By Matthew Webb
Senior Writer, D3hockey.com
UTICA, N.Y. — On the backs of a strong 31-save performance by goaltender Alex Morin and a second period go-ahead goal by the most unlikely of suspects, Trinity is off to its second national championship game in three years as the Bantams held off St. Norbert, 3-2, in Friday's first NCAA tournament semifinal.
In Saturday's national title game Trinity (21-6-3) will face Norwich, which was a 5-4 (ot) winner over Adrian in the second semifinal.
"That's a very good hockey team that we were just fortunate enough to beat," said Trinity head coach Matt Greason. "I thought we cheated a couple of pucks offensively early and gave them a few too many chances early on, but we pushed back very nicely and hand some nice resolve. The second period I liked, the first half of the third I really, really liked, and then St. Norbert pushed pretty hard in the final five there."
It didn't take long for both goaltenders to get tested in what proved a fast-paced and relatively whistle-free opening ten minutes. In that span, Morin turned back good transition looks by St. Norbert's Pijus Rulevicius and Tanner Froese while Green Knights' goaltender T.J. Black stopped a dangerous deflection chance.
With exactly seven minutes remaining in the first period it was St. Norbert that broke through to take a 1-0 lead when the Green Knights broke up a Trinity breakout along the Bantams' blue line and worked the puck to Jeremy Olinyk who curled into the right side of the Trinity zone, walked in on Morin, and beat him clean with a low wrister just inside the right post. Luke Karakas and Ross Pavek were credited with assists on the play.
An interference call on St. Norbert's Tyler Andrews just 32 seconds later handed Trinity its first power play of the afternoon and it didn't take it long to level the score. Once set up in the St. Norbert zone, quick lateral puck movement by the Bantams got the St. Norbert defense and Black chasing and a few passes later Anthony Sabitsky took a great feed from Sean Orlando and hit a wide open left side of the net and it was 1-1 at the 14:25 mark of the period. Ryan Cole also picked up assist on the play.
"After we scored the goal, you know we mishandle the puck on the offensive blue and then take a guy down going in the other direction. That's an important play in the game," said St. Norbert head coach Tim Coghlin.
The rest of the up-tempo period ticked away without another goal and it remained 1-1 at the first intermission. Trinity was credited with a 16-8 shot advantage in the frame.
Trinity claimed its first lead of the night at the 1:27 mark of the second period when a loose puck in the neutral zone was corralled by Sean Orlando and bumped up to Tyler Whitney who drove hard down the left side and hit Ethan Holdaway with a cross pass to the back side. Black tried to get across to cover the post, but was too late and Holdaway put the shot away and it was 2-1 Bantams.
From there the Bantams strung together a strong six minutes in which they spent ample time in the St. Norbert zone, but the Green Knights were granted a reprieve when a tripping call on Trinity's Barclay Gammill handed them their first and only power play of the afternoon.
59 seconds later, at the 9:12 mark of the period, St. Norbert worked the puck low right side to an open Rulevicius and he beat Morin with a tight-angle wrister that just snuck under the crossbar and things were knotted back up, 2-2.
"We thought our power play stepped up and we thought potentially along the way there'd be another look, but it didn't come our way," Coghlin said.
A mere 20 seconds later it was Trinity's turn on the power play as back-to-back penalties on St. Norbert handed it a straight 3:39 of power play time, including 21 seconds with a two-man advantage, but the Green Knights kill units and a nice glove save by Black of an Anthony Sabitsky shot kept the Bantams off the board and the penalities expired without incident.
"Five-on-three is a difficult thing, right? Everybody says if you don't score it's a fail, but we had a great look," Greason said. "Ryan Cole was on the goal line and we pre-scouted and knew the goalie was going to be cheating off the post and (Ryan) knew that and almost snuck it five-hole. So we had a great chance. As long as you're generating some offense it's good."
|Samuel Johnson's second period go-ahead goal was just his first of the season and third of his career.
Photo: Jeff Melnik for d3photography.com
Though held scoreless on the extended power play, Trinity nonetheless reclaimed the lead before the end of the period when Whitney controlled the puck behind the St. Norbert goal and found a cutting Samuel Johnson backdoor who beat Black short-side and it was 3-2 Bantams at the 18:26 mark of the period. It was Johnson's first goal of the season.
"I've found that play a few times in the last month, actually," Johnson said. "I saw Ty (Whitney) coming around the net and I'm lucky it's him coming around the net. He found me pretty easily there, and I just started calling for it and just put it on net short side. It was a great pass."
"I don't know what it was that drew guys away from my side, but it seemed like a majority of not only their guys but our guys were on the opposite side of the ice. When I saw Ty kind of dart behind the net there I had a lot of open space, and when you've got that it's pretty easy to make the right step and just jump down into the open space."
"I think (Trinity's) third goal was a bit of a backbreaker and it was in a situation where we shoulda, coulda, woulda made a different decision with the puck," Coghlin said. "Lost the wall battle, they jammed the wall nicely and made the goal line play. We just got sloppy in the d-zone, lost our positioning and had no response coming to the puck."
The third period ticked by and St. Norbert never managed to find the equalizer despite outshooting Trinity 13-8 in the frame and applying a tremendous amount of pressure, and hitting at least one bar, in the final five minutes of the game.
"We bent and we bent and we bent, but we didn't break, and we found a way to live to fight another day, so I'm proud of these guys," Greason said.
The 3-2 final means it was Johnson's second-period go-ahead goal that went into the books as the game-winner for Trinity, and an unlikely hero he was as not only did the goal mark his first of the season, but it was just the third of his career and first since he scored a third period game-winner on Tufts on November 20, 2015.
When jokingly asked in the post-game press conference whether a prolific goal scorer such as himself is able to remember all of his goals, Johnson jokingly replied in kind:
"I remember all my goals."
While Johnson netted the game-winner, it was Whitney who proved the key facilitator all afternoon for Trinity as he assisted on all three of its goals.
Whitney was just a freshman on Trinity's 2015 national championship team though was a key component of the offense that helped carry it to the title. Now a junior and even bigger spoke in the Bantams' wheel, he noted a similar feel between that team and this one.
"It feels great (to get back to the championship game)," Whitney said. "I'm real excited for it. We've been to one before and we were a tight-knit group then and we're a tight group now. This feels similar to that and we're just really looking forward to it."
Needless to say, if that similar feel can carry the Bantams through just one more game it's a safe bet that they aren't going to mind it one single bit.