MINNEAPOLIS — St. Norbert College coach Tim Coghlin was asked about Green Knights forward Cody Keefer’s performance after the sophomore forward’s game-winning goal in St. Norbert’s 3-2 win over defending-champ Norwich University in the NCAA Division III semifinals on Friday night.
“Ask me about Cody Keefer if he’s big in tomorrow’s game; that’s what I want to know,” said Coghlin, referring to Saturday’s national championship game against Adrian College. “I want to know if he’s going to have that same play tomorrow.”
Keefer answered Coghlin’s question with a resounding yes by scoring twice, but it was Nick Tabisz’s goal at 15:26 of the second period that propelled St Norbert to its second national championship in four years with a 4-3 win over the Adrian College Bulldogs at Ridder Arena.
“I told Keefer on the bus ‘Well, you haven’t scored in a championship game yet,’ and he took it to heart,” said Coghlin with a laugh. “He came up and gave me a big hug [after scoring] and said ‘There, are you happy now?’ and I said ‘Yes, I really am.”
“He made me a little mad with that comment,” joked Keefer, who was named to the All-Tournament Team.
The Green Knights took advantage of Adrian’s steady parade to the penalty box to score three power-play goals in five chances against what was the nation’s top-ranked penalty-killing unit coming into the weekend. Adrian was penalized less than two minutes after each of its goals, and the Green Knights capitalized on all three opportunities.
“I thought, obviously, their power play was the difference [and] our inability to stay out of the box,” said Adrian coach Ron Fogarty, who pointed out Adrian led at even strength 3-1. “I’ve said for four years if you can win the special teams [battle], you have a great shot of winning the game, and they beat us in that facet of the game today.”
“It seems like every time we had momentum, the referee found a reason to put his arm in the air and that killed us,” said Adrian forward Sam Kuzyk, a senior from Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Johan Ryd (one goal, one assist), Tabisz (one goal, one assist), Brandon Hoogenboom (two assists), and Brandon Longley (two assists) each had two-point nights for St. Norbert in the first-ever matchup of West Region teams in the championship game.
Green Knights goaltender B.J. O’Brien — honored for the second consecutive year with the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player Award — made 18 saves for his 22nd, but by far most important, win of the season.
Kuzyk, Kyle Watson, and Eric Miller scored for the Bulldogs, who had their 14-game winning and 18-game unbeaten streaks snapped by St. Norbert in the second-ever meeting between the two schools (also a 4-3 win for the Green Knights in the first round of the 2010 NCAA tournament). Bulldogs senior goaltender Brad Fogal finished his illustrious college career with 30 saves
The Green Knights grabbed the early first-period lead when a Hoogenboom pass sent Keefer in alone on Fogal. The Division III all-time leader in wins (93-11-2) stopped Keefer’s five-hole attempt with his stick, but the puck shot straight up in the air, landed on top of the unsuspecting Fogal’s head, and down his back before trickling over the goal line at the 4:15 mark.
“I just kind of tried throwing it on net and it ended up going in,” said Keefer. “Obviously, that’s a good bounce and I think it definitely jump started us.”
After Kuzyk’s goal drew the Bulldogs even at 1-1 midway through the period, St. Norbert’s leading scorer, Ryd , slammed in a rebound of a Tabisz shot, giving the Green Knights a 2-1 lead at the break.
The see-saw battle continued into the second, when a loose puck appeared in front of Adrian’s Watson, who roofed the puck over O’Brien from just outside the crease area to square the game at two.
Keefer’s power-play goal at 10:38 put St Norbert back out in front until a Shawn Skelly shot for Adrian rebounded off O’Brien to Miller waiting alone at the back door. With a wide-open net in front of him, the senior from Erlanger, Ky. calmly slid the puck behind O’Brien, tying the game for the third time.
However, just 59 seconds later, with Adrian’s Shawn Courtney serving a roughing penalty, Tabisz fired a wrist shot from the left point that beat Fogal high to the blocker side, giving the Green Knights their fourth lead of the game.
“I kind of felt like that was the one that was going to put us over,” said Tabisz. “I felt like three goals was enough for them and four was going to win it.”
The All-Tournament defenseman’s instincts were proven right, as the Bulldogs were held to just five shots in a scoreless third period, largely due to St. Norbert’s ability to block shots. The Green Knights executed five of their game total of 14 blocks in the third period.
“We put it all out there and came up a goal short,” said Adrian All-American forward Shawn Skelly, another All-Tournament Team selection. “It’s been a great year, the 17 seniors gave it their all . . . we just couldn’t finish it out.”