of the period. New Hartford was able to control the puck for a good amount of the extra session, but the Warriors were able to apply more pressure, putting five shots on Macera. As it turned out, that fifth shot would prove to be the difference, as Elsenbeck caught the junior out of the crease and flipped the puck past him and into the net. The junior was the hero as he was mobbed by every single Warrior charging off the bench to celebrate the 2-1 victory.
“I’m really excited for the kids,” Davignon said of his team’s performance. “We just kept telling them, one thing at a time. We’re happy they’re peaking at the right time.”
The win all but guarantees Clinton can fall no further than third in the Division II National Conference standings, which allows the Warriors to avoid top-seeded Skaneateles in the first round. However, that also means their game will be closer to home against another hockey juggernaut: second seeded Whitesboro, who have only lost twice in the Division II American Conference this season. Although, if you asked the Warriors from Clinton, you would think they were the second seed.
“I think we’re on a roll,” Elsenbeck said. “We tied Whitesboro the last time we played…We think we can win this time.”
As a matter of fact, the only one that isn’t looking towards the eventual Battle of the Warriors is Davignon.
“Right now, all we’re focused on is one play, one game at a time,” Davignon said. “The reward is finally coming for them…Cazenovia’s [the Warriors’ next opponent, on Saturday] next.”
Clinton Warriors 2, New Hartford Spartans 1 (overtime)
Warriors 1 0 0 1 2
Spartans 0 0 1 0 1
Shots on Goal
Warriors 14 7 7 5 33
Spartans 1 4 10 0 15
C- Antonio Femia (Garrett Frank), 14:01.
NH- Ed Rayhill (slashing), 3:34.
NH- Michael Fiorentino (interference), 9:54
C- TJ Elsenbeck (roughing), 4:49.
NH- Logan Kraft (roughing), 7:56.
NH- Fiorentino (Tyler Penree), 14:51.
C- Nolan Provost (holding), 12:01.
C- Elsenbeck (Mark Novak), 2:53.
W- Brian Saunders (C)- 14 saves on 15 shots.
L- Juliano Macera (NH)- 31 saves on 33 shots.
Records: Clinton 7-7-2, 4-5-1 Division II National (9 pts) , New Hartford 5-12-1, 2-8-1 Division II National (5 pts).