LEWISTON, Maine – Two old standbys, one program looking to get back to former glory and one complete newcomer. It's a simple formula that should produce a wild weekend at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee for the NCAA Division III Men's Ice Hockey Championship.
Friday's first semifinal at 4 p.m. pits St. Norbert -- in search of a third national championship in the last four years -- against a Geneseo State program with only two NCAA postseason wins to its name, both of them coming last week in the first two rounds of this tournament. That will be followed at 7:30 p.m. with a tilt between a rebuilt Oswego State club making its fifth consecutive Division III national semifinals appearance and a Wisconsin-Stevens Point team seeking its first championship since 1993 in its first championship weekend appearance since 1998.For Geneseo coach Chris Schultz, getting the Knights to this point after they'd come up short in previous tournament appearances in 2005 and '06 was a benchmark for the program.
“When we were able to finally get the monkey off our back and beat Nichols [in the first round] and advance, it was an accomplishment I think our players were proud of,” said Schultz, whose team followed the 3-2 win against Nichols with a 3-2 win against Norwich in the quarterfinals.
The regular-season SUNYAC champion, Geneseo (23-6-0) enters its semifinal game with the 12th-best scoring offense in the nation, averaging 3.79 goals per game. Leading the way is junior forward Tyler Brickler (18 goals, 14 assists), who is coming off a natural hat trick in the Knights' quarterfinal win versus Norwich that erased a 2-0 deficit.
Schultz also praised senior forward Zachary Vit (18 G, 12 A), Geneseo's leading scorer in each of the previous three seasons.
“He's been a key player for us for four consecutive years,” Schultz said. “He's got a pro shot, he thinks the game well. We'll rely on him.”
But what makes the Knights' offense so effective, according to their coach, is balance.
“We've got six forwards that are very, very talented forwards that can create and make opportunities out of nothing,” Schultz said. “That's one of the reasons we're one of the top goal-producers in the nation.”
Holding down the fort on the opposite end of the ice for the Knights is sophomore goalie Nick Horrigan, who took over the No. 1 spot between the pipes for Bryan Haude midway through the season and has posted a 14-1-0 record with a 2.19 goals-against average and a sterling .930 save percentage.
“He's had a hot hand the second half of the season, and we've really ridden him out,” Schultz said.
Geneseo will face a massive challenge Friday against St. Norbert, which enters championship weekend boasting the best statistical offense and defense in Division III. The Green Knights (26-3-1) -- who won NCAA titles in 2011 and '12 before being bumped in the national quarterfinals by eventual champion Wisconsin-Eau Claire in 2013 -- are ranked first in both national polls in their 21st season under head coach Tim Coghlin.
Junior goalie David Jacobson, the Most Outstanding Player when St. Norbert won the 2012 championship, has been the nation's best netminder this season, owning a 22-1-1 record, a minute 1.24 GAA, a .942 save percentage and seven shutouts. Meanwhile, junior forwards Cullen Bradshaw (15 goals, 25 assists) and Mason Baptista (11 goals, 26 assists) lead an offense that's produced 4.80 goals per game and has put up 43 goals in its past seven games – including seven in Saturday's quarterfinal win versus Adrian.
“They're the top team going in,” Geneseo's Schultz said. “They've got great size, they've got speed, they've got strength, good goaltending. They're the whole package, and I know that they play a really responsible brand of hockey. They're not out of position much. They wear you down by doing the right things.”
In Friday's second semifinal, while Oswego State returns to championship weekend for the fifth year in a row, this one's got a different feel for Lakers (22-6-2) coach Ed Gosek. After riding a talented group that graduated in 2013 during the previous four seasons -- the last two of which ended with championship game losses to St. Norbert and UW-Eau Claire -- this year it's been an entirely different cast that includes 19 freshmen, five transfers and only three returning players who regularly see the ice.
“You're looking at 18 new players on the ice,” Gosek said. “It was a process with our coaching staff being patient, continuing to work with them, and it really wasn't until Christmas time before we were sure what were even the right guys to have in the lineup and with whom.”
Gosek pointed to ties against Plattsburgh State and Utica in December and January as when he started to notice the Lakers come together. Since the 2-2 tie Jan. 7 against Utica, Oswego State is 16-4-0 and is riding a seven-game winning streak heading into the national semifinal, including a 7-6 win versus Geneseo in the SUNYAC championship win and NCAA tournament wins against Bowdoin and Babson.
Though it's largely been the newcomers carrying the scoring load for the Lakers -- the team's top three scorers are a pair of freshman in Matt Galati and Alex Botten along with Vermont transfer Mike Montagna -- Gosek gave much of the credit for the team's midseason jelling and overcoming of a late-season injury bug to his few veterans, particularly senior captain David Titanic.
“We said to them that the sooner they could make all these new guys feel welcome and make them feel a part of it and explain to them our culture by showing and leading, that would depend on how quickly we came along,” Gosek said. “They made our new players feel welcome. There's no classification by year, we're all in this together -- whether you're a freshman, whether you're a senior, whether you're a coach. It makes no difference.”
In the semifinals, the Lakers will take on a UW-Stevens Point (21-5-2) team that won four national championships in five seasons from 1989 to '93, but hasn't made a national semifinals appearance since falling to Middlebury in the 1998 championship game.
This season, the Pointers won the inaugural Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championship under third-year head coach Chris Brooks and posted a 3-0 national quarterfinal win against St. Thomas (Minn.). The Pointers are led by one of the top forwards in the nation in junior Garrett Ladd (19 G, 22 A) and have seven players who have put up at least 20 points, while junior goalie Brandon Jaeger is 19-5-1 on the season with a 1.92 GAA.
“They're a big, strong, physical team that's very good offensively,” Gosek said. “They're very deep -- all four lines are capable of finishing -- their 'D' are mobile, they move the puck, they can all shoot it. They're disciplined and hard-working, well-coached. No different than the last two teams we've faced.
“All the teams left at this point are very good. You have to be prepared for the issues that they present, and making sure your guys keep the focus on what it is that we need to do well. We certainly want to be prepared for Stevens Point, but more importantly have our own team prepared.”