LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — St. Norbert junior forward Cody Keefer has made rising to the occasion during the NCAA tournament a regular routine of his the last three years.
It’s a fact certainly not lost on Green Knights head coach Tim Coghlin.
“He’s one of the most critical guys on his game and himself, but this is the time of year where literally, I’ve been calling it ‘Keefer Time,’” Coghlin said. “It’s ‘Keefer Time.’”
‘Keefer Time’ made its debut in 2010 in Lake Placid when the then-freshman scored the game-winner with 39 seconds left in regulation in the national semifinals against Oswego State. Last year, Keefer added another tally in the semifinals, then scored twice in the Green Knights’ national championship win against Adrian.
And yet none of that could compare to what Keefer did Saturday night at Herb Brooks Arena.
With Oswego St. the opponent once again, Keefer wasted no time, scoring all of 17 seconds into regulation to get St. Norbert the early jump. Then, he just kept adding on and adding on, scoring once more in the second and capping things off late in the third as his hat trick fueled St. Norbert’s 4-1 championship game victory against the Lakers.
“You don’t think about a hat trick, but obviously it’s your job to put pucks in the net,” Keefer said.
The junior right winger from Grayling, Mich., who plays on St. Norbert’s (21-5-5) alongside center Kyle Stroh and senior captain Johan Ryd, was cool under the championship pressure, scoring on three of his five shots against Oswego State (24-4-2) goalkeeper Andrew Hare. Even after the game, once he’d pulled on his national championship t-shirt, Keefer made light of the moment.
“I forgot we even had a game today,” he said.
“Until 20 seconds in,” Coghlin added over laughs from Ryd and freshman goaltender David Jacobson, who was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
Twenty seconds in — 17, to be precise — was when Keefer turned the national championship game on its ear. With Oswego State cycling the puck backward in its own zone, Keefer darted in, swiped the puck away and broke wide open into the slot, where he blistered a wrist shot past Hare for the fastest goal ever to open a Division III championship game.
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Not a bad way to start things off.
“It takes the weight off your shoulders,” Keefer said. “You get in the game more when you score right away. It kind of takes the pressure off. It definitely helps to get an early one.”
Though the Lakers equalized 10 minutes later through sophomore winger David Titanic, Keefer’s early goal was a definite blow to Oswego State’s momentum following the struggle that was the Lakers’ 2-1 overtime win against Amherst in Friday’s semifinal.
“We just needed to get the energy back going,” Titanic said. “The early goal took a little bit out of us, took the wind out of our sails.”
Keefer nearly scored again 13 minutes later when the game was tied 1-1, but Hare made a terrific save to snatch Keefer’s point-blank shot from midair. In the second period, however, Keefer didn’t miss.
With the Green Knights up 2-1 and on the power play late in the stanza, Keefer once again worked his way open in the slot and buried his wrist shot past Hare. It was a massive goal for St. Norbert, as Oswego had dominated the action through most of the second period, putting 14 shots on Jacobson and spending nearly four consecutive minutes on the power play courtesy of two minor penalties from St. Norbert’s Derek Donohue, the second coming on an interference call just nine seconds after he left the penalty box for his earlier boarding violation.
“Oswego absolutely took the game back,” Coghlin said. “We really hurt ourselves with some multiple penalty situations. They started to get on a little string there, a little bit of a run, and David made two or three big stops.
“We started to overtax our bench. We started shortening things. In that second period, we came here and we said, ‘There’s good, there’s bad and there’s ugly.’ We did all of that in the second period. The only good was that we came out plus-one in that period, which was amazing.”
As amazing as it was for the Green Knights, it was equally devastating for the Lakers, who watched as Keefer increased the lead to two after Jacobson and the St. Norbert penalty kill — which entered Saturday having allowed goals on only 15 of 134 power plays this year — stymied Oswego State’s multiple attempts to tie the game.
“It appeared that we were tired and out of sync,” Oswego State head coach Ed Gosek said. “It’s not that we didn’t score, but I felt that we lost momentum off of that. They got the power play goal and gained that momentum going into the locker room.”
“The game spins on a dime. It can happen,” Coghlin added. “I talked to Eddie [Gosek] on the way out and he said, ‘We had our chances and we didn’t bury them. You had your chances and you did.’ You hate to oversimplify things, but that’s what happened.”
Keefer buried his final chance with 2:53 to play in regulation. With the Lakers pressing for a goal to cut into the 3-1 deficit, St. Norbert defenseman Carl Ekstrom’s long pass put Keefer in alone on Hare, and the 6-foot, 185-pound junior finished deftly between the goalie’s legs to complete his hat trick.
It was some unfortunate deja vu for Gosek, who has had to watch Keefer put an end to the Lakers’ championship dreams twice in the last three seasons.
“He’s a very good player,” Gosek said. “You give guys like that opportunities to score and they’re going to bury it. He’s a big player for them, and obviously in big games, your big players have to come through.”
Most of the weekend belonged to Jacobson, the brilliant freshman goaltender who rose from third string early in the season to turn aside 55 of the 57 shots he saw over championship weekend to earn Most Outstanding Player honors.
Saturday, though, it was Keefer Time.