MINNEAPOLIS — In order to be the best you have to beat the best, and no one knows that better than the Green Knights of St. Norbert. Despite packing the nation’s No. 1 ranking for its trip to the Division III Frozen Four, the Green Knights were greeted in the semifinals by the proverbial white elephant in the room known as the Norwich Cadets.
The last time St. Norbert (24-4-1) and second-ranked Norwich (22-6-3) shared an ice sheet, the Green Knights could only stand and silently watch as the Cadets celebrated their 2-1 double-overtime victory over St. Norbert in the 2010 NCAA Division III title game in Lake Placid, N.Y.
Flash forward a year and the result is vastly different as the Green Knights grabbed a two-goal, third-period lead only to see it evaporate before ultimately prevailing 3-2 on Friday at Ridder Arena.
“They are a legitimate contender every single year; they’ve won three national championships this decade,” said St. Norbert coach Tim Coghlin. “To take that opportunity away from them here is big, so now the shoe’s on the other foot so we’ll see where we go.”
Senior center Scott Pulak’s goal at 12:27 of the third period snapped a 2-2 tie and stood up as the winner in a dramatic five-goal third period which began as a scoreless tie.
The victory sends St. Norbert to its fifth NCAA Division III championship game in eight years to face Adrian at 7 p.m. on Saturday in the first all-West Region championship game since Wisconsin-River Falls beat Wisconsin-Superior in 1994.
Cody Keefer and Seth Soley also scored for the Green Knights, who also benefited from just another night’s work from goaltender B.J. O’Brien, the 2010 Frozen Four’s Most Outstanding Player. O’Brien, who made 70 saves in last year’s epic battle with the Cadets, stopped 39 Norwich shots, including 30 over the final two periods.
“Right from the get-go I was seeing the puck well, controlling my rebounds, and I think that helped me a lot tonight,” said a confident O’Brien. “I’ve been in those games where we do get outshot. However, you’ve just got to keep your team in it and I thought I did a very good job of that.”
Travis Janke and Pier-Olivier Cotnoir led a youthful Norwich attack — only two seniors dressed for the Cadets on Friday — with two points each (one goal, one assist) and freshman goaltender Parker Carroll made 15 saves for the Cadets.
The game was scoreless after two periods but not for a lack of effort by Norwich. The Cadets compiled a 26-9 advantage in shots by the second intermission but had yet to solve O’Brien.
“That’s happened to us before,” said Norwich senior Captain Chad Anderson said of O’Brien’s stellar play. “It’s playoff time, you’re going to run into hot goaltenders. You just gotta know how to handle it and all you can do is just keep going.”
That task appeared even more daunting after Keefer and Soley each scored in the first 3:20 of the third on St. Norbert’s first two shots on goal of the period.
“I thought we had great chances in the first two periods,” said Norwich coach Mike McShane.”Sometimes when you get a lot of chances and you don’t bury the puck, they get a couple and they did a nice job of putting it away.”
“We were down 2-0 but there was plenty of time left,” added McShane, who in 16 years behind the Norwich bench has compiled a 341-96-24 record. “These guys have done it all year long, they’ve done it for the last couple years, they’ve come back and done a nice job of winning battles down the stretch and I had confidence right until the end.”
McShane’s faith was eventually rewarded when Janke corralled a loose puck at the side of the net before lifting a backhander past O’Brien and later fed Cotnoir at the doorstep for the tying goal at the 11:14 mark. But the Cadets’ joy was short lived as Pulak redirected Johan Ryd’s pass between Carroll’s legs just 1:13 later.
“Going into the third period we talked about our record over two periods and why this program has been successful for as long as it has and how much more we’re going to need to bring forth in the third,” said Coghlin, who is 379-99-39 in 18 years guiding the Green Knights. “I think a lot of guys knew that they hadn’t played their best hockey. I know that we’re going to play better tomorrow.”
Norwich pressed hard late in the game and had a few glorious scoring chances in the final minutes, only to be thwarted by O’Brien.
“They’re a team that doesn’t quit,” said O’Brien. “They still fought hard all the way until the end of the game.”
“We did everything we could,” said Anderson, who finished his college career with 106 points (44 goals, 62 assists) in 114 games with the Cadets. “We came in prepared, we did our game plan, and that’s just how it goes sometimes and it’s rough, real rough.”
The silver lining for Norwich? O’Brien is a senior.