by Matthew Webb and Ray Biggs
Friday's second semifinal, slated for 6:30 p.m. ET on Friday at Herb Brooks Arena in Lake Placid, N.Y., features a familiar Frozen Four face and the first true Cinderella the tournament has seen in a long, long time as No. 1 St. Norbert faces off against tournament surprise Colby.
|Friday's meeting will mark the first ever between the Green Knights and Mules.
St. Norbert's T.J. Black; Colby's Thomas Stahlhuth
Photos: d3photography.com / Eric Gulseth
Top-ranked St. Norbert entered the NCAA tournament as a Pool A automatic qualifier by virtue of winning the NCHA conference tournament, while Colby managed the same feat in the NESCAC to secure its own Pool A bid. This weekend will mark the 12th Frozen Four appearance for the Green Knights and the first for the Mules.
St. Norbert's most recent appearance came last year in Utica, N.Y. where the Green Knights dropped a tight 3-2 contest to Trinity in the semifinals.
Colby's last NCAA tournament appearance, in 1996, resulted in the Mules suffering a pair of quarterfinal setbacks to Middlebury.
Friday's late game will feature two of the top defenses, and goaltenders, in the country as St. Norbert's T.J. Black and Colby's Sean Lawrence boast some of the nation's best numbers and the overall defenses of both clubs have proven especially stingy down the stretch. The meeting will mark the first all-time between the Green Knights and Mules.
St. Norbert & Colby NCAA coverage:
- Updated NCAA Tournament Bracket
- Men's NCAA tournament field released
- NCAA tournament quarterfinal previews
- Nicksic overtime goal sends St. Norbert to 14th NCHA title
- St. Norbert tops Augsburg in quarterfinals for 3rd straight year
- Colby wins first NESCAC title
- Mules keep it rolling with opening round win at UNE
- Colby stuns Geneseo to advance to first Frozen Four
NO. 1 ST. NORBERT GREEN KNIGHTS (25-4-1)
ST. NORBERT GREEN KNIGHTS
Record: 25-4-1 overall, 15-3-0 NCHA
Location: De Pere, Wis.
Road to the NCAAs: Pool A automatic qualifier; NCHA playoff champion
NCAA Tournament History: 18th appearance, 29-13-1 overall
Most Recent Appearance: 2017; W 4-3 (ot) v. Augsburg, L 3-2 v. Trinity
Road to Placid: W 5-2 v. Augsburg
Scoring offense: 3.97 g/gm
Scoring defense: 1.40 g/gm
Power Play: 21.9%
Penalty Kill: 91.8%
Players to Watch:
Veteran Frozen Four participant St. Norbert's is back yet again and this year’s return marks the 12th time the Green Knights have made it to the final weekend of the season, which is tied with Norwich for the most all-time.
The Green Knights, who won national titles in 2008, 2011, 2012 and 2014, are in the midst of a sparkling 17-4 run in NCAA tournament games over the past decade. They also have scored runner-up finishes in 2004, 2006, 2010 and 2016.
Though St. Norbert has not won a championship since 2014 it’s been close as it fell in the 2016 national title game before losing, 3-2, to Trinity in last season’s semifinals. It was the Green Knight's first semifinal loss since 2007.
“We’re happy to be there,” said St. Norbert head coach Tim Coghlin. “I’m happy for the group and happy for the senior leadership on this team. I think with ten freshmen I’m not sure how many people pegged us to be in this spot and I think the leadership group here has done a fantastic job, led by captain Tanner Froese, Steven Phillips, and Brad Pung.”
The Green Knights rolled into the NCAA tournament on the heels of a nine-game win streak and another NCHA Harris Cup Playoff championship, and looked to be well on their way to another Frozen Four after jumping out to a 3-0 second period lead in their quarterfinal game against Augsburg.
However, Augsburg answered backed with two goals of its own before the end of the period to make it a contest, but a Timmy Nicksic goal at 11:04 of the third period gave St. Norbert some breathing room and a Keegan Milligan empty-netter with 1:15 left put the Green Knights’ latest trip to Lake Placid on ice.
“You know, we weren’t very clean,” Coghlin said. “We’ve seen games this year where we’ve been extremely efficient. On breakouts, on neutral zone play, on offensive zone play -- we weren’t very clean. We have to clean some things up, there’s no question about it."
“By the time we got to the third period I liked our game at that point. I liked the way we were playing and defending at that point, and obviously we did enough to win the game.”
Nicksic and Milligan, both freshmen, are among a group of newcomers that have contributed right off the bat. Milligan’s 25 points are tied for third on the team in scoring with fellow freshman Peter Bates, and his 12 goals are tied for the team lead, while Nicksic has added six goals, 12 assists and 18 points of his own.
The newcomers just haven’t been eating up ice time and space in the box score, but Coghlin noted they’ve also been scoring at key times in big games, a point bolstered by the fact it was Bates and Nicksic who notched the game-winners in St. Norbert’s pair of overtime wins over rival Adrian this season.
While the contributions from freshmen have proven significant, it’s far from all St. Norbert has on offense as it brings an incredibly balanced attack to the table and its 3.97 goals per game rank as tenth-best in the nation. Led by Tanner Froese (12-17-29) and Dominick Sacco (10-16-26), the Green Knights boast six 20-point scorers and eleven others have scored ten points or more – six of which have at least 17 points.
“(People have) watched us for a long time and I don’t know if (they’ve) ever seen us with one dominant line with 100 points,” Coghlin said. “That’s really never been us – it’s always really been about compliment players. Typically I like matching pairs where I like two guys together and then we try to find a compliment player for that particular mix.”
Defensively, St. Norbert has been its typical stingy self and leads the country in scoring defense by a fair margin with a paltry 1.40 goals per game allowed. However, despite the gaudy numbers the Green Knights’ back end hasn’t been without issues, some of which cropped up early in the year during a three-game skid in late January, and even over stretches during the quarterfinal win against Augsburg.
“It’s interesting because when we started the year we returned seven defenseman and (goaltender) T.J. Black, so that was our step-off point and it was like ‘we’re going to be good in this area,’ Coghlin said. “And though we were 11-0-1 at Christmas break, if I had one complaint (then) it was that we were not as good defensively as we needed to be. We were not complete; we were not doing things at the level we needed to.”
|With 12 goals, 13 assists, and 25 points, freshman forward Keegan Milligan is just one of many newcomers that has contributed significantly this season.
Photo: Larry Radloff for d3photography.com
The aforementioned three-game losing streak, which included losses at Northland, St. Scholastica, as well as an overtime loss at Adrian, proved to be a turning point in the St. Norbert season, at least as far as the defense goes. The Green Knights allowed just eight goals over their past ten games, pitched three shutouts, and allowed more than a single goal just once, which was last weekend against Augsburg when they conceded two.
Coghlin sighted the growth of blueliners such as Nick LeSage and Alfred Johansson as reasons the blue line stabilized and improved over the course of the season, though noted that things remain less than perfect.
“But some of the things still haven’t changed. The stastistics on paper look better, I think, than what we’re seeing with consistency overall. Having said that, we’re not getting stung and I think the answer there is probably T.J. Black”
T.J. Black, indeed. The junior netminder is in the midst of another stellar season and fashioned a 25-3-1 mark with a 1.39 goals against average and .940 save percentage. The 25 wins lead the nation by five games, while his GAA ranks second and his save percentage stands at third-best. Additionally, his four shutouts are tied for second in the nation. Suffice to say that if a team does find a way to catch the Green Knights defense on an off night, it still must find a way to beat Black and that hasn’t proven easy.
The short of it for St. Norbert is that it’s statistically right in line with what many have come to expect from its championship caliber teams as balanced scoring, elite team defense, and top flight goaltending have again paved the way to its success.
If there’s one difference between this year’s team and last year’s team, however, it’s that it brings a little more speed to the table this time around – which is something St. Norbert hopes proves fruitful as it faces a Colby team it never has before, and it’s worth noting that the Mules hail from a league that has given the Green Knights some trouble in the past.
“We just know they’re a NESCAC school and we’ve struggled in the NESCAC department,” Coghlin said. “We saw Middlebury in their heyday and got beat by them a couple times in the national finals, we got beat by Trinity last year, actually played a non-conference game against Williams years ago and we got beat by them, too. We’ve struggled with NESCAC schools.”
Will they again struggle or will they be able to turn the tables on a team that has had an answer for everything it’s thus far faced in the postseason?
We’ll find out on Friday.
COLBY MULES (17-10-2)
Record: 17-10-2 overall, 9-7-2 NESCAC
Location: Waterville, Maine
Road to the NCAAs: Pool A automatic qualifier; NESCAC playoff champion
NCAA Tournament History: 2nd appearance, 2-2-0 overall
Most Recent Appearance: 1996; L 2-1, 5-1 @ Middlebury
Road to Placid: W 4-2 @ University of New England; W 2-1 @ SUNY Geneseo
Scoring offense: 3.38 g/gm
Scoring defense: 2.34 g/gm
Power Play: 18.8%
Penalty Kill: 81.4%
Players to Watch:
Keep your eyes peeled, Lake Placid. Cinderella has finally arrived.
The glass slipper has stayed on for the long haul for the Mules this season. They began the NESCAC tournament as the sixth seed out of eight, won the conference title at the expense of a very good Trinity team, and are still dancing after a pair of tightly contested NCAA tournament games, first against in-state rival UNE, and then against Geneseo in what is Colby's first NCAA appearance in 22 years.
Against Geneseo in the quarterfinals, the high drama of a low scoring game took center stage. Colby assumed a 1-0 lead early in the second period, only to have that lead vanish in the third as Geneseo tied it up at Ira Wilson Arena. That set the table for a dramatic finish as Colby's Justin Grillo broke the tie with under two seconds remaining to send the Mainers into their first ever semifinal.
"That goal was a bit of good fortune for sure," MacDonald said. "Sometimes the harder you work, the luckier you get. I frankly didn't see it coming because I was thinking about the two things I wanted to talk to the team about in overtime. Next thing you know I see the light go on, I look at the clock, and I was amazed. This peace fell over me, and I was just so happy for our guys, our seniors, and the college."
At the center of the Colby season has been the impeccable play of their defense and goaltending. The Mules are 7-0-2 in their last nine games, and have held opponents to two goals or less in all but one of those games. As close as late season and playoff games tend to be, that level of defensive achievement can become a significant barganing chip against a semifinal opponent also known for its defense. Senior defenseman Michael Decker leads the way as the team's lone All-NESCAC selection, and co-captain Dan Dupont adds his own experience to a group that has playing with confidence as of late.
"They bring a lot of courage," MacDonald said. "They're very willing to get in front of pucks and block shots. They're willing to battle in front of the net and establish positioning in tight areas down low. I think they play well with a low forward down there as well.... they anticipate pretty well and have a great battle mindset."
Further adding to the stinginess and confidence for the Mules in the defensive zone has been the play of their goaltender, and anyone in the game can tell you that presence can be definitive. If you haven't gotten to know him yet, get to know Sean Lawrence.
The former Quinnipiac Bobcat has been the talk of the nation this postseason and had 38 saves to lead Colby to its dramatic quarterfinal victory, with 17 of his saves coming in the third period alone as Geneseo applied heavy pressure. He also turned back 33 of 35 shots against the University of New England, and prevented the deadly UNE power play unit from turning in an explosive performance as he held the nation's top power play to a single goal.
The recent play of Lawrence is a continuation of his overall season, which saw him take the net almost outright after sharing time last season. He's 16-7-2 with a 2.01 goals against average and a 94.1 save percentage. He also aided the winning cause against Trinity on two separate occasions recently, and also played even with NESCAC player of the year Connor Rodericks in a game on February 16th. That stability has been a significant asset in getting the Mules this far.
|Thanks in large part due to the play of senior goaltender Sean Lawrence, defense has fueled the Colby postseason run.
Photo: Eric Gulseth
"Sean has been phenomenal for us," MacDonald said. "His numbers speak for themselves, but it goes way deeper than that. His contributions to our success are probably more wrapped around the way he carries himself.... that really inspires our guys and we take a lead from him."
Up front, the Mules are led by a deep, balanced blend of forwards. Kienan Scott has a team high 26 points as a sophomore and was an instrumental part of the win over UNE with two goals.
Phil Klitrinos is a playmaking type with a team best 18 assists, and the coach's son, Cam MacDonald, has been the team's best finisher with 15 goals in his senior campaign.
As far as his team's chances go this weekend, MacDonald understands the Mules are drawing a first class opponent, but feels his team's chemistry and attention to detail may go a long way in their first NCAA semifinal.
"I think the later these games go and the bigger the consequences, the easier the game is to play," MacDonald said. "More championships are lost than won, and it's a matter of being solid fundamentally.
"We have enormous respect for St. Norbert and Tim Coghlin, they've obviously been here every year it seems... but it's more about us. It's not always the fast, faster, or fastest, or the big, bigger, biggest that win. It's about who is connected and who executes better."