By Ray Biggs
Special to D3hockey.com
GENESEO, N.Y. -- The Geneseo Knights fell into a 2-0 hole over the first 30 minutes, but Tyler Brickler's natural hat trick in the latter half of the game lifted Geneseo to a 3-2 NCAA quarterfinal victory over the Norwich Cadets at Geneseo's Ira Wilson Arena.
But before the junior transfer from UMASS-Lowell could pace Geneseo to victory, the Knights would have to weather the storm from an always talented Norwich attack. The Cadets largely dictated the pace of the game in the first period, maintaining quality puck possession and protecting goaltender Chris Czarnota by allowing just three Knight shots the entire period as the Cadets built an imposing 13-3 shot advantage.
With the way that Norwich controlled the play early, it was fitting that one of the forwards who led the Cadet attack would cash in on the game's first goal. Minutes after ringing one of Norwich's best opportunities of the first period off the pipe, freshman forward Anthony Flaherty broke open the scoring with his fifth goal of the season right as the horn sounded to give the Cadets the 1-0 first intermission lead.
While Norwich took ownership of the first period by a wide margin, Geneseo head coach Chris Schultz said that his team's struggles in the first period were largely mental.
"I think for the first 20 minutes we played with fear," Schultz said. "I think we were scared and it took us a full 20 minutes to figure out that we're in the game as much as anybody, and we have the talent, the skill, and the character to win a big hockey game, and the guys came through."
After getting dominated early, a confident Geneseo team took the ice to begin the second period, but while the Knights were able to get more pucks on net and build momentum aided by an early penalty to Flaherty, they would have to wait until Norwich put a second goal on the board before breaking through. At 9:20 in the second period, Shane Gorman walked into the slot from the right wall and fired a wrister over the shoulder of Geneseo netminder Nick Horrigan to get the second and final Cadet goal.
Meanwhile, Geneseo would have their improved play in the second period rewarded with just over two minutes to go in the period. Just five seconds into their second powerplay of the contest, a Zachary Vit shot pinballed its way to Brickler, who canned home the fortuitous Geneseo bounce to cut the Norwich lead to 2-1, and the scoreboard would remain that way going into the third period. Geneseo's second period surge was well represented in the shot count as well, as the Knights outshot the Cadets 15-14 in the frame.
With the momentum in favor of the Knights, a Geneseo power play unit that already cashed in once would continue to pay dividends in the third period, and a stroke of luck certainly did not hurt. At 1:34 of the period, Brickler fired a bad angle shot from the right wing side, which ricocheted off the skate of Norwich defenseman Erik Lyrvall and in for the tying goal.
The good news for Geneseo, was that Brickler wasn't finished. At 6:28 in the third period, Brickler converted on some crisp tic-tac-toe passing by Matt Solomon and Stephen Collins to pick up the hat trick, and what would stand as his game-winning 18th goal of the season. The 3-2 lead would stand all the way to the final horn, and Geneseo now goes to their first ever NCAA Division 3 Hockey Championship weekend in Lewiston, Maine. Horrigan finished the day with 35 saves to pick up the victory, and Czarnota stopped 22 in the loss for Norwich.
In the semifinal round, the 23-6-0 Geneseo Knights will square off with NCHA champion St. Norbert, and Schultz is looking forward to the challenge.
"They're a powerhouse…They would fit very well in in the Atlantic Hockey Association," Schultz said. "They're big, they're strong, they can skate, they've just got big time players. We're going to have to come up with a gameplan to limit their opportunities, while at the same time not getting away from what our gameplan has been all year. We're going to have to play a very sound positional game while staying true to our blue collar attitude."
The Norwich Cadets, who picked up a Pool C bid and defeated Salem State in the opening round, fall to a final record of 20-7-3.