ODENTON, MD– After a historic season last year, the Maryland Black Bears got back to the ice for the start of the 2021-22 season trying to build off of what they started last year. Returning nine full-time players and five players who saw some action as affiliated players, the Black Bears in the room knew the task at hand in order to get into the Robertson Cup final four.
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 10th, 2021: BLACK BEARS (5) vs. New Jersey Titans (0): Off the hop, the Black Bears tried to play off the energy of the crowd at The Den at Piney Orchard, getting to the Titans fairly early with some quick chances. However, the Titans turned the tide in the second half of the first period and into the second. Michael Morelli stood tall when he was called upon, helping the Black Bears out during some penalty kills in the second period.
With under a minute left in the second, the flood gates began to open for the Black Bears, with Jacob Brockman picking up a loose puck in front to put home the first goal of the season. Forty-five second later, Aden Bruich picked up his first of the year, ripping one home to make it 2-0 just before the buzzer. Bruich, however, wouldn’t see the end of the game, as he was subjected to two hits from behind, the second requiring him to be assisted off the ice for the remainder of the game.
The Maryland defensive corp got into the act towards the midway point of the third, with Luke van Why putting home a laser of a shot to make it 3-0, while Philip Törnqvist fired home a shorthanded goal to put Maryland up 4-0. Branden Piku showed just how the luck was paying off for Maryland, as a dump-in fooled Titans’ goalie Owen Hains and took a couple bounces around the cage before going in to make it 5-0.
Morelli stopped all 23 shots for his 3rd NAHL shutout of his career. Piku ended up with a goal and two assists, van Why had a goal and an assist, while defenseman Matthew Davies had two assists of his own.
SATURDAY SEPTEMBER 11th, 2021: BLACK BEARS (3) vs. New Jersey Titans (4) OT: Penalty troubles hampered the Black Bears early, as under two minutes into the game; Jack Karlsson fired one past Morelli to give New Jersey an early 1-0 lead on the power play. Undaunted, the Black Bears responded 33 seconds later, as Piku followed up a Miles Gunty shot and put it past Ben Charette for the tying goal. Special teams wasn’t too great for Maryland at the start of the game, as a Törnqvist shot was blocked, resulting a Titans’ 2-on-1 and a Tommy Bannister shorthanded goal.
With neither team scoring in the second, the third period provided early season hurdles for the Black Bears. However, the rising star of the weekend came through again, as Piku netted his second goal of the game on a wrap-around caused by driving the net and using his speed to outpace the Titans defense. Just over 90 seconds later, Ryan Bottril– who had been snake bit all weekend– put home a rebound off a Joona Haarti shot in front that bounce around to give the Black Bears the lead (ed note: Haarti did not get an assist off that goal).
Maryland had all the momentum at that point, but the media timeout swayed the game a bit, as New Jersey was able to tie the game off a Jake LaRusso goal with 8:17 remaining in regulation. LaRusso seemed to be owed that one, as he had missed a couple “sure thing” goals earlier in the game. The rest of regulation solved nothing, putting the Black Bears and Titans into overtime. In the overtime, Maryland has some chances, but Charette was stellar in net for New Jersey. With under two minutes remaining, a lead pass up to Brandon Avezov sprung him for a quality chance, but Morelli stopped him sliding across. Avezov got his own rebound and another to put it past Morelli to end the game 4-3.
While a sweep would have been the most fairy tale result for the Black Bears this home weekend, to start with three points isn’t too terrible. Morelli looked solid in his two starts; the defense played well, though there’s some things to tighten up on; the offense looked solid when they had sustained time in the zone. It is a marathon of the season, but setting a tone early helps. Piku with six points in the series is a starting point, 10 different point contributors shows depth, while those who didn’t show up on the scoresheet provided in other ways– Kevin Scott and Sean Kilcullen being steady in their zone, Dimitry Kebreau and James Tepper bring the physical game, energy from Brad McNeil and Farrell Dinn– a full compliment of players chipping in.
Next up is the NAHL Showcase in Blaine, Minnesota for four games in four days against three team from the South Division– Odessa, Wichita Falls, and Corpus Christi– and one from the Midwest– Chippewa– before returning to The Den to take on the team they faces in the East Final– Maine.