When Rochester Institute of Technology's hockey team returned from a semester break trip to Minneapolis for the Mariucci Classic with a 5-10-3 record, few could have imagined the Tigers would still be playing hockey on the final weekend of March.
It wasn't as if RIT was a bad hockey team in the first half. The Tigers played a brutal schedule that included nonconference games against St. Lawrence, Boston College, Yale, UMass Lowell and Minnesota. Wayne Wilson's team also had to make difficult road trips to conference powers Robert Morris and Air Force.
"We didn't think we were as bad as our record. It was a more difficult schedule than we thought. Our first half schedule was as tough as it could get in Atlantic Hockey," said Wilson, who is in his 16th season as head coach at RIT.
In addition to the difficult first half schedule, Wilson and his coaching staff were also breaking in three freshmen defensemen and trying to build up momentum for a team that struggled in parts of the second half the prior season.
"We knew we had more home games in the second half. With each game we were getting more and more confidence. The maturation of our three freshmen defensemen has made a big difference," explained Wilson.
Helping RIT's resurgence has been one of the top producing offensive lines in the country, led by 2015 Hobey Baker Award finalist Matt Garbowsky. The senior captain ranks fifth in the country in points with 53. The St. George, Ontario native, who has 113 career points, has 26 goals and 27 assists on the season.
Garbowsky centers the top line with fellow senior Brad McGowan on the left wing and junior Josh Mitchell on the right side. Together the three have 64 goals on the year, 16 of which have come on the power play.
"Good lines have good chemistry. They just have that good feel and that's what that line has," explained Wilson, the captain of Jerry York's 1984 NCAA championship team at Bowling Green.
Garbowsky is a complete player who does a lot to help to sway the possession advantage in RIT's favor.
"He doesn't cheat the game," said Wilson emphatically. "He wins a lot of face-offs for us which helps us maintain possession. It helps when you start plays off with possession.
Garbowsky's ability to dominate the possession game and play well in his own end as well is a luxury for the Tiger coaching staff. The former BCHL star enters the NCAA Tournament +28 on the season.
"Our leading scorer is also our best shutdown defender. He's able to shut down top lines on other teams. Not only was he Player of the Year in Atlantic Hockey, he was also voted the Best Defensive Forward," said Wilson.
RIT is still playing thanks to winning the 2015 Atlantic Hockey Tournament title last weekend at the Blue Cross Arena in Rochester. It was the first such title since 2010 when RIT used it as a springboard to a run to the Frozen Four in Detroit.
"We were just excited to get back to the Blue Cross Arena to have an opportunity to win a title and get the league's bid to the national tournament," said Wilson.
RIT dispatched Canisius, 2-1, in the semifinals and then Mercyhurst, 5-1, in the championship game. Senior goaltender Jordan Ruby stopped 27 shots each night. After being forced into full-time duty because of a nagging injury to sophomore Mike Rotolo, Ruby has been lights out.
He has a 1.50 goals against average and a .945 save percentage over the four post-season starts since, all wins.
"Mike's day-to-day upper body injury in the bye week opened the door for Jordan. We didn't give Jordan goal support in the first half. Mike was winning, but Jordan's numbers were just as good. Now we're scoring more and giving him run support," said Wilson, using a baseball analogy.
Winning the Atlantic Hockey Tournament holds more weight than it did a decade ago. The league has improved drastically, thanks to the additions of Niagara, RIT, Robert Morris and Air Force. However, Wilson believes the league is much deeper which has helped prepare his team for the national tournament.
"The league has improved quite a bit. We didn't have parity. When a top team played the bottom team, you knew what the result was going to be, but not anymore," explained Wilson.
"Parity makes a league better. As coaches, we're determined to improve the league and keep working our way up the ladder," Wilson added.
When RIT hits the ice at the Compton Family Ice Arena on Saturday afternoon to face the tournament's overall top seed in Minnesota State, it will be playing for the league and also the Rochester community.
"We know we're carrying the flag for the entire league. We want to do it for the league, for our school and the Rochester community. The bottom line is we want to win, we want to pull the upset," said Wilson.
RIT will have its work cut out to take down the Mavericks, who have lost just seven times all season en route to winning the regular season and tournament championship in the WCHA.
"We'll need our goaltending and special teams to play well. We need solid team defense and timely scoring," said Wilson. "[Minnesota State] has balanced scoring. We know they're good. They won both their league's championships."
When the dust settled from all the games on championship Saturday and the Pairwise bubble was finally latched in place, there was plenty of jubilation in the Wilson household. Not only was Wayne and his RIT squad heading back to the NCAA Tournament, his son's team was as well.
Wilson's son Stu is a junior at Yale. Despite getting knocked out in the ECAC Hockey Quarterfinals, the Bulldogs sneaked into the national tournament Saturday evening thanks to some favorable results.
"It's great. I'm very excited for him and his teammates," said Wilson, who was able to see Yale play in game three of the ECAC Hockey Quarterfinals.
"We won in two games so I drove out there for Sunday. It was a great game," said Wilson, noting how impressed he was with Harvard's Jimmy Vesey who had the game-winning goal in double overtime to send the Crimson past Yale.
Wilson said his house will be split up this weekend with his wife heading to watch Yale while his daughter will be out in South Bend cheering on the Tigers.
Jeff Cox covers college, junior, high school and prep hockey, NCAA recruiting and NHL Draft prospects. Follow him on Twitter @JeffCoxSports.