With Division III’s top goaltender on Division III’s top team coming into town on Friday night, the UW-Eau Claire men’s hockey team knew it had to get pucks to the net and try to score some gritty, ugly goals in order to win.
That’s just what they did. The Blugolds generated shots from the point, the slots and down inside the hashmarks off of second-chance opportunities.
It’s just that first-team All-American netminder T.J. Black proved his status and then some for St. Norbert.
The country’s top-ranked Green Knights, fresh off three straight NCAA Frozen Four appearances, rode Black’s performance to a 3-1 win at a jam-packed Hobbs Ice Center despite being outshot 38-17 in the contest.
“I think we had some good opportunities to score goals, but you can’t win if you don’t score,” Blugolds coach Matt Loen said. “(Black) has been around the block a few times and knows how to handle that pressure, and we just couldn’t get it past him.”
Black came in with a sizzling .933 save percentage and upped it even more on Friday.
It’s not that he made any spectacular saves. He just always seemed to be in the right place, whether his stick knocked away a second-chance opportunity at the last second or he closed off tight angles from close.
He fended off a fury of shots to the end a scoreless first period. In that frame, he stuffed a point-blank backhand.
Black got help from his offense in the second period. Captain Tanner Froese sped past a defenseman in a 1-on-1 opportunity on the boards and finished off the play on a quick wraparound.
A goal deficit against Black is a big hurdle. A two-goal margin feels like a mountain. Steven Phillips made sure the Blugolds had a hefty climb as he rattled home a second-chance goal late in the second.
UW-Eau Claire (4-3) had a goal wiped out in the third period after a play in the crease was ruled dead, which Black had a lot to do with that.
St. Norbert (5-0) responded moments later with a backdoor pass that goalie Cam Haugenoe didn’t even see. Luke Davison fired into essentially an empty net.
UW-Eau Claire finally found a way to beat Black shortly after surrendering its third goal. Captain Jake Hopfner was the benefactor of TJ Stuntz’s successful battle against the boards behind the goal, and from the left hash, Hopfner beat Black over his left shoulder.
The goal just came a little too late.
“We scored the one down three, and if that came a period earlier it’s a whole different game,” Hopnfer said. “We just have to work on scoring goals. I thought we outplayed them, it just didn’t work in our favor.”
That’s the way it seemed all night. UW-Eau Claire, a weekend after giving up nine goals in two games against St. Thomas and St. Mary’s, was magnificent on the penalty kill. They blocked shots efficiently and were active with their sticks, poke-checking a lot of plays out of the zone.
“We talked about our outs and clears in our five-man unit,” Loen said. “Our D-zone was pretty good tonight. St. Norbert is usually strong up front and they dictate the O-zone, and I thought we didn’t spend as much time in our D-zone as we have this season.”
There were a lot of things Loen’s squad did well on Friday night. The only thing the Blugolds were missing was the result. For a program that’s won a national title in the last five years and is constantly in contention for a postseason bid, there are no moral victories.
But the Blugolds are sure to use Friday’s loss as a measuring stick. They were right there with the top team in college hockey. They just hope it’s not the last time they see them this year.
“That’s a game right there where you learn a lot,” Hopnfer said. “It’s good we had this early on in the year and we hope to play them again near the end of the season. That’s what we’re shooting for.”