Quarterfinal Preview: Wisconsin-River Falls at St. Norbert

For the second year in a row, the second year under the current NCAA Division III hockey selection/seeding process, the West Region will battle down to a single team before the semifinals.

Even though there were three NCHA teams in the top five all season long, a 6-3 East-West split resulted in the play-in game again being placed in the West, where Wisconsin-River Falls defeated MIAC champion St. John’s 2-0 on Wednesday.

Cost containment at the Division III level meant that with a 6-3 split, playing down to a single team in the West means that only one team will have to be flown during the entire tournament.

That team will be the winner of Saturday’s quarterfinal game between River Falls (23-6-1) and St. Norbert (26-1-2). With the other three quarterfinals taking place in the East, Western fans will again have to travel to see Division III crown its champion, the sixth time in seven years that the finals have been in the East.

“I thought this might be the year (for the West to host),” said St. Norbert head coach Tim Coghlin. “We’re 26-1-2, and River Falls and Superior had great seasons. It seemed like a perfect time.”

Western fans are left to wonder. What if Wisconsin-Superior had beaten St. Norbert just once in one of their five meetings? What if Middlebury had not been upset by Trinity in the NESCAC finals? Might there have been a 5-4 split, meaning two Western quarterfinals and a Western team hosting the finals?

“It makes you wonder if it will ever happen,” said Coghlin.

“How do you justify not having four teams from the West this season? They had a lot of strong teams to choose from. They followed the criteria to the letter, but it makes you wonder if the criteria is right to begin with.”

His Green Knights might actually had been better off with a 7-2 split. In that case, St. Norbert would have definitely played St. John’s, which it defeated 11-2 back on January 3. Instead, a tough game, one of the most difficult quarterfinal challenges, awaits the top seeded team in the tournament.

“We have a tough draw,” said Coghlin. “We’re playing the only team that beat us this season, and they also took us into overtime. It’s a team with our conference player-of-the-year, the all-conference goalie, an All-American defenseman, and the coach of the year in our league.”

Upsets will be easier this season with a single game replacing a best-of-two-with-possible-minigame format. But the coach of the underdogs doesn’t like the new system.

“I’d rather play a series,” said Wisconsin-River Falls head coach Steve Freeman. “I think a single game at this point puts a lot of pressure on a single player, like a goaltender.

“The entire game can turn on one mistake.”

“I’d rather play best of three like they do in the WCHA,” said Coghlin. “But one game is better than the two game format. We’ve seen a lot of minigames and I don’t think a series should be settled like that.”

The teams were 1-1 against each other this season, with the Falcons handing the Green Knights their only loss, 5-2 on November 23.

“We played very well in the offensive zone,” said Freeman of that game. “We moved the puck very well and created good scoring opportunities.”

Wisconsin-River Falls is on the upswing after a tough weekend at St. Norbert in the NCHA playoffs, when the Falcons lost to Wisconsin-Superior in the semifinals and Wisconsin-Stevens Point in the consolation game.

That second loss caused many to consider UWRF to be out on NCAA consideration.

“We were pretty low and disappointed about the way we played,” said Freeman.

“That was after we had played well the last weekend of the season. We lost in overtime (to St. Norbert) with two minutes to play. Win that game and we win the NCHA regular season, and then host. Last weekend could have played out very differently. It shows you how two minutes can change the whole year.”

Freeman was optimistic that his team was in no matter what happened in the playoffs. Although the Falcons were 0-2-1 against Wisconsin-Superior, they got the nod over the Yellowjackets thanks to other criteria, including winning percentage and record against common opponents and teams in the tournament.

“Head to head is important but it’s just a couple of games,” said Freeman. “You have to look at the whole season.

“When I looked at the numbers, I felt we had a strong chance.”

Still, Freeman agrees with Coghlin that the West was again slighted.

“Of course, we were hoping for a 5-4 split,” he said. “The ideal situation would be for two Eastern and two Western teams in the final four.

“The tough part is getting out of our league. Every year there’s three of four teams that could make the NCAA tournament. It’s a real dogfight.”

As will be the game on Saturday.