DE PERE, Wis. — Once again, St. Norbert is king of the West Region, as two first-period goals and a bend but don’t break defense late in the game propelled the Green Knights to a 3-1 NCAA quarterfinal victory over Gustavus Adolphus.
The win advances the Green Knights to the national championships next weekend in Lake Placid, N.Y., where they will face Oswego State in Friday’s semifinals. It will be their sixth national championship appearance in the past eight seasons.
“Wow, what a game,” said Tim Coghlin, coach of the victorious Green Knights. “We obviously know that Gustavus is a great team and I thought tonight’s game was a perfect example of two teams just throwing it all out there. We did enough good things to win the game, but you saw them hit the bar in a 2-1 game with less than a minute to play. That game could have been headed the other way in a hurry.”
“I thought the better team won,” said Gustavus Adolphus coach Brett Petersen. “They were really good tonight and you have to give them a lot of credit. My concern going in was the one-on-one battles, and I just feel honestly that they won more of those than we did.”
The Green Knights applied significant pressure immediately in the opening minutes, which included a shot off the post nearly 40 seconds in. Less than a minute after that close call, they went up 1-0 when forward Shane Wheeler corralled the rebound of a Kurt Astle shot and beat Gusties’ netminder Josh Swartout near side. Tyler Allen was also credited with an assist on the goal.
“In the first five minutes, we did exactly what we wanted to do,” Coghlin said. “We played a very smart game early on and got that goal.”
“They gave us significant problems early but we were able to adjust,” said Petersen.
It took the Gusties over six minutes to pick up their first shot of the evening, but from that point on, they were able to handle the St. Norbert pressure and began to generate quality looks on St. Norbert goaltender B.J. O’Brien, the best of which came in the form of a Ross Ring-Jarvi chance on the left side that O’Brien barely managed to get a piece of.
The Gusties were not done threatening however, and at 10:55 of the period, passes by Justin Lee and T.J. Ridley set up a James Leathers’ strike from the low left slot that beat O’Brien and tied the game 1-1.
The two see-sawed in terms of possession and scoring chances for the remainder of the period, until St. Norbert struck with a killer with only 11 seconds left in the period as, deep in the Gustavus Adolphus zone, they worked a puck out from the corner and Tyler Allen beat Swartout low with a backhand flip to make it 2-1 Green Knights at the end of the first.
“As the game went on I thought we were having a lot of success below the goal line and that’s what set up that goal,” Coghlin said. “Tyler made the play behind the goal line, then Wheeler stole it and popped it back out front and made a hard play to get to the net and bang the rebound in. That goal was a huge momentum swing.”
“We talked this week and we’ve talked all year about the bookends of periods,” Petersen said. “The first couple minutes and the last couple minutes, and we were 0-for-two on that tonight, obviously. It turns out that those were two big plays as the game progressed. You need to give yourselves a chance and we put ourselves behind the eight ball right away. I thought if we could get out of the period 1-1 and regroup we’d be OK but that was a dagger.”
The Green Knights looked to extend the lead early in the second as a tripping penalty on the Gusties’ Patrick Dynan at the 0:26 mark set up a power play, but they were unable to convert. The best scoring chance on the special teams sequence actually came in the form of a short-handed breakaway by Gustavus Adolphus’ Brad Wieck, but his shot was turned away by O’Brien.
The Gusties were presented with a power play opportunity of their own 5:34 into the period after a tripping penalty on St. Norbert’s Kyle Stroh, but were also unable to convert with the extra attacker.
The third period featured the same up-tempo flare that the second did, but neither team was able to generate much by way of quality looks.
That largely changed at about the midpoint of the period, as Leathers and Eric Bigham teamed up with a nice combination and nearly beat O’Brien to tie the game. With just two and a half minutes remaining, the same could be said for a great individual effort from Leathers, but O’Brien rose to the challenge and preserved the Green Knights’ lead.
“They had a good rush there and made a great play, but thankfully I was able to get over to that side, make the play and control the rebound,” said O’Brien.
Despite having St. Norbert back on its heels for a majority of the final 10 minutes, and ringing their second of the game off the iron in the final minutes, the Gusties were unable to solve O’Brien again and a Brandon Longley empty-net goal with 1:00 to play iced the 3-1 victory.
“We’re a positive group,” said Gusties’ senior captain Cody Mosbeck. “Taking it back to that Augsburg game that went four overtimes, it was the same kind of deal. We’re getting chances so just keep working and something’s got to give. Sometimes it doesn’t but I really think we did a good job in that situation. Nobody got the feeling like we weren’t going to get it, but sometimes you have to be lucky and good and you don’t get the bounces and that’s just the way it goes.”
The Gusties finish out their tremendous season at 20-7-2. Swartout turned back 22 shots in the loss.
“I’m proud of our effort, I really am,” Petersen said. “We played hard but it just wasn’t enough.”
Meanwhile, the Green Knights now must focus on an Oswego State team that dismantled Bowdoin 9-2 in its own quarterfinal tonight. Herb Brooks Arena will not be unfamiliar territory for St. Norbert, as it was also the host site in 2008 when they claimed their only national championship in program history.
“I’m excited to go back out there,” said Green Knights’ senior forward Tyler Allen, a sophomore on the 2008 championship team. “It was a lot of fun last time. When we finally get there against Oswego we’re going to have to show up. Work hard from the net out, play team defense and hopefully good things will happen.”