LAKE PLACID - For the third year in a row, a midwestern team's brand of hockey proved to be the right formula for winning a national championship in Lake Placid.
On Saturday at the Olympic Center's 1980 Herb Brooks Arena, the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire erased an early two-goal deficit on the way to defeating Oswego 5-3 in the championship game of the NCAA Division III men's ice hockey tournament.
A little more than a week ago, the Blugolds knocked off two-time defending champion and Northern Collegiate Hockey Association rival St. Norbert to reach the final four in Lake Placid. Their win over the Lakers marked the third straight season a NCHA team captured the national title, and it will also be the last time for that league, which is being disbanded.
Members of the Wisconsin-Eau Claire men’s hockey team celebrate their NCAA Division III national championship after defeating Oswego 5-3 Saturday at the Olympic Center In Lake Placid.
(Enterprise photo — Lou Reuter)
After seeing his team win a national championship in its first trip to the final four, Blugolds head coach Matt Loen had to be reminded during the post-game press conference that their league was being dissolved.
"I'd like to invite any team to play in the NCHA. It's not very fun," Loen said. "I've said it my whole 10 years of coaching: If you can get out of the NCHA, you have an unbelievable opportunity to win a national championship. If you look at it the last three years, it's been the NCHA."
The SUNYAC champion Lakers got off to a stunning start by taking a 2-0 first-period lead on tallies scored 31 seconds apart. The Blugolds rallied with four unanswered goals, and clinched the win with an empty-net goal after Oswego closed the gap to 4-3.
Wisconsin-Eau Claire dominated the early minutes of the game, but the Lakers got on the board first when junior defenseman Bobby Gertsakis banged home a rebound off a shot by Luke Moodie at the 10:44 mark, just after the Blugolds killed off a penalty. Oswego quickly upped its lead to 2-0 31 seconds later when Chris Muise converted a pass from Chris Brown to cap off a 2-on-1 rush for the Lakers.
Then, with All-American goalie Brandon Stephenson shutting the door on the Lakers in Eau Claire's defensive zone, the Blugolds put two pucks in the net at the other end of the rink to send the teams into intermission deadlocked at 2-2.
Jordan Singer, who was named the final four's most outstanding player, got Wisconsin-Eau Claire going, scoring on a power-play at the 14:25 mark to make it a 2-1 game in favor of Oswego.
Singer's goal marked the beginning of a huge momentum shift for the Blugolds. Shortly after Singer's tally, Oswego had a great opportunity to regain its two-goal edge with a two-man advantage that lasted 41 seconds, but like they've done on every short-handed situation in this final four, the Blugolds killed off the penalty. Then, with 53 seconds left in the period, Wisconsin pulled even on a power-play goal by Andrew Wilcox, who beat Oswego netminder Andrew Hare with a wrist shot from the point.
Wisconsin-Eau Claire took the lead for good on the lone goal of the second period, which came off the stick of Daniel Olszewski at the 6:29 mark. On the play, the junior forward from Janesville, Wis., pounced on a rebound and fired into a half-open net. Singer, who led the Blugolds in scoring this season, picked up an assist on the play along with Andrew Wilcox.
"It's a huge momentum booster for a team to kill off a 5-on-3," Singer said. "We took it and ran with it. I thought our penalty kill was great all weekend."
The Blugolds finished the weekend by killing off all 11 short-handed situations they faced.
"It's happened before. We've been down two goals before," Stephenson said. "We don't get rattled. They were two good plays they scored on. Nothing I could do about it. I just had to shake it off and still compete. We responded quickly after that."
The Blugolds then jumped into a 4-2 lead on a tally by senior Devin Mantha, who is just one of two Canadian players on the team's roster. On the play, Mantha got behind the Oswego defense, received a pass from Jared Williams, and beat Hare on a breakaway at the 7:20 mark.
Oswego came roaring back, as Gertsakis netted his second goal of the game with 10 minutes remaining to cut the Lakers' deficit to 4-3. The Lakers continued to put the pressure on and were able to pull Hare from the net with just over a minute left in regulation. The Wisconsin-Eau Claire defense, however, held up and put the game away when Kurt Weston stuffed a puck into the open net with 59 seconds left on the clock. Senior David Donnellan, a home-town Blugolds' player from Eau Claire, got the assist when he cleared the puck the length of the ice, and Weston picked it up off the back boards for the easy goal.
"It was a good game; back and forth," Loen said. "I was a little nervous being down 2-0. We got behind the eight ball, but the boys are resilient. The second period has been our best period all year."
Saturday's game marked the second straight year that Oswego has lost the championship game in Lake Placid to an NCHA team. A year ago, the Lakers fell 4-1 in the final to St. Norbert.
"They had us back on our heels the first 10 minutes and we got that power-play goal," Oswego head coach Ed Gosek said. "We got a little life, a little jump. When we did some opportunities, their goalie was good. He's a senior, he's an all-American. He's not some rookie in there playing his first season."
Oswego finished with a 25-5-0 record, which included Friday's 6-3 semifinal win over Norwich. The Blugolds advanced to the title game with a 5-1 win over Utica in the other semifinal. The loss ended a four-year mission by Oswego's seniors to win the school's second national championship after the Lakers earned their first in 2007.
"I want to bring attention to the 14 seniors with us," Gosek said. "We wouldn't trade them for any other player on any other team. They were the reason we had 1,200, 1,500 kids at every game. They treat other kids on campus with respect."
Oswego finished the game with a 30-25 edge in shots on goal. Hare, a senior, made 20 saves for Oswego and Stephenson stopped 27 shots to earn the win in nets for Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
"We have always been good defensively," said Loen, whose Blugolds finished with a 24-5-2 record. "We brought in some skill, some scoring this year. That was the difference."
Wisconsin-Eau Claire 5, Oswego 3
1. O, Gertsakis (Moodie, McConney), 10:44; 2. O, Muise (Brown), 11:15; 3. WEC, Singer (Donnellan, Darwitz), 14:25; 4. WEC, Wilcox (Darwitz), 19:07.
5. WEC, Olszewski (Singer, Wilcox), 6:29.
6. WEC, Mantha (Williams, Waggoner), 7:20; 7. O, Gertsakis (Muise), 10:00; 8. WEC, Weston (Donnellan), 19:01, eng.
Shots on goal: Oswego 30, Wisconsin-Eau Claire 25.
Saves: WEC, Stephenson 27; O, Hare 20.