A Few Things In Common
Wisconsin-Superior and Plattsburgh have a few things in common.
They are both small state liberal arts schools located in small towns. They both are situated in out-of-the-way places in their respective states — Superior is located in the extreme northwest corner of Wisconsin, Plattsburgh in the extreme northeast corner of New York.
One other thing very much in common: they both have hockey teams. Very good hockey teams. Good enough that they seem to have a propensity to face each other in the NCAA Division III Men’s Frozen Four.
This is the third consecutive time, and fourth overall, that the Yellowjackets and Cardinals will meet this far into the season. Plattsburgh has won all three previously — last year in the semifinals, 5-3, the year before in the third-place game, 2-0, and back in 1992 in the semis, 8-5.
While Plattsburgh will be more than happy to keep that streak going, Superior will do everything it can to stop it once and for all.
“It’s put up or shut up time once you get into this tournament,” Plattsburgh coach Bob Emery says.
The tournament for these two teams gets started Friday at 3:30 p.m. in Kenyon Arena on the campus of Middlebury.
Plattsburgh Cardinals (20-8-4)
The Cardinals don’t like to do things easy. Not by a longshot.
“We had to climb some mountains and cross some rocky roads,” Emery says. “But I believe it makes us a stronger team.”
This year, in the SUNYAC semifinals, Plattsburgh was stretched the distance by Geneseo, and needed a mini-game to move on. In the conference finals, the first two games ended in a tie, and the Cardinals finally advanced in game three. Then, they virtually repeated that scenario in the NCAA quarterfinals, tying RIT twice before taking the mini-game, 1-0, to once again move on to the Frozen Four.
Essentially, the Cardinals have won just one regulation game in the last six. However, they are in the Frozen Four, and there is something to be said about knowing how to win.
“We find a way to win when it comes down to crunch time,” Emery said.
They did the same thing last year. Stretched to the limit in the SUNYAC finals, they defied the odds in the NCAA quarterfinals and finally beat an undefeated team for the national championship. This year’s team is pretty much the same as last year’s.
The top player is goaltender Niklas Sundberg, a second-team All-American. A big stand-up goalie, Sundberg has been outstanding when it has counted the most. He currently has a 2.00 GAA and a .927 save percentage, both seventh in the nation.
Emery says, “You have to have a strong goalie this time of year. Sundberg allows us to be able to win every game.”
Moving outward, Peter Ollari, another All-American, is the Cardinals’ top defenseman, both offensively (nine goals and nine assists for 18 points) and defensively. Freshman Doug Carr has been an invaluable addition helping to defend the Cardinals’ zone.
Plattsburgh’s offense is a bit misleading. Looking at the stats, you won’t find any national leaders. In fact, the top goalscorers have 12 tallies each (Adam Richards and Rob Retter) and the top point-getter is All-American Jason Kilcan with 41 (10 goals and 31 assists).
Part of this is due to the tough schedule Plattsburgh plays. Part of it is spreading the wealth around. Any one of Plattsburgh’s lines is capable of lighting the lamp. Plattsburgh will play all four lines and six defensemen throughout the game.
Most importantly, like these last few weeks have shown, the Cardinals can score when it matters most.
Speaking of that tough schedule, that very well may be why they are able to pull it out during this time of year. Already battle-hardened, the pressure is secondhand.
Therefore, don’t look at those eight losses as a weakness. Instead, consider the good teams they lost to — twice each to Elmira and Norwich, once to Middlebury and to league foes in Potsdam, Oswego, and Geneseo. Then consider six of those losses were by one goal, with two of those in overtime.
It begins to make sense why this may be the best-prepared come playoff time.
Wisconsin-Superior Yellowjackets (22-5-5)
The Yellowjackets didn’t exactly take the easy route, either. The finished second in the NCHA, so after knocking off Lake Forest they had to travel to St. Norbert for the conference tournament. Then, they played two overtime games to defeat Stevens Point and the host school to win the title.
The Yellowjackets’ “reward” was to appear in the first-ever NCAA play-in game. At least they got to host it, and they beat St. Thomas, which meant they once again had to travel to St. Norbert and attempt to beat the Green Knights for a second weekend in a row.
They did. So nobody can say that Superior didn’t earn its way here.
Superior also has strong goaltender in Nathan Ziemski, who is as hot as they come this time of year. He is also familiar with Plattsburgh, having played in the SUNYAC for Cortland his freshman year, as well as in last year’s semifinal.
He’s played more minutes than any other goalie in the country, participating in all but three of his team’s games, producing a 2.50 GAA and .903 save pct. He’ll be in shape if a marathon game occurs.
Interestingly, just like Plattsburgh, Superior didn’t place anyone on the first-team All-American squad, but the ‘Jackets did place three players on the second team. And three good players they are.
Defenseman Bruce Leonard anchors a solid defense. Forward Chris Hackett leads the team in scoring with 10 goals and 32 assists for 42 points and Colin Kendall is third with a 16-21–37 line, including three shorthanders. In between is Josh Liebenow at 14-27–41, including six power-play goals. Speaking of power-play goals, Randall Smisko has eight of them, all of which has helped Superior to be sixth best in the nation in scoring margin.
This is Superior’s fourth consecutive year in the Frozen Four. The three previous years, the Yellowjackets have come in second, third, and fourth. So, logically, what’s next?
You can bet the seniors are thinking of that.
In the “this is kind of cool, but it means nothing” category, consider this possible scenario.
Last year, Plattsburgh beat Middlebury on the road in the quarterfinals, played Superior in the semifinal, and then defeated the tournament host, top-rated RIT.
This year, Plattsburgh could conceivably do the same thing in reverse order. Plattsburgh beat RIT on the road in the quarterfinals, will play Superior in the semifinal, and could then face the tournament host, top-rated Middlebury.
So, what will each team’s strategy be? It’s always tough to decide when playing a team from a different part of the country.
As Emery explains, “We don’t know much about them, and they don’t know much about us. We’ll go out there and play our game, and they will play their game.”
Was Emery being coy? Probably. After all, these two schools have a few things in common, like playing each other in the Frozen Four.