By Ray Biggs and Mathieu Webb
Friday's first semifinal, set for 3:00 p.m. CT at K.B. Willett Ice Arena in Stevens Point, Wis., pits No. 2 Geneseo against No. 3 Norwich a match-up of teams that that are no strangers to recent NCAA tournaments and Frozen Fours.
|Friday's semifinal will mark just the second time Geneseo and Norwich have faced off -- the first was also in the NCAA tournament.
Geneseo earned its spot in this year's tournament field by downing Oswego, 4-3, to score the SUNYAC title. The Knights' last appeared in the Frozen Four in 2016 where they dropped a semifinal, 5-1, to UW-Stevens Point in Lake Placid, N.Y.
Norwich scored the NEHC championship and an automatic berth in this year's tournament thanks to a 2-1 win over Hobart, and advanced to the Frozen Four with a 2-1 overtime victory over University of New England. The Cadets' most recent Frozen Four apperance ended in fine fashion as they scored the 2017 national championship with a 4-1 title game win over Trinity in Utica, N.Y.
The Knights and Cadets have met just one time prior and it came in the 2014 NCAA quarterfinals where Geneseo came out on top of a 3-2 decision to earn its first trip to a Frozen Four.
Geneseo & Norwich NCAA tournament coverage:
- Updated tournament bracket
- Men's NCAA tournament field released
- Geneseo downs Manhattanville, 8-2, in NCAA quarterfinals
- Norwich edges UNE 2-1 in OT, advances to Frozen Four
NO. 2 GENESEO KNIGHTS (25-1-2)
Location: Geneseo, N.Y.
Road to the NCAAs: Pool A automatic quialifer, SUNYAC playoff champion
NCAA Tournament History: 7th appearance; 6-5-2 overall
Most Recent Appearance: 2018; Win 4-2 @ Hobart, L 2-1 v. Colby
Road to Point: W 8-2 v. Manhattanville
Scoring offense: 5.00 g/gm
Scoring defense: 1.21 g/gm
Power Play: 29.0%
Penalty Kill: 89.3%
Players to Watch:
A statistical juggernaut that has suffered just one loss on the year, it comes as no surprise that Geneseo has advanced to its third Frozen Four since 2014.
The highest-seeded East Region teams in this year's field, the Knights received a bye to the quarterfinals where it blew a tied game wide open in the second period to post an impressive 8-2 win over Manhattanville.
“I think the two week layover really helped us out," said Geneseo head coach Chris Schultz. "It got some guys a little more healthy than they were and we had a good week of competitive practice the first week. We tried to keep things interesting by competing against each other in practice and then the second week we were pretty much back to normal.”
A Manhattanville goal 58 seconds into the second period drew things even at two, but Conlan Keenan goal at the 7:11 mark of the period made it 3-2 Geneseo and it never looked back. By the end of the night eight different skaters had scored for the Knights.
“I kind of figured the first period would be a bit of a feeling out process as we hadn’t played for two weeks but once the second period rolled around we kind of broke out a little but and scored a bunch of goals," Schultz said.
While Geneseo is starting to become a somewhat common fixture at the Frozen Four, it remains in search of its first national title and has yet to advance to a national championship game as it dropped its semifinal contests in both prior appearances.
“In 2016 we played Stevens Point and they were just clearly better than us," Schultz said. "We were a good team and we were riding on emotions with everything that happened that year...so that was a year that we were literally running on fumes by the time we got to Lake Placid.”
“The 2014 team played St. Norbert and that was a good hockey game until they scored a couple of quick goals on us late in the second period and kind of broke our back, so going into this one we’re just kind of focused on us."
Though Geneseo came up short in both instances, both influenced the way Schultz and his staff approached recruting and the efforts have clearly paid off as the Knights not only are back in the Frozen Four, but have posted incredible numbers across the board this season.
“We walked away from the 2014 experience against St. Norbert and said ‘we have to get bigger and stronger,’ and then we walked away from the 2016 experience and said ‘we need to play faster than Wisconsin-Stevens Point does,’ but at the end of the day we kind of leaned toward the Stevens Point approach. We want to be the fastest team on the ice and we’ve been recruiting that way. The two things we’ve focused on recruiting are speed and hockey sense.”
So aside from the obvious Frozen Four appearance, what exactly has the knowledge garnered from those experiences led to?
How about the nation's top scoring offense, top scoring defense, top two individual scorers, top scoring defenseman, and a goaltender that leads the country in just about everything and is the heavy favorite to claim this year's Sid Watson Award.
Geneseo has rung up five goals per game on the year and is led up front by Andrew Romano who has posted ten goals and 42 assists for 52 points, while Conlan Keenan has registered 23 goals and 25 assists for 48 points. Those numbers are good enough to make Romano the top scorer in the nation while Keenan is tied for second.
It doesn't stop there, however, as the Knights are incredibly deep and boast 15 other skaters who have tallied double digit points, including three who have scored more than 30.
|Senior goaltender Devin McDonald's 12 shutouts this season are a single-season Division III record.
The defensive corps has been just as impressive and is incredibly experienced as four regulars are upperclassmen -- not to mention Division I transfers -- and have helped hold the opposition to a mere 1.21 goals per game. They have been no slouches on the offensive end either as Mitch Ferguson has rolled up 36 points from the back end and Duggie Lagrone has added 27.
The end result is an average scoring margin of +3.79 goals per game, which leads the nation and stands a full goal per game better than the next-best team, UW-Stevens Point, which hasn't even lost a game this year. That's how dominant Geneseo has been.
“I’ve talked to a couple coaches after we played them twice and weren’t going to see them again and asked how they tried to prepare for us and a common answer was ‘we were trying to slow you down,’" Schultz said. "I think we have a really fast team and we try to play fast in all three zones and try to take time and space away when we don’t have the puck.”
Backstopping the whole operation is senior goaltender Devin McDonald who has had about as good of a season as is possible in college hockey. His 1.15 goals-against-average is best in the nation while his .943 save percentage stands as third-best. Additionally, he has rung up 12 shutouts this season, which is a single season Division III record.
“He’s great at playing the puck and is a third defenseman back there," Schultz said. "He’s a competitor, and he really only went through one experience of not having confidence and that was back during his sophomore year when he lost his job to a senior. I think he took that experience and learned from it. He thrives on wanting to be the best and when you have a team full of guys like that you’re probably going to win a lot of games.”
The bottom line with this Geneseo team is that it simply has no holes, is incredibly deep across the board, and thrives on skill and speed which are the traits that have been winning out in the NCAAs in recent years. Just two wins away from the program's first national championship there is no question that all the pieces to make it happen are in place. But two wins away is still two wins away, and up first will be a tough Norwich team that features plenty of speed, skill and structure of its own.
“To me they look like a pretty-good sized team that skates well," Schultz said. "They play a really, really sound defensive game and it’s hard to get to their net. They take a real systematic approach to the game and it’s our job to try to poke holes in that and figure out where we might be able to get them. I think it’s going to be a great game and the two teams match up really well.
NO. 3 NORWICH CADETS (21-7-2)
Location: Northfield, Vt.
Road to the NCAAs: Pool C at-large recipient
NCAA Tournament History: 18th appearance; 30-14-2 overall
Most Recent Appearance: 2017; W 3-1 v. Salem State, W 6-2 v. Hamilton, W 5-4(ot) v. Adrian, W 4-1 v. Trinity
Road to Point: W 2-1(ot) v. University of New England
Scoring offense: 3.31 g/gm
Scoring defense: 1.62 g/gm
Power Play: 22.4%
Penalty Kill: 83.5%
Players to Watch:
As it turns out, the unexpected now has Norwich expecting excellence now as they chase a fifth national title in America’s Dairyland. The team’s winning culture and tradition have continued, and were even better than anticipated in Ellsworth’s eyes. But it was the unexpected adversity early on with a plethora of injuries that ultimately bound together the team’s depth on a youthful squad, which the head coach now credits as the team’s greatest strength with two wins left to go for greatness.
“We hit the injury bug pretty hard early with a bunch of guys unable to play, I thought in our first half of the season we competed really hard and were 6-4-1 at the break. I was happy with that to be truthful,” Ellsworth said.
The early season shuffle was also an opportunity for Ellsworth to better evaluate the talent in his own established program, a program that presented a great opportunity for himself and his players at the time of his hiring.
“As a new coach, not knowing anyone yet, it gave me the opportunity to take time to evaluate everyone on the same footing as everyone else. There were no preconceived notions on anyone,” Ellsworth said.
The team’s emergent depth is defined by a group of five players over twenty points or more, and not one of them is a senior. Two underclassman forwards made the all-conference teams as the team’s top scorers, with sophomore Felix Brassard totaling 28 points on eleven goals and seventeen assists.
The Norwich defense is their true key, with a No. 3 national ranking in goals allowed per game, and a structured style lends itself well to limiting opposing production. Chicoine was a big ticket addition, but the Cadets sport two veteran pairings among their rearguards on a unit that allows a modest 1.62 goals per game.
|Norwich's 2017 trip to Utica resulted in the program's third national title. Can a crop of new faces bring number four back to Northfield in 2019?
That defensive core has helped the Cadets solidify an area that contained a question mark heading into the season: Their goaltending. Tom Aubrun had played some, but held far from an everyday load the season before with fixture Braeden Ostepchuk manning the pipes for much of last season. Aubrun has performed well with a save percentage of 93 percent even in 26 games on his way to a NEHC goalie of the year nod. As the junior netminder rose to the occasion, so has the confidence of the team in front of him.
“I think he gives our team a belief every night,” Ellsworth said. “He gives us freedom to make more plays and really attack. They know if we get a bounce over a stick or someone blows a tire, Tom will be there to bail them out. That’s about the most glowing thing you can say about a guy. He really solidified that position for us.”
The young group should almost entirely assure that if Norwich stays the course, they could be in title contention each year for the next few seasons and the tradition will go on. Maybe it will start this year.