By Ray Biggs and Mathieu Webb
Friday's second semifinal, set for 7:00 p.m. CT at K.B. Willett Ice Arena in Stevens Point, Wis., pits No. 1 UW-Stevens Point against No. 8 in a match-up of teams that have only met a single time prior.
|Friday's semifinal between UW-Stevens Point and Hobart will feature a pair of teams that have met just once prior.
Photos: d3photography.com/Kevin Colton
UW-Stevens Point claimed the WIAC championship with a 3-2 win over UW-Eau Claire, though as the league does not possess an automatic bid to the tournament the Pointers were awarded an at-large bid as well as the tournament's top overall seed.
Stevens Point's most recent Frozen Four appearance came in 2018 when it dropped a semifinal, 3-0, to Salve Regina in Lake Placid, N.Y.
Hobart also received an at-large bid to earn a spot in this year's field and is making its third Frozen Four appearance and first since 2009 when the Statesmen a 2-0 semifinal decision to Neumann, also in Lake Placid.
Stevens Point and Hobart have only met one time prior and it was the Statesmen that came out on top of a 6-3 decision at the 2010 Oswego Pathfinder Bank holiday tournament.
UW-Stevens Point & Hobart NCAA tournament coverage:
- Updated tournament bracket
- Men's NCAA tournament field released
- Pointers stifle Knights to return to Frozen Four
- Statesmen top Lakers, advance to quarterfinals
NO. 1 UW-STEVENS POINT POINTERS (27-0-2)
UW-STEVENS POINT POINTERS
Location: Stevens Point, Wis.
Road to the NCAAs: Pool C at-large selection
NCAA Tournament History: 15th appearance; 28-16-3 overall
Most Recent Appearance: 2018; W 5-2 @ Adrian, L 3-0 v. Salve Regina
Road to Point: W 3-0 v. St. Norbert
Scoring offense: 4.21 g/gm
Scoring defense: 1.41 g/gm
Power Play: 21.2%
Penalty Kill: 88.7%
Players to Watch:
This weekend will mark Stevens Point's 11th trip to a Division III Frozen Four and is its fifth since 2014. In the Pointers' ten previous trips, they hold a near-perfect 9-1 record in semifinal games (or series) and scored national titles in 1989, 1990, 1991, 1993 and 2016, as well as runner-up finishes in 1992, 1998, 2014 and 2015.
The Pointers advanced to the year's final weekend thanks to a convincing 3-0 win over St. Norbert in last weekend's quarterfinals. Following the game, second-year head coach Tyler Krueger surmised that it was the best game Stevens Point had played all season, and upon review his opinion has not changed.
“After watching the game film and digesting stuff, it was our best complete hockey game in all facets," Krueger said. "Not only a full 60 minutes but it was both sides of the puck and just all around. After the Eau Claire game in the WIAC championship, we knew we had to tighten a few areas of our game up that were limiting us from playing the type of game we want to play.”
“It was fun, it was exciting to see as a coach when it all comes together at this time of the year so I think it was good boost for us and gives us confidence in our game as we move forward.”
Stevens Point enters the weekend unbeaten on the year and riding a 29-game streak since suffering its last loss, and is the first team since 2001 to hit the Frozen Four with a chance to end the year as the first unbeaten team in Division III history.
Also in the press conference following the win over St. Norbert, both Krueger and senior captain Tanner Karty alluded to an 2-2 tie against Trine in their second game of the season as being a key factor in the Pointers' being able to maintain a sustained, focused mentality despite not yet suffering a single loss on the year.
“That stems from the situation we’re in without an automatic bid," Krueger said. "I think maybe we view our season and approach it differently than probably every team in the country. We can’t be waiting to peak until the second half of the year and it’s the emphasis we put on things from the first day of practice is October.”
“This sort of felt like a special group to me from day one of practice. It felt different, the group was all-in and are all unselfish – everyone just wanted to do what it took for this team to win. I felt that for a couple weeks leading up to that Trine game that guys were not in that mindset so I think for them that was a wake-up call.”
As far as what Stevens Point brings to the table from a personnel standpoint, the optimum word for this year's edition might very well be "balance."
A reigning All-American, Karty leads the club in scoring with 11 goals and 24 assists for 35 points, while Colin Raver leads the team with 12 goals and Zach Zech has notched 11 to match Karty. Overally, while Karty's 35 leads the way, the Pointers boast 15 skaters who have posted at least 11 points on the season and nine who have scored at least 18.
The end result has been an offense that can score from anywhere at anytime and ranks sixth in the nation in scoring with 4.21 goals per game.
For all the scoring depth, a perhaps overlooked aspect of this year's forward group has been the play of the line of B.J. Duffin, Austin Kelly and Brennen Miller. Duffin was just a freshman on the Pointers' 2016 national championship team but along with Evan Dixon and Alex Kromm helped comprise a "shutdown" line that was instrumental in the team's success. Now a senior, Duffin spearheads a very similar line that has not only stifled the top lines of the opposition but also posted a combined 41 points on the year.
“There’s a lot of things that have led to success this year but getting that line going right away is what was different from last year,” Krueger said. “Last year (they) really didn’t make an impact until the WIAC championship and NCAA game at Adrian.”
|The emergence of sophomore goaltender Connor Ryckman has helped make a strong Stevens Point team even stronger.
Photo: Larry Radloff, d3photography.com
“But my message to them this summer was that they need to be able to find a way to impact every game they play. They’ve been our most consistent line all year long. We know what we’re going to get from them, and B.J. Duffin in particular is just a great story. He played that role for us in Lake Placid as a freshman and then last year was in a bit of a funk. This year he’s just a completely different player – from where he was last year to where he is this year is 0 to 100. That line does everything for us – they create energy, they can play in every situation, so having that line together and especially B.J., I just can’t say enough about them, they’re our heart and soul up front.”
Led by senior captain Stephen Beauvais, the Pointers' feature a group of extremely mobile defenseman that have given teams fits as they are apt to push the tempo and factor prominently at the offensive end while also not conceding much on the back end.
“With the style we want to play, when we recruit them I couldn’t care less about their size," Krueger said. "They need to be an elite skater and be able to move laterally, and they need to want to compete. They need to want to be part of the play and not just play three-quarters of the ice. When they’re on, we’re on and we go as our D goes, which is a product of the style of game we want to play.”
Stevens Point boasts the second-ranked scoring defense in the nation and has conceded just 1.41 goals per night, and while much credit can go to the aforementioned d-corps, plenty can also be credited to the emergence of sophomore netminder Connor Ryckman.
After seeing action in just five games as a freshman, Ryckman won the starting job last fall and hasn't looked back en route to a 24-0-1 record, 1.37 goals-against-average and .936 save percentage. The GAA stands as second-best in the country while the save percentage is the ninth-highest.
“We had question marks going into the season and you can never really tell from practice as it's just not the same as a game so we couldn’t really tell this was coming," Krueger said. "But he had the track record in juniors of playing a lot of minutes and led an average junior team to a playoff run. He’s got that quiet, calm but yet borderline confident swagger within himself. He expects to win and expects to make every save and he just never gets rattled, and that quiet calmness carries over to the team.”
While it's going to come as a bit of a surprise that any team at all makes it all the way to the Frozen Four without suffering a single loss, it comes as very little surprise that this year's Stevens Point is back at the Frozen Four for the first time in five years -- and this time it's on their home ice. Fueled in large part by last season's disappointing semifinal loss to Salve Regina that saw it unload 51 shots and not manage to score, they've maintained focus throughout the year and now sit to wins away from pulling off an unprecedented unbeaten season, and more importantly, landing the programs sixth national title.
But in there way will be a Hobart team that is quite similar to Stevens Point in some ways, though from the Pointers' standpoing they're just going to keep trying to follow the same recipe that has led to this season's success.
“(Hobart) has a good goalie and we were actually recruiting him a little bit last year so we know a bit about him. They’re a team that plays hard and is never out of the game. They might be a little different than some of the othern eastern teams -- they’re a little but more north-south and a little more physical. They’re here for a reason – they fight and claw, are good in close games, and are never out of games.”
“It’s going to take our best effort and hopefully we can push the pace, try to get on them early, and continue to roll using our depth.”
NO. 8 HOBART STATESMEN (21-7-2)
Location: Geneva, N.Y.
Road to the NCAAs: Pool C at-large recipient
NCAA Tournament History: 9th appearance; 5-8-0 overall
Most Recent Appearance: 2018; L 4-2 @ Geneseo
Road to Point: W 2-1 v. Plymouth State, W 3-2 @ Oswego State
Scoring offense: 3.93 g/gm
Scoring defense: 2.07 g/gm
Power Play: 18.2%
Penalty Kill: 85.4%
Players to Watch:
“What happens early in the year happens early in the year, whether that be things we did, or things they did, or things we didn’t do,” Taylor said. “I don’t think the tables were turned. I’m thinking of it as ‘Who is Oswego in March, and who is Hobart in March?’ We certainly showed that we improved our game since then. We made our adjustments and did the things we needed to do.”
It’s safe to say that Hobart became exactly who they wanted to be. Hobart makes a long-awaited return to the national semifinals, their first such appearance since the 2008-09 season. The Statesmen have been in the last five tournaments, which marks a consistent run of continual success that Taylor credits to the personal pride and work ethic each player in his program carries.
“It’s the work ethic,” Taylor said. “The biggest reason is that each class has embraced that drive not to let the flag drop on their watch so to speak. They want to stand on the shoulders of the guy who came before them and go a little higher. That’s most important to them.”
That personal pride has been a huge factor in developing the team’s depth and their ability to get contributions from virtually anyone in the lineup. The Statesmen play an uptempo style and will attempt to dictate the pace using short shifts and constantly getting fresh legs on, and they do it with a deep lineup that doesn’t really have any superstar presence on it, but a commitment to doing it by committee. Hobart’s forechecking will be vital in this matchup, as it has always presented a traditional strength for the Statesmen.
Jonas Toupal is his normal high scoring self for the Statesmen with 27 points on 12 goals and fifteen assists. The converted defenseman enters the championship weekend with 89 career points. Freshman Zach Tyson has been a wonderful addition for head coach Mark Taylor since coming in from the South Shore organization in the NCDC and was a 26 point forward as a freshman.
“If you’re a good team you should be balanced out unless you have a few guys up front that are real lethal threats game-in and game-out,” Taylor said. “You be who you are and you be the best at that.”
Veteran defensemen Jack MacNee and Tanner Shaw were both picked to the All-NEHC teams on defense and have been omnipresent in the lineup. Shaw is a terrific power play defenseman that skates well and adds some second wave punch to the attack when called upon, and used his firm right handed shot to put up six goals last season, five of which been on the power play, and an additional six goals this season. He will play his 112th career game on Friday. Macnee moves pucks well and brings a similar frame as Shaw, and will play in career game number 103 on Friday.
|Senior captain Jack Macnee leads the Statesmen into the Frozen Four for the first time since 2009.
Photo: Kevin Colton
Matt Pizzo has played in 29 games this season and has eleven assists, Julien Denicourt averages nearly a point a game when playing out of conference and has points in both the team’s NCAA tournament games, and sophomore TJ Schultz is the team’s lone ironman defenseman this season with 30 games played.
The Statesmen sit just outside the top ten in scoring defense nationally but their tough schedule against a three-bid conference plus some great non-conference dates may be underselling the true quality of their defense. In goal, promising freshman Liam Lascelle and veteran Alexander Connal have been splitting time.
When the dust settles this weekend, the Statesmen are counting on the team’s persistence that has endured all season to carry them through to their first national title.
“They’ve got a lot of persistence,” Taylor said. “We had to find our mojo and the right rhythm and matchups and we stayed the course. That’s the big piece. The veterans know what has to happen and what you have to do. We never got off that course to give ourselves a chance to be here. If you get off of the train, it leaves you.”