By Ray Biggs and Matthew Webb
Friday's first semifinal, set for 3:00 p.m. ET at Herb Brooks Arena in Lake Placid, N.Y., pits No. 6 Salve Regina against No. 4 UW-Stevens Point in a match-up of teams that both failed to win their conference tournaments but received at-large bids to secure their places in the NCAA tournament field.
|Friday's semifinal between Salve Regina and UW-Stevens Point will feature a pair of teams that have never faced each other.
Salve Regina's Paul Boutoussov; Stevens Point's Tanner Karty
Photos: Salve Regina Athletics/d3photography.com
Salve Regina was bounced by Nichols in a CCC semifinal but enacted revenge a week ago when they edged the Bison, 4-3, to secure its first trip to a Frozen Four. The win also marked the Seahawks' first in a NCAA tournament game.
Stevens Point's most recent Frozen Four appearance came in 2016, also in Lake Placid, N.Y., where it won its fifth national championship by downing SUNY Geneseo, 5-1, in the semifinals before topping long-time rival St. Norbert, also by a score of 5-1, in the title game.
Friday's opener features a match-up between two mobile teams that are both capable of getting up and down the ice and could set up to be a highly entertaining game on the big ice sheet. However, both clubs also feature upperclassmen goaltenders that are playing some of the best hockey of their collegiate careers.
Salve Regina and UW-Stevens Point NCAA tournament coverage:
- Updated tournament bracket
- Men's NCAA tournament field released
- NCAA tournament quarterfinal previews
- Sullivan's late tally lifts Seahawks to first Frozen Four
- Fast start carries Pointers back to Placid
NO. 6 SALVE REGINA SEAHAWKS (20-5-2)
SALVE REGINA SEAHAWKS
Record: 21-5-2 overall, 14-2-2 CCC
Location: Newport, R.I.
Road to the NCAAs: Pool C at-large recipient
NCAA Tournament History: 2nd appearance; 1-1-0
Most Recent Appearance: 2016; L 7-1 @ SUNY Geneseo
Road to Placid: W 4-3 v. Nichols
Scoring offense: 4.21 g/gm
Scoring defense: 2.07 g/gm
Power Play: 19.6%
Penalty Kill: 83.9%
Players to Watch:
The Seahawks have become one of the truly great long term success stories in recent Division III history, and that considerable success reaches new heights this weekend as Salve makes its Frozen Four debut in their second NCAA tournament appearance in the last three years. A lot of credit for the groundwork here is owed to former coach Andy Boschetto, but some new blood in the program has helped the Seahawks to continue that upward trajectory with their old bench boss now working at Division I Niagara.
The most notable newcomer may be the team's new coach, Zech Klann. An early season win over defending NCAA champion Norwich was an early sign that the players were accepting Klann's philosophy, and provided a springboard into what has been a banner campaign in Newport.
"We gave our captains the freedom to be leaders in the room," Klann said. "It was challenging to not change too much, but guaging on our success at Norwich we knew the players were buying in. That was a huge building block for the year."
That building block was one of many on the way to an exemplary tournament resume that helped to vault the Seahawks into an NCAA Tournament at-large berth. They left a noticeable path of destruction against the national polls, posting season sweeps of fellow NCAA tournament teams UNE and Endicott in conference play, and also posting eye opening non-conference wins against Adrian and UMass Boston to claim the top spot at the Codfish Bowl.
Then came their biggest win yet against the same team that knocked them out of the Commonwealth Coast playoffs. Facing a multi-week layoff between its loss and the following NCAA quarterfinal game against Nichols, Salve found a way to deliver in a hard fought game with defenseman Frankie Sullivan landing the knockout blow with a third period goal in a 4-3 win over its conference rivals to advance to Lake Placid.
"It was one of the most exciting games I've ever been a part of," Klann said. "It was a see-saw game where we'd do something and they'd fight right back, and they'd do something and we'd fight back. It was almost like a boxing match."
The Seahawks have been partially buoyed by a tremendous offense, and a notable newcomer has added some extra charge to that attack. Danny Eruzione, the nephew of Miracle on Ice hero Mike, has wasted little time in making a big enough impact to vault his team to the hallowed ground where his last name became legend 38 years ago. As one of Klann's first recruits, Eruzione was a lethal presence in a league where great offenses have become the norm. He was fourth in the nation in rookie scoring at 1.30 points per game, which also makes him the top freshman scorer left in this tournament.
He will be counted on heavily as part of a forward group that also includes three other young forwards who can produce explosive numbers through the dynamic and creative nature of their play. Jack Billings is this team's best goal scorer, and is an extraordinarily good skater with a nose for the net that has picked up the Division III game rather quickly with 74 points in two years. Freshmen Erik Udahl and Paul Boutoussov are also a huge part of the youth movement happening up front.
"Danny's got unreal vision," Klann said. "With him and Billings on the ice at the same time, they're so creative and make plays I never saw when I was playing. When you're coaching a group like that, you give them a blueprint and let them create."
Other offensive notables include former Hobart Statesman Colin Clapton, who is having a career year by leaps and bounds as a senior. 13 of his nineteen career goals have come during this season, and he's the team's second best power play scorer with four extra man lamp lighters on the season, and senior Pat Thompson also brings a lot to the table in the twilight of his college career.
|Junior netminder Blake Wojtala is in the midst of a fantastic season and has been a key component of the Seahawks' success.
Photo: Salve Regina Athletics
The blue line has been solid at 2.05 goals against per game, and has gelled extraordinarily well considering Klann has no seniors playing every day among the rearguard corps. Sophomore All-Conference defenseman Vincenzo Renda has formed one half of the top tandem alongside junior Nick Cyr. Kevin Clare, Frankie Sullivan, Edward Hirka, and Dylan Carabia have also established themselves as tough players for Klann to take out on any night. All six have played 20 games or more this season.
With a young group, Klann has been careful to emphasize accountability and self-reliance, as opposed to overloading one of the nation's best glue guys at the goaltender position. Junior Blake Wojtala has won over everyone in Newport from the moment he arrived in the Seahawks net, and this year may be his best yet with a 2.07 goals against average and 19 of the team's 20 wins to his credit. He was named first team all-conference.
"He's just extremely competitive," Klann said. "He's made our forwards better because they're shooting on him every day in practice. When he's in there, we expect to be in any game."
Salve is primarily a team that operates best when the game is at full strength on all sides, as they do bring special teams that are good, but not great, to the Adirondacks. The power play unit sits at 32nd in the nation, and the team's penalty kill floats around 83 percent and is just inside the top 30. When the game is at full strength, Klann expects to push the tempo early.
"The biggest thing for us is adjusting to the Olympic Sheet," Klann said. "We want to set the pace and make them adjust to us... It was hard having a three week layoff and we had to earn our opportunity here, but knowing our track record we can skate with anyone."
NO. 4 UW-STEVENS POINT POINTERS (21-5-3)
UW-STEVENS POINT POINTERS
Location: Stevens Point, Wis.
Road to the NCAAs: Pool B at-large selection
NCAA Tournament History: 14th appearance; 27-15-3 overall
Most Recent Appearance: 2017; L 6-3 v. Adrian
Road to Placid: W 5-2 @ Adrian
Scoring offense: 3.76 g/gm
Scoring defense: 1.93 g/gm
Power Play: 23.0%
Penalty Kill: 88.1%
Players to Watch:
This weekend's trip to Lake Placid will mark Stevens Point's tenth trip to a Division III Frozen Four and is its fourth since 2014. In the Pointers' nine previous trips, they hold a perfect 9-0 record in semifinal game (or semifinal series) and scored national titles in 1989, 1990, 1991, 1993 and 2016, as well as runner-up finishes in 1992, 1998, 2014 and 2015.
This year’s appearance might be a bit more unexpected relative to some recent years as head coach Chris Brooks, who led the rebirth of the Stevens Point program, departed over the summer for an assistant position at Division I Michigan Tech. To fill the void, Tyler Krueger, a senior on Stevens Point’s 2014 national runner-up club and a Pointers’ assistant coach since, was tabbed interim head coach.
“There’s been a lot of turnover this year with us turning a lot of guys over and then getting not a new coach but a different coach so that’s something we had to deal with over the summer and there were quite a bit of conversations and relationships being built there,” Krueger said.
Additionally, the Pointers graduated the heart of their team from a year ago as eight players graduated in all, including four of their top five scorers.
"Being a very young team with only four seniors, it’s been a ride,” Krueger said. “The season has gone quick and there’s been ups and downs. It’s taken us a little but to hit our stride...and with our situation not having an automatic bid it was a little bit of a desperate time there and you get a little anxious. Lose three more games and we might be done.”
Regardless of the relative youth, Stevens Point muscled out another 20-win season to secure a spot in the tournament field and advanced to Lake Placid with an impressive 5-2 quarterfinal win at Adrian.
The Pointers jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the contest before the Bulldogs closed the gap to 3-2 midway through the second period, but a Nathan Harris goal with 3:28 remaining in the period put the Pointers back up two and a Brennen Miller empty-net goal in the final minute locked up their trip back to the Frozen Four.
While the win last weekend is obviously Stevens Point’s biggest of the season thus far, Krueger pointed to a two-game series with Adrian early in the year as a weekend that served as a significant catalyst to their success over the second half of the season – especially as it opened the year 5-3-1, already some dicey territory for a team in a conference without an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
In that series with Adrian, the Pointers scored 3-2 and 4-1 victories to sweep the Bulldogs. The wins marked the start of a 10-1-1 stretch that helped power them back into the NCAAs.
“The way we won those games and the way we played those games, and the way we stuck with our system I think it opened a lot of eyes and clicked in a lot of younger guy’s minds,” Krueger said.
“They started to understand that this is what it takes and they do have a lot of potential and we came back from there with kind of a whole different mindset and got on a bit of a role since then.”
As far as what the Stevens Point has been doing to get it done, up front it all starts with its top forward line of senior Tanner Karty (22-26-48), junior Willem Nong-Lambert (11-23-34), and freshman Colin Raver (9-16-25).
|Senior goaltender Max Milosek, also the starter on the Pointers' 2016 national championship team, is having the best statistical season of his career.
Photo: Ryan Coleman for d3photography.com
After Karty and Nong-Lambert, Raver is the first of a string of eight underclassmen that are next-highest on the team in scoring, three others of which are also freshmen.
Defensively, Stevens Point features a group that also has its share of youth but is undoubtedly led by junior captain Stephen Beauvais. Though Beauvais’s point total is a tad lower than in either of his two previous years, Krueger pointed to his leadership and intangibles as being a key reason the Pointers have allowed just 1.93 goals per game, which is few enough to rank seventh-best in the country.
The play of the moustached Max Milosek (17-5-3, 1.86, .926) has also proven crucial down the stretch as the senior netminder is enjoying the finest statistical season of his career. However, like Beauvais, Krueger pointed out his value to the team exceeds that of his ability to stop the puck.
“This season (his statistics are) the best they’ve ever been but I’m still not sure they tell the whole story,” Krueger said. “With the style that we play he’s going to have to make some saves, but what he brings to the team based on his emotion, leadership, energy and values, and the way he plays the puck.”
“He’s intense, he hates to lose, he pushes other guys, and he gives guys that sense of confidence in front of him. Guys know he’s always going to be there.”
Despite Stevens Point's strong second half of the season it hit a stumbling block in the WIAC championship game when it dropped a tight 3-2 game to UW-Eau Claire. However, much as the Adrian series did earlier in the season, the Pointers are hoping it serves as a launching point for another succesful run through the NCAA tournament, and they're pleased with the early returns from last weekend's win at Adrian in which Krueger repeatedly cited the players' trust in the system and game plan.
Such matters could prove especially critical this weekend as the Pointers face a talented Salve Regina club they have never faced before, and one that Krueger lauded, especially for their overall talent, speed and skill up front along with superb goaltending.
“You can call it a kick in the pants, or a wake-up call more than anything," Krueger said. " It's a long season and we had a weekend off before the league semis and hadn’t played a lot of hockey and we just came out flat. That week and the week after we went about things a different way and there was another level of intensity in practice that we were able to carry into last weekend and hopefully can do the same this weekend.”