by Mathieu Webb
Senior Writer, D3hockey.com
STEVENS POINT, Wis. -- Thanks to one of its best and most complete games of the season, UW-Stevens Point successfully stifled St. Norbert to capture a 3-0 NCAA quarterfinal win at a sold out K.B. Willett Arena on Saturday night.
The win advances Stevens Point (27-0-2) to the Frozen Four where it will face Hobart, which was a 3-2 quarterfinal winner over Oswego State. The trip to the Frozen Four will be the Pointers' 11th all-time and fifth in the past six seasons.
"That was the best 60 minutes we had all year," said Tyler Krueger, second-year head coach of the Pointers. "We knew after the Eau Claire (WIAC championship) game that we needed to clean things up in our end...especially playing against St. Norbert. They're a very structured team and you have to play with structure and play a certain way to have success. So we put together a game plan and the guys had to trust in it and they executed it to a T."
With about 6:30 remaining in the opening period Stevens Point nearly went up 1-0 but a shot from the right doorstep by Carter Roo was stuffed by the blocker of St. Norbert goaltender T.J. Black, while just over a minute later St. Norbert's Dominick Sacco had a great look but his backhand attempt sailed just wide of the Stevens Point cage. At the 16:27 mark of the period, Stevens Point did finally break through when a shot by Roo was kicked to the left side by Black and the Pointers' Kelly O'Brien buried a backhand rebound chance to make it a 1-0 game, which is how the opening period ended.
"That was huge," Krueger said. "We wanted to come out strong in the first ten minutes as both teams are teams that want to force the pace of play and force opponents to adjust, so it was key for us to take everybody's first three shifts each and first ten minutes of the game to try to really throw a punch, get them on their heels, and then try to keep them there."
A tripping penalty on Stevens Point's Jordan Fader early in the second period handed St. Norbert its first power play of the night but it was unable to convert with the advantage. St. Norbert finished 0-for-4 on the power play for the night, and unfortunately for the Green Knights, their inability to find a way to score proved a theme that continued through the remainder of the game.
The Pointers extended their lead to 2-0 at the 3:46 mark of the period when senior captain Tanner Karty finished off a slick transition sequence after being set up by O'Brien and Zach Zech.
"It was good transition by our D to get the puck up and Zech made a great play in the middle to recognize the D sliding over, and he passed it over and I kind of had an empty net and it was just my job not to miss it," Karty said.
"We felt that if we could get a couple in we knew how to win and knew how finish off a game. So once that second one went in, while that can be a hard lead to keep, we realized that we can do something with this -- we got a two goal advantage, we got great goaltending and great D and we can make this work."
|UW-Stevens Point's Austin Kelly collides with St. Norbert's Dominick Sacco.
Photo: Doug Sasse, d3photography.com
Five minutes later a somewhat dubious 5-minute major for boarding was called on St. Norbert's Timmy Nicksic which handed Stevens Point a golden opportunity to blow the game open, but a stellar Green Knight penalty kill not only kept the Pointers off the board for the entire five but also arguably didn't even concede a single quality scoring chance.
However, less than three minutes after the expiration of the Nicksic penalty, St. Norbert's Jack Thomas was dinged for hooking and this time Stevens Point converted on the power play when a tight wraparound chance by TJ Roo was stuffed into Black's paddle and ended up fluttering over his shoulder and into the back of the goal, and it was 3-0 Pointers with 2:03 remaining in the period.
"We had killed off the major and then it went back to a minor again immediately and we got stuck out there with the second period (long) change and the same guys out on the ice," said St. Norbert head coach Tim Coghlin. "They actually had much better looks before that goal went in and T.J. made those stops, and that one was a little fortunate maybe, but when you work hard you get those chances and it certainly swung the pendulum."
47 seconds of a late second period penalty on Stevens Point carried over into the third but St. Norbert was again unable to capitalize. Facing a three goal deficit, if they wished to score a second straight comeback win the Green Knights desperately needed to try to find some offense that had thus far been lacking on the night.
"The plan was to wait until we were at about the 12-minute mark, and when we got to the 15 we started being a little more serious about it," Coghlin said. "Realistically, just the number of minutes that certain guys had to eat up tonight -- we went with some different combinations and you saw some different things out there. The plan was to stretch the neutral zone a little bit, but it didn't really play."
While St. Norbert had some stretches where it was able to control possession in the Stevens Point zone, the good looks and resultant goals never came as the Pointers and goaltender Connor Ryckman stopped everything that St. Norbert threw at them and actually outshot the Green Knights 11-3 in the period.
Ryckman finished with 17 saves to garner his third shutout of the season, while Black made 32 stops for St. Norbert (23-5-3).
The reward for the near-perfect performance by Stevens Point is another Frozen Four appearance, and this time it will be one that takes place on its home ice as not long after the conclusion of Saturday's quarterfinals it was announced that the season's final weekend will be held at its very own K.B Willett Arena. While that is something the Pointers will no doubt look forward to, what will prove even more consequential is if they can string two more performances together that are as strong as the one they put on Saturday night.
"We didn't have a lot of holes in our game," Krueger said. "Everyone was good all the way around and we got great goaltending from Connor, and it was fun. It was an absolute blast with the crowd here and we're looking forward to next weekend."