SUPERIOR, Wis. — No. 2-ranked Wisconsin-Superior earned itself a free ticket to the NCAA Division III tournament Saturday night after posting a 4-2 victory over No. 5 Wisconsin-River Falls in the second game of the NCHA championship series.
Along with an automatic NCAA tournament bid, the win also gives UWS its second consecutive Peters Cup title for winning the NCHA tournament. The Yellowjackets and Falcons tied 2-2 in Friday night’s opening game of the two-game series.
Superior (27-3-1) had already claimed the NCHA’s regular-season title, but interim head coach Dan Stauber said it was important to also win the playoff championship to ensure his team would get to the big dance.
“We were playin’ for the automatic qualifier,” he said. “It’s been proven good teams have been left out of the [NCAA] tournament.”
For the second straight night, sophomore right wing Josh Liebenow proved to be Superior’s offensive hero. Liebenow scored the game-winner in the second period and added an empty-netter with seven seconds left to pace the Yellowjacket victory. On Friday night, Liebenow scored the tying goal, shorthanded, midway through the third period.
His game-winner Saturday came off of a tenacious effort. Moments earlier, left winger Reed Larson was stopped twice on two shots from the slot by Falcon goaltender Jacque Vezina.
Larson would get revenge after the next faceoff. After receiving the puck from center Colin Kendall, and with a River Falls defender draped all over him, Larson sent a one-handed pass from behind the extended goal line to Liebenow at the bottom of the right faceoff circle. Liebenow responded with a perfect wrist shot that beat Vezina on the stick side for his 13th goal of the year at the 15:02 mark of the middle session.
“My linemates are the two hardest working guys on the team,” said Liebenow. “They were working down low, and the defender took his eye off me, and when I got the puck, I saw all net.”
The goal gave UWS a 3-1 lead and helped stem an offensive rush by the Falcons, who had scored earlier in the period to make it 2-1 and take the game’s momentum. It also brought the season-high Wessman Arena crowd of 2,048 to a frenzy.
“I didn’t even know what was going through my head [after the goal],” Liebenow said. “Those fans were great.”
A strong start set the tone positively for Superior. The Yellowjackets buzzed the Falcon net in the opening moments with several scoring opportunities, but were thwarted thanks to Vezina’s goaltending. One wrist shot from Chris Bell did get through Vezina, and appeared to be on its way across the goal line, but was swatted away just in time by the netminder.
UWS did manage to cash in on its first power play.
Senior Jeff Glowa lit the lamp first for the Jackets at the 7:36 mark. After receiving the puck from Tim Schneider at the left point, Colin Kendall fed the center with a tape-to-tape pass from the left faceoff circle to the slot, where Glowa banged the puck past Vezina’s stick side for his 14th goal of the season.
UWS sent another puck to the back of the net less than five minutes later. Chris Hackett scored his seventh of the season after deflecting a Schneider shot from the blue line into the net at the 12:19 mark.
Along with a 2-0 lead, UWS also outshot UWRF in the period 11-9. It was the start Stauber wanted to see: “We needed to set the tone in the first period.”
River Falls head coach Steve Freeman agreed that Superior’s play in the opening period was a big factor in the game.
“We had a slow start, they came out with a lot more energy,” he said.
Things started out differently in the second period. River Falls killed off an early UWS power play and started putting the pressure on Yellowjacket netminder Nate Ziemski. Freshman Rheese Carlson was denied twice by the sophomore on shots from the crease.
But a holding call on Chris Bell eventually helped ring in the Falcons’ first goal.
Freshman forward Matt Elsen made it 2-1 after backhanding a rebound past Ziemski through traffic at the 10:27 mark. The goal was Elsen’s 10th of the year. It also marked the result of a lot of hard work, as Elsen was robbed by Ziemski just moments earlier on a wrist shot from the slot.
After falling behind 3-1 on Liebenow’s first goal, River Falls trimmed the lead once again, this time on a 5-on-3 power play. Jared Anderson ended up getting his 12th goal of the year on a rebound of a Jeff Bernard shot.
Stauber said penalties allowed River Falls back into the game. The Falcons finished 2-for-6 with the extra attacker, while Superior finished 1-for-2.
“We felt there were some undisciplined penalties on out part,” he said. “We can’t do that, it’s going to hurt us [in the tournament].”
Nevertheless, that was all the offense the Falcons would muster, despite keeping the puck in the UWS zone for most of the rest of the game. Strong forechecking and turnovers forced in the neutral zone prevented the Yellowjackets from mounting an offensive attack, but defensively, the team limited River Falls to only five shots on goal in the final period, and none of those coming from inside the low slot.
“We had no quality shots [in the third period],” Freeman said. “We couldn’t break into that green zone, as we like to call it.”
Ziemski ended up stopping 25 of 27 UWRF shots, but gave a ton of credit to his defensemen.
“The defense had been there all year for me,” he said. “In the third period, they played tough.”
Vezina denied 22 of Superior’s 26 shots on goal.
The Falcons pulled their goalie with 1:18 left, but after that it seemed Superior was the team playing with a sixth attacker. River Falls failed to get the puck across the UWS blue line, thanks to the strong forechecking of Glowa, Jay Stewart, and Eric Pitoscia.
Finally, Liebenow joined the fray and scored the empty-net goal with seven seconds left from the bottom of the right face-off circle.
The loss leaves questions for River Falls (21-8-2). Freeman hopes his is not one of those good teams on the outside looking into the NCAA tournament.
He fears because there are more Division III teams in the East, the NCAA will favor a team from the East region over a team from the West when it appoints the lone at-large bid to the eight-team tournament.
“Our league is one of the strongest leagues in the country … we showed we can play along with very good competition and feel we should be given strong consideration,” Freeman said. “The NCAA should look at the strength of a team, not necessarily where it plays.”
While River Falls waits to find out if it will play next weekend, Superior waits to find out who it will play. The Yellowjackets are expected to host a first-round series next weekend.