by Matthew Webb
Senior Writer, D3hockey.com
MINNEAPOLIS -- Augsburg is off to the quarterfinals as it capitalized on two quick first period goals and a stellar 32-save performance by goaltender Nick Schmit to top Marian, 3-1, in a NCAA opening round contest on Saturday night.
The win marked Augsburg's first NCAA tournament win since 1998 and the Auggies will now travel to face St. Norbert next Saturday in what will be the third consecutive quarterfinal meeting between the two.
"It was our start, obviously," said Augsburg head coach Chris Brown. "If (Marian) scored first they were 17-0-1 I think so obviously they're tough when they score first, and then you look at their nine-game win streak and they weren't giving up any goals so we really pushed our team to come out and try to get the first one, and then we got another one on top of it and I thought that was the difference in the game."
Augsburg (19-9-0) did indeed get the start it was looking for and jumped on top at the 10:24 mark of the opening period when Luke Dietsch corraled a loose puck just outside the top of the Marian crease and slid it far side past Sabres' netminder Hunter Vorva. On the very next shift it was Augsburg again when, after gaining possession near its own blue line, it quickly transitioned into a three-on-two that ended with Matt Nehls taking a perfect centering pass from Nate Flynn and beating Vorva up top with a backhander to make it 2-0 Auggies.
The successive goals prompted a timeout by Marian head coach Zach Gaynor.
"Just for the guys to relax, just to settle down," Gaynor said. "We knew the transition game was what Augsburg was going to reply on to score goals and we practiced all week to stop it and to try to counter it, but we deviated from it and they ended up coming down and scoring two. But once we corrected it we pretty much shut down the rest of that game...and did what we needed to in the last 40-50 minutes to give us a chance to win."
The Augsburg transition game, as well as it's willingness and ability to stretch the ice vertically, factored in on both goals as on the first it led to pressure in the Marian zone that had the Sabres chasing, while on the second it was the odd-man rush itself that did the damage.
"That's something you try to do, especially against transition teams like Marian," Brown said. "They came fast in transition and for us, if there's a team like that and we've faced a lot of them this year, we try to stretch the ice like that. So it's been a strength of ours and has been throughout the year, and obviously finishing the play was key and they made a great play to score the goal."
The rest of a fast-paced period rolled on without any further scoring and it remained 2-0 Augsburg at the first intermission. The Auggies carried a 10-8 shot advantage in the frame.
While the first period ticked by penalty free, the same could not be said for the second as a tripping call on Marian put Augsburg a man up at the 2:18 mark. A strong kill by Marian kept the Auggies off the board but the Sabres were dinged for another trip with four seconds left on the initital penalty. Then, with just 45 seconds remaining on Marian's second penalty, Augsburg was hit with a hooking call but the Sabres also were unable to convert on the power play that soon followed.
|Junior goaltender Nick Schmit stopped 32 of the 33 shots he faced to help lead Augsburg into the quarterfinals.
Photo: Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com
A slashing call on Augsburg at the 10:52 mark sent Marian back to the power play but it was held off the board thanks in no small part to Schmit as he stoned Marian's Derek Thorogood with a kick save and followed it up just seconds later with a slick glove save of a Hunter Stewart shot from the top of the left circle.
"(Schmit) was the best player in the rink," Brown said. "He played great tonight and had to make a lot of huge saves, especially on their power play when we couldn't get the puck cleared and we were pretty sloppy but he was poised and was seeing the puck."
Marian was able to ramp up the pressure in the latter stages of the period but remained unable to solve Schmit and an interference penalty with 1:34 remaining killed what momentum they had built up and put Augsburg back on the power play. The Auggies were unable to convert with the advantage before the close of the period, however, and 26 seconds of the advantage would carry over into the third.
Shots in the second were 12-11 Marian which left Augsburg with a slim 21-20 edge through forty minutes -- a total that accurately reflected the game's even back-and-forth tempo.
After the remaining time on the Marian penalty expired without incident much of the next five minutes was played in the Augsburg end, though Marian was largely unable to turn the pressure and possession into quality scoring chances and when it did Schmit was there to answer the call every time. Despite not generating a goal, the pressure did draw an interference penalty on the Auggies at the 5:53 mark which put the Sabres on their third power play of the night.
Early in Marian's man advantage, Augsburg nearly scored shorthanded when Derek Anderson picked a pass clean at his own blue line and was off to the races but a poke check by Vorva stifled his shot attempt. Later, it was Schmit that came up big again, this time with a stick save on a great one-time look by Marian's Connor Blanck.
"It was on us and we got away from the game plan early – we were a little nervous, a little timid," Gaynor said. "We didn't know what to expect being in our first national tournament game. But once the guys settled down after we coughed up the two the guys came out and played great – I just wish we would have started that maybe ten, twelve minutes earlier."
A major penalty for checking from behind on Marian's Gianni Mangone with 10:52 to go not only put the Sabres on the kill for the next five minutes, but perhaps more importantly, considering there were just over ten minutes to play and they were still facing a two-goal deficit, stifled the momentum they had spent the better part of two periods building.
"If I had any struggle with the game that was it. Would we see that in a Division I game? Probably not. To see an All-American get the boot was pretty tough. But at the same time our guys responded and kept with it and kept working hard," Gaynor said.
Despite being a man down, Marian managed to get a few good looks on Schmit as, first, a clear attempt was gloved down by the Sabres' Jake Howie as he was flying backwards through the neutral zone. Howie wheeled and bore down on Schmit but his shot rang square off the right post. A minute later it was Blanck again as he got around an Augsburg defender for a clear look at the goal but Schmit came out high to challenge the shot and made yet another big stop.
Just 18 seconds after the major penalty expired a hooking penalty on Augsburg put Marian on the power play with 5:34 to go, and another for charging handed the Sabres' 44 seconds of a two-man advantage with 4:17 to go, and it didn't take long for the Sabres to capitalize as, with Vorva pulled for a six-on-three advantage, Blanck finally solved Schmit with a wrist shot from out high and it was 2-1 Augsburg with 3:45 to play.
"I think they pulled their goalie to make it six-on-three and I got caught cheating a little bit to the short side just trying to find the puck up top and he put it far side," Schmit said.
As the goal was scored before the first Augsburg penalty expired Marian still had another 1:32 of power play remaining but in the frantic stretch that followed Schmit proved unbeatable and an empty-net goal by Anderson seemingly made it 3-1 Auggies with just 33 seconds left. It appeared an Augsburg player was still offsides when Anderson's shot from the red line entered the zone, but after a lengthy discussion by the officials it was deemed that none of the four saw him and the goal was good.
Schmit was undoubtedly the linchpin of the game for Augsburg as many of his 32 saves were challenging ones, especially during crucial stretches of the second and third periods that helped the Auggies maintain their two-goal lead.
"I thought our guys did a really good job of letting me see the puck and when I couldn't see it they blocked it, so it was a huge group effort making it pretty easy on me and letting me see that puck all the way in," Schmit said.
Vorva finished with 27 saves for Marian, which wrapped up its season with a 20-8-1 mark and its first NCAA tournament appearance. The 20 wins tie the most in a season for Marian, a rather impressive fact considering it was their first season under Gaynor -- who is the Sabres' fourth coach in four years.
"We weren't just happy with being here we wanted to make a push for that championship so there's a lot of disappointment in the room," said Marian senior captain Curtis Lewington. "It's definitely been an interesting journey – I don't think many colleges players can say they've been on a similar path, but I couldn't be happier with these two coaches beside me. They made it fun for all of us and obviously we had a lot of success having that 20-win season. They care about the program and are going to push the guys in the locker room to be even better next year."
As for Augsburg, it's off it St. Norbert for their third NCAA quarterfinal date in as many years. St. Norbert has won both, scoring a 6-1 win in 2016 and a narrow 4-3 overtime win a year ago. The two have also already met twice this year with the Green Knights coming out on top of 3-1, 4-0 decisions on December 8 and 9. Augsburg has not defeated St. Norbert since it topped the Green Knights, 7-4, on November 5, 2005.
"We're familiar with them now but at the same time they're familiar with us," Brown said. "That's one of the reasons we played them in the regular season. Tim (Coghlin) has been asking us to play for a few years now and I kept telling him no, but (we played them) this year and we'll play them next year as well. I figure, we need this, if we want to be a top program then at some point you have to go into that rink and try to knock them off."
"Now that we've played them quite a few times I think we can try to put a game plan together to try to give ourselves a chance, but we know what we're up against for sure."