St. Norbert has won at least a share of the NCHA title in 10 of the past 12 seasons. It has also won the NCHA Playoffs and Peters Cup five out of the last six years.
Having accomplished both again this season, and having defeated St. Thomas 2-1 in overtime to advance to their fifth Frozen Four in the past six years, it isnâ€™t much of a surprise the Green Knights are once again the lone Western representative in the Frozen Four.
Or is it?
The West Region is arguably as deep as it ever has been. The NCHA alone boasts seven quality teams, and with experienced and talented teams like Superior, River Falls, and Stevens Point, as well as upstarts like Stout and St. Scholastica all gunning for an inexperienced St. Norbert club, this looked like a year the Green Knights might not end up on top of the Western heap.
With 20 underclassmen on their roster, even the NCHA coaches thought the Green Knights might be vulnerable as three other teams picked up first place votes in the preseason NCHA poll.
As it turned out, none of that really mattered as the 25-1-4 Green Knights posted their second best record in school history en route to yet another Frozen Four.
â€œItâ€™s a very exciting time,â€ said St. Norbert head coach Tim Coghlin. â€œAs you know, we certainly didnâ€™t expect to be in this situation. From the beginning of the year we thought if we could finish top four in the NCHA we would be ready for a playoff run. We didnâ€™t expect it to go as it has.â€
â€œWe tried to be realistic about what we thought we could get from this team, but now weâ€™re at this point in time so weâ€™ve got to move forward.â€
The relative inexperience of the Green Knights has been a constant this season, and though surprised by the level of success they have had, Coghlin says this team has a little bit different personality than some of his past teams.
â€œThereâ€™s a certain way we like our team to play and thereâ€™s a certain type of athlete that does well here,â€ he explained. â€œThis group has just sort of gone about business their own way. Itâ€™s not always as emotional in the locker room, itâ€™s not always as rah-rah, but their focus seems to be exceptionally good.â€
Continuing: â€œTheyâ€™ve shown the ability to come out and make adjustments. It isnâ€™t a team that runs on auto-pilot by any means. I think a lot of veteran teams are able to come out and run by themselves. This group needs a little more poking and prodding here and there but they seem to be getting the job done.â€
When it comes to getting the job done, St. Norbert has certainly been doing so — especially in close games.
The overtime win against St. Thomas ran the Green Knightsâ€™ record to 8-0 in one goal games this season and was their fourth overtime win of the season. Both are school records.
â€œI have kind of resigned myself to the fact these guys to do their own thing,â€ joked Coghlin. â€œI would like to see more intensity in the locker room, I would like to see more chatter, but every other year weâ€™ve done that weâ€™ve lost more games, so Iâ€™m not sure.
â€œThis group has their own identity: control the controllable.â€
St. Norbertâ€™s prowess in close games as well as its even-keeled mindset could very well pay dividends heading into the Frozen Four, especially in light of last seasonâ€™s 4-3 overtime loss to Oswego, after which Coghlin stated numerous times that his team merely played â€œokâ€.
â€œI thought 50 percent of our guys had very good games last year, and fifty percent of our guys had very average games,â€ said Coghlin. â€œThe reality is at this time of the year, if you are going to do something special together everybody has to have a great game.â€
â€œRight now thereâ€™s a good of an opportunity for any of the four teams. If you want to stand a better than 25 percent chance, then you better be special that night.â€
When it comes to St. Norbertâ€™s semifinal opponent Norwich, the Cadets have been on quite a roll lately. After rolling through the ECACE tournament and outscoring its three opponents 21-4, Norwich drubbed Manhattanville 7-2 in last Saturdayâ€™s quarterfinals.
The Green Knights even have a little bit of NCAA history with Norwich, losing 6-3 to the Cadets in a 2003 semifinal contest. Between that game and the reputation and history of the Norwich program, Coghlin knows the Green Knights have their hands full.
â€œThey are a high-end offensive machine,â€ said Coghlin. â€œJust look at their scoring stats in the playoffs. They hung seven on Manhattanville, hung eight the weekend before, and so on.â€
Continuing, â€œThey are a goal producing machine. Are we going to be able to keep up with that? I donâ€™t think so. If it gets into one of those deals I donâ€™t think it favors us. However, I have no issues with our team speed and I have no issue with the bigger ice surface. I like a lot of the little things we do and I like the fact we are battle-tested.â€
â€œI like our demeanor and I like our approach. Is that going to be enough? Thatâ€™s tough to say. Right now Norwich looks awfully tough to beat on paper.â€
Norwich might have an upper hand in terms of its familiarity with the larger ice sheet, something the Green Knights only played on once all year. Interestingly, it was at St. Johnâ€™s in a game St. Norbert won 3-2 but no one would argue it was one of the better games they have played this year.
Also interesting is that the Cornerstone recently opened a new larger ice sheet, conveniently just in time for St. Norbert to get some practice in on this week.
â€œItâ€™s just different for us because we arenâ€™t exposed to it as much. There are more large sheets in the East Region, so they certainly have more practice at it. Weâ€™re not as prepared for it, but having said that weâ€™re not too worried about it. Weâ€™re just going to go out there, play our game, do the things we do and tweak things here and there but that will be the extent of it.â€
The ice sheet is certainly an issue, but by the time the Frozen Four rolls around everything becomes an issue. Last seasonâ€™s Frozen Four in Superior was evidence enough of that as itâ€™s difficult to find anyone who will dispute the contention that were that tournament held four weekends in a row there could have been four different national champions.
Itâ€™s clichÃ©d, but if St. Norbert is going to bring home the hardware itâ€™s the little things that will likely play the biggest role. What remains to be seen is if the unique calm demeanor of this seasonâ€™s Green Knight squad or its overwhelming success in close games will be two of those little things that help them succeed where four others before them have not.
SNC Quick Facts:
Â· The Green Knights are 0-2 all-time against Norwich, losing 5-2 at home in 2000 and losing a 2003 NCAA semifinal game 6-3.
Â· This is St. Norbertâ€™s fifth Frozen Four appearance. They are 2-4 all-time in the Frozen Four, twice having bowed out in the semifinals and twice losing the title game.
Â· St. Norbert is 19-14-4 all-time against East Region Opponents, 11-7-3 all-time in games played in the East Region, and 7-5-2 all-time in the state of New York.
Â· The Green Knights appearance in Lake Placid will mark the 23rd time in the past 25 seasons a NCHA team has advanced to the Frozen Four.
Â· St. Norbert is currently riding a 27 game unbeaten streak. They last were defeated 4-2 by Gustavus Adolphus on November 3.
Â· Kyle Jones holds or shares Division III records for career shutouts, shutouts in a season, longest shutout steak, career wins, and consecutive shutouts.
Â· Green Knight captain Ryan Petersen has netted goals in five of the six NCAA tournament games he has played in.
Â· Senior forward Marc Belanger has scored a point in 35 of his last 39 games. He also leads the Green Knightsâ€™ in game-winning goals with five.
Â· The second period has been St. Norbertâ€™s strongest of the season, as they have outscored opponents 42-10 in the middle frame.
Â· St. Nobert has never won a national title.