Created on Thursday, 25 October 2012 02:32 Written by Pete Blais, Staff Writer
Rob Behling stood in the net, eyeing an oncoming three-man rush.
As a junior goaltender of Pitt’s Division I men’s club hockey team, it was something Behling had faced many times before. This time, however, was a bit different. Sidney Crosby, Pascal Dupuis and Ben Lovejoy of the Pittsburgh Penguins were skating at full speed straight toward him.
Dupuis glided down the left side, took a pass and then hit Crosby on the right to put it in the goal.
“It’s an unbelievable pace. You can mentally prepare for it, but you don’t know what it’s going to be like until you’re actually doing it,” Behling said.
Add this to the list of incredible team bonding experiences that take place each season for members of the club. And don’t be deceived by the word “club.” The highly competitive team is a member of the American Collegiate Hockey Association and College Hockey Mid-America division. As of last week, the team is ranked No. 24 in the ACHA, with conference play having begun two weeks ago. Its record is 5-4 overall and 3-0 in CHMA play.
Along with Behling, nine other Panther upperclassmen took part in the unique opportunity to practice and scrimmage at a Southpointe, Pa., rink with seven Penguins players, who are currently locked out of NHL competition amidst labor negotiations. Behling’s connection with a Penguins equipment manager landed him and his teammates the opportunity to skate with the pros, who are eager for competition and a goalie to shoot on while their offseason lingers. Behling filled in as a netminder for the team last Thursday, and afterward some of the Penguins players suggested he bring along a few of his Pitt teammates for a scrimmage.
“It was kind of a joke at first, but then we got serious, and Friday we sort of finalized it,” Behling said.
Joining him for the Monday morning skate were defenseman Scott Litwack and forward Anthony Matrisciano, both seniors and New Jersey natives. The two could not be happier with their decision to play hockey at Pitt.
For Litwack and many others on the team, the hockey culture and lifestyle has become a way of life.
“It’s something we’ve been doing our entire lives. I started skating when I was probably 4 or 5 years old and been doing it for over 15 years. It’s become part of what we do I guess,” Litwack said.
“Even outside the rink we all hang out together. I spend all my free time with players on the team,” Matrisciano said.
General Manager Andy Mecs, a Pitt graduate and four-year player on the hockey club, said the team has come a long way since his playing days from 1996 to 2000, but the traditions remain true.
“It’s been hard to walk away from because it’s such a great group of guys every year, and you want them to have a good experience,” he said.
While the players themselves realize the benefits of playing hockey, the reality remains that they’re not very well-known throughout campus.
“The thing I don’t like is that we’re considered on the same level as something along the lines of an intramural sport. We have nationals. There’s rankings every week,” Matrisciano said.
Litwack agreed, adding, “It’s definitely a point of frustration. We do put a lot of time and effort into it, and we’re not recognized maybe as much as we’d like. We’re no slouches,” he said.
Despite the lack of recognition, it’s evident these players care too much about the game and one another to give it up.
“We’re not playing it for the fanfare. We’re playing because we love the game and we have fun doing it,” Behling said.
It’s easy to forget about a team that plays all of its home games about 30 minutes from campus in Harmarville, Pa. But because of tight budget constraints and the expensive cost of ice time, the team doesn’t have much of a choice. It practices twice a week for an hour and a half each night, starting around 10 p.m. because ice time is cheaper later in the day.
Matrisciano claims the late start isn’t so bad as long as you don’t have an 8 a.m. class the next day.
The travel, whether it’s carpooling to Harmarville or riding a bus to an away game, also serves as bonding time for the team.
Behling, a junior and Mt. Lebanon, Pa., native, transferred from the University of Connecticut, where he played hockey for the Huskies. Although he came to Pitt primarily for academics, he has also found his niche within Pitt’s hockey club.
“For a club sport, we do spend a lot of time together. Driving all the way to Harmarville, practicing, four-hour bus rides — It’s great. It’s not a typical club sport,” he said.
Last week the team traveled to Ohio to take on conference foe Ohio University.
“We’re talking about a three-hour bus ride to OU, then staying at a hotel. And because of our budget constraints, it’s not a comfortable stay in a hotel,” Behling said jokingly. “But again, that’s kind of the bonding and team experience that we talk about.”
Head coach Stu Rulnick, entering his second year at the helm for the Panthers, also believes in the team experience and bases part of his coaching philosophy on this principle. Rulnick, former head coach of 10 years for Plum High School, said the open-door policy he has established is good for him as well as his players.
“It helps not only with problems inside hockey, but problems outside hockey as well. It helps them and gives them confidence in the person they’re playing for,” Rulnick said.
“[Rulnick] is definitely one of the most approachable coaches I’ve ever played for,” Matrisciano said.
While the players also said there was an inevitable adjustment period in getting used to a new coach, last year’s season, the first with Rulnick at the helm, ended with 22 wins and a spot in the conference championship.
Litwack noted, “You see it in the results.”
The 20-win season was the first for this year’s senior class and is something they look to build upon this year.
“For our senior class, the first few years were kind of rough. We were around .500. We had high expectations and underachieved a little bit maybe. Coming into last year, we were more leaders. That was our big leap. We almost won our league championship,” Litwack said.
The winning season ended with a heartbreaking 1-0 loss to division rival West Virginia. Behling, playing his first season for Pitt last year, earned himself the starter role and played in 27 games, including the conference final. Despite his impressive season statistics, Behling admits, “I wish I could’ve had that one goal back,” referring to the West Virginia game. “It hit me right in the hand and dropped in.”
While the Pitt football and basketball teams now search for a new rival after West Virginia’s departure from the Big East, the hockey rivalry remains strong between the two. They’ll renew the rivalry Nov. 3 in Harmarville at 4:50 p.m.
“Certainly, West Virginia is our biggest rival because they’re in our conference. They’re really the main team we compete with to go to nationals. Especially this year, we have that expectation we can get to nationals because we were just so close last year,” Behling said.
Despite losing their all-time leading points scorer, Robby McDyre, and two other top scorers to graduation, the Panthers have high expectations entering this year.
Newcomers Cole Snyder and Nick Blaney are expected to replace some of the scoring the team has lost from last year. Likewise, sophomore forward Brian Stein has his upperclassmen teammates sensing big things to come.
“There’s some freshmen last year that are now stepping up into new roles, and they’re doing really well in them so far,” Litwack said.
As someone who has seen a number of teams come through Pitt’s hockey program, Mecs is also optimistic looking forward.
“I see how hockey and the program has progressed. I think the sky’s the limit,” he said.