The MIAC champion Johnnies are 10-1-3 in the latter half of the season, while the only blemish on a 21-game unbeaten string for the host Yellowjackets is a tie with Wisconsin-River Falls in the NCHA championship series.
Superior enters the tournament with a 27-3-1 record, the best in school history, while the Johnnies are 15-10-3.
But a successful streak to end the season isn’t the only thing these two teams have in common. Both started the campaign with uncertainty.
Last September, Superior’s longtime head coach and athletic director Steve Nelson stepped down to become commissioner of the America West Hockey League, a junior league based in Montana. Dan Stauber, an assistant under Nelson and a player on Nelson’s first Yellowjackets squad, was named interim head coach for the season.
The change happened so close to the start of the school year that some recruits only found out when they got on campus. “We couldn’t find them fast enough to tell them,” explained Stauber.
It took a few games to get the team on track; Superior dropped three of its first four conference games. “Any time you have a transition like that, you’ll have some rocky roads, and we had ours early,” said Stauber.
Even so, the NCHA Coach of the Year also attributes much of his team’s achievements to how readily they responded to changes he brought to the program.
“The seniors on the team accepted the responsibility to make [the transition] go smoothly,” said Stauber, who noted that he didn’t introduce an entirely different philosophy, but did bring in “a few wrinkles.”
Stauber added, “I’ve been around enough to know you don’t change too many things, or you’ll sink.”
While the Yellowjackets were adjusting to their new coach and system, the Johnnies were going through the struggles that come with being a young team.
“It took us a while to mature,” said St. John’s head coach John Harrington. “We were working at it, but didn’t have much to show. When you’re young, you’re inconsistent.”
One thing Harrington did to gain some consistency was to give the starting job in goal to sophomore Rick Gregory. “We had been rotating goaltenders every other game, and we decided to go with [Gregory] primarily. He’s played great for us in the last two months,” he said.
Gregory is 8-0-3 since getting the nod, with a 2.08 goals against average and a save percentage of .922 in those 11 games.
Another contributor to the Johnnies’ turnaround since starting 5-9-1 is the midseason transfer of former North Dakota forward Mike Possin. The junior, who had been recruited by St. John’s before signing with the Fighting Sioux, has scored 11 goals and added eight assists in 16 games, but Harrington says what Possin brings to the team is more than his presence on the ice.
“Not only does he have a lot of skill, but I think our guys learned a lot about preparation for games from him,” said Harrington. “He was on the national championship team [at North Dakota] and he was in the program when they won a couple of WCHA championships, so he understands what it takes to be successful and how players prepare for big games.”
Solid goaltending has also been key for the Yellowjackets in their unbeaten stretch. Following the stellar career of goalie Tom Pink, in net for Superior is sophomore Nate Ziemski, who started his college career at Cortland, but transferred last year.
“He’s from Duluth, [Minnesota,] where I’m from, and I saw him play in high school,” said Stauber.
Stauber was concerned about the large amount of time Ziemski had spent without playing. “We didn’t know how he would respond, and he has responded very well. We knew he had the talent. But not seeing any game action in a year and a half? That’s pretty difficult.”
This season, Ziemski is making up for the time off by leading Division III in minutes played. In 29 starts, he has a 25-3-1 record, with a .908 save percentage and a goals against average of 2.13.
In front of their goalie, the Yellowjackets’ stingy defense has allowed only about 22 shots on goal per game.
Superior has gained a reputation for being physical that Stauber says is undeserved: “I don’t know why we keep getting the rap that we’re a physical team. If [the situation] presents itself, fine, but we would love to get up and down the rink. We want to play the skill game.”
The Yellowjackets, averaging 4.78 goals per game, do indeed have players who can score.
Two seniors lead Superior in scoring: Ivan Prokic, with 22 goals and 16 assists, and Jeff Glowa, with 14 goals and 23 assists. Thirteen of Prokic’s goals have been on the power play, while Glowa has three tallies short-handed. Both forwards, along with Ziemski and senior defenseman Milan Tomaska were named to the 2001 All-NCHA team.
St. John’s isn’t the same kind of offensive threat as Superior, with only four players at the 20 point mark or above. “We don’t have a lot of guys with the big numbers. We get things done by committee,” said Harrington.
The eighth-year head coach is pleased that some players who had been quiet for the Johnnies in the regular season have come through with timely goals in the MIAC playoffs. Harrington said he looked to players to step up in the postseason, and “abandoned any preconceived notions” about them he might have had.
“I think our whole team has improved, and going into the playoffs … I said, ‘It’s a clean slate, right now this is the way we’re going, impress me.'”
The two teams met just once this season, in the first game for both after the semester break. Visiting St. John’s led Superior 3-1 after two periods, but the Yellowjackets responded with three goals in the third to squeak out a 4-3 victory.
Harrington said the game was a good learning experience, despite the loss. “We got some confidence that we can play with good teams.”
Stauber believes both teams have improved since their lone meeting. “I don’t think it was a game that either one of us liked.”
This is the third consecutive NCAA tournament for Superior, and ninth overall. The Yellowjackets were runners-up to Middlebury in 1999 after shocking host Norwich in the semifinals. The Cadets returned the favor in last year’s tourney, ousting the host team 5-4 in overtime at Superior’s Wessman Arena in that tournament’s penultimate round.
That playoff experience is a big plus for Superior, according to Stauber. “It’s going to help us from the standpoint of jitters — playoff jitters, NCAA jitters — I don’t think we’ll be as tight.”
St. John’s makes its third trip to the tournament and its first since 1997, when the Johnnies finished third after losing a semifinal to that year’s champion, Middlebury. In 1996, St. John’s lost a two-game NCAA quarterfinal series to Superior.
The young Johnnies, who won their conference as the third seed, come into this series as underdogs as well.
“Severe underdogs,” emphasized Harrington, who knows more than a little about the subject, having been a member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. “I don’t know how we could be considered anything else. Superior’s big and strong and a mature team, and it’s amazing … whatever we’ve done pales in comparison to the streak they’ve put together.”