NORTHFIELD, Vt. — In last Saturday’s NCAA quarterfinal game, the Norwich Cadets found themselves trailing Trinity 4-1 after two periods. Coach Mike McShane told his team, “If you come back and win this game, I guarantee that you’ll win the national championship.”
“I went out on a bit of a limb,” he acknowledged.
It paid off. Norwich scored four goals in the third to defeat Trinity, 5-4, in the quarterfinals. After defeating St. Norbert 6-3 in the semifinals Friday night, the Cadets again came from behind to defeat Oswego 2-1 and claim their second national title.
In their three NCAA games, Norwich outscored its opposition 10-1 in the third period.
“We talked about being a third-period team at the beginning of the season,” said senior captain Toza Crnilovic, who scored the winner at 7:01 of the third. “We wanted to train hard so we could be in good shape and play hard in the third period.”
Both teams came out firing in the first period, and Norwich goaltender Mike Boudreau and Oswego netminder Tyson Gajda were up to the task. Boudeau stoned Oswego’s Mike Lukajic about four minutes into the contest, and Gary Bowman a few minutes after that. Gajda helped the Lakers kill off three power plays, including a point-blank save on Kurtis McLean near the end of the period.
The Cadets began to take control in the second period, but neither team could get on the board until Oswego’s Rob Smith found John Hirliman alone in the slot. Norwich was down a man thanks to a penalty on Jon Bokelmann, and its aggressive man-to-man coverage on the penalty kill broke down for a second, allowing Hirliman to wrist a shot that beat Boudreau at 18:04 of the period.
“I think it hit something on the way (to the net),” said Boudreau. “I was moving left and it went right.”
Norwich outshot Oswego 15-7 in the period, and had several great chances. Gajda stopped eight shots taken below the faceoff dot.
“It was frustrating because I thought we had a great second period,” said McShane. “And we find ourselves down by a goal.”
“Norwich dominated the second period,” said Oswego coach George Roll. “So even though we had the lead going into the third, we didn’t want to sit back. We knew we had to keep taking it to them.”
The Lakers were a perfect 22-0 when leading after two periods this season, but Norwich weathered an early storm in the third and then began to retake control.
“I think rolling all four lines really helps us in the third period,” said Crnilovic. “It gives us fresh legs.”
The momentum turned for good at the 5:50 mark when Norwich’s Aaron Lee slapped a rebound past Gajda to tie the game. That ended Gajda’s streak of almost 106 minutes of scoreless play this weekend.
“We talked about it in between [the second and third] periods,” said Lee. “If we get one [goal] the crowd will really get into it, and we’ll take control.”
That’s exactly what happened. With the Kreitzberg Arena sellout crowd of 2,250 still buzzing from Lee’s goal, Crnilovic struck at 7:01 with a seeing-eye shot from the left point that went through a crowd and inside the far post.
“They packed it in tight in front,” said Gajda. “I never saw it.”
“I just put it on net,” said Crnilovic. “Coach said that we score a lot of pretty goals, but we needed more garbage goals. That’s what this one was. I just put it on net.”
The Cadets played stingy after that, limiting Oswego’s chances and wearing them down as time slipped away. Oswego pulled Gajda with 1:33 to play, but could manage just one shot on goal before time expired. When it was over, Norwich celebrated its second national title and the first one on home ice.
“I’m so proud of the guys,” said an emotional Roll in the post-game press conference. “We left everything we had on the ice.”
McShane is equally proud. Last season, Norwich didn’t hold the lead, allowing a goal with under two minutes to play in the title game, and eventually lost to Wisconsin-Superior in overtime.
“I really didn’t bring that up very much this season,” said McShane. “But I did tell them before the third period, ‘Let’s not feel that way again.’”
Not to worry. Another third-period comeback, and the Cadets were champions.