LAKE PLACID - This weekend's NCAA Division III men's ice hockey championship in Lake Placid includes two teams quite familiar with competing for a national title. For the other two squads, playing in the final four will be a brand-new experience.
This marks the fourth straight year that Oswego and Norwich University have advanced to the national semifinals. They will be joined at the tournament by newcomers Utica and Wisconsin Eau-Claire, who have both reached the final four for the first time in their schools' history.
Norwich and Oswego will meet in Friday's first semifinal at the Olympic Center's 1980 Herb Brooks Arena starting at 4 p.m., with Utica and Wisconsin-Eau Claire squaring off in the second game scheduled for 7:30 p.m.
Oswego goalie Andre Hare focuses on a puck during action in last year’s DIII national championship semifinal action at the Olympic Center in Lake Placid. Hare, a senior, along with the Lakers, are making their fourth straight appearence in the NCAA Division III men’s ice hockey final four.
Lou Reuter/Lake Placid News file photo
Oswego is the only team of the four competing that received an automatic bid to the D-III national tournament as champions of the SUNYAC.
The Lakers captured their one and only D-III crown in Wisconsin in 2007, but have come up short in their past two trips to Lake Placid, including falling 4-1 to St. Norbert a year ago in the championship game.
Oswego head coach Ed Gosek said his team's run to this season's final four began not long after that loss. Much of that team came back intact this season, including 14 seniors who have helped Oswego post a 24-4-0 record and win both the regular-season and tournament title in the SUNYAC.
"I think that (the loss to St. Norbert) set the tone for this season," Gosek said. "After that game, I think our guys decided they wanted to get back here. It was pretty encouraging to see a group of seniors, from day one, make that commitment.
"You don't win a championship in the last week of the season," Gosek continued. "You start building a championship at the beginning of the year. The guys put in the time and hard work over the summer to get themselves ready, and they've been ready from day one."
One such player is senior Paul Rodrigues, who dropped 20 pounds to get ready for this season. The forward from Etobicoke, Ontario leads the team in points with 45 on 15 goals and 30 assists. He scored the winning goal in overtime Saturday in quarterfinal action to lift the Lakers to a 3-2 triumph over Adrian College and into the final four.
The top nine players in scoring for Oswego are all seniors. Luke Moody of Oakville, Ontario leads the Lakers in goals with 22 and is second in scoring with 43 points. Chris Muise, Chris Brown and Jon Whitelaw each have 30 points or more as the next top scorers on the roster.
Senior goalie Andrew Hare has been the backbone of the Lakers defense, and enters his final weekend with the team after compiling a 45-15-2 career record at the college, which includes 11 shutouts.
Gosek said much of his team's success has stemmed from solid play on offense and defense.
"I think consistency has been the biggest thing for us," Gosek said. "We've been ranked in the top five nationally all season. We can be very good in our own end, and we have a lot of guys who can put the puck in the net. Our offense has pretty much taken care of itself."
Gosek expects that a good contingent of Lakers' fans will be filling seats in Lake Placid, and hopefully for two days.
"We're excited to come back up to Lake Placid, and I know our fans are too," he said. "We have a great fan base. We've been averaging 1,200 to 1,500 students each game throughout the season, and I'm expecting 2,000 to 3,000 will be making the trek to Lake Placid. Last year, I think we had the most amount of fans there."
Norwich received an at-large bid into the Division III playoffs after it fell to Babson 2-1 in the ECAC East Tournament championship game on March 2. The Cadets turned the tables a week later by blanking Babson 4-0 in quarterfinal play to reach the final four.
The Cadets are seeking their fourth D-III national championship, with their most recent title coming in 2010 in Lake Placid. They carry a 24-3-1 record into Friday's game against Oswego, a matchup that features a team with one of the most potent offenses in the nation against the top defensive team.
"We lost our three top defensive players from last year, so that left us with a question mark heading into this season," Norwich head coach Mike McShane said. "We spent quite a bit of time revamping our defense, and starting from the goaltender out, there was improvement."
Norwich has given up just 44 goals in 28 games this season for an average of 1.57 goals per game. Oswego heads into the matchup averaging five goals scored per game.
"Talking about our defense, we'll have to have our best defensive effort of the season against Oswego," McShane said. "They have a ton of firepower - the most we've seen all season."
Like all four teams competing, upperclassmen have played an important role in Norwich's success on the ice.
"A lot of hard work and good leadership from our seniors has gotten us this far," McShane said. "I think the teams playing in Lake Placid are the four best teams in the nation. We are going to have to be at our very best."
Travis Jenke, a junior from Swift Current, Saskatchewan, leads Norwich in points. The Canadian forward has 38 points on 15 goals and 23 assists.
Senior Colin Mulvey, one of three team captains, leads the team in goals with 19 and is second in points with 37. Parker Carroll played 20 games in goal as a sophomore a year ago for the Cadets, but has only appeared in four this season. Junior Chris Czarnota has seen most of the action between the pipes this year, playing 15 games and posting a 13-1-1 record. Sophomore Matic Marinsek has been in net for 11 games and has a 9-2-2 mark.
Having never been to a final four, Utica's hockey team didn't have its sights set on playing for a national championship this season. Instead, the Pioneers were more focused on winning their league, the ECAC West.
The Pioneers fell short in that goal with a 2-1 semifinal overtime loss to Manhattanville, but received an at-large big to the national tournament after going 21-4-1 during a very competitive schedule. Making the most of a second chance, Utica beat Bowdoin 4-2 in the quarterfinal round a week ago to punch its ticket to Lake Placid.
"Fortunately, our resume was good enough to earn an at-large bid," said Utica head coach Gary Heenan, who has been at the helm of the Pioneers men's hockey program since its inception in 2000. "We've never been to the final four, so needless to say, it wasn't our main objective at the start of the year. We set out this year to win the ECAC West, and unfortunately, that didn't happen. We kind of came in through the back door, but we deserved it. It's been a difficult road, but we've had an exceptional year."
Heenan said a 5-0 loss to Cortland on Jan. 11 was a defining moment for his team this year. That setback came on the heels of Utica's 6-0 shutout win over Oswego, which was one of two times the Pioneers were able to knock off the Lakers this season.
"We had just shut out one of the legendary teams of the game, and I think our guys thought they could just get off the bus in Cortland and win," Heenan recalled. "Instead, we were shocked. In our league, you have to show up to play every night. It's college hockey, and every game is competitive. After we got back, we talked with the team until the wee hours of the morning about moving forward. Our guys responded."
Since that loss to Cortland, the Pioneers have posted an 11-2-1 record, with the two losses coming in overtime. In Friday's second semifinal, they will be facing another team playing at the final four the first time - the Wisconsin-Eau Claire Blugolds.
"Everybody on our campus, in our city, is excited," Heenan said. "We've never been to a final four, and I'm actually surprised how quiet our team has been. I haven't heard anybody utter the words 'national champion' at all. I think our guys have learned at this level, you take it a game at a time."
Although Heenan said the play and leadership of 14 juniors has been a big factor in Utica's success, sophomore Louie Educate leads the team in both goals and assists. The forward from Chicago has 17 goals and 18 assists for 35 points. Ridge Garbutt, a junior from Toronto, is second in scoring with 10 goals and 15 assists for 25 points.
Nick Therrien, a junior from Rochester, N.H. is the Pioneers' top goaltender, appearing in 22 games while posting an 18-2-1 record.
Wisconsin-Eau Claire is the team traveling the greatest distance to compete in Lake Placid. The Blugolds got the job done by defeating defending national champion St. Norbert 3-1 Saturday in the Green Knights' barn to reach the final four.
While the three other teams that advanced to the final four, and their fans, will travel just a few hours to reach Lake Placid, the Blugolds and their faithful will trek more than 1,100 miles for the biggest men's hockey weekend in school history. That however, may not be a bad thing for the team.
Although the team's colors may not stand out in the seats at the Olympic Center, the Blugolds have done just fine on the road, going 10-1-2 in opposition rinks while posting an overall record of 22-5-2.
Head coach Matt Loen, who is in his sixth year leading the team, said experience has been big for the Blugolds this season.
"We have an amazing veteran group," Loen said. "Ten seniors and 10 juniors have led this team, and they are on a mission. Obviously we are excited, and our fans are excited. We've had huge crowds our last five games, and that's been great, but our guys are pretty even-keeled.
"We haven't been to a final four, we've never played Utica as far as I know. The best way to approach that is by taking care of ourselves and concentrate on the things we've done to get this far," Loen added. "I don't know much about Utica. I don't know if they are a good skating team, I don't if they are a physical team, but I do know they are a good team."
A host of players have come up big on offense for Wisconsin Eau-Claire this season, as 15 skaters have 10 or more points. Jordan Singer, a senior from Lino Lakes, Minn., is the Blugolds' top scorer with 20 goals, 13 assists and 33 points. Junior Mark Pustin of Northridge, Calif. is next with 27 points on nine goals and 17 assists, and senior Andre McCabe is next with 25 points.
"We've had good, balanced scoring and depth this season, Loen said. "I don't know which line is going to come through for us. It's been a different one every night, and I guess that could make it difficult for other teams."
Win or lose this weekend, Loen said this season has been one to remember for the Wisconsin-Eau Claire men's hockey program.
"One thing I wish we could have done was to charter a jet to Lake Placid," Loen said. "That's something we looked into but it didn't work out. We're just super excited to be heading to Lake Placid. It's been great, it's been awesome. I've been with a great group of guys this season, and we've had great leadership."