LEWISTON, Maine – Wisconsin-Stevens Point men's ice hockey coach Chris Brooks couldn't help but smile.
The Pointers' 3-1 Division III championship game loss to St. Norbert stung, of course, but it wasn't taking away from his perspective on his team's journey to get UW-Stevens Point back to its first national title game since 1998 and within striking distance of its first championship since 1993.
A bad bounce here, a ringing crossbar there, or else things could've been very different. But, Saturday night at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee, Brooks wasn't going to be bitter.“It would've been nice to get a bounce here, a bounce there, but I'm extremely, extremely proud of this group and the progress they've made in such a short period of time,” Brooks said.
Brooks said he felt his team went toe-to-toe with top-ranked St. Norbert for the full 60 minutes Saturday night, and while the end result was certainly disappointing, he wasn't going to let a difficult end to the season spoil a renaissance year for Pointers hockey.
“I hate losing as much as anybody, but you have to look at the positives, and there are so many positives to look at,” Brooks said. “Is the glass half-full, or is the glass half-empty? For me, I'm looking at the way so many people have played to get the program to where it is right now. My goal is to make sure they recognize how crucial they were as a part of that process. I want them to recognize in the future what they did and the progress they've made.”
The Pointers' relentless positivity allowed them to keep the game under control even after the Green Knights gave them a shock late in the first period with two goals in the span of 11 seconds. UW-Stevens Point controlled much of the action after that point, pressing forward heavily in the second period despite not being able to break through against St. Norbert goaltender David Jacobson.
“We just stayed focused, told the guys to trust themselves, trust the system, trust what's made us successful thus far and we'll give ourselves an opportunity – and we did,” Brooks said. “We gave ourselves a chance.”
“We were down 2-0 after the first period, but I loved the way we played the first period. That's hockey,” he added.
The Pointers' pressure, which included a couple shots ringing off the post, finally paid off 45 seconds into the third period when leading scorer Garrett Ladd buried his 23rd goal of the season on a wrister from the slot to pull within 2-1.
At that point, they could feel the tide turning.
“It was a little bit of a momentum swing,” Ladd said.
“Every game has its ebb and flow,” added St. Norbert coach Tim Coghlin. “One team has its push, the other team pushes back.”
UW-Stevens Point continued its push from there, generating several chances in the next several minutes. Sophomore forward Joe Kalisz had a sterling chance denied by Jacobson just 30 seconds after Ladd got the Pointer on the board, and a minute later a key interception by St. Norbert's Zach McDonald stymied what had been a brilliant 2-on-1 rush started by Pointers forward Lawrence Cornellier.
“We score goals and build off it. We've got four good lines, and when all four lines are scoring goals, we're a tough team to beat,” Kalisz said. “Every line has a different role, even if it's the fourth or third line getting pucks deep and creating energy that way and you create opportunities for scoring goals. It doesn't matter what line does it.”
A blind blast from St. Norbert's Marian Fiala with 14:13 left in the third period took the wind out of the Pointers' sails, but with UW-Stevens Point set to lose only three players who took the ice Saturday night to graduation – Ladd, Kyle Heck and captain Tyler Krueger – Brooks was ready to use this season as a building block for bigger and better things.
“I'm so proud of these guys and what they've accomplished,” Brooks said. “The sun's gonna come up tomorrow, and we're gonna be a better squad in the morning. It's OK. There's bigger things to worry about in life than that loss.”