SUPERIOR, Wis. — Nate Ziemski turned aside all 27 St. John’s shots Saturday night to lead Wisconsin-Superior to a 4-0 victory and a sweep of their NCAA quarterfinal series in front of 1,680 fans at Wessman Arena. The win sends UWS back to the NCAA Division III Frozen Four for the third straight year.
Sophomore forward Josh Liebenow led the way offensively for the Yellowjackets, scoring the game’s first two goals, and adding an assist for three points in the contest.
It marked the third time in the last four games in which Liebenow has scored either the tying or winning goal, but it follows Friday night’s performance (a 5-4 UWS victory) in which he was held off the scoresheet.
“Coach [Dan Stauber] told me he needed me to show up tonight,” said Liebenow. “I just decided to work hard for 60 minutes.”
The loss ends the season for the Johnnies (15-12-4).
“It was a great season for us,” said head coach John Harrington. “We came a long way, in the first week of January, the last thing on our minds was to play in the national tournament; we just kept workin’ at it.”
Superior (29-3-1) scored once in the first period, twice in the second and completed the scoring with one goal in the third period. The officials also kept busy, issuing 48 minutes worth of penalties to the two teams.
The Yellowjackets took command early. UWS used a strong forecheck to control the puck in the St. John’s zone throughout most of the first period. It outshot the Johnnies 10-5, but most of its opportunities were stymied by St. John’s defenders or bad passes in the offensive zone.
First blood was finally drawn at the 15:29 mark of the opening stanza. Junior center Colin Kendall won a faceoff in the left circle and dropped a backhand pass to Liebenow in the high slot. Liebenow then fired a slapshot that first struck the left goalpost, then caromed off the back of St. John’s goaltender Rick Gregory and trickled into the net.
Superior would carry the 1-0 lead into the locker room, but would face some pressure early in the second period that would put Ziemski to the test.
St. John’s fired four of the first five shots of the middle stanza in the span’s first 90 seconds on a flurry by the team’s top offensive line of Brian Fisher, Kevin Willey and Mike Possin. Two of the saves came back-to-back directly in front of the crease to the left of Ziemski, and the goaltender had to sprawl to stop the puck.
However, Ziemski’s heroics were not limited to his defensive capabilities. After stopping a St. John’s clearing attempt that went straight toward the goal mouth, Ziemski found both teams changing their respective lines, and also found Liebenow, all alone at center ice. The goaltender threaded a perfect pass to the right winger, who then skated in on a breakaway and fired a wrist shot that beat Gregory into the net’s top shelf for his 16th goal of the season at the period’s 4:57 mark.
“I saw him come off the bench and my eyes got big,” said Ziemski. “It was like pond hockey — he and I were the only ones out there.”
Superior would add a power-play tally at the 10:40 mark. Sophomore center Ryan Kalbrener drilled a one-timer past Gregory from the left faceoff circle after taking a pass from Junior defenseman Milan Tomaska. Colin Kendall also assisted on the goal, which was Kalbrenner’s eighth of the year.
That gave the ‘Jackets a 3-0 lead and it would stay that way until the end of the second period and would be extended again early in the third. Kendall scored his 10th of the year after scooping up a rebound of a shot by Liebenow, just 53 seconds into the final frame.
UWS then held a 4-0 lead, with three goals coming during the game’s final 40 minutes, despite St. John’s outshooting Superior, 22-19, during that time frame.
Harrington summed it up: “It seemed like the chances they had they were able to score ‘em, and the chances we had didn’t seem to go in.”
And the Johnnies had other chances, but were thwarted by Ziemski and his defense. Two came in the game’s final 10 minutes. One shot appeared to get by the Superior goaltender and landed in the crease behind him, but was swept away by defenseman Randy Currie.
Another golden opportunity came when Ziemski left the goalmouth to chase after a loose puck that had just barely crossed the blue line. His efforts didn’t do a lot of good, as they ended up taking him out of position, and St. John’s still in control of the puck. But the Johnnies were stopped again, this time by defenseman Bruce Leonard, who skated into the goalmouth to make the save.
“I took some gambles — I don’t know if Coach liked it too much,” said Ziemski. “He said, ‘Stay in the net, we need ya for next week.’”
Penalties also piled up in the third period as one scrum in the UWS zone led to half of the game’s penalties. It happened after a St. John’s player forced the net to come down almost on top of Ziemski. Six players ended up being sent to the sin bin for coincidental double-minor roughing calls.
Overall, Superior ended up 1-for-6 with the man-advantage, while St. John’s was blanked on its four opportunities. It was a stark contrast to Friday night’s game, when the Yellowjackets allowed two goals on nine St. John’s power plays.
Said Stauber: “Discipline was a key; we needed to stay out of the penalty box.”
One of those penalties from Friday night carried over to Saturday’s game, and will continue to carry over until after next weekend’s semi-final. UWS junior center Jay Stewart was given a match penalty for a checking-from-behind call, and because he had a match penalty earlier in the year, he’s required to sit out the two subsequent games.
The win extends Superior’s unbeaten streak to 23 games (they’re 22-0-1 since Dec. 2, 2000). They will take on Plattsburgh State in a semifinal game next Friday — the school’s eighth appearance in the Frozen Four, though it has yet to take home the championship trophy.
This will be Stauber’s first Frozen Four as the team’s head coach, although he still carries the “interim” tag as part of his official title. Stauber, who took over for Steve Nelson before this season began, says the pressure is on, but the team is focused on winning the ultimate prize.
“There’s a lot of pressure — they carry it well,” he said. “We want to really experience that [championship] dream.”