Four teams that have taken different paths to the hallowed ice of Lake Placid, N.Y., will do battle for a national championship this weekend, starting with a pair of East vs. West semifinals Friday.
The NCAA Division III Men's Ice Hockey Championships are back in the Herb Brooks Arena at the Olympic Center for the first time since 2013 featuring an upstart newcomer, a program that's survived through a season of turmoil and trauma, the runner-up the last two seasons and the most successful Division III program of the last decade. Action will start Friday at 4 p.m. with the first semifinal between the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and SUNY Geneseo, followed by St. Norbert College facing off against UMass-Boston at 7:30 p.m.
"Once you get to this point, regardless of east or west, they're gonna be pretty darn good hockey teams,” said SUNY Geneseo coach Chris Schultz.
The semifinal winners will square off in the championship game Saturday at 7 p.m.
In the opening semifinal, there's perhaps no team in the nation that's traveled a more emotional road than the SUNY Geneseo Knights (20-4-6). Early in the season, forward Jason Stephanik was lost to a traumatic brain injury suffered in a skateboarding accident, but that paled in comparison to the tragic events of mid-January, when Knights defenseman Matt Hutchinson and fellow SUNY Geneseo student-athlete Kelsey Annese were stabbed to death by a former Geneseo student, who then killed himself.
RELATED: Division III men's hockey bracket
It was an event that shook the Knights and the Geneseo community, but the team was galvanized in its wake.
The program retired Hutchinson's No. 23, and the Knights will hang their fallen teammates jersey in a locker stall in Lake Placid to honor his memory.
“They've faced adversity, they've looked it straight in the eye and they've dealt with it,” Schultz said. “Another hockey team on the other side of the ice is not gonna scare them, because they've faced real fear. That's one of the parts of this team that makes it so strong is experience, what they've dealt with and the realization that hockey isn't everything. Life is way more important.”
On the ice, the Knights boast a potent offense that averages 4.03 points per game, led by a dynamic top line of juniors Stephen Collins (22 goals, 25 assists) and Trevor Hills (22-18) along with forward Anthony Marra (9-27).
Geneseo reached the Frozen Four two years ago in Lewiston, Maine, but was knocked out by St. Norbert in the semifinals. After struggling in 2014-15, the Knights rebounded in style this season and bring back a core group of upperclassmen who understand the environment of championship weekend.
“I think the locker room dynamic was a little different last year than in previous years,” said Geneseo senior defenseman Matt Solomon. “I feel like we got back on track this year with our leadership. … We have a great group of guys this year, and I feel like that helps us going out on the ice.”
Their opponents, the UW-Stevens Point Pointers (22-5-2), understand championship disappointment all too well. The Pointers have played in the national title game each of the past two seasons, but lost to St. Norbert in 2014 and to Trinity College in the 2015 final.
After some uneven play early this season, the Pointers have gone 16-2-1 over their last 19 games to return to the Frozen Four, including Saturday's 5-2 quarterfinal win over Adrian.
“We've been playing some pretty good hockey,” said Pointers coach Chris Brooks.
The explosive UWSP offense is led by returning All-American Joe Kalisz (13-27), while junior Lawrence Cornellier has a team-high 22 goals, but Brooks said the Pointers – who average 4.83 goals per game – are at their best when every line is producing.
“We have a number of guys who have played extremely well and play different roles for us,” Brooks said. “Everybody is a piece of a puzzle for us."
In Friday's second semifinal, the UMass-Boston Beacons (23-4-2) are the newcomer to the Frozen Four party. The Beacons broke Norwich's 17-year streak of Northeast Hockey Conference championships, then scored a dramatic overtime win over Babson in the NEHC tournament final to reach the NCAA tournament.
While the Beacons haven't experienced championship weekend before, head coach Peter Belisle said his team is well-tested thanks to a difficult NCAA draw. UMass-Boston beat defending national champion Trinity in the opening round, 4-0, then posted a 2-0 win over top-ranked Hobart in the quarterfinals. Senior goaltender Billy Faust has not allowed a goal since the first period of the NEHC championship game.
“I know we've got a very tough opponent in St. Norbert, but I just love our group,” Beacons head coach Peter Belisle said. “It's a resilient group. A lot of people thought we couldn't do it, thought, 'Ah, it's gonna happen again to them,' but this group hasn't let that happen."
Belisle said the Beacons are powered by an explosive first line, with sophomore Colin Larkin (10-26) centering seniors Matt Lemire (19-25) and Albee Daley, but the team has received contributions from up and down the lineup during its postseason run.
“We've really had our second, third and fourth lines step up at different times of the year and put the puck in the net,” Belisle said, noting senior forward Alex Demchuk's crucial goal that forced overtime against Babson and senior defenseman Andrew Crawford netting the first two goals of his four-year career in the NEHC tournament.
The Beacons will face a St. Norbert (24-3-2) team that missed the tournament in 2015, but has been a constant Frozen Four presence under head coach Tim Coghlin with championships in 2008, 2011, 2012 and 2014. The Green Knights enter this weekend as the best defensive team in the nation, giving up a paltry 1.38 goals per game backstopped by the goaltending duo of junior Tony Kujava and freshman T.J. Black.
St. Norbert has outscored its opponents 128-40 this season, including a 6-1 quarterfinal win over Augsburg. Seniors Erik Cooper (12-21) and Michael Hill (15-10) lead the Green Knights attack along with dynamic freshman Riley Christensen (13-13).