LAKE PLACID, N.Y. – It took Brandon Stephenson a little time to get acclimated with his surroundings Friday night, but once Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s goaltender got his bearing on the Olympic-sized ice at Herb Brooks Arena, nothing was getting past him.
Stephenson, a senior from Saline, Mich., stopped 31 shots in Friday’s 5-1 national semifinal victory against Utica, including 25 of the 26 shots he saw during the final two periods, as the Blugolds killed off six penalties and withstood everything in the Pioneers’ arsenal to advance to the first national championship game in program history.
With the Blugolds accustomed to playing on much smaller ice than the wide expanses in Lake Placid, Stephenson said the six saves he made in keeping Utica off the board in the first period helped get him in a groove that sustained him, except for an impressive low-angle goal from Utica’s Louis Educate that broke a scoreless tie midway through the second period.
|DIII MEN’S HOCKEY CHAMPIONSHIP|
Championship: UW-Eau Claire wins NCAA title
Feature: Singer leads Blugolds to victory
Semis: UW-Eau Claire advances to first final
Semis: Muise leads Oswego St. to title match
|Semis Preview: Two rooks, two vets, one title|
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|More: Championship Info | History|
“It was important to get those first few saves out of the way,” Stephenson said. “I had to get my feeling and my bearing in the net. From there, I felt pretty comfortable as the game went on.”
Blugolds head coach Matt Loen, the Division III national coach of the year, said he was concerned heading into the game that his team would need time to adjust to play on the bigger rink.
“It’s tough to adjust to the big ice. All of our games are on a small ice surface,” Loen said. “My first four years in the minors, I played in Madison [Wis.] on a big Olympic sheet, where it was tough for other teams to come in and play us because they’re not used to playing on it. I kind of had that in the back of my head, just to ease into this game and that’s kind of how it went, but it was a good finish.”
For Stephenson, who made 39 saves last weekend in UW-Eau Claire’s 3-1 quarterfinal victory against defending national champion St. Norbert, his team’s mid-week arrival to Lake Placid and a chance to get accustomed to the wide-open spaces in practice helped to up his comfort level.
“It was important that we had a few practices so I could get used to everything out there,” Stephenson said. “I haven’t played on ice this big since probably juniors.”
Though Stephenson said he felt more comfortable as the game went along, things weren’t necessarily comfortable in front of him, as the Blugolds took eight penalties that resulted in six Utica power plays, but the Pioneers were held to just seven shots with the man advantage, and Stephenson turned all of them aside.
“Our penalty-killers did a great job,” said Blugolds forward Ross Andersen, who finished with two goals and an assist. “We took some penalties that we probably shouldn’t have, but our penalty-killers got us out of the hole. Great job by them, and a good job by Brando, too, sticking in there in the net.”
The only time the Pioneers were able to get past Stephenson, a first-team All-America selection, came at the exact midway point of the game, when Educate slipped a shot from a nearly impossible angle just behind Stephenson’s shoulder and underneath the crossbar.
“I knew that [Educate] was their leading scorer and we didn’t really talk about him leading up much, because we wanted to see what he was going to do out there,” Loen said. “We hadn’t seen him play, but after that goal we started to talk a little bit more about Louis.”
Just 22 seconds after Educate’s goal, the Blugolds went a man down when Daniel Olszewski took a boarding minor, but a strong penalty kill started to turn the momentum in UW-Eau Claire’s favor.
Two minutes after killing off the penalty, the Blugolds finally struck when Jordan Singer’s backhander slipped through traffic in front of the net and past Utica goaltender Nick Therrien. Singer struck again only 22 seconds later when Andersen’s blast through a screen put UW-Eau Claire in front for good.
That set off a string of five consecutive Blugolds goals to finish off the game, two each from Andersen and Kurt Weston, whose short-handed goal with 6:58 to play all but sealed his team’s first berth in the national championship game. UW-Eau Claire will face Oswego State for the title at 7 p.m. ET Saturday.
The Pioneers had chances come their way in their first national semifinal appearance, but aside from Educate’s solid opening shot, Stephenson was there to turn them all aside – including a pair of spectacular saves on Trever Hertz early in the third period, and a blast from Hertz that was only denied by the underside of the crossbar in the waning minutes, only seconds before Andersen’s empty-net goal wrapped things up for the Blugolds.
“We had our opportunities, we had a couple of early ones, but their goalie is their goalie and that kid’s really good,” Utica head coach Gary Heenan said. “He came out and made some big saves.”