LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — Bend, don’t break. Rope-a-dope.
There are many names for a defensive strategy most fans hate to see deployed. Unless, of course, their team wins using that tactic.
The Salve Regina fans are very happy. Their Seahawks surprised Wisconsin-Stevens Point, 3-0, in the NCAA Division III semifinals.
“Very proud of [goaltender] Blake [Wojtala] and the guys in front,” Salve Regina coach Zech Klann said. “They took it to us in the first 10 minutes of the game, so for our guys to stay together and not hit the panic button on a big stage, I’m just proud of the guys for sticking together and battle through shift by shift.”
“We dominated the play for the entire period,” Wis.-Stevens Point coach Tyler Krueger said. “We turn one over and it ends up in our net.”
Salve Regina had to withstand a first period onslaught of shots, 23-4. The Seahawks didn’t get their first shot till about 14 minutes in, yet they came away with a 1-0 lead.
That was thanks to a Wis.-Stevens Point giveaway just as they crossed their own blue line. Erik Udahl picked up the abandoned puck and skated in alone on Max Milosek. Udahl didn’t waste any energy, flipping it high before Milosek had a chance to react with 1:25 left in the period.
Salve Regina didn’t start the game expecting to be on their heels all period.
“We wanted to try to set the pace of the game,” Klann said. “Obviously, we didn’t do that, so between periods we made some adjustments. The guys really bought into it, and after we got the second goal, for us it was not to sit on our heels, to keep going at them and try to set the pace at that point in the game.”
Udahl was at it again on the second goal on a power play at 13:50 of the second.
“Power play was moving the puck around the perimeter,” Udahl said. “I saw some room, and I just threw it on net [from the top of the right circle], and it happened to go in.”
“I was screened,” Milosek said. “I had a big body on my left, so I tried to look around to my right. The guy made the shot back to my left.”
The third period once again saw Wis.-Stevens Point apply the pressure, outshooting Salve Regina, 20-8. They had two power plays, but could not convert, including hitting the post on one.
Blake Wojtala was expected to be the key component to any Seahawks success. His 55 saves, an NCAA D-III playoff record for a game which did not go into overtime, bore that out.
“The defense really stepped up,” Wojtala said. “The forwards stayed back, kept to the perimeter. They did a great job with the back pressure.”
Salve Regina clinched the game with an empty-netter at 17:32. Danny Philbrick backhanded it in from a tough angle with a defenseman cutting down that angle.
This was Wis.-Stevens Point’s fourth national semifinal appearance in five years. This is the first time the Pointers have lost in the semifinals out of 10 attempts. They end their season at 21-6-3
“Couple of bounces could have gone either way,” Pointers captain Willem Nong-Lambert said. “That’s how it goes sometimes. It’s tough, but I’m proud of our group.”
Salve Regina (22-5-2), which has never made the NCAA playoffs in any sport, is now one game away from a national championship. They will play St. Norbert in the championship game.