The second semifinal for the NCAA Division III championship was dubbed the “rookie” semifinal, because both Utica and Wisconsin-Eau Claire were appearing this far into the playoffs for the first time.
Eau Claire took that “rookie” title, defeating Utica, 5-1. Two goals within 22 seconds of the second period, turning a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 lead, was the defining moment of the game.
“It took us a little while to get going,” Eau Claire coach Matt Loen said. “They got that first goal. We had a feeling in the second period we would create some chances. Obviously, that happened. We get a couple of goals in 22 seconds. Probably the difference in the game.”
“It’s a little disappointing,” Utica coach Gary Heenan said. “I don’t think we brought our ‘A’ game. We seemed to be a little out of sync. We had our opportunities. Their goalie is really good. He made some big saves early. We came out flat a few times this year, and we got a goal and it kind of got us going. Tonight, we got the goal, but they were stronger. They won the walls. Faceoffs were a disaster for us.”
The scoreless first period saw good opportunities by both teams, including a power play each. The closest anyone came to scoring was when Utica’s Rob Morton smacked the post.
After exactly 30 minutes of hockey, Utica broke the scoreless tie on a thread-the-needle goal. Forechecking pressure by the Pioneers caused a turnover, enabling Louis Educate to wind up with the puck to the left of the goal. From a difficult angle, he found a gap just over the near shoulder of Brandon Stephenson.
“I picked it up out of the corner and saw I had some space,” Educate said. “I saw Ridge [Garbutt] go to the net and it actually helped me out. It drew the ‘D’ toward him. The goalie cheated a little bit over there and the short side was there, so I just snapped it off.”
“That was a heck of a goal by Louie,” Loen said. “Got a little nervous with the penalty right after. Once we killed that off, we got some momentum and we got the goal. It wasn’t a pretty one from our leading scorer, but we’ll take it. And the doors opened up from there.”
That sequence appeared to have woken the Blugolds up, as they scored twice within 22 seconds starting at the 13:15 mark.
The first came on a multiple ricochet shot on which Jordan Singer got credit for his 21st of the season.
“Their All-American star forward makes a huge play on the first goal,” Heenan said. “He used that ice surface, throws a backhand, and gets the bounce and it goes in.”
Ross Anderson got the second goal, thanks to a Utica defender screening his own goalie, allowing Anderson’s shot to fool Nick Therrien.
“Obviously, the goal was really important,” Andersen said. “Our team this whole year, once we get warm we get a big spark going. Scoring two goals shortly after was a big momentum change. Probably the biggest thing in changing the outcome of the game.”
An early goal in the third period all but put the game away for the Blugolds. Jack Callahan’s shot from the middle of the blue line was deflected in at the slot by Kurt Weston at 1:29.
Eau Claire then went into a typical NCHA style of smothering the opposition to preserve the lead, though they did give Utica chances on mental mistakes when they were called for too many men on the ice two separate times.
However, instead of the Pioneers getting back into the game, Eau Claire clinched the win with a short-handed goal on the second such penalty. Weston outskated a defender for a loose puck, going in on a breakaway. Therrien lunged at the puck, allowing Weston to skate around him and deposit it into the net for the 4-1 lead at 13:02.
In desperation, Utica pulled their goalie with 3:26 left in the game after calling time out. It didn’t last long, as Andersen got an empty-netter to wrap up the scoring.
Utica ends its season at 21-6-1.
Eau Claire (23-5-2) will play Oswego, the winners of the “veteran” semifinal, Saturday night for the national championship.