LAKE PLACID, N.Y. – Two newcomers, two old standbys — but only one of each can play for a national title.
Friday’s pair of NCAA Division III men’s ice hockey national semifinals will feature a massive contrast in terms of championship experience. In the first game of the doubleheader, Oswego State and Norwich will clash in a meeting between two teams, each making their fourth consecutive trip to championship weekend — and have 18 combined Division III Frozen Four appearances between them. Then, in the nightcap between Utica and Wisconsin-Eau Claire, it will be a tilt between two programs that have never before advanced to this point.
Oswego State returns to the Herb Brooks Arena at Lake Placid’s Olympic Center as the 2012 national runner-up, one year removed from dropping a 4-1 decision to St. Norbert in the national championship game. The Lakers boast one of the nation’s most potent and balanced rosters, entering their semifinal ranked second in the country in scoring offense at 4.86 goals per game and third in scoring defense, allowing just 1.75 goals per contest under head coach Ed Gosek.
Leading the way for Oswego State (24-4-0) has been senior forward Paul Rodrigues, the 2013 SUNYAC Player of the Year, who is tied for the national lead with 30 assists on the season and ranks second in the country with 45 total points. Scoring the overtime goal in year’s national semifinal victory against Amherst that lifted the Lakers into the championship game, Rodrigues repeated the feat this year in the quarterfinal round with another overtime tally that gave Oswego a 3-2 win against Adrian.
Joining Rodrigues in anchoring the Lakers’ attack are his senior linemates Luke Moodie and Jon Whitelaw. Moodie is tied for second in the country with 22 goals and sits just behind Rodrigues on the national points ledger with 43, while Whitelaw has still produced 10 goals and 20 assists despite playing in just 22 of the team’s 28 games. Holding the fort for the Lakers’ stingy defense has been senior goaltender Andrew Hare, who sits fifth in the nation with a 1.73 goals against average.
Norwich (24-3-1), which also lost to St. Norbert in last year’s tournament — the Cadets fell in the national semifinals — has been nearly as productive offensively as its semifinal opponent, but even better defensively. Led by their top line of Travis Janke, Colin Mulvey and Tory Allan, the Cadets boast the sixth-best scoring rate in the country (4.06 goals per game), while also owning the nation’s tightest defense, allowing just 1.57 goals per game.
The Norwich defense has thrived in front of junior goalie Chris Czarnota, who has seen action in just 15 games this season while splitting time with sophomore Matic Marinsek, but leads all Division III netminders with a 1.46 GAA. Czarnota hasn’t always faced an onslaught of shots — he’s faced 20 or more shots on goal just four times this season — but has a 13-1-1 record and has posted three shutouts in his last six outings, most recently in the Cadets’ national quarterfinal win against Babson.
While Norwich and Oswego State come to championship weekend with senior classes that have never seen their seasons end anywhere but the Frozen Four, Utica and Wisconsin-Eau Claire are entering uncharted territory this weekend.
Wisconsin-Eau Claire (22-5-2) had never won more than 18 games in any of the previous 35 years in its program’s history, but this season the Blugolds captured the NCHA regular-season championship. After losing to defending national champion St. Norbert in the finals of the conference tournament, UW-Eau Claire went on the road last Saturday and turned that result around with a 3-1 quarterfinal victory to earn the school’s first trip to the national semifinals in just its second-ever tournament appearance and first since 1989.
The Blugolds handed St. Norbert three of the Green Knights’ six losses on the season, and have put together the finest season in program history under sixth-year head coach Matt Loen. Balanced on offense, the Blugolds average 3.97 goals per game despite having just three players with more than 10 goals, paced by Jordan Singer’s 20.
The Utica Pioneers (21-5-1), meanwhile, had never even been to the NCAA Division III tournament in the 12-year history of its program before earning an at-large bid this season, then taking down Bowdoin in the quarterfinal round to reach Lake Placid. Under Gary Heenan, the only head coach in Utica hockey history, the Pioneers broke a school record for conference wins with 11 in sharing the ECAC West title with Hobart, and have already set a new school mark by scoring 121 goals this season.
The offensive spark for the Pioneers has been sophomore right winger Louie Educate, who transferred to Utica after a 27-goal, 15-assist freshman season at Nichols and has kept things up this year, leading the Pioneers with 17 goals and 18 assists in forming an explosive trio on Utica’s top line with junior center Ridge Garbutt and junior left winger John Gaffney.
An extremely young team with just six seniors on its roster, Utica has thrived thanks to the contributions of younger players like freshman defenseman Donny Olivieri, who has posted five goals and 17 assists while anchoring the Pioneers’ top defensive pairing alongside 6-foot-6, 231-pound junior Mike Slowikowski.
Oswego State and Norwich face off in the first semifinal Friday at 4 p.m., with the puck scheduled to drop between Wisconsin-Eau Claire and Utica at 7:30 p.m. The national championship game is slated for Saturday at 7 p.m.