LAKE PLACID, N.Y. (Blugolds.com) — The UW-Eau Claire men's hockey team capped off one of the best seasons in school history with a 5-3 win over Oswego State (N.Y.) to claim the NCAA Division III National Championship.
Playing at Herb Brooks Arena – site of the 1980 'Miracle on Ice' – making their first Frozen Four appearance in school history, the Blugolds didn't need any miracles to cap off their amazing season, they simply were the better team.
Despite falling behind 2-0, the Blugolds never panicked and responded with four unanswered goals, and that was enough for them to hold on to the victory.
"It was a good game back-and-forth," Blugold coach Matt Loen said. "We've had a couple games where we've struggled to score goals and I was hoping tonight wasn't going to be that night … I think we just had to get one goal and then tying it up at two, that instilled more confidence in our team."
The Lakers were returning to the championship game for the second straight year, after falling to St. Norbert College last year, but it was the Blugolds who looked like they had been there before early in the game.
UW-Eau Claire controlled play early and came up with several scoring chances, but Oswego State goalie Andrew Hare came up with some key saves to keep his team in the game.
At 8:44, Isaiah Bennis (Sr.-Eau Claire, Wis./Memorial) was taken off for an elbowing penalty, giving the Lakers their first power-play opportunity. As time expired on the penalty, Oswego State put home a rebound past UW-Eau Claire goaltender Brandon Stephenson (Sr.-Saline, Mich./Saline) to take the 1-0 lead.
Just 31 seconds later, the Lakers scored again, this time on a nice 2-on-1 to seize the early momentum the Blugolds had gained.
"It's happened before, earlier in the season, but with the team we have, I trust my forwards and defense in front of me," Stephenson said. "We don't get rattled, there were two good plays they scored on and there was really nothing we could do about them.
"I just had to shake it off and still compete and do my job and keep my team in it."
Down two goals, the Blugolds turned to their leading scorer and All-American forward, Jordan Singer (Sr.-Lino Lakes, Minn./Centennial) to get them back in the game. At 14:17, the Blugolds went on their first power-play of the game, and just eight seconds in, Singer scored high glove side on a shot from the point to cut the lead to 2-1.
With time winding down in the first period, it appeared the Blugolds would head to the intermission down 2-1. But as fate would have it, a fortuitous bounce along the back boards popped the puck right out in front on the stick of Andrew Wilcox (Sr.-Rochester, Minn./Century) and he buried it to tie the game at 2-2.
In the second period, the Blugolds took their first lead of the game. Singer took a pass from Wilcox and came in and got a shot on Hare that he stopped, but Daniel Olszewski (Jr.-Janesville, Wis./Craig) was there to put home the rebound for the 3-2 lead.
With neither team scoring the rest of the way in the second period, the Blugolds were just 20 minutes away from securing the national championship.
Devin Mantha (Sr.-Sturgeon Falls, Ontario/Ann Arbor Pioneer) gave UW-Eau Claire some breathing room at 7:20 of the final period. Mantha took a beautiful pass from Jon Waggoner (Jr.-Fairbanks, Alaska/Lathrop) at the blue line and went in all alone on Hare and snuck it through his five-hole.
But Oswego State was not about to go quietly. At the midway mark of the period, a shot from the point deflected off a Blugold defensemen out front and got past Stephenson to cut the lead to 4-3.
With just over a minute remaining, the Lakers nearly tied the game on a scrum in front of the net, but Stephenson and his defensemen somehow kept the puck out of the net.
With Hare off for the extra attacker, David Donnellan (Jr.-Eau Claire, Wis./Memorial) fired a shot down the ice that hit the post, but Kurt Weston (Sr.-Roseau, Minn./Roseau) was there to put home the loose puck to secure the victory.
The empty-netter, gave Weston at least one goal in every NCAA playoff game for the Blugolds (2 vs. Saint John's, 1 vs. St. Norbert College and 2 vs. Utica).
"There's a lot of things going on, lots of emotions and I'm just excited for our team," Loen said. "It's a great accomplishment."
It is the ninth national championship in school history, with the most recent coming in 2009 for the women's cross-country team. It is the second national championship for the men's hockey team, the first coming in 1984 as they won the NAIA National Championship.
It is just the fourth NCAA National Championship in school history across all sports. Along with the women's cross country team, the softball team won in 2008 while the men's golf team took home the title in 2001.
Despite it being the final year of the NCHA, the Blugolds became the sixth different team in the conference to win a national title. It is also the 19th time in the 30-year history of the NCAA tournament that an NCHA team reached the championship game.
Singer capped off his phenomenal career, reaching his 100th career point, and finishing as the tournament's Most Outstanding Player. Weston, Stephenson and Drew Darwitz (Sr.-Woodbury, Minn./Cretin-Derham Hall) joined Singer on the All-Tournament team.
In all, ten seniors finished off their great careers with the title, including; Stephenson, Mantha, Singer, Wilcox, Weston, Darwitz, Bennis, Travis Peckskamp (Sr.-Sauk Rapids, Minn./Sauk Rapids), Andrew McCabe (Sr.-Eau Claire, Wis./Memorial) and Alex Bjerk (Sr.-Roseau, Minn./Roseau).
"A lot of it's because a lot of us have been together so long and we trust each other, Stephenson said. "It's more than on-ice chemistry, it's off-ice too. Off the ice, we're best friends with each other."