NCAA D-III Quarterfinal: St. Norbert vs. St. Thomas

St. Norbert (24-1-4 overall record, 10-0-4 in NCHA)

St. Norbert hosting a NCAA Quarterfinal game has become about as big of a life certainty as death and taxes. As such, the Green Knights will be hosting yet another this Saturday as they face MIAC Playoff Champion St. Thomas in the NCAA Quarterfinals.

The game will mark the seventh straight season the Green Knights have hosted a NCAA contest. In fact, in its 10 trips to the NCAA tournament, the only time St. Norbert has opened up on the road was in 1997 — its first tournament appearance ever.

Though success at St. Norbert doesn’t surprise anyone, this year’s edition of the Green Knights might have appeared more susceptible than in past years as 20 underclassmen help fill out the roster.

There is not a Rob Smillie, Maris Ziedens, Jason Deitsch or Connor Hughes type of weapon on this team, but it hasn’t stopped the Green Knights from rolling up wins –especially in close games.

“What we’ve tried to do is not make too many comparisons to the past”, said Green Knight head coach Tim Coghlin. “It’s easy to do when you have the same group of guys but when you have a big swing of guys comparisons are being made to things the kids don’t even understand.”

He continued, “We’ve just tried to keep it real simple and focus on the cliché ‘one game at a time’. We’ve tried to stay on task and focus on what we need to do to stay successful.”

St. Norbert is 7-0 this season in one goal games, including single-goal wins over St. Scholastica and Stout in the NCHA playoffs. Additionally, the Green Knights have won a school record three overtime games on the year and are 3-0-4 overall in games requiring the extra frame.

Not bad for a young team.

How are the Green Knights doing it? How about Kyle Jones?

The Green Knights’ senior goaltender has had another record-shattering season and has posted his best statistical season yet. Jones is currently 18-1-3 on the season with a 1.20 goals-against-average and .944 save percentage.

What makes his numbers even more impressive is that compared to his first three seasons, Jones has been asked to carry a larger share of the load this year.

“Some days it’s been Kyle Jones being forced to make 22 quality stops to force overtime to give us a chance and he’s been able to do that,” said Coghlin.

Continuing, “This is the first time we’ve exposed him where he has had to make multiple saves, or make critical backdoor saves and he’s answered the bell. He’s done everything we’ve asked him to do and he’s continuing to do that now with a young team.”

Though Jones has been heavily relied at times, overall the Green Knights’ defense has often been as stiff as ever, conceding only 21.5 shots on goal per game.

“In other cases it’s been shut-down, lock-down type defensive efforts by the forwards and the d-corps and we’ve been able to give up few quality chances per game,” said Coghlin.

If there is one element about this year’s Green Knights that might give Coghlin cause for concern it’s their lack of scoring output. St. Norbert’s 3.83 goals per game this season is the lowest it has been in over six years.

“The one thing we haven’t been able to do is outscore teams,” explained Coghlin. “So if it becomes a 6-5 game that’s a game we haven’t played yet.”

Coghlin has stated numerous times this season that a shootout is not the type of game the Green Knights want to get in to. Facing a team as offensively skilled as St. Thomas, however, it’s a possibility it could be the case this Saturday.

Though St. Norbert hasn’t rolled it up on opponents this year quite like they have in the past, they certainly can still score.

They are led up front by senior forward Marc Belanger who has a team high 22 goals and 20 assists for 42 points on the year. Sophomore forwards Matt Boyd and Tyler Allen have registered 36 and 26 points on the season, respectively, while sophomore playmaker Shane Wheeler has posted 25 points despite missing seven mid-season games due to an ankle injury.

Freshman defenseman Nick Tabisz has been a pleasant surprise, especially running the point on the power play, and has nine goals and 13 assists on the year. Six of his goals have been scored with the man-advantage. Sophomore blueliner Sam Tikka has also dotted the scoresheet with six goals of his own.

St. Norbert hosted St. Thomas on January 12 and skated away with a 3-2 overtime victory, but Coghlin came away from that game fully aware of the dangers the Tommies present.

“When we played them over here we were up 2-0 after two and normally that’s a pretty good spot for us. They had no problems battling back to force overtime.”

Elaborating, “We know they are a veteran group; we know they are deep. This may be their deepest team since that ’05 season. I think all the scuttlebutt around them as been how solid their defensive corps is and how much forward depth they have. They clearly have four lines that can play and they’ve always been a high-octane machine.”

The Tommies are no newcomers to success and are in the midst of their twentieth consecutive winning season under head coach Terry Skrypek. The Tommies’ experience is something Coghlin feels will definitely serve to benefit them.

“They are an experienced team and they are an experience tournament team,” he said. “They’ve been in that type of environment before.”

Nowhere was this experience more prevalent than in 2005, when the Tommies skated into the Cornerstone for a NCAA Quarterfinal game and skated away with a 3-2 victory over what some consider the best St. Norbert team ever.

Coghlin even pointed out that in somewhat of an ironic twist, that was the first career loss for Kyle Jones. Additionally, the senior leaders on the current St. Norbert and St. Thomas were freshmen in that game.

It’s almost three years later now, and it’s déjà vu all over again as the Green Knights once again host the Tommies in the NCAA tournament.

Kyle Jones remarkable career has only seen nine losses since that 2005 game against St. Thomas. Will his final career loss resemble that of his first, or will the Green Knights be headed to Lake Placid for yet another Frozen Four?

To be determined.

St. Thomas (20-6-2 overall record, 11-4-1 in MIAC)

Since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 10 teams in 2006, the committee has handed down a 7-3 East-West split, meaning one play-in game has been held in the Western region in each of those years.

Every time, a MIAC tournament champion has faced an NCHA team for the right to play perennial power St. Norbert. And for the past two years, the MIAC champion has won that battle, as St. Thomas defeated Wisconsin-Stout 4-1 on Wednesday night.

Stout scored first as Derek Hanson beat Tyler Chestnut at 7:08 of the first period, but the Blue Devils wouldn’t find the back of the net for the rest of the night. The game slipped away from Stout halfway through the third period as the Tommies scored twice in a 10 second span to take a 3-1 lead. Nate Ryan scored his team leading fifth game-winning goal, assisted by Nick Penula, who notched his 100th career point in a Tommie sweater.

In all, nine different Tommies netted a point in Wednesday’s win. St. Thomas also continued their recent dominance on the penalty kill. They have now killed 17 of 18 power plays in the postseason (MIAC and NCAA) and outscored opponents 15-3 in that span. St. Thomas has held its opponents to one goal or fewer in five of the team’s last seven games.

The win sends St. Thomas to Saturday’s matchup at the Cornerstone Community Center.

The Green Knights haven’t lost since Nov. 3, when Gustavus Adolphus gave St. Norbert their only blemish of the season. The Tommies may be an impressive 10-4-1 on the road this season, but they are coming off Wednesday night’s contest while the Green Knights have rested for a week since defeating Stout in the NCHA Championship game.

St. Thomas coach Terry Skrypek isn’t able to determine whether the first round game is a benefit or detriment to a team, especially one that has been playing as well as the Tommies have of late.

“Some people say, ‘Wouldn’t it have been nice and to our advantage to just go down to Norbert and be done with it?’ Maybe. But it could be an advantage to play a tough game and keep it rolling here.”

This is the Tommies’ second trip to Cornserstone this season. In January these two teams played an overtime contest that St. Norbert was able to secure 4-3. St. Thomas battled back from an early 2-0 deficit in a physical, hard-fought game. A late goal by Nate Ryan forced the extra frame, where Matt Boyd was able to secure the win for the Green Knights.

“[We played] a game we very easily could have won down there.” Skrypek said. “Our guys are anxious to play them again.”

However, in 2005 St. Thomas was able to defeat the Green Knights 3-2 in a quarterfinal game at the CCC. That was one of the steps for the Tommies on their way to the national championship game. Six seniors remain from that season, and one in particular remembers that game very specifically.

“Ryan Hoehn for example score a big gal against Norbert that year and he says ‘I can still remember that goal and how I scored it.’ That was one that put us up 3 to 1 against them, and eventually we won 4 to 3.” Skrypek recalled. “I think the tournament experiece [our seniors] had has helped our team and it’s showed with the leadership of our veteran players.”

In the game earlier this year, neither team was able to convert on the man advantage. Given St. Thomas’ recent success on the penalty kill, the Green Knights may find it difficult to gain an advantage. Expect another defensively-minded hard-hitting game as two outstanding goaltenders try to get their teams to the Final Four.

It is games like this the make Western fans lament the NCAA process in Division III.

In a properly-seeded tournament UST and SNC would almost assuredly not be playing in this round and fans of D-III hockey could see both face off against Eastern foes for a right to play in the final four.

Instead they will have to settle for what should be an outstanding game to effectively crown the western region champion.