EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (Blugolds.com) — The UW-Eau Claire men's hockey team will get the rematch they wanted with St. Norbert College after falling to them in the Northern Collegiate Hockey Association championship this past Saturday at Hobbs Ice Center.
In order to get that rematch though, they had to take care of Saint John's (Minn.) in the first round of the NCAA tournament. It was the Blugolds' (21-5-2) first NCAA appearance since 1989 and the first time they have ever hosted a tournament game.
The Johnnies (16-8-4) made the Blugolds sweat it out, taking the early lead, but a barrage of goals in the second period helped the Blugolds edge out a 4-2 win in front of 1,341 people at Hobbs Ice Center.
"That game could've went either way," Blugold coach Matt Loen said. "If we don't get a couple goals there, it's a different game."
With another rocking crowd, the Johnnies made sure to quiet the fans and keep them from getting in the game early on. At 7:33, Michael Palmiscno buried a one-timer on a pass from behind the net over the shoulder of Brandon Stephenson (Sr.-Saline, Mich./Saline) for the 1-0 lead.
At 11:03, the Johnnies went on the power-play and had a chance to break the game open. But just over a minute later, Saint John's took a penalty of their own. Just 47 second later, the Johnnies took another penalty, giving the Blugolds about a minute of 5-on-3.
Kurt Weston (Sr.-Roseau, Minn./Roseau) made them pay, putting home a one-timer from the left face-off circle on a pass from Jack Callahan (So.-Red Bank, NJ/Christian Brothers Academy). David Donnellan (Jr.-Eau Claire, Wis./Memorial) also added an assist on the goal.
Neither team was able to break through for the rest of the first period, or the beginning of the second. But at 11:14, Saint John's started the scoring barrage. The Johnnies took the 2-1 lead on a scrum in front of the net, with Stephenson battling to find the puck.
But just 1 minute, 17 seconds later, Devin Mantha (Sr.-Sturgeon Falls, Ontario/Ann Arbor Pioneer) scored on a shot that seemed to fool Johnnies goalie, Saxton Soley.
One minute and 51 seconds later, Isaiah Bennis (Sr.-Eau Claire, Wis./Memorial) scored on a deflection off a shot from Chris Heineman (So.-New Boston, Mich./Traverse City Central).
And just 1 minute 20 seconds after that, Weston scored his second goal of the night, providing the dagger for the Blugolds.
"Hats off to Saint John's, they're definitely a different team than we saw in January," Loen said. "Fortunately for us we came out with a win."
The Blugolds went into a defense-first style of play in the third period and were able to hold the Johnnies off the board. But it did take some big saves from Stephenson throughout the period to maintain that two goal lead.
"I thought Brandon (Stephenson) played well, obviously," Loen said. "He just gives us that backbone of our team and he's always there to make the saves."
Stephenson finished the game with 25 saves, while Soley made 29 saves for the Johnnies. UW-Eau Claire was 1-for-4 on the man-advantage, while Saint John's finished 0-for-3.
Now the Blugolds will travel to De Pere for a rematch with the Green Knights in the quarterfinal round of the NCAA tournament. The Blugolds are 2-1-1 against St. Norbert College this season and were 1-0-1 at Cornerstone Community Center.
"We're looking forward to going to Cornerstone because it's obviously a fun place to play," Loen said. "There's no pressure on us. They're No. 1 in the country, they're sitting at home waiting for us."
Looking to mix things up a bit, the Blugolds wore the road blue helmets with the home white jerseys against the Johnnies. It was the first time this season they wore the blue helmets at home. According to Loen, it's something the team took upon themselves.
"That's the leadership we have," Loen said. "I let them run the room. They didn't even tell me about it … that's the great part of our team."
The fifth and final matchup with St. Norbert College will be Saturday at 7 p.m. in De Pere at Cornerstone. The winner will advance to the semi-finals in Lake Placid, NY to try and battle for the national championship.