AUBURN — Even while the Maroons were handed their first loss of the season, coach Mike Lowe believes his players submitted their best performance so far.
After allowing the go-ahead goal with six minutes remaining, Auburn hockey was dealt a 4-3 defeat by McQuaid Friday at Casey Park Ice Rink. The Maroons led after one period and were tied following the second, but the Knights scored the lone goal of the third to earn the victory.
"Tonight was the best game we've played all year as far as effort. We've been playing well, but tonight we stepped it up," Lowe said. "Part of that has to do with who you're playing. ...You always step up against the better teams and our guys rose to the occasion tonight."
Johnny Malandruccolo scored twice and had one assist for Auburn, with RJ Szakalski scoring the Maroons' other goal. Jake Morin, Hunter Tubbert and Jude Diffin were each credited with an assist.
Goalie Jack Kalabanka made 28 saves.
Auburn opened the scoring at the 7:52 mark of the first when Morin fired a shot from the blueline that bounced off McQuaid goalie Dave Battisti right to Malandruccolo, who buried the puck into a half-empty net.
The Maroons' lead lasted until early in the second when the Knights scored three times in 5:24, including once on the power-play, to grab a 3-1 lead.
Not to be outdone, Szakalski chipped in a rebound following a Malandruccolo chance to cut the deficit to one with 5:12 left in the middle frame, and a 1:16 later Malandruccolo tied the score 3-3.
With six minutes left in regulation, the Maroons were trapped in their own zone for an extended period before McQuaid's James Markley beat Kalabanka to put the Knights in front 4-3.
"We talk about that in the locker room before the third period. If it's in our zone that's OK as long as we keep them to the outside," Lowe said. "We got caught puck-watching, they had a guy slide down the back side and we didn't know about it."
Auburn earned a power-play and pulled the goalie for a 6-on-4 with 53 seconds left and generated some chances, but tries from Szakalski and Brendan Williams were brushed aside by McQuaid netminder Battisti.
"We had a couple chances," Lowe said. "They're just going to pack it in at that point. You've just got to crash and hope you can bang home the rebound. The puck is bouncing, bodies are flying ... it's going to be tough to get a clean shot. Just didn't go our way."
Even in a loss, Lowe was pleased with what he saw. The Maroons will rely plenty on Malandruccolo and Morin to produce this season, but depth players like Szakalski and Tubbert must contribute as well.
"Some of the younger forwards that are playing a lot — Diffin, (Nick) Pipher, Szakalski and Tubbert — those four guys do a nice job," Lowe said. "They get out there and put their time in, they don't hurt us and they've had a few goals the last three games. We know the high-end kids are going to put the points up and get their goals, so if we can get a little production out of some other guys it's going to help us out down the road."
Auburn (2-1-1) is at Ontario Bay on Tuesday.