Gustavus Adolphus (18-10-0 overall, 10-6-0 in MIAC)
Gustavus Adolphus will make its first NCAA final four appearance Friday when the Golden Gusties face off at 4:30 p.m. Eastern against the University of Wisconsin-Stout for a spot in Saturdays national championship game.
This is a Gusties team, however, that was picked just third in the MIAC in the preseason coaches poll, receiving none of the nine first place votes. They were largely ignored by the USCHO.com poll for the majority of the season and ranked sixth of seven western teams when the NCAA rankings were published in late February.
The Gusties were able to dispatch highly regarded St. Thomas in the MIAC semifinals after edging out the Tommies for second place in the conference. After Hamline upset the regular season champion St. Olaf Oles, the Gusties rebounded from a 2-0 deficit in the MIAC championship with five unanswered goals to take the title.
Then the NCAAs unusual bracketing of the national tournament sent the Gusties directly to face UW-Superior in the quarterfinal round, the first time a MIAC team had been sent straight to the quarterfinals since the tournament expanded to nine teams in 2002. It was there the Gusties seized the opportunity and shut out the Yellowjackets, a team that was ranked as high as No. 1 during the season and was the top western seed in this years tournament. It has certainly been a long and difficult road for Gustavus.
Saturdays game between Superior and Gustavus was a defensive battle, with only two goals and three penalties in the entire game. After a scoreless 38 minutes, Ross Ring-Jarvi connected from David Martinson and Brad Wieck with just 73 seconds left in the middle frame to give the Gusties a 1-0 lead.
As the game went on it became very evident to us that it was going to be a low-scoring game by just the way both teams were playing. Both goalies were playing very well, Gustavus coach Brett Petersen said.
With their season on the line, Superior released a flurry of offensive pressure in the final minutes of the third period. The Yellowjackets were aided by an obstruction call to Eric Bigham, which provided Superior with their only power-play opportunity of the night.
I thought [the officials] did a great job because they let the guys play, Petersen said. At this time of the year, I think its just important for officials to realize that the game is not about them and that its about players. And let the players decide as much of it as they can. I thought they would have done a great job even if Superior had scored late to tie us and beat us in overtime. I just think they did a good job.
With Superior goaltender Chad Beiswenger planted firmly on the bench for the final 30 seconds of the power play, the Gusties penalty kill unit and senior goaltender Matthew Lopes made several key plays that eventually opened up the ice for David Martinson to put in an empty-net goal, his 25th tally of the season.
That was our first penalty of the game and it was a good call. It was clearly interference, Petersen said, noting that the 6-on-4 opportunity gave his team the ability to ice the puck towards the empty Stout net. I thought we defended really well until the last 30 seconds when the puck was in our crease for what seemed like an eternity. They had really good looks and chances, but for whatever reason it just didnt go in. The stars were aligned for us.
Lopes 33 saves earned him just his second shutout of the season (the other against St. Marys in November) and was the first time Superior had been shut out since a 3-0 loss to St. Thomas on Nov. 3, 2007.
Lopes was good, Petersen remarked. Hes been good the last month. Stopping everything he should stop and then every once in a while pulling some rabbits out of his hat. And thats what he did against Superior.
The shutout is one of the final steps in what has been a remarkable journey for Lopes. It is a journey from east to west, and now back east, detailed in an upcoming USCHO feature from columnist Matthew Webb.
The Gusties run marks the first time a MIAC team has been to the final four since St. Thomas championship game run in 2005, where the Tommies fell to Middlebury 5-0. While the Tommies have played in the national championship game three times (and former D-III–now Division I–Minnesota State once), the MIAC has never taken home the national championship trophy in mens ice hockey. A fact of which Petersen is acutely aware.
Its been interesting because Ive had every single coach in our league call me this past week and say those same words. So we feel awfully proud and realize that we have a good league. And we may not get the national recognition year in and year out, but our league is good and it gets better every year. And we are very proud to represent the league in the final four.
The Gusties will continue that quest for the leagues first championship in Fridays quarterfinal match against UW-Stout.
We know them well, they know us well, Petersen admitted. I anticipate a close game decided by a goal either way. We just look forward to the opportunity and Im sure their guys feel the same way.
And once again, the Gusties will likely be considered underdogs in a playoff match-up.
However, earlier this season on Nov. 7, the Gusties traveled to Stout and came away with a 6-5 victory over the home team. Josh Swartout started in net for Gustavus that night, making 26 saves on 31 shots. He has since been replaced by Lopes, but the Gusties now face a team that has lost just one game since mid-November.
It will take a strong effort on the ice for the Gusties to overcome a Blue Devils squad that hasnt been sent off the ice in defeat since early January.
Weve talked to our guys about, number one, enjoy the experience because nobody knows if itll ever happen again, Petersen said. But also on the same hand, not get caught up and forget to play. I think thats our key. No matter who we play, or what time we play, we just have to play, and play the way we play.
For the first time since 1994, the final four does not feature St. Norbert, Plattsburgh, Middlebury, or Norwich. That has Petersen believing that the national championship is anybodys for the taking.
None of the four teams here have any final four experience, so I think the entire tournament is completely wide open, he said. And its going to come down to whoever has a good weekend is going to win it. I dont think anybody would say theres a clear-cut favorite. It should make for three very exciting games.
No matter which team comes away at the top this weekend, it will be the first time that program has hoisted the national championship trophy. Which makes it assured this will be a special weekend of hockey.
University of Wisconsin-Stout (23-5-2 overall, 10-2-2 in NCHA)
One can peruse the last decade of the NCAA tournament and see all of three West Region teams amongst the remaining final four teams: St. Norbert, University of Wisconsin-Superior and St.Thomas.
With as long and storied of traditions as those programs have, none need much of an introduction before they take the national stage. That isnt so much the case for UW-Stout, however, as the Blue Devils are making their first trip ever to the D-IIIs final four.