by Matthew Webb
Senior Writer, D3hockey.com
LAKE PLACID, N.Y. -- Salve Regina's first Frozen Four appearance has turned into its first national championship game appearance as the Seahawks picked up a couple of timely goals by Erik Udahl and a record-setting 55 saves from Blake Wojtala to top UW-Stevens Point, 3-0, in the afternoon semifinal at Herb Brooks Arena.
|Salve Regina junior goaltender Blake Wojtala proved impenetrable on Friday as he made a record-setting 55 saves in the Seahawks' 3-0 semifinal win over UW-Stevens Point.
Photo: Eric Gulseth
Wojtala's 55 saves set a new Men's Division III NCAA tournament record for saves in a game that did not go to overtime, and the championship game appearance won't just be the first for the Salve Regina (22-5-2) men's hockey program, it will also be the first for the school in any sport.
"I'm very proud of Blake and the rest of the guys," said Salve Regina first-year head coach Zech Klann. "(Stevens Point) took it to us a litttle bit in the first ten minutes of the game so for our guys to be able to stay together and not hit the panic buttton -- it's a big stage we're on right now -- I'm just proud of the guys for sticking together and battling through shift by shift."
Stevens Point controlled the early stages of the game, and the entire first period, as it rolled up six shots in the opening 3:25 and had opened up a 16-0 shot advantage before Salve Regina was credited with its first of the game -- which came on a full-ice clear attempt that happened to roll in on Pointers' netminder Max Milosek.
However, despite the lopsided opening, it was Salve Regina that struck first when Udahl forced a turnover near the Stevens Point blue line, corralled the puck, walked in all alone down the left side and beat Milosek with a wrister and it was 1-0 Seahawks with 1:25 remaining in the period.
"When any opportunity presented itself, obviously the first period was a bit of a lopsided game, and I was lucky enough to get a bounce and get a quick rush and find the back of the net," Udahl said.
By the period's final horn Stevens Point had amassed a commanding 23-4 shot advantage, but Udahl's was the only one that mattered to the scoreboard and it remained 1-0 Seahawks after 20 minutes.
"It would have been nice there to cash one in and change the momentum," said Stevens Point head coach Tyler Krueger. "He's a good goalie and he's an All-American for a reason and every save he made or every puck we put into his chest in that first period only led to him having more and more confidence."
"So from there his confidence only grew and our guys probably started pressing a little too much."
Wojtala's 23 first period saves were a preview of things to come and were just two shy of the tournament record of 25 saves in a period, set by RIT's Wayne McDougall in 1984. One of the best stops of the frame might have come with about seven minutes remaining when Stevens Point defenseman Nathan Harris jumped the rush and got a great look from between the circles but was shut down by Wojtala's leg blocker.
|UW-Stevens Point controlled the opening period but this shot by Salve Regina's Erik Udahl was the only one to find the back of the net.
Photo: Eric Gulseth
In the second period, Stevens Point remained highly effective at maintaining possession once established in the Salve Regina zone, but the Seahawks were able to level out the balance of play relative to the first period and some offensive pressure of its own drew a tripping call on the Pointers' B.J. Duffin at the 13:15 mark of the period.
Just 35 seconds later on the power play, it was Udahl with his second of the night as he beat Milosek with a wrister through traffic from the top of the right circle.
Udahl's goal marked the only scoring of the period and though Stevens Point maintained a healthy 34-13 shot advantange through 40 minutes, it was all for naught as Salve had extended its lead to 2-0.
"I got caught looking to the right as there was a big body in front on my left side so I was trying to look around him and he made a good shot to my left low blocker and beat me there," Milosek said.
Despite the shot advantage, Salve Regina looked far more comfortable than it did in the first period as it limited Stevens Point's quality scoring chances while also capitalizing on its transition game to generate more of its own than it did in the game's early stages.
"We talked a little before the game about this stage we're playing on at the Frozen Four," Klann said. "It's a highly emotional game and none of our guys have been here so we wanted to get out in the first ten minutes and just get guy's feet wet. In-between periods we changed a couple of things and just stayed together and after Erik's goal we just tried to build off that."
Wojtala's perfect night steamed its way into the third period as Stevens Point ramped up the pressure once more but remained unable to score, including on two power play chances in the period's opening ten minutes. Perhaps lost in the shuffle of Wojtala's performance is the defensive effort put forth by the entire Salve Regina team as though the Pointers tacked on 21 more shots in the final stanza to finish the game with a 55-20 edge, the Seahawks blocked an abundance of shots -- especially from the perimiter -- that never even made it through to Wojtala.
|Stevens Point had its chances up until the very end but were simply unable to solve Wojtala.
Photo: Eric Gulseth.
"The defense really stepped, along with the forwards getting back," Wojtala said. "They kept them to the perimeter and really shut down the middle and did a great job with the back pressure, which was exactly what we needed on the Olympic-sized ice."
The Seahawks put the game on ice with 2:28 remaining when Danny Philbrick chipped in an empty-netter past the outstretched stick of the Pointers' Stephen Beauvais.
Stevens Point wraps up its season with the loss to finish 21-6-3, despite the fact it was not disappointed with its play.
"I think we played a full 60 minutes," Krueger said. "We played just as well here as we did last week against Adrian and last weekend the pucks went in and this weekend they didn't. It's a hard pill to swallow."
Meanwhile, thanks to their ability to weather the early onslaught, some elite goaltending, and some timely scoring out of its talented group of forwards, Salve Regina is off to the national championship game for the first time in program history, where they hope Friday's winning recipe works out just one more time.
"It was a lot of fun," Wojtala said. "Seeing shots all the way through, guys getting guys out of the way in front of the net, forwards blocking shots...and I think all that together just makes it a fun game for everybody when everybody's contributing."