LAKE PLACID - It seems like the St. Norbert College men's hockey team likes coming to Lake Placid, despite having to travel the longest distance to reach the Olympic Village for the NCAA Division III hockey championships.
In the four times Lake Placid has hosted the men's Division III final four since 2008, St. Norbert has advanced to the tournament three times. On Saturday, March 17, the Green Knights captured their second title here.
This time, the Green Knights entered the final four at the Olympic Center as the lowest seeded team. But the team that had to replace 11 graduated seniors almost made winning the title look easy.
Lou Reuter/Lake Placid News
Players and staff on the St. Norbert College hockey team pose with their national championship trophy following their 4-1 victory over Oswego Saturday, March 17 in Lake Placid. The Green Knights also won the title a year ago and in Lake Placid in 2008.
St. Norbert upended top-ranked Norwich University 4-1 in Friday's semifinals, then won Saturday's championship game by the same score to defeat the Oswego Lakers.
In both games, St. Norbert clamped down on defense and got timely scoring to take another championship trophy back home to De Pere, Wis.
After struggling with a 7-4-4 start this season, the Green Knights lost just one more game the rest of the way and capped off their campaign with a second straight national crown. They claimed their school's second national title in Minnesota a year ago, and also won it the first time the Division III final four was held at the Olympic Center in 2008, which gives them three in the past five years.
Cody Keefer scored a hat trick to pace St. Norbert, Brandon Hoogenboom added another goal and freshman netminder David Jacobson made 29 saves while earning the final four's most valuable players honors.
"At one point, we were 7-4-4 and staring down a gun barrel," said St. Norbert head coach Tim Coughlin. "We were pretty hard on our guys, but they continued to battle and find a way. We're in a very surreal spot right now. To finish as national champions seems unbelievable to me. I can't believe we are sitting here, honestly."
St. Norbert got off to a stunning start in Saturday's final when Keefer, a junior from Grayling, Mich., scored an unassisted goal just 17 seconds into the game for a quick 1-0 Green Knights lead. On the play, Keefer skated the puck over the Oswego blue line and slipped a low shot into the net on the stick side of a surprised Lakers goalie Andrew Hare.
Oswego got the equalizer midway through the opening period by capitalizing on a turnover in the St. Norbert zone. David Titanic netted the goal, top shelving a pass from Chris Brown at the 10:47 mark after Brown jumped on a loose puck that a St. Norbert player left sitting behind the net.
But it was all St. Norbert from there as the Green Knights came up with another goal late in each period. Hoogenboom gave the Green Knights the lead for good when he knocked home a rebound with 2:31 remaining in the first stanza to send St. Norbert into intermission with a 2-1 edge. Keefer scored his next goal on a wrist shot with 1:27 left in the second stanza on a Green Knights power play, and then completed his hat trick and sealed the 4-1 win for St. Norbert with 2:53 left in the game.
Keefer also netted a pair of goals in last year's final when St. Norbert topped Adrian College 4-3 for the national title.
"This is the time of year I call 'Keefer time,'" Coughlin said. "It was Keefer here three years ago, it was Keefer last year, and it was Keefer time again."
Jacobson, who hails from Janesville, Wis., came into the season as the third goaltender in the Green Knights lineup, but wound up as one of the many St. Norbert players coming up big on a young roster that included just three seniors. During the two games in Lake Placid, Jacobson gave up just two goals while making 55 saves. Although he earned MVP honors for the tournament, Jacobson said most of the work was done by the guys in front of the St. Norbert goal.
"I give a lot of credit to the defense," Jacobson said. "Most of Oswego's shots, 90 percent, were from the perimeter - simple saves on long shots. It's just a great experience being here. Hopefully we can get back again."
The Green Knights were particularly impressive on the penalty kill, as the Lakers went 0-for-6 on their power-play opportunities - including two back-to-back chances during the middle of the second period - in the championship final.
"Our penalty kill won us a national championship," Coughlin said. "We got a lot of play from a lot of guys, starting with a freshman goaltender. In my years coaching here, this is the most improved team from beginning of the year to the end of the year."
The Green Knights finished their season with a 21-5-5 mark. Oswego wrapped up its season with a 24-4-2 mark. Despite seeing his team fall in the final, Lakers head coach Ed Gosek was satisfied with how his players rallied together as the season progressed.
"St. Norbert played an outstanding game defensively," Gosek said. "We played a pretty good game, we didn't make a lot of mistakes, but the glaring mistakes, they capitalized on them. The turning point was in the second period when we had a couple of power plays where we were out of synch. We came up empty and then they got their power-play goal late in the period.
"It's disappointing, but there's no way I feel empty," Gosek continued. "I'm not disappointed in the way we played. We got beat by a better team, but I didn't see any individual play from our guys."