Photo credit: Dave Warner/My Little Falls.

By Scott Kinville.

There was an added sense of enthusiasm in the air on Friday afternoon when the Utica Pioneers Women’s Hockey Team (4-1-1 overall, 4-0-1 UCHC) faced the Stevenson Mustangs (4-3 overall, 2-1 UCHC). Yes, they were playing a big conference rival and have been playing well all season, but looming even larger this game was the first one in the brand new Nexus Center – a building the Pioneers will be calling home.

“Really excited about our first night at Nexus”, Pioneers head coach Dave Clausen said. “Our team played well and it was a lot of fun to be out there”.

Pioneers goaltender Angela Hawthorne (#32) makes a save while teammates Erica Sloan (#8), Madison Novotny (#17), and Georgiana Santullo (#87) guard the front of their net during Friday afternoon’s game. Photo credit: Dave Warner/My Little Falls.

The Pioneers carried the pregame excitement into the game itself, as they outshot Stevenson by a 14-8 margin. Despite the shots advantage, the Pioneers could not get their first Nexus Center goal in the first period as Mustangs goaltender Olivia DeGuire made several timely saves. On the opposite end of the ice, Angela Hawthorne was outstanding in the Pioneer’s net as well – stopping a breakaway and a point-blank chance in front of her net to keep the Mustangs from getting the first tally.

“We just had to clean up our O zone offense a bit”, Clausen said when asked what he told his team during the first intermission. “A couple of detail things and away we went”.

Away they went indeed. The Pioneers got that first goal at their new home at the 4:48 mark of the second period while on the penalty kill when Georgiana Santullo ripped a shot past DeGuire on the glove side to make the score 1-0. The Mustangs got that goal back two minutes later, however, when Emily Brightbill carried the puck into the high slot and beat Hawthorne with a high shot into the top of the net.

Utica’s Georgiana Santullo (#87) scores the Pioneer’s first-ever goal during Friday afternoon’s game. Photo credit: Dave Warner/My Little Falls.

After the Brightbill goal, the Pioneers responded with a scoring barrage. Three minutes after Stevenson tied the game Carolyn Whitney scored to put the home team back into the lead for good when she beat DeGuire with a shot from the left side of the crease. Then Abby Lillis (who also happened to be on the cover of the game program) sent a pass from behind the Stevenson goal line that deflected into the net to make the score 3-1. The Pioneer’s top line capped off the scoring in the middle frame when Carly Stefanini and Erica Sloan were sprung on a two-on-one off a pass from Santullo. Stefanini fired a low shot from the right circle that deflected off of DeGuire’s left pad and right to Sloan who finished the play with a shot into the open net.

Carolyn Whitney scores for the Pioneers during the second period of Friday afternoon’s game. Photo credit: Dave Warner/My Little Falls.

The Pioneers added another goal in the third period when their top line struck again. This time Santullo carried the puck into the Stevenson zone and slid a pass over Stefanini, who ripped a shot past DeGuire to give her team a four-goal lead. Hawthorne and the defense took care of the rest from there and the Pioneers earned their first victory at the Nexus Center by a sore of 5-1. Coach Clausen was pleased with his team’s effort, saying they “had a lot of good play from all four lines”. He also gave credit to their opponents, adding “Stevenson is a good team in our league, looking forward to tomorrow”.

Notes: Utica outshot Stevenson 36-20…Utica was 0/1 on the power play and Stevenson was 0/6…Georgiana Santullo led all scorers with 3 points (1 goal and 2 assists), Carly Stefanini (1 goal and 1 assist), Carolyn Whitney (1 goal and 1 assist), and Abby Lillis (1 goal and 1 assist) had two points each as well…Whitney and Santullo were dominant in the faceoff dot, winning 10 faceoffs each…Santullo’s shorthanded goal was her second shorthanded goal of the season. She is the only Pioneer to score shorthanded thus far this season…Utica and Stevenson meet again on Saturday afternoon at 1:30 pm at the Nexus Center.

Three Observations From The Game

The Stefanini-Santullo-Sloan Line Was Dominant

The Pioneer’s top line was visible all game long. They combined for six points and twelve shots in this game and had pressure on the Mustangs right from the start. When this trio is in sync like they were on Friday, they are a force to be reckoned with.

Angela Hawthorne Was Excellent Yet Again

She only faced twenty shots, but Pioneers netminder Angela Hawthorne was outstanding in this game. She made several big saves including the aforementioned breakaway and grade-A chance for the Mustangs in front of her net preventing the score from being much closer than it could have been. Utica is certainly firing on all cylinders on offense, but Hawthorne is quietly having an outstanding season – giving up only five goals and six games.

The Pioneers Keep Climbing

With Friday’s victory, the Pioneers are within one point of UCHC co-leaders Nazareth and Manhattanville. They have also scored the most goals in the conference and have given up only one more goal than Nazareth and Manhattanville as well.

On the national scene, the Pioneers received ten votes in the latest USCHO national Division III Women’s poll. Central New York and the UCHC aren’t the only ones noticing their excellent play this season.

The Utica Pioneers bench celebrates during Friday’s game at the Nexus Center. Photo credit: Dave Warner/My Little Falls.