NCAA D-III First Round: St. Norbert vs. Adrian

St. Norbert (21-3-3 Overall, 14-2-2 in the NCHA)

After a year hiatus, St. Norbert returns to the NCAA tournament for the 11th time in the past 14 seasons, and first since winning the 2008 national championship.

The Green Knights rolled to the NCHA Peters Cup title with a pair of 7-1 playoff wins over UW-Stevens Point in the semifinals and the University of Wisconsin-River Falls in the finals. It marked the eighth time overall and sixth in the past eight seasons the Green Knights have claimed the NCHA postseason crown.

Despite being the top seed in the West Region, St. Norbert will face Adrian on Wednesday in a first round game rather than being awarded a spot straight to the quarterfinals. It’s the first time in the history of the Division III tournament the top West seed will not open play in the quarterfinals. At first glance, Green Knights head coach Tim Coghlin wasn’t sure what to make of the situation.

“I don’t really know,” said Coghlin, who is a jaw dropping 218-34-22 in his last eight plus seasons. “In the 20 years I’ve been doing this we’ve never played in one of these games on a Wednesday. It looks odd to see four teams in our region where it would seem to make sense to have two quarterfinals, so to have all four playing on Wednesday does look like a bit of an odd schedule.

“At the end of the day, however, if you’re going to be successful you just play whoever is next and I think that’s the mentality we’ve tried to drive home down the stretch. You can’t control who or when you play, you just have to control how you play.”

The meeting with Adrian will mark new ground for both teams as this will be the first meeting ever between the schools.

“I’ve never seen them even,” Coghlin said. “Clearly they’ve got guys who can put the puck in the net and at the same time, clearly, if anyone feels like they have something to prove certainly they feel that way, too, after having not been asked to the big dance for two consecutive years”

Despite not having seen the Bulldogs in person, Coghlin remains aware of what they will bring to the table upon rolling into the Cornerstone.

“Those top two lines seem to put up an awful lot of points. They have some things working in their favor and they are not going to come in an under-confident group. I don’t think coming into the Cornerstone is going to faze them one bit.”

As far as the St. Norbert itself goes, they enter the tournament on a downright tear and are riding a 10 game unbeaten streak since dropping a 5-1 contest at UW-Eau Claire on January 16. Since that loss the Green Knights have failed to concede more than one goal in a game. As it was with the 2008 championship squad, stifling defense has been the prevailing theme, and it’s one Coghlin appears pleased with.

“That’s a hallmark of our teams every year and some teams buy into it harder than others,” he said. “With this year’s team the lights just sort of went on a little bit after that lull and we’ve played much better defensively. I don’t think we are doing anything spectacular but we are making other teams earn their stripes.”

The St. Norbert offense has been equally as impressive down the stretch, having posted 24 goals in their last four contests. What’s even scarier is that it has been incredibly difficult to predict where the goals might come from as they have nine players with over 18 points but none with more than 28. In similar fashion, the Green Knights wield nine players with at least eight goals on the year, but none have tallied more than 13.

“We had played well the week before coming off the bye and basically we’re as healthy as we can be,” Coghlin said. “We’re playing a very complete game right now and that’s good, but I still think we have a better 60 minutes in us and that’s what we keep striving for.”

The matchup with Adrian is one many Division III faithful have been clamoring about for the better part of three years and it’s finally upon us — and it’s in the NCAA tournament. It’s the hockey version of the immovable object versus the unstoppable force and was, perhaps, put most eloquently by Coghlin himself:

“At this time of the year it’s about who is playing their game the best and whether you can impose your will on the opposition. We’ve been pretty successful with that and we do get the home game which we are glad about, so we’ll have to wait and see.”

Adrian (24-3-0 overall, 20-0-0 in the MCHA)

Finally, the time has come. A MCHA team will finally be duly represented in the NCAA tournament as Adrian battled through the Harris Cup playoffs last weekend to claim the league’s first ever automatic qualification bid into the tournament. It marked the third playoff title in as many years for the Bulldogs, but this time it doesn’t mark the end of the road for the MCHA champion.

“It was great to win the MCHA playoffs knowing there is a tangible goal at the end and we’re excited now to move onto the NCAA tournament,” said Bulldogs head coach Ron Fogarty, who is 77-7-1 in his third season.

Despite being overwhelming favorites and playing at home, the Bulldogs squeaked out a pair of one goal wins over Lawrence and Marian to claim its spot in the field. In the title contest against Marian, Adrian rallied from a 2-1 deficit after two periods to score a dramatic 3-2 win on a goal with only 44 seconds remaining.

“We knew the games were going to be tighter,” Fogarty said. “Both Marian and Lawrence played great and those are the types of games you need heading into the tournament. We were getting banged up and knocked around a little bit by both of them and it forced us to be very particular and detail oriented.”

All-time MCHA leading scorer Shawn Skelly hopes to pace the Bulldogs in their first ever NCAA appearance (photo: Matthew Webb).

All-time MCHA leading scorer Shawn Skelly hopes to pace the Bulldogs in their first ever NCAA appearance (photo: Matthew Webb).

While the NCAA tournament bid is all that Adrian has asked for, and finally earned, for the past three years, things now get much tougher as they face the dominant West Region force in St. Norbert, on the road. Despite not having ever faced the Green Knights before, Fogarty isn’t completely unaware of what they have to offer.

“They have a great tradition and have numerous NCAA tournament appearances so in a way they aren’t an unknown,” he said.

“They are a well-coached team that is excellent defensively and will use that to create transition. They will work it down low in your zone, work it to the net and crash from there. They are a great skating team that is going to put pressure on the puck at both ends of the ice so the lack of time they give us something we better be ready for.”

While it was a bit of surprise to see St. Norbert slated into an opening round Wednesday contest, it’s somewhere most expected the Bulldogs to be. As such, the Bulldogs are not concerned about the short turnaround.

“It’s a new season and the players are ready to play,” Fogarty said. “They don’t need to practice four or five days in a row right now so while a longer break might help in the case of a minor injury or something, these guys on both sides are ready to go.”

One of the biggest bonuses for the Bulldogs heading into the weekend might ironically be the three losses suffered at the hands of Hamline and Oswego earlier this season. As Oswego has set itself apart as a true national elite this season, Adrian hopes the experience against one elite team will help against another such as St. Norbert.

“We now know what those types of teams do and how good they actually are,” Fogarty said. “The one thing about those teams, and this is true with St. Norbert, is that they are so deep. There is no such thing as a fourth line. Everyone is good so it’s going to be wave after wave from them and that’s what we have to prepare for.”

No one will deny that the MCHA, for now, remains one of the weaker leagues in the nation, but the Bulldogs have thrown up numbers that are impressive nonetheless. They boast five players with 40 or more points on the year and 11 who have 20 or more.

“We need to go into the game focusing on what it is that we’ve done to be successful,” Fogarty said. “We tried to change some things around in the middle of the season and it didn’t work so well. We’re a high tempo kind of team, those are the kind of players we have on our team, and that’s the way we need to play.”

Despite the offensive prowess, the question remains as to how much it is bolstered by playing in the MCHA, which is widely considered, for better or worse, to be one of the weaker leagues in the country. That question could be answered, to an extent, against St. Norbert as the Green Knights will feature a depth and team defense the likes of which Adrian may have yet to encounter.

“In a single game I think it could be a slight factor, but as the game gets going we’ll shorten the bench if we have to,” Fogarty said. “It’s one game and potentially the last of the season. We need our gunners to play the best and for them to do that they need to be on the ice, so I think our top six guys are going to play a lot.”

Adding to the fascinating complexity of this matchup is that, for a rare change, the Bulldogs enter as a clear underdog in the eyes of many — a role they are not accustomed to in their 20 game league schedule.

“It’s something that I think takes a lot of pressure off our guys now,” Fogarty said. “I think you saw some of that pressure get to us last weekend, but now it’s just go play our game and what happens, happens. All we can do is play to our potential.”

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