Last season, Norwich was less than a minute and a half away from its second national title, until a shot that deflected off a Cadet defenseman’s stick sent the game into overtime. Despite outplaying the Yellowjackets for much of the game and outshooting them handily, 23 seconds after the end of regulation Wisconsin-Superior was the champion.
Norwich, with 22 veterans from that tournament on the roster, makes its seventh NCAA appearance Saturday. The Cadets host a team making its first trip, 19-5-2 Trinity.
“We’re excited about it,” said Trinity coach and NESCAC coach of the year John Dunham. “It’s a great opportunity and it’s just going to be a fun night. Back in November and December, being in the NCAAs was the farthest thing from our imagination.”
This is the third time the Cadets and Bantams will meet this season.
Host Norwich beat Trinity over the semester break, 4-1, in the championship of the Times-Argus tournament. The game was tighter than the score would indicate; the game was tied at 1-1 until just over three minutes were left in the third. Norwich got a power-play goal and one at even strength in quick succession, and then added an empty-netter.
The game was the 400th career win for Norwich coach Mike McShane, now in his fifth NCAA tournament in eight years behind the Cadet bench.
The Bantams dealt Norwich its first loss of the season, snapping a 15-game winning streak with a 5-3 win on Trinity’s Hartford, Conn., home ice. Trinity trailed by a goal until the midway point of that contest until senior captains Greg O’Leary and Andrew Halder scored two minutes apart to give the Bantams the lead for good.
Each team received an automatic bid to the tournament; the 24-3 Cadets beat New England College, 6-2, for the ECAC East title last Saturday, while second-seeded Trinity upset homestanding Middlebury, 4-2, on Sunday for the NESCAC crown, ending a 20-game unbeaten string for the Panthers.
Returning to Norwich’s Kreitzberg Arena doesn’t intimidate the Bantams, according to their coach.
“We feel very comfortable in the building,” said Dunham, in his 29th season as head coach at Trinity. “We played in front of a full house there last year with all the cadets there. We’ve played twice in the Times-Argus tournament, and we’ve practiced there. I know our team really enjoys playing there.”
Norwich will bring its high-powered offense to the single-elimination quarterfinal. The Cadets lead Division III with an average of 6.59 goals per game, and also lead in scoring margin at better than four goals per game. Two players have more than 40 points on the season: Sophomore Kurtis McLean leads the team in scoring with 24 goals and 20 assists, while junior Phil Aucoin has 14 goals and 28 assists.
McShane’s Norwich teams have always been characterized by a brutally tough forecheck, which can make opponents struggle just to clear the puck to center ice.
“Norwich has a strong forecheck that can wear you down,” agreed Dunham. “All our D can skate the puck out if they have to, and they pass pretty well. So that gives us some bullets in the gun, as they say.”
That forecheck and the Norwich defense have kept opponents to an average of about 25 shots on goal, while the Cadets have pummeled opposing goaltenders with more than 40 per game.
Three goalies have split time in net for the Cadets this season. Senior Randy Hevey is 13-2 in 15 starts for Norwich, and sophomore Kevin Schieve is 7-1, but the hot goaltender down the stretch has been rookie Mike Boudreau, who went 3-0 in postseason play, allowing just three goals in three games. Boudreau, who had only started one game for the Cadets before the conference playoffs, had a .955 save percentage in those playoff tilts, and was selected ECAC East tournament MVP.
Trinity has benefited from strong goaltending for many years. A year after seeing action in just three games behind Geoff Faulkner, another Trinity standout, sophomore Doug Kisielius went 19-5-1 in goal, with a .915 save percentage, a 2.41 GAA, and five shutouts. Kisielius was the first-team all-conference goaltender in the NESCAC, and a two-time USCHO defensive player of the week.
Dunham, himself a college goaltender at Brown, is effusive in his praise of Kisielius. “He’s big, he’s mobile, he’s patient, he stays up, he doesn’t give away a lot of holes when he moves. He’s got great hands and he’s had tremendous experience.”
In the three-game NESCAC playoffs, Trinity was outshot 115-70. Kisielius allowed only two goals in each contest, including 3-2 overtime wins over Williams and Colby in the tournament’s first two rounds.
“Someone from the local paper asked me what it was like riding a hot goaltender,” added Dunham. “I said, ‘We’re not riding a hot goaltender; we’re riding a very good goaltender.'”
Leading the Bantams in scoring are two sophomores. Joseph Ori has 16 goals and 18 assists in 26 games, while Jeffrey Natale has 13 goals and 18 assists in his 25 appearances, with eight of his goals coming on the Bantams’ potent power play.
That power play was second in the nation this season at 33.6 percent. What has made it so successful?
“The fact that we have puckhandlers on both power plays, and people who can pass and create offense on both power plays,” answered Dunham. “And we run a different power play on each; the first unit runs one formation and our second unit runs another formation.”
Special teams could be key in the matchup. Trinity held Norwich to 1-for-6 and 1-for-5 on the power play in the teams’ two meetings, but went 1-for-3 in the loss and 2-for-4 in the win against the Cadets. The Bantams will need to capitalize on the man advantage to counter the Norwich scoring punch.
“If we can get possession in the zone and start moving the puck, we’re pretty good because we can pass,” said Dunham. “And we’ve got five forwards out there who are real good with the puck.”
The Norwich power play is 14th in the nation, clicking at a respectable 25 percent. Norwich has killed off 84 percent of its opponents’ man advantages.
In addition to special teams, goaltending will be a big factor, especially for the Bantams against the dominating Norwich offense. The Cadets outshot Trinity by a wide margin in both previous meetings.
Norwich’s tough forecheck, its scoring prowess, and home ice advantage give the Cadets an edge in this contest. But if the Bantams can keep it a low-scoring game, they have a good shot at adding a second upset to last Sunday’s NESCAC title.
“It comes down to whether we can break out the puck against the Norwich forecheck,” said Dunham. “If not, it’s going to be a long night.”