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Top ranked teams come and go throughout the season and with the parity in Division III these days a loss by one of them is usually not too much of a surprise.
Yet considering the lack of East-West crossover play in the regular season itâ€™s not too often the nationâ€™s No. 1 team is knocked off by a team from the other region. But thatâ€™s exactly what happened on Saturday as Salem State rebounded from a tough overtime loss to St. Scholastica on Friday and rode 31 saves by senior goaltender James LaCour to a 3-0 victory over top ranked St. Norbert at Mars-Lakeview Arena.
â€œI guess we just werenâ€™t overly sharp this weekend,â€ said St. Norbert head coach Tim Coghlin, whose Green Knights drop to 9-1-1 on the season. â€œThe Salem team we saw today outnumbered us on the puck, I thought they were gritty in their execution and I thought they were as physical or more physical than we were.
They did a number of things that I thought posed some problems and we didnâ€™t respond well.â€
Salem State threatened early as a tripping call on St. Norbertâ€™s Alain Joanette less than two minutes in gave the Vikings an early shot with the man advantage. Unfortunately for the Vikings, they were unable to capitalize. Following the power play, the Green Knights asserted themselves and controlled vast stretches of the period.
The pressure eventually drew a Salem State penalty at 11:30 of the period, but the Green Knights failed to convert. The best scoring chance of the power play actually was produced by the shorthanded Vikings, but forward Damen Nisula was stopped by Green Knightsâ€™ goaltender Blake Bashor on a breakaway.
The Green Knights sustained significant pressure over the final six minutes of the period, but were unable to find the back of the net and the period ended 0-0. LaCour turned back nine shots in the period while and the Vikingsâ€™ fired nine of their own on Bashor.
The scoreless game didnâ€™t last long into the second as only 1:45 in Salem State forward Nick Lampson took a pass from forward Chris MacInnis at the Green Knightsâ€™ blueline and walked in all alone on Bashor. Lampson faked forehand before beating Bashor backhand and it was 1-0 Vikings.
â€œWe have so much respect for St. Norbert that we just wanted to come out and play with some emotion, play our game and be smart about it. We were able to get through a couple of those stretches and then at other times create our own opportunities,â€ said Vikingsâ€™ head coach Bill Oâ€™Neill.
Two penalties on St. Norbert and one on Salem State in the middle of the period offered both teams a chance to tack one on the board with the man advantage, but neither was able to capitalize. A five minute major on Lampson at 18:53 of the period threatened to be a huge momentum swing in favor of the Green Knights but the Vikingsâ€™ penalty killers shut things down for the remainder of the frame and the Vikings carried the 1-0 lead into the final intermission.
The Salem State penalty kill units picked right up where they left off to open the third and the remaining 3:53 of Lampsonâ€™s major ticked off without incident.
According to both coaches it was clearly a turning point in the contest.
â€œClearly momentum swung on that five. We had a chance to seize that momentum and we didnâ€™t do it,â€ Coghlin said.
â€œThat was really a turning point,â€ added Oâ€™Neill. â€œWe took a bad penalty and had just killed one off so I commend our guys for being able to get through four minutes of that to start the third period. It was a big thing to get through that and then be able to build from there.â€
And build from there the Vikingsâ€™ did, as from that point on the story of the game was the Vikingsâ€™ defense, as St. Norbert was able to generate few quality chances. LaCour stopped the few they did and offered little by way of second chances.
â€œWe didnâ€™t get any second look opportunities and on top of it they had three men in the paint all the time. They really took care of the net,â€ Coghlin said.
MacInnis and forward Jeff Tellier added Salem State insurance goals at 10:20 and 16:27, respectively, and the final minutes wound down without the Green Knights mounting much of a serious charge.
LaCour had to stop only six shots in the final frame and the shutout was the first of his career and the win was the first for Salem State over the top-ranked team in the nation since they won at Middlebury in December of 2003.
â€œJames played great and he did both nights,â€ Oâ€™Neill said. â€œHe raised his game today; heâ€™s played every game for us this season and he just keeps getting better and better.â€
â€œWe just tried to take care of our zone and defensively be in the right places and I think we did that with a lot of emotion. We played hard. We were able to take away lanes, get into lanes and get the puck out of our zone when we needed to.â€
On top of their superb team defense, the Vikingsâ€™ were able to stretch the ice laterally and transition quickly, all of which gave St. Norbert trouble for spells and ultimately earned high praise from Coghlin.
â€œThey blocked a ton of shots and they are a good team,â€ he said. â€œ[Coach Oâ€™Neill] has been doing this for a long time and there some things that are very unique to the way they play. They were playing with a real level of enthusiasm and that showed today. I thought they were the better team.â€
Interestingly, Salem State becomes the second eastern participant in as many years to defeat St. Norbert as the Green Knights also fell to Oswego a year ago.
The win over the top-ranked team in the nation is surely sugar on top for the Vikingsâ€™ who, according to Oâ€™Neill, thoroughly enjoyed their weekend away from
â€œThis was a great opportunity for us. St. Scholastica, St. Norbert and Lawrence have been great hosts and the people around here have been fabulous. As far as we looked at it, it was a great chance to play two top teams and we just wanted to play the best hockey we could play and we were fortunate tonight to play well and get the win.â€
The win moved the Vikings to 4-1 on the season and it was only the second time since the 2006 national championship game the Green Knights were shutout.