MIDDLEBURY, Vt. — The sole Western team in the 2002 NCAA Division III Men’s Frozen Four, Wisconsin-Superior, is still alive thanks to handing Plattsburgh a 5-0 thrashing in the first semifinal game in Kenyon Arena on the campus of Middlebury College.
The first 10 minutes were owned by Plattsburgh, outshooting Superior at one point, 7-1, and not letting Superior get a shot on goal till past the halfway mark of the period. But, they couldn’t take advantage of it.
“I really liked the way we got started,” Plattsburgh coach Bob Emery said. “In games like these, if you can score early, that’s a big advantage.”
Superior coach Dan Stauber has been in games like this. “You have to weather the storm. When you’ve been around hockey long enough, you know things go back and forth.”
Superior did weather the storm, and it scored first. The goal came on a defensive mistake by the Cardinals. Getting too fancy in their own zone just to the right of the net, they lost control of the puck.
The goal scorer, Rob Whidden, explained, “I lifted his stick and wrapped it around.”
Shortly afterwards Plattsburgh just missed tying it up on a delayed penalty, but the Plattsburgh forward shot a backhander wide with Nathan Ziemski down and at his mercy.
On that ensuing power play, Superior made it 2-0. Another defensive mistake, this time gambling on keeping the puck in the zone, resulted in a Superior two on one breakout. Whidden picked up the loose puck and passed it to Yann Poirer at center ice.
Poirer used Whidden as the perfect decoy, waiting and waiting, till he was in close and Sundberg appeared confused not knowing if Poirer was going to shoot or pass. Poirer let go of a bullet on the ice to the far side that easily beat Sundberg.
After the goal, Plattsburgh called timeout. It didn’t help as Superior started taking over control of the game, coming close to scoring a number of times, including a near miss when Sundberg stopped a shot he never saw just before the buzzer.
The lead enabled Superior to execute their defensive game plan to perfection.
“This team has played well with the lead especially in the second half of the season,” Stauber said.
Emery agreed. “We gave them two goals on a silver platter, then Superior played real well with the lead. We didn’t get to the net. I give all the credit to their defense.”
The second period saw Superior take control of the game, dominating time of possession and outshooting the Cardinals, 10-5.
Superior made it 3-0 early in the second on a strange play that resulted in a three on one breakout. Brendon Hodge fired a shot from the point, which Ziemski saved. However, he let the rebound go way out to the blueline.
Normally, this is not a good thing. However, Superior got a stick on it knocking it to center ice. Next thing you knew, Superior was breaking out on a three on one.
Josh Liebenow had control of the puck on the right side. When he got into the zone, he passed it to Colin Kendall in the middle who whiffed on the shot. However, it went to Reed Larsen in front of the net. By now Sundberg had no prayer, and Larsen easily beat him.
The goal that sealed it came with 41 seconds left in the period when Ryan Kalbrener made a great individual play. Picking up the loose puck at center ice, Kalbrener raced down the left side, past Plattsburgh defenders, cut across the slot area, and placed it below a diving Sundberg.
And if that fourth goal didn’t put the fork into the Cardinals, Superior certainly made sure it was all but over just 48 seconds into the third on a power-play goal by Dale Lupul. Plattsburgh collapsed their box too much, leaving Lupul wide open at the left point with plenty of time to fire away. He easily beat Sundberg over the shoulder despite being a very saveable shot.
After that goal, it was just a matter of going through the motions for the two teams. With 2:41 left in the game, Plattsburgh changed their goaltenders, putting in Tony Seariac for senior Niklas Sundberg.
The Plattsburgh fans gave Sundberg a standing ovation thanking him for four spectacular years between the pipes.
“Tough to end the game that way,” Sundberg said. “But I’m really proud of our guys in the lockerroom.”
Plattsburgh will not repeat as national champions, ending its season with a record of 20-9-4.
After Plattsburgh had the initial 7-1 shot advantage before the first period was over, they only got nine shots the rest of the game.
“With all the talk about the larger ice surface,” Emery said, “the prime scoring areas never change. It always stays the same. And Superior kept us out of the prime scoring areas.”
It is that basic execution of defense that will enable Superior to play for the national championship Saturday evening at 7 p.m. against the winner of the second semifinal game between Vermont rivals, Norwich and Middlebury.