Courtesy of USC Club Ice Hockey

Ice 'Cocks hold off Clemson to clinch Palmetto Cup

Hawkinson's late goal weathers rally; Ward notches first career win over Tigers

South Carolina clinched their season series with Clemson and the 2017-18 Palmetto Cup with a 6-4 win in Taylors, South Carolina, Friday night.

In a game in which they were outshot 36-25, South Carolina (6-7-1) never trailed, but Clemson (3-8-0) was never far behind, needing just one goal to tie heading into the final minute. Goaltender Jared Ward turned aside 32 of 36 Clemson shots for his first career victory over South Carolina's upstate rivals.

Just as they did against Florida at home the previous week, the Gamecocks came out scoring. Four and a half minutes into the first, Jim Hatton's shot from close range pinballed around in front of the net but sunk behind Clemson goaltender Liam McHugh to give the Gamecocks first blood. The goal was Hatton's fourth on the year and marked the third consecutive game South Carolina has scored first.

Not to be outdone, Ian Powderly made it 2-0 just over two minutes later by ripping a slap shot high past McHugh's reaching glove. 

Clemson nearly cut the lead in half with 1:45 left in the period when forward Matt Power found himself all alone in front of the South Carolina net. Sprawling, Ward turned aside Power's backhand offering to preserve the two-goal lead heading into the first intermission.

Just 43 seconds into the second stanza, Hatton drew the Clemson defense behind the net and worked his way around the left goalpost to find Alec Martone standing 10 feet away. Martone's one-timed shot beat McHugh on the far side to give him five consecutive games with a goal and the Gamecocks a commanding 3-0 lead.

But as it always seemed to against Florida, the South Carolina lead quickly crumbled. Barely two minutes after Martone's goal, the Clemson forecheck forced a turnover with the Gamecocks trying to break out of their own zone. Ward made the initial save on the Tigers' 2-on-1 opportunity, but Clemson forward Jacob Vanderleest tipped a loose puck into the net to get Clemson back in it 3:53 into the second.

Vanderleest found the net again exactly a minute later to make it 3-2, firing a quick snap shot past Ward as Jack Watson served a minor for cross-checking. The goal was Vanderleest's first of two power play markers on the night.

A quick slew of penalties gave the Gamecocks a 4-on-3 man advantage with 8:12 to go in the second. Less than a minute into Clemson defenseman Aidan Evans' minor for tripping, Mike Borst tipped in Sean Davis' pass for his team-leading eighth goal of the season and second on the power play. 

With just under three minutes left in the second, Powderly skated the puck into the Clemson zone, hit the brakes to shed a defender and played the puck into traffic in front of the net. Alex Siegfried found it first and beat McHugh for his first goal since Oct. 13 at Tennessee. South Carolina's three second period goals came on just 12 shots.

But once again, Clemson came roaring back. In the third, another turnover on the breakout led to Andrew Racicot's wraparound goal 5:10 in. With 9:44 to play and Gamecock defenseman Evan Hoey in the box, Vanderleest scraped in a rebound from Brendan Greene's shot from the point. The goal completed Vanderleest's first career hat trick and gave him nine goals on the season, tying him with Racicot for the team lead.

With 4:30 to play Hoey took his fourth penalty of the night and the Clemson power play went back to work. Despite a number of good scoring chances and the rowdy Clemson crowd behind the glass, Ward and the Gamecock penalty kill stood tall and held the Tigers off the board. 

"I was pretty nervous, honestly," Ward said of those fateful two minutes after Friday's game. "I knew I let in a few too many goals at that point, but I was pretty ready to stop anything that came at me."

Just to be sure, with Hoey out of the box and two minutes to play South Carolina head coach Allan Sirois switched to a one-man forecheck to keep four players in the defensive zone and prevent a late Clemson goal. The move paid off with 49 seconds left when Geoff Kostrzebski found Cory Hawkinson with a pass at the top of the slot which Hawkinson fired home to carry the Gamecocks to a 6-4 final.

Looking past the win, the Gamecocks are still just under .500 and need to take momentum from Friday into consecutive home matchups with Vanderbilt and Kennesaw State at the beginning of next month. Sirois said as much after Friday's game.

"They're two really good teams ... our home games, we should win most of them," said Sirois. "The momentum's going to be huge going into that."

The Gamecocks have Thanksgiving weekend off but take on Vanderbilt in Irmo on back-to-back nights Dec. 1 and 2. Puck drop for both games is scheduled for 9:15 p.m.

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