Many were expecting UW-River Falls to be traveling to St. Norbert this weekend for a NCAA Quarterfinal matchup. Instead, it will be Bethel making the trip to the Cornerstone after a strong performance carried the Royals to a 2-1 opening round victory over the Falcons on Wednesday night.
The Royals are making their first every NCAA tournament appearance and are now 1-0-0 all-time in NCAA play. Meanwhile, St. Norbert is making its 9th appearance in the NCAA’s, where it holds an all-time record of 8-8-1.
Heading into its opening round game with UW-River Falls, Bethel was receiving a high amount of praise for its speed and depth, as well as for its overall offensive skill. The praise was warranted as all played integral roles in its eventual win. According to head coach Peter Aus, however, it took a while for the Royals to get things rolling this season.
“Well, what we did is switch up our lines,” he said. “To start the season we had all the old guys playing with old guys, and all the new guys playing with new guys. It just wasn’t working, so we mixed everything up.”
He continued, “That was right before the Gustavus game, and then we came out in that game and fell behind by two right away, so I’m thinking ‘oh no, what did I do?'”
Aus decided to stick with his plan and it has paid dividends, as the Royals came back to defeat Gustavus Adolphus 4-3. Coincidentally, the win also marked the turnaround point in the Royals’ season, as since defeating the Gusties, Bethel has won twelve of thirteen games, culminating with this week’s NCAA first round victory.
Bethel’s success can largely be attributed to its balanced attack. Led by sophomore Nick Miller’s 28 points, the Royals boast eight players with at least 20, and six more who check in with double digits.
Heading into Saturday’s quarterfinal, this balanced attack is cause for concern for St. Norbert head coach Tim Coghlin.
“They are very deep up front,” he said. “They don’t have a superstar type player, but they have twenty guys who will score goals. They have a lot of guys out there getting quality minutes. They have at least three lines who are very dangerous offensively, and that makes them a dangerous team this time of year.”
Coghlin added, “I think they are a lot like us in a way. We have been fortunate at times to have a lot of depth and it can be a difficult thing for an opposing team to deal with. They present the same challenges.”
The Green Knights do indeed have similar depth. Led by Marc Belanger’s 38 points, St. Norbert also lays claim to eight players with at least 20 on the year.
According to Coghlin, to find success this weekend, the Green Knights must continue to play the solid team defense that they have over the past few weeks.
“We have been maintaining shot lanes, keeping pucks to the outside, allowing Kyle (goaltender Kyle Jones) to see the play, and not giving up three-on-two or two-on-one rushes. We’ve been doing that pretty well for the past month or so.”
Allowing only 1.76 goals per game on the season, it will be interesting to see how the Green Knight defense can slow down the Royals’ attack, as Aus praised his teams persistence following the win over River Falls.
“I think it goes back to the speed of our forwards. We have a lot of guys with speed, and who handle the puck well.”
St. Norbert and Bethel have met once this season, with the Green Knights prevaling 4-2, though the Royals held a 2-0 lead heading into the third period.
“We were up in that game,” said Aus. “Then they came back and we really hurt ourselves late with some mistakes in our own end. You can’t do that against them. This weekend will be difficult as its extremely tough to win over there.”
That’s not to say it hasn’t been done before, as in 2005 St. Thomas went into the Cornerstone for a quarterfinal meeting, and walked away having earned a trip to the Frozen Four, something that still weighs heavy on Coghlin’s mind.
“The situation that really stands out in my mind, most recently, was in ’05,” said Coghlin. “St. Thomas fought its way through the MIAC Playoffs, then came in here, did exactly what they needed to do, got ahead early, and we never came back.”
He added, “So we sit here now saying, were at home, yeah, but we know what can happen. We need to understand the urgency of the situation. Throw out all the statistics, the records, the powerplay percentages, whatever. It comes down to 60 minutes.”
Aus shared simlar sentiments, stating, “As I said, it’s tough to win over there, but one of our goals was to win the MIAC, and win a tournament game, and we’ve done that; Playoff hockey, you just never know what will happen.”
Whatever does happen, it will certainly be fun to watch two teams who mirror each other stylistically. In terms of excitement, if Bethel’s game with River Falls was a precursor to what everyone can expect Saturday night, fasten your seat belts, it could be a wild ride. The puck drops at 7:05 CT.
• Aaron Damjanovich (14-5-2, 2.48, .915) has started every game during Bethel’s hot streak, and will start on Saturday.
• Kyle Jones (24-3-2, 1.75, .915), as always, will be getting the call in net for St. Norbert. Jones has started every game for the Green Knights this season.
• St. Norbert is 14-1 at home on the season, but 14-0 at the Cornerstone Community Center. The loss came against UW-Stout at the Resch Center.
• Bethel has only defeated St. Norbert one time, and it was in 1989. Since then the Green Knights have won 17 straight over the Royals, and hold a 17-1-0 all-time advantage in the series.
• The last time St. Norbert hosted a MIAC team in the NCAA Tournament was in 2005, where it lost 3-2 to St. Thomas.
• MIAC and NCHA teams have met in every NCAA Tournament since 1998, with the NCHA holding a 9-4-1 advantage in the meetings.