LAKE PLACID, N.Y. – Nearly an hour after it was over, Wisconsin-Eau Claire goaltender Brandon Stephenson still couldn’t quite comprehend what had just happened.
He couldn’t believe that he and his fellow Blugolds, members of a program making its first appearance in the NCAA Division III men’s ice hockey championship game and only its second appearance in the national tournament, recorded a title-clinching 5-3 victory against Oswego State.
“I can’t, and that’s why I’ve been so emotional this past hour,” Stephenson said. “It’s been a team goal, but to actually do it, words can’t really describe it right now.”
The Blugolds rallied from allowing two quick goals within a 31-second stretch midway through the first period to power ahead with four consecutive goals. They then watched Oswego State pull within 4-3 at the halfway mark of the third period before holding on against the Lakers’ desperate pressure in the closing minutes and sealing the program’s first national championship when Kurt Weston pumped in an empty-net goal with 58 seconds to play.
“There’s a lot of emotions going on,” Blugolds head coach Matt Loen said. “It’s just exciting for the team, a great accomplishment for the program, for the seniors and all the guys in our locker room. …For us, it’s a 52-week season, instead of a 19-week season.”
Despite dominating play through the early minutes, UW-Eau Claire found itself down 2-0 with 8:45 to go in the first period thanks to Lakers goals in quick sucession – one by defenseman Bobby Gertsakis as a power play expired, the second from forward Chris Muise just 31 seconds later.
“They were two good plays they scored on. Nothing I could do about it,” Stephenson said. “I just had to shake it off and still compete.”
But, the Blugolds charged back to equalize before the first period expired, getting on the board with tournament most outstanding player Jordan Singer’s power play score, then tying the game 53 seconds before the period ended when Andrew Wilcox charged up the middle to redirect Drew Darwitz’s centering feed past Oswego State goaltender Andrew Hare.
In the second period, the Blugolds went in front when a bouncing puck at center ice resulted in a quick rush for UW-Eau Claire that Daniel Olszewski converted into a goal by slamming home a rebound after Hare had saved Singer’s initial attempt.
|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|
|Brackets: Interactive | Printable|
|More: Championship Info | History|
“It’s been a big thing for us all year – just get pucks on net, and hopefully good things will happen,” Olszewski said.
“The second period all year’s been our best period,” Loen said. “To get another goal in the second there and go up 3-2 was big.”
Loose pucks were a constant trouble for Oswego State all night long, as a veteran Lakers team that traditionally excels in transition situations was simply outpaced by UW-Eau Claire.
“The 50-50 pucks started right from the beginning of the game,” Lakers coach Ed Gosek said. “I thought we were tentative.”
The Lakers had a golden chance to tie the game just past the midway point of the second period, as UW-Eau Claire’s Jared Williams took a slashing penalty, then was followed to the penalty box one minute and 20 seconds later when Chris Heineman was whistled for a hooking minor.
But, the Blugolds – who finished the weekend by holding Utica and Oswego State to a combined 0-for-11 on the power play – killed off the 40-second 5-on-3 situation, then held on through the remaining 1:20 of Heineman’s penalty to preserve the lead through two periods.
“I’ve got to trust my ‘D,’” Stephenson said of his mentality during the extended penalty kill. “We’ve got to work as a unit. All that I ask for is to see the shot completely, and that was the case tonight.
“As a unit, I thought it was awesome. Our penalty kill did great the whole weekend.”
UW-Eau Claire seized a 4-2 lead 7:20 into the third period on a perfectly-executed breakaway that saw Jared Williams and Jon Waggoner spring Devin Mantha wide-open into the offensive zone, where Mantha broke in 1-on-1 with Hare and deposited the puck in the back of the net.
Oswego State pulled a goal back on Gertsakis’ second goal of the game, a shot from the point that deflected off a Blugolds defender and past Stephenson, but UW-Eau Claire’s All-American goaltender made 11 of his 27 saves in the third period to prevent the Lakers from tying the game, and Weston clinched the title with his third goal of the weekend by chasing down David Donnellan’s clearance and jamming the puck into the empty net.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling right now,” Stephenson said. “I’m proud of every single one of the seniors and all the guys on the team, because this was literally a team deal. This was an unbelievable journey for us to finally accomplish this.”