NORTHFIELD — Felix Brassard and the Norwich University men’s ice hockey team punched their ticket to the NCAA Division III Frozen Four in dramatic fashion Saturday.
Brassard scored the game-winning goal 2:46 into overtime to lift the Cadets to a 2-1 victory over the University of New England. Norwich (22-4-3) extends its unbeaten streak to 18 straight games and will make its 13th Frozen Four appearance Friday. The Cadets will shoot for two titles in three years after winning its fourth national title in 2017.
“(It was) an extremely hard-fought game between two very good hockey teams,” Norwich coach Cam Ellsworth said. “This time of year I think you can expect to play overtime games and close games and thrilling games. And I’m extremely proud of the way our guys hung together against a strong opponent and I’m ecstatic about the win.”
The Cadets will return to action in the semifinals against SUNY Geneseo, which earned an 8-2 victory over Manhattanville in Friday’s quarterfinal. Hobart defeated Oswego State 3-1 and will take on UW-Stevens Point in the other semifinal. The two semifinal winners will play for the 2019 NCAA Division III National Championship on March 23.
“They’ve had an outstanding season,” Cam Ellsworth said of his Genesco opponents. “They are similar to us, led by their goaltender. I’m looking forward to learning more about them. The trip to the Frozen Four will be an amazing experience.
Brassard scored his 11th goal of the season with an individual effort on the forecheck behind the net. He lifted the stick of an opponent right next to the Nor’easters’ goal and quickly spun, surprising the UNE defense after the turnover. Brassard fired a wrist shot inside the left post past UNE goalie Ben Churchfield, who was caught off-guard on the play.
“I think we stayed with it all night,” Brassard said. “We were all over the puck in overtime. We just continued to pressure hard and we knew we had one coming, we just didn’t know from whom. It was a team effort.”
Brassard’s goal spoiled a nearly perfect effort by Churchfield (39 saves). He gave the Nor’easters every chance to win and pull off their second straight upset in the NCAA Tournament. Norwich junior goalie Tom Aubrun shook off an early goal to make 27 saves for his 19th win of the season.
The first period featured tight defense by both sides, who combined for 24 shots on goal in the frame. The University of New England struck first at 4:07 of the first period, Brendan Donohue scoring his ninth goal of the season. Donohue cut across the middle of the slot and dragged Aubrun with him. He lifted the puck just between the arm and the body of Aubrun as he slid across the goal mouth.
Norwich responded at 13:41 of the first period, with sophomore Coby Downs scoring his sixth goal of the season and the first since Jan. 11 to knot the score at 1. Downs roofed a rebound in front of the crease under the crossbar on his backhand after Churchfield made a save on Scott Swanson’s shot from the left corner. Jake Erickson picked up the secondary assist with a pass through the neutral zone up to Swanson.
In the second period the game opened up with end-to-end action. Norwich had the better of the shots on goal in the period, outshooting UNE 13-4. The Cadets had two golden chances to take the lead with 3:54 left in the period and 34 seconds left. Maxime Borduas nearly scored on a face-off but his shot was lodged in the facemask of Churchfield to cause a stoppage in play. Downs nearly tallied his second goal with 34 seconds left but his wrist shot rang off the crossbar.
In the third period UNE battled back and controlled large portions of play, outshooting the Cadets 13-11 in the final 20 minutes. However, neither side could find the go ahead goal and the game headed to overtime.
“It was very exciting, but I never doubted the team,” Aubrun said. “I just stuck with it and I tried to make the saves we needed.”
UNE (21-7-2) was making its second NCAA Tournament appearance after winning its first CCC title two weekends ago. The Nor’easters upset NESCAC champion Trinity, 2-1, last weekend to advance to the quarterfinal round.
Norwich continues its season under first-year head coach Cam Ellsworth. Last year the Cadets lost to Hobart, 3-0, on home ice in the NEHC Tournament during the final year of legendary head coach Mike McShane’s tenure.