Written by Marinna Stopa
Gator goaltender Sophie Felton stole the show late Friday night against the University of South Florida, doing her best to get the Gators DIII team back into the winning column.
Both teams came out playing hard and fast, with plenty of breakaways and hits throughout the game that would wake up just about any hockey team.
Initially, USF had a lot of offensive zone time, putting some early shots on Felton and the Gator defense, but Florida was able to quickly match the energy.
Forward Jonah Schulman was able to pierce through the pressure with a breakaway of his own, forcing an off-guard USF team to commit a penalty to prevent the first goal of the game.
Although nothing showed up on the scoresheet as a result, the power play injected some energy and motivation into both teams, especially after Felton made a couple of huge stops on Clayton Sanders, the penalized USF player, right after the penalty expired.
Shortly after, a Gator providing a goal-front screen was crosschecked by USF’s Yuriy Nazarko, pushed right into the Bulls goalie Garrett Trotman. There was a bit of confusion on the call, as USF thought the penalty should have gone to the Gators for Goalie Interference, but the referees ruled he was illegally pushed into the goalmouth and the Gators went back on the man-advantage.
UF had a much better powerplay the second time around. The Gators were able to keep the puck in the USF zone for most of the two minutes, putting some great pressure on the Bulls’ goalie. Still nothing came of it after two minutes with the second man advantage situation of the period.
The first frame was relatively quiet following the second USF penalty, at least until the last five minutes of play, when Florida would finally open the scoring for the game.
Center Captain Xavier Morris stripped a USF forward at the top of the center, set up, and launched a shot to the top right shelf, beating the goalie cleanly. The entire Florida bench and all Gator fans in attendance celebrated, hoping this was a sign of the team righting their ship and getting back to their early-season winning form.
UF would get another man advantage opportunity before the period expired, their third of the night already. The power play unit still did not click, and the USF penalty kill, once again, proved dangerous, with one of the most threatening offensive chances of the power play coming from a South Florida penalty killer just as the two minutes dwindled down.
The lone Bull forward ripped a shot off the post. Much of the crowd and skaters on both teams were unable to decipher if it had gone in, but the puck stayed out, trickling across the goal line. Thankfully, a UF player cleared down the ice and out of harm’s way quickly, so play was able to resume with the Gators still up by one.
Nonetheless, the Gators went into the second period with a 1-0 lead.
With a penalty handed to center Makena Winch as the first period winded down, Florida had to finish out over ninety seconds of their first penalty against to start the second.
Shortly after successfully killing off the shortened penalty, Winch came out of the box and, with forward Samuel Ryan, was able to create a great 2-on-1 breakaway chance, with Trotman able to make a great blocker save on Ryan’s shot to keep his team in the game.
Eight minutes into the second frame, defenseman Maxwell Carter got caught tripping a South Florida player and was sent to the box, giving UF its second penalty of the period. The Bulls were able to capitalize on the man advantage opportunity and tie up the game.
On the power play, Felton faced the first shot of the game that she had no real chance at getting, which was remarkable considering some of the acrobatic saves she had been making throughout the game.
However, Florida would regroup and respond quickly, with defenseman Dylan Morton getting his fifth goal of the season off a failed clearing attempt by the USF goaltender. Instead of sending it to his own player as intended, Trotman shot it right to Morton, who was able to shoot it at the goalie, collect his own rebound, and tuck it away on the second try.
Having taken the lead back, the Gator defense continued laying out in front of shots, using their bodies and sticks to stop any shot they could from reaching Felton.
Maxwell Carter and Chris Broski especially were both all over the ice, acting as extensions of the goalie while simultaneously trying to score at the other end, somehow all at once. Their efforts seemed to have paid off, as UF led going into the third, 2-1.
Just over a minute into the third period, UF was given its fourth power play of the night. Less than halfway through the man advantage, Morris was able to cash in off a tip in front of the net, and with the Florida power play finally breaking through, the team’s captain was able to extend their teams lead to two with 18 minutes to go in the third.
But the joy of the powerplay breaking through would be short-lived: a mere 57-seconds later, USF would get one right back, as forward Colin Smargon’s slapshot soared right over Felton’s glove.
The fatigue was evident in the third period, as head coach Brad Christman began primarily rolling out the top two forward and defensive lines, giving them minimal time to recover before hopping back on the ice.
Cooper Kappeler still put on a show, using some nice toe-drags and jukes to make USF defenders look silly. Unfortunately, despite his some of his great efforts, he was unable to find the back of the net.
With 4 minutes and 47 seconds left to go, USF would tie the game up, knocking the wind out of an already tired Gators team. Following the Bulls’ goal, both teams seemed to play a bit more conservatively, seemingly okay with finishing the contest in extra time.
During the 3-on-3 overtime, the Gators and Bulls went back and forth down the ice, fully utilizing all the extra space with alternating odd-man breaks.
In the end, the Gators were unable to stave off the Bulls comeback, as USF center Mark Olson scored just under three minutes into overtime.
Despite the result, the team showed some great signs of improvement, with its first game of 2023 proving to be much closer than the last couple of matches entering Friday night. Though the win and the full two points would have been optimal, the team still picked up a point with the overtime loss. The results keeps them ahead of fourth-place Florida Tech, who picked up 3 out of 4 points this weekend against ERAU to pull level with the UF DIII squad, but have played 3 more games than the Gators.
The University of Florida DIII Gators won’t be in action again for another two weeks, where they will meet the Florida Southern College Water Moccasins in Lakeland on February 3rd and 4th.
Edited by Makena Winch