DE PERE, Wis. (Blugolds.com) - One week ago, St. Norbert College came to Eau Claire and defeated the UW-Eau Claire men's hockey team, taking the Peters Cup Championship and an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament.
That left the Blugolds waiting to see if they would get an at-large bid into the tournament. They got one of the three bids, but the road to the Frozen Four in Lake Placid, N.Y. would go through St. Norbert at Cornerstone Community Center, not Hobbs Ice Center in Eau Claire.
In the fifth meeting between the two teams this season, the fourth-ranked Blugolds were able to use last week's loss as motivation, handing the No. 1-ranked Green Knights a 3-1 loss to advance to their first NCAA Frozen Four in school history.
"It's tough to beat St. Norbert three times in a year," Blugolds coach Matt Loen said. "For that Peters Cup Championship game, that was probably the best thing that could've happened to us, to get that out of the way."
After being shutout last week in the 3-0 loss, the Blugolds struck first just 1:39 into the first period. Jon Waggoner (Jr.-Fairbanks, Alaska/Lathrop) took a nice pass from Devin Mantha (Sr.-Sturgeon Falls, Ontario/Ann Arbor Pioneer) and buried it past Green Knight goaltender David Jacobson.
The Green Knights applied much of the early pressure, taking advantage of a few early mistakes by the Blugolds, but Brandon Stephenson (Sr.-Saline, Mich./Saline) made several big saves early on to keep the game 1-0.
"The mindset was just making the first save," Stephenson said. "The guys in front let me see every shot and that's why we were successful tonight."
At 7:47, Mantha went off for a tripping penalty, giving St. Norbert College the man-advantage. At 8:23, they cashed in on a shot from the slot that beat Stephenson to tie the game at 1-1.
The Green Knights continued to apply the pressure, although it looked like the teams would head to the locker room tied. But at 18:39, the Green Knights went off for a cross-checking penalty and the Blugolds capitalized. With less than a minute to play in the period, Chris Heineman (So.-New Boston, Mich./Traverse City Central) scored on a shot from the point with assists to Andrew McCabe (Sr.-Eau Claire, Wis./Memorial) and Kurt Weston (Sr.-Roseau, Minn./Roseau).
The second period was scoreless, but it was the Green Knights that once again controlled most of the play. Stephenson was there to keep them off the board, however, and the Blugolds went to the third with the 2-1 lead.
Much like they did against Saint John's (Minn.) with the lead UW-in the third period on Wednesday night, the Blugolds backed off and forced the Green Knights to beat them. And with Stephenson in net, it's tough to argue against that.
The Blugold defenders kept most of the opportunities to the outside throughout the period and Stephenson made the initial save and rarely gave out a bad rebound.
With just over a minute left, Stephenson was called on to make one more big save, a back-door opportunity, to seal the victory. With Jacobson off for the extra attacker, the Blugolds broke the puck out of the defensive zone and Weston put away the empty-netter to punch the Blugolds' ticket to Lake Placid.
"Brandon played unbelievable tonight," Loen said. "That was the difference in the game."
The Blugolds charged Stephenson as the clock hit 00:00 and celebrated in front of a large Blugold crowd that made the trip to Green Bay.
Stephenson finished with 39 saves on 40 shots, while Jacobson made 18 saves on 20 shots for the Green Knights. UW-Eau Claire was 1-for-3 on the power-play and St. Norbert College was 1-for-4 on the power-play.
The Blugolds will now play in the Frozen Four for the first time in school history. They will play Utica, N.Y., who beat Bowdoin 4-2. They will play on Friday, March 15 at 7:30 p.m. (Eastern). Norwich and Oswego State, both mainstays at the Frozen Four will square off in the first game at 4 p.m. (Eastern).
The elimination means there will be a new champion in Division III, after St. Norbert College rattled off back-to-back championships. Last year the Green Knights ended the Blugolds' season, this year, they made sure that would not happen.
"On the other side, they ended our season last year and we talked about that too," Loen said. "We remember, we always remember the past. And I thought we responded, beating Saint John's and then St. Norbert."