Neumann Knights (19-9-2 overall, 8-5-2 in ECAC West)
Despite having put together a tremendous run to earn a berth in the national semifinal round in Lake Placid, the Neumann Knights arenâ€™t embracing the label of a Cinderella team.
Just a month ago, Neumann was barely a blip on the NCAA tournament radar. The Knights were coming off three straight weekends of splitting games with ECAC West league foes Elmira, Utica, and Hobart. Neumann was outscored in those six games 29-22, and it seemed like their season was falling apart.
But then the team hit its stride in mid-February and hasnâ€™t looked back since, winning seven straight games to make it to the D-III final four. Along the way, Neumann also won its first ever ECAC West championship.
â€œSomebody asked our guys about being a Cinderella team after the first round game against Elmira,â€ said Neumann coach Dominick Dawes. â€œI donâ€™t think my guys could have answered any better. We donâ€™t think for a minute we are a Cinderella team. I knew when I took the job here the kind of team I was being handed. These kids from day one believed they can be in this very position.
â€œThere have been some ups and downs through the year, but it has been growing and coming together. A new coach, a new team, it is seniors and freshmen. It took us a little bit longer to find our stride. Throughout the course of the year, we have played everyone now. These kids have never wavered for a minute that they can play with the best teams in the country.â€
A core component for Neumann has been its group of 11 seniors. This group, combined with last yearâ€™s senior class, were instrumental in transforming the Knights from a perennial doormat to a national contending program over the last five years. They have adjusted to two new head coaches the last two seasons and have melded a large freshmen class into the Neumann fold.
Despite several players putting up gaudy offensive numbers, the Knights have a depth to their team that is sometimes hidden from view.
â€œThe thing that has gotten us to this point is that different guys on different nights stepping up,â€ said Dawes. â€œItâ€™s different guys on the score sheet scoring the goals and contributing every night.â€
Neumann punched its ticket to Lake Placid by defeating No. 1 ranked Plattsburgh in overtime in the quarterfinal round last Saturday. The Knights gained momentum midway through the first period when Mike Hedden scored to give Neumann the early 1-0 lead.
Plattsburgh tied it up late in the first and then took the lead early in the second period and it looked like they were off to the races. But Neumann tied the game 2-2 just 1:20 after Plattsburgh scored, starting a trend that would last through the end of regulation as the Knights battled back time and time again.
â€œIt was a very good back and forth game,â€ said Dawes. â€œIt showed how resilient our guys are. We went up early, they came back and scored a couple of goals, then after that it seemed like every time they scored, we scored right back. The guys never gave up, never quit, and just kept plugging away. Weâ€™ve had five games in a row that have been decided by one goal.â€
With just five minutes to go in regulation, Plattsburghâ€™s Joey Wilson scored his second goal of the game to give the Cardinals a 4-3 lead. But right off the next faceoff, Neumann controlled the puck, skated into the Cardinal zone, and Kyle Casey scored his second goal of the period 10 seconds later to re-tie the game at 4-4.
Bill Foster tallied 2:35 into overtime to give Neumann the victory and send the Knights to Lake Placid.
Resiliency and the ability to come back from adversity have been hallmarks of Neumannâ€™s late season run. Each of the five playoff games the Knights have played in so far has been decided by a single goal, and Neumann has trailed at some point in three of them.
â€œThe ability to comeback has been a huge factor in how well weâ€™ve done,â€ said Dawes. â€œTo not get down and control the emotion of the game. When we score, donâ€™t get too excited and when we get scored on, donâ€™t get too down on ourselves. The guys have done a good job on that with responding to different things.
â€œPlattsburgh scored with five minutes left and 10 seconds later we scored to tie it. We could have packed it in right there. In that environment, in that atmosphere, against that team, it showed a lot about our guys to go out there, faceoff and go down and score.â€
The Neumann Knights are in uncharted territory now. They are the first athletic team from this small southeast Pennsylvania college to make it this far in any NCAA tournament.
The Knights have only been competing in the ECAC West since the 2001-02 season. Neumann played for three seasons prior to that as a Division III independent team. The first few years the team regularly got beaten by double digits, but a renewed commitment from the school and a young coach named Dennis Williams set the program on the road to national contender five years ago.
â€œThis is kind of uncharted waters for Neumann College,â€ said Dawes. â€œThere have been a few Neumann teams that have made the NCAA tournament in different sports. Some of these other hockey programs are older than our school. It has kind of taken the whole community by storm.â€
Now Neumann must face league foe Hobart in the NCAA semifinal round. This will be the fifth meeting between these two teams this year, with the squads splitting the previous four games. All but one of those games was decided by a single goal, including two games going to overtime.
â€œItâ€™s great for our league to have two teams in the last four teams that are left playing,â€ said Dawes. â€œIt is a good familiarity for us. [The record] is 2-2, with an overtime game going each way. It is a great situation for both of us to be in, to have these teams that are so familiar with each other, to have played each other so many times over the years. Itâ€™s a good way for these kids to go through your rival.â€
Hobart Statesmen (21-6-2 overall, 9-4-2 in ECAC West)
The Hobart Statesmen have made it back to the Division III final four for only the second time in school history. The Statesmenâ€™s previous trip was in 2006, when a scrappy Hobart team fell to St. Norbert, 5-4, in overtime in the semifinal round.
The freshmen on that 2006 team are seniors now, and are looking forward to another chance to finish what they started then.
â€œIt is another crack at it,â€ said Hobart coach Mark Taylor. â€œLearn what you can from that one and hopefully that experience will aid us. It means it is worth it. It is what weâ€™ve been going for.â€
One of those seniors is goaltender Keith Longo, who also was the starting goaltender in the 2006 NCAA semifinal game. Since that time, Longo has gone on to have a stellar collegiate career, surpassing every previous school goaltending record. Now in his senior season, Longo has led the Statesmen back to the edge of Division IIIâ€™s Promised Land.
Longo is fourth in the nation in save percentage (93.8%) and 15th in goals against average (2.12).
â€œHe is the reason we got there then, and a lot of the reason why we got there this year,â€ said Taylor. â€œBut a lot of people have a piece of it. Everybody is carrying a load here.â€
Hobart earned a ticket to Lake Placid by defeating Amherst 2-1 in overtime last Saturday in the NCAA quarterfinal round. The game was a tight defensive battle, with stellar goaltending, as Hobart out shot Amherst, 43-38.
Sophomore Christopher Bower got the Statesmen on the board late in the first period with a shot from in close. Lord Jeffs junior Keith Nelson evened the game early in the second period with a shot from the right faceoff circle that eluded Longo.
The game remained tied until the 11:40 mark of the overtime, when senior Jason Merritt intercepted an Amherst clearing pass, turned quickly and fired down the slot to win the game for Hobart.
â€œIt is always nice to win,â€ said Taylor. â€œIt was a good game. Both teams played very well. Of course, there was good goaltending at both ends. We did a good job of setting the pace that we wanted to play and creating chances. Their D-zone play is very good. They collapse to their net and it is a tough time getting pucks through. Eventually we did. I am very happy overall with the performance.â€
The hallmark of this yearâ€™s Hobart team is balance, with solid goaltending, explosive offense, and steady defense. The Statesmen rank 11th in offense nationally and 10th defensively. They have limited opponents to four goals or less in every game this season, including only allowing nine goals in the last seven games down the stretch, and yet also have scored six or more goals nine times.
The Statesmen have earned a reputation as a defense-first team over the years, but this seasonâ€™s team has a much wider repertoire to call on in the final four.
â€œI donâ€™t stress defensive play any more than anyone else,â€ said Taylor. â€œI thought I was an offensive defenseman when I played. We know you have got to have a commitment to playing defense. The teams that win have good save percentages and low goals against. Both of them are a reflection of a good goaltender, but low goals against is a reflection of team hockey as well.â€
Now the Statesmen will face league foe Neumann Knights in the NCAA semifinal round in Lake Placid. Hobart and Neumann have already faced each other four times this year. In three regular season games, the Statesmen won two and lost one. The first two games, that the teams split, both went to overtime.
Hobart finally gained a clear upper hand in the third game and won, 6-2.
But the Knights turned the tide on Hobart when they met two weeks ago in the ECAC West championship game at the Statesmen rink, nicknamed The Cooler. In that contest, Neumann scored the game-winning goal with only 4.2 seconds remaining to take the title, 3-2.
Hobart is looking forward to the rematch.
â€œI like it because you have to beat anybody this time of year,â€ said Taylor. â€œThey are going to be one goal games at this time of the year anyways. We hadnâ€™t beaten Manhattanville either in three tries until the last one.â€
Coach Taylor is referencing Hobartâ€™s record against another ECAC West rival, Manhattanvlle, which went unbeaten against the Statesmen during the regular season only to fall to Hobart 3-1 in the ECAC semifinals.
With the exception of the first game of the season–in which Hobart lost to Buffalo State 0-4–the Statesmenâ€™s only losses this season have come at the hands of other ECAC West teams. Hobart went 9-1 in non-conference play. The Statesmen regular season league losses came twice to Elmira (2-4, 3-4), and single losses to Manhattanville (1-3) and Neumann (3-4 OT).
Hobart has won a school record 21 games this season.
The only team to defeat Hobart since mid-December is Neumann–and they did it twice. Now everything is on the line, on the biggest stage, and Hobart and Neumann battle to keep their seasons going for one more game.