by Ray Biggs
Managing Editor, D3hockey.com
STEVENS POINT, Wis. - In the first of two national semifinals on Friday, something had to give. Norwich entered Friday with an eighteen game unbeaten streak. The Geneseo Knights entered the semifinals for a third time unbeaten in 23 straight games. On a night where something that hadn't happened in a while was bound to happen, namely a loss by one of the two teams, the Norwich Cadets seized their moment.
Norwich rode out a scoreless first period and swayed the tide firmly in their favor by the third period. They slowed the nation's top scoring offense to a relative crawl while getting the jump on the opposition. The Cadets notched three straight goals by the early stages of the third to take a 3-0 lead, and held off a late game comeback attempt by the Knights as the Cadets rolled into their second title game in three years and their sixth overall by a 4-2 score at KB Willett Arena in Stevens Point.
The Cadets advance to meet unbeaten and top-seeded UW-Stevens Point for the national championship at 7 p.m. Eastern on Saturday, and improve to 23-4-3 on the season.
"I'm obviously really excited about the outcome here," Norwich head coach Cam Ellsworth said. "I thought we got off to a bit of a rocky start where we didn't necessarily play the way we did to get here. But I thought our guys rallied hard and played very well throughout the second two periods.
Norwich outshot the Knights 24-20, and held a crucial advantage on special teams where they went 2-for-3 on the power play while limiting the nation's top power play to an 0-for-4 run. The key penalty killing of the Cadets followed the design of their penalty killing the entire season, and the execution fit perfectly against the high-scoring Knights in the eyes of Norwich on Friday.
"The way we work our whole defensive zone comes from the basis of our penalty kill," Norwich captain David Robertson said. "We like to be aggressive. They're a really good team and a highly skilled team. We didn't want to let them set up and we also had some great blocked shots. We were just real aggressive on them and didn't let them do what they wanted to do."
Geneseo knew that the battle on special teams proved costly to their own chances.
"It was just a disaster on the special teams tonight for us," Geneseo head coach Chris Schultz said.
Brett Ouderkirk and Maxime Bourdas each had a goal and an assist for Norwich on the night, while goaltender Tom Aubrun stopped 18 of 20 shots to earn the victory. Six different players had a point for Geneseo, with Sid Watson Award winner Devin McDonald turning away 21 of the 23 shots he saw to wrap up his collegiate career.
Geneseo came out as the favorite looking to dictate the terms early on in the matchup, and slowly things began to materialize from an initially tenative but uptempo air in the opening moments. The Knights had the majority of the opportunities in the opening frame in a somewhat low event opening period given the speed it was played at. The Blue and White outshot the Cadets 8-3 but the game was scoreless after one period of play in a period that moved along quite rapidly. Just one penalty was handed out in the frame, one that came to Norwich. Geneseo seemed ripe to strike on the ensuing power play almost immediately, but was thwarted by the Cadets following the initial chance off the starting draw for the man advantage.
The second period opened with a much more even and methodical pace than what was seen in the opening period, and the game flow stylistically began to favor the Cadets. The lively special teams also provided a huge boost in their own right. Norwich killed off a second penalty with relative ease, then set their power play to work at 5:32 when Conlan Keenan got the gate for tripping. Persistence down the middle paid off for the Cadets on the ensuing man advantage. Norwich got a great chance on a weak side rotation that found Felix Brassard for a punchy one time shot that did not beat McDonald. The puck was retrieved from the corner immediately by Brassard and he slid it to Bourdas, who made a slick extra pass to find Ouderkirk and he buried it for the 1-0 lead.
Coby Downs exhibited a similar thoroughness in doubling the lead at 13:45, and this time the goal came at even strength. The sophomore received the puck from the left wing side at the front of the net, and took his initial shot off the pads of McDonald. It jumped right back to his forehand, and on the second attempt Downs throttled it past the senior goaltender for a 2-0 lead after the second period.
|Norwich's Coby Downs gets in on the net of Geneseo's Devin McDonald during action in Friday's NCAA semifinal game at KB Willett Arena.
Photo: Doug Sasse, d3photography.com
The Cadets looked back to the Bourdas-Ouderkirk connection on the power play in the third to break open a three goal lead that would ultimately prove decisive. Off the rush, Ouderkirk streaked down the left wing side on a clean entry, then delayed his progress just enough to thread a pass through to a trailing Bourdas, and Bourdas roofed it to the top of the cage for a 3-0 advantage.
From there, Geneseo went into comeback mode in rapid fire fashion. Henry Cleghorn started the attack on the rush for the Knights, assisted by Tyson Empey and Ryan Burnett at 5:59. Just over a minute later, Carson Kelley cashed in on another zone entry for the Knights as he took a feed from the right wing by Dan Bosio, created a rebound, and then jammed it home to make it a one goal game.
But from there, the gas ran out from the tank of Geneseo. The game inched home at a much more delibrate pace, and with the net empty, Norwich landed the vital last salvo as Robertson scored the length of the ice surface on a bizarre bounce off the glass while trying to clear the zone, and it rolled on its edge on a elliptical route towards the Geneseo net and in for the 4-2 advantage.
"I may try to take that pane of glass home when it's over," Robertson joked.
The final 29 seconds went off without a hitch for the Cadets, and Norwich advanced into the national title game in the first season for head coach Cam Ellsworth, who admitted that he doesn't look too far ahead of the next game when asked if he in any way thought he'd be in this position at the start of the season. Now, there's just one box left to check.
Geneseo wraps up the season at 25-2-2.