Buffalo State makes fourth straight semifinal appearance


Dave DeLuca/The Record

Senior Mike DeLaVergne will move on to play for ECHL’s Atlanta Gladiators.

Dan Almasi, Sports Editor

The Buffalo State men’s hockey team advanced to and lost in the semifinals for the fourth consecutive year, taking on and losing to Oswego on Wednesday, 2-0. The Bengals dominated Potsdam last Saturday, 6-2, to advance to the semifinals.

Buffalo State began the season 1-6-2. By the end of the season, they had fought their way to an 11-11-3 record, going 7-6-3 within the conference. The Bengals finished the year with double-digit wins for the fifth year in a row.

“I believe it’s a success, from where we started to where we are now,” sophomore goaltender Mike DeLaVergne said. “A lot of people wrote us off and said that we weren’t going to make playoffs, but we made the semifinals. We just have to make a goal for next year to get past that point, so, that’s where we’re looking.”

It was a season of overcoming for the Bengals, as a rough start was followed up by a very strong finish. Early on, the coaches considered the prospect of chalking the season up as a rebuilding year, as the team had parted ways with nine seniors at the end of last season, including All-American goalie Kevin Carr, and had a roster that included ten freshmen.

On top of all of that, DeLaVergne — called “Deli” by teammates — was injured in the fifth game of the season, a 6-1 loss against Plattsburgh on Nov. 14. He would not return until Jan. 23, missing 15 games. Freshman Ian Sylves stepped in and performed well during DeLaVergne’s absence. But when he returned, the Bengals were 6-9-2 and had a lot of work to do if they wanted to have any chance of making the SUNYAC playoffs.

“When Deli was injured, the door was opened for Ian Sylves to take the job and he did, and ran with it,” head coach Nick Carriere said.

DeLaVergne made his return in late January in a game against Oswego. A 6-0 loss gave the coaching staff the notion that he was not fully recovered from injury, and saw him benched the next two games, which the Bengals split. He was given another shot on Feb. 7 against Potsdam. A strong performance in which he posted 29 saves helped the Bengals win, 5-3, and was the beginning of a late-season rally that pushed the Bengals into the playoffs.

“It took Deli a little while to get, not just physically, but mentally past that injury,” Carriere said. “I think it took him a couple starts and a few days of practice to get that feel back, and there was a turning point when he did. It may have been the Potsdam game at home that he really made the difference.”

DeLaVergne was given the start the rest of the way. Buffalo State finished 4-0-1 in the final five games of the regular season, earning the fifth seed.

“When he stepped up and started playing that way, he defined himself as the clear-cut starter moving forward,” Carriere said. “We had some good competition between Mike and Ian this year and I think they made each other better.”

The rough start to the season with some tough losses against good teams didn’t discourage the Bengals, but instead served as a learning experience.

“We played some really hard teams back-to-back,” junior forward Ryan Salkeld said. “It was an eye-opening experience, [we realized] where we had to be and how we had to play to beat those teams. We switched our systems a little bit and made a good mold and we were able to make a push.”

The Bengals fell just a goal short of hosting the quarterfinals, as a regular season-ending 4-4 tie against Geneseo dropped them two spots and cost them home ice advantage.

It didn’t matter, though, as they went into Potsdam and dominated the Bears, 6-2, to advance to the semifinals. They opened and closed strong, scoring three goals in both the first and third periods. Six different Bengals scored, including one goal and two assist performances from forwards Salkeld and freshman Jason Zaleski. DeLaVergne was solid between the pipes, making 43 stops.

“Our goaltender played very well,” Carriere said. “Beyond that, we did a nice job on the penalty kill. We really just tried to play our game. We came out and put pressure on them. We were fortunate to get some early goals. Our guys showed a lot of character in the win.”

The Bengals advanced to the semifinals for the fourth year in a row, but were stopped there once again. nationally ranked No. 4 Oswego dominated time of possession, played shutdown defense and advanced to the SUNYAC Championship game with a 2-0 win. The Bengals managed just 21 shots to Oswego’s 43.

“They possess the puck very well,” sophomore forward Nick Berst said. “We weren’t getting pucks deep enough. We were trying to make pretty plays. We weren’t throwing enough on the net. At the end of the first period, we had 3 or 4 shots on net and there were other opportunities, maybe 6 or 7 more times on top of that that we were just going for the nicer plays instead of creating goals.”

Junior forward Brett Hope recognizes Oswego’s defensive dominance as the key factor in their continued postseason success.

“Defense wins championships,” Hope said. “That’s a team that’s been to the frozen four the past four years and they know how to defend and win hockey games.”

Oswego will travel to Plattsburgh for the SUNYAC Championship game this Saturday.

Salkeld led the team offensively this season with 29 points, scoring 14 goals and registering 15 assists. Zaleski led the team in shot percentage amongst players with four or more goals (.232 percent) and was second on the team in points with 13 goals and 12 assists. Hope led the team in shots with 76 and was third in points with 10 goals and 14 assists.

DeLaVergne played in 13 games, posting a .917 save percentage as he allowed 38 goals while making 420 stops. Buffalo State was 6-4-3 when he was between the pipes.

Sylves played in 15 games, posting a .891 save percentage, allowing 58 scores and making 474 saves. The Bengals went 6-8 during Sylves’ time as starting goaltender.

SUNYAC hockey has been dominated by Oswego and Plattsburgh in recent years, as both teams have finished as the top two in five of the last six years, with the exception of last year, in which Geneseo beat out Plattsburgh in the semifinals, only to lose to Oswego in the SUNYAC Championship, 7-6.

Carriere believes taking the next step and shaking up the SUNYAC division starts with recruiting.

“I’m not a good enough coach to make that much of a difference,” Carriere said, laughing. “We need players that are going to help us get over this little hump.”

Carriere feels he and the coaching staff should have no problem getting top-tier recruits to come to Buffalo State.

“The school sells itself,” Carriere said. “We have a beautiful arena and a great institution with a great environment. The $30 million investment in the Houston Gym and those facilities, it’s easy to show those off and be proud of the state that our facilities are in.

“Beyond that, you have the rejuvenation of the City of Buffalo with the HarborCenter and the ownership of the Sabres and Bills and just all the other things to do aside from the campus. It’s a very special place, and from a hockey program perspective, we’ve had a lot of consistency. I‘ve been here for ten years and we’ve made some good runs in the playoffs. I think people are starting to look at our program and seeing that there is some real opportunity here at Buffalo State.”