Blugolds meet Green Knights with Frozen Four berth at stake

Brandon Stephenson of Wisconsin-Eau Claire (Tim Brule)

The Wisconsin-Eau Claire men’s hockey team is hoping to add another milestone to its historic season with a trip to the NCAA Division III Frozen Four.

First however, they face the daunting task of knocking off defending national champion St. Norbert. For the fifth time this season, the Blugolds clash with the Green Knights, with the winner having the right to advance to the national semifinals next week in Lake Placid, N.Y. Face-off is set for Saturday’s D-III quarterfinal game at 7 p.m. in De Pere, Wis.

On Wednesday, the Blugolds advanced to the second round with a 4-2 win over St. John’s at home. After skating to a 1-1 deadlock in the first period, Wis.-Eau Claire overwhelmed the Johnnies, outscoring them 3-1 in the second.

“Just within three minutes we were up 4-2, and I think that took a little bit of life out of St. John’s,” Blugolds coach Matt Loen said. “But they came out hard in the second period. We had to withstand some of their opportunities, and fortunately (goalie) Brandon Stephenson was there to make some saves and come out with a victory.”

Kurt Weston led the Blugolds with two goals, including one on a power play. Devin Mantha and Isaiah Bennis also hit the net. Seven different players were credited with assists. Balanced scoring has been a recipe for success for Wis.-Eau Claire this season and, at this time of year, teams need a balanced attack for a shot at a championship. March is the month where teams either manufacture goals or say goodbye to their seasons.

Against St. John’s, the Blugolds came out with added motivation after falling to St. Norbert in the finals of the NCHA tournament and losing a first-round bye in the D-III tournament.

“Fortunately, we still got a bid in the tournament, and that kind of got our spirits back up and now with the win against St. John’s and minimal time to prepare for the best team in the country, hopefully, I can do my best to keep our guys focused on the game,” Loen said.

Saturday’s game is arguably the most important in the history of Blugolds men’s hockey. A win over St. Norbert would put Wis.-Eau Claire in the Frozen Four for the first time. The Blugolds (21-5-2) had success against the Green Knights (23-5-1) in the regular season, going 2-0-1. However, falling 3-0 in last Saturday’s NCHA tournament final was a stinging blow to the Blugolds’ D-III title hopes.

Heading into tomorrow night’s contest, the Blugolds will have to play error-free hockey.

“St. Norbert’s a team that capitalizes on other team’s mistakes; every team makes mistakes, but if you can minimize them in the right areas, you can give yourself an opportunity to win,” Loen said. “I think that’s going to be the biggest key to our success.”

In the win over St. John’s, the Blugolds were 1-for-4 on power plays, outshot the Johnnies 33-27, and spent only six minutes in the penalty box. Wis.-Eau Claire will need to be as efficient on Saturday to have a chance at upsetting St. Norbert.