RIVER FALLS, Wis. — The Bethel Royals are undefeated in NCAA tournament play, as a sensational performance from freshman goaltender Aaron Damjanovich and a timely third-period goal paved the way to a win in their first-ever NCAA tournament game, dropping Wisconsin-River Falls 2-1 in front of a raucous Hunt Ice Arena crowd — many of whom were Bethel fans.
UW-River Falls struck first, as junior forward Joe Adams notched his first goal of the season by banging home a rebound only 4:12 into the contest.
“I thought we were off to a great start,” said Falcons’ head coach Steve Freeman. “To get an early goal from our fourth line; I thought we were going to have a pretty good night.”
The Royals had other plans, however, and controlled the remainder of the period, outshooting the Falcons 14-7, but River Falls netminder A.J. Bucchino kept Bethel off the board and the Falcons carried the 1-0 lead into the first intermission.
The second period began with Bethel applying the same transition pressure it had maintained in the opening period, and it paid off a mere 30 seconds in as Bucchino lost track of a Patrick Dynan shot from out high and Bill Menozzi slammed home the rebound to tie the game at 1.
“I think that goal really deflated us,” said Freeman. “I thought we had weathered that early storm and was thinking ‘Okay, let’s go.’ To give up that early goal really hurt.”
Bethel head coach Peter Aus put things much more succinctly. “That was huge.”
With both teams entering the game firing at around 25% on the power play, it looked like the scoring was going to open up from there, but despite power-play opportunities for both teams, Damjanovich and Bucchino matched each other save-for-save and the second period ended in a 1-1 deadlock.
The early portion of the third period belonged to the Falcons, but despite numerous quality chances, most by the Dahl-Hansberry-Borgestad line, Damjanovich came up huge on numerous occasions and kept the Falcons off the board.
“We have the last change, so at times it was difficult to match up with them,” said Aus. “We did try to match a certain unit up with them. It was very similar to what we went through last week at St. Thomas.”
Whatever the Royals were doing, it worked, as the Falcons were shut out long enough for Bethel to once again strike in transition.
With a little over eight minutes remaining in the game and Bethel on another two-on-one rush, Bucchino stopped a John Kovacs shot, but kicked the rebound out to the weak side where Benoit Duhamel waited, banging it home to put the Royals out front 2-1.
“They are a fast and skilled team,” said Freeman. “I don’t think we did a good job defensively, especially in terms of picking up the body in the neutral zone. It seemed they just had guys open too often, and you saw what happened as a result.”
Over the final eight minutes the Falcons produced several excellent chances, mostly from their top line, but Damjanovich came up big on numerous occasions and the Royals held on for the win.
“You couldn’t ask for anything more out of that line,” said Freeman. “We’ve been scoring a lot of goals lately and sometimes your shots just don’t go in. Throw a hot goaltender in there and sometimes you just can’t score.”
Aus had little reservation when it came to starting the freshman on such a big stage.
“You know, he’s been great. He’s just steady, and calm, and has been great for us down the stretch.”
Damjanovich stopped 29 shots on the night, and that paired with Bethel’s timely transition scoring were the keys to the game, according to Aus.
“I think it goes back to the speed of our forwards. We have a lot of guys with speed, and who handle the puck well. Then if you have a goalie get hot this time of year you can beat anyone.”
The combination proved a lethal one, and as a result the Royals, now 18-9-1 on the season, will be traveling to St. Norbert on Saturday for an NCAA quarterfinal matchup.
The Falcons finish the season with a 21-6-2 record, and are now 22-13 all-time in NCAA tournament games.