Xpress Opener Is ‘Picture Perfect’

Southern Tier’s Michael Keller checks Wooster’s Shane Malinak into the boards during Saturday’s NA3HL season opener at Northwest Arena. P-J photo by Scott Reagle

Earlier this week, first-year Southern Tier head coach Lou Santini said his team would have to possess the puck and play with speed in order to be successful in the North American Tier III Hockey League this season.

Saturday night, the Xpress came out flying and backed by a 38-save shutout from goaltender Ryan Pascarella skated away from the Wooster Oilers for a 3-0 opening-night East Division victory at Northwest Arena.

“That’s picture perfect for me,” Pascarella said. “You always want to start your season on a high note. These boys have done everything so that we could do that tonight.”

Southern Tier is coming off a 15-28-4 season in 2016-17, including a 1-7-0 record against Wooster, but the hope is that a new coach and some fresh faces this year can turn around the Xpress’ fortunes.

They took their first step toward doing that Saturday night.

Southern Tier goalie Ryan Pascarella blocks a shot during Saturday’s NA3HL season opener at Northwest Arena. P-J photo by Scott Reagle

Southern Tier took the play to the Oilers off the opening faceoff and were rewarded at the 11:41 mark when newcomer Stuart Pearson chased down a loose puck to the left of Wooster goaltender Michael Hubbard. A failed poke check left Hubbard a bit out of position and Pearson capitalized by beating the goaltender high to his blocker side for a 1-0 lead.

“We want to be ready for the first periods. Opening night is a little tough … but in the first period they came out and set the tone. I thought we had four or five Grade A scoring chances. … I thought we could’ve buried a couple of others,” Santini said. ” … As the game went on I felt we were able to implement things in our game plan to get a few more goals.”

Pascarella did his best work of the night early in the second period. Less than two minutes into the frame, the Lakewood native stopped Zach Zwierecki in alone and less than five minutes later, he stopped another breakaway when Grant Dickinson got behind the Southern Tier defense.

“It just comes down to repetition. I’ve had great goalie coaches,” Pascarella said. “Coach Santini just drilling into my head to be patient and wait for them to make the first move. It really helps in that situation to just stay calm and be confident.”

“We have so much confidence in him that we don’t have to worry about the puck going in the net,” Xpress captain Ty Rickabaugh added.

The Oilers had their best chance to get back in the game when they drew back-to-back penalties midway through the period, but were unable to capitalize on either power play.

“It was a difficult situation. We practice power play a good amount, but when we came to perform the urgency level wasn’t there,” Wooster coach Aaron Hernandez said. “There were a lot of lackadaisical options and decisions that were made.”

The Xpress took control of the game less than two minutes after the second minor penalty expired as Harry Payne picked up the puck at the blue line at beat Hubbard five-hole for a 2-0 lead.

“We want to be fast, we want to be quick,” Santini said. “I think we built the team around that.”

Less than 40 seconds later, Payne made it 3-0 with his second goal of the night as he took a Luke McLeod backhand pass across the front of the goal crease and tapped it home on his backhand behind Hubbard.

“In every game there’s always a momentum swing. I thought we were doing good things and just weren’t rewarded with goals,” Santini said. ” … They came really quick, two quick bang-bang plays. It just changed the whole tone and complexion of the game.”

Southern Tier took four minor penalties during a sloppy third period, but Pascarella stood tall, making 21 saves to keep the Oilers off the board with an 0-for-7 power-play showing on the night.

“He works so hard. He has such a passion for the game. Every day he battles night in and night out for us,” Santini said of Pascarella. “He’s one of the hardest-working guys for us. I think his attitude definitely carries over.”

“He played well. We got plenty of opportunities and a lot of tips,” Hernandez said of Pascarella after his team couldn’t score on 38 shots. “A lot of good saves were made. My hat’s off to him.”

NOTES: Rickabaugh, Joey Gerace and Calvin Tonzi picked up assists in addition to McLeod’s. … Hubbard made 39 saves in net for Wooster. … The Xpress travel to Rochester next Saturday to take on the Roc City Royals before returning home Friday, Sept. 22 to battle the Pittsburgh Vengeance.