DE PERE, Wis. — The NCHA is 2-for-2 in overtimes in its new playoff format, but has yet to produce any upsets.
This one, though, was close.
Jason Deitsch ended a marathon NCHA Peters Cup championship game with his 11th goal of the season at seven minutes, 44 seconds of the second overtime Friday night, giving St. Norbert a 3-2 victory over Wisconsin-River Falls.
The Knights (23-3-2) will play Wisconsin-Superior, a 4-3 overtime winner over Wisconsin-Stevens Point in the early game, in Saturday night’s championship, with an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament on the line. River Falls (18-8-2) will play Stevens Point for third place.
Deitsch’s game-winner came only after St. Norbert rallied from a 2-0 deficit after two periods; after a River Falls goal was waved off in the third period; after a number of near misses on both ends; and after 87 minutes, 44 seconds, the longest game in St. Norbert history.
The message from the Knights’ coaches in the locker room in the second period was clear — shoot the puck.
Deitsch did just that on the left side of the Falcons’ zone, and his shot got past River Falls goalie Jacque Vezina, glanced off the bottom of the crossbar and bounced into the net.
“I just picked up the puck and the first thing I had on my mind was, shoot the puck,” said Deitsch, a freshman. “Overtime goals are never the prettiest goals you see.”
It didn’t matter for the Knights, the top seed and host of the tournament, which is being held for the first time in the style of a Frozen Four, instead of series for the semifinals and finals.
The rough part for River Falls was seeing the lead they built late in the second period start to crumble immediately after the third period’s start.
Evan Stensrud and Rheese Carlson scored 70 seconds apart late in the second period to give the Falcons a 2-0 lead.
Just 10 seconds into the third, though, after a St. Norbert set play on the opening faceoff worked perfectly, Ryan Wempe scored to cut the lead in half.
“That was a killer,” River Falls coach Steve Freeman said. “That was the worst thing that could have happened.”
Midway through the period, though, it looked for a moment that River Falls had regained its two-goal lead. But Matt Elsen’s rebound goal was waved off because he was in the crease before the puck got there.
“I think any coach would be a little bitter about it,” Freeman said, noting that he would have to look at the play on video before making a judgment. “Obviously, that would have been huge for us.”
Maris Ziedins capped St. Norbert’s comeback at 12:14, stealing a clearing attempt and beating Vezina high from the slot.
“I just recalled what coach (Tim Coghlin) was telling us in the locker room before the third period: shoot the puck from everywhere,” Ziedins said.
Each team had glorious chances in overtime. St. Norbert’s Brant Kersey had a wrist shot get past Vezina, hit the bottom of the goalpost and deflect straight down, but it bounced out of the crease instead of into the net.
Just before Deitsch’s winner, Stensrud broke in alone on the right side and put a shot in St. Norbert goalie Ryan Gill’s pads.
Gill appeared to look worried that the puck may have gotten through him.
“I was crossing my fingers,” Gill said, “hoping it didn’t squeak through.”
It didn’t, and 11 seconds later, St. Norbert was through to the championship game.
“This is as big a victory for us as I can recall in recent times,” Coghlin said, “because I think this is the type of game that, in the big picture, helps this hockey team tremendously.”