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Falcons top NCHA

February 15, 2007

A thrilling overtime goal by UW-River Falls Falcons forward Dustin Norman on Saturday night capped off the Falcons’ weekend sweep of the conference-leading Stout Blue Devils.

The victories moved the hockey team into a tie for first with Stout and St. Norbert, but the Falcons will have the number one seed in the NCHA playoffs due to the tiebreakers.

The Falcons lost three games in a row to Stout at Hunt Arena to end last season and cut short what many thought would be a deep playoff run. The men looked like they were playing with a chip on their shoulder, and no one on the team downplayed the revenge angle before the series.

“We had it going into the weekend; we had [revenge] in the backs of our minds,” Falcons captain T.J. Dahl said. “It was one of our motivational factors going into the weekend. It was just a great feeling, especially in the dramatic fashion that we won.”

The Falcons saved the dramatics for Saturday night. At Hunt Arena on Friday, the Falcons handled the Blue Devils, cruising to a 4-1 victory.

Derek Hansberry netted two goals in the win and Dahl got the playmaker with three assists in the game. Falcons goaltender A.J. Bucchino made one highlight-reel save after another in the third period to prevent a Stout comeback. He faced 18 shots in the final frame and stopped them all. With the win, the Falcons set up the deciding game in Menomonie the next night.

The Falcons struck first when Pat Borgestad scored his 13th goal of the season just under four minutes into the opening period.

“You saw Friday night how we reacted to [scoring first], so I knew that we had to be the ones to strike first to get that momentum and get them on their heals right away,” Borgestad said. “We were in their rink, so we didn’t want them to get any momentum.”

Borgestad added a power-play goal late in the first to give the Falcons a 2-0 lead. The team looked like it would head into the first intermission in total control of the game, but 38 seconds later, Matt Mlynarczyk’s turnaround shot cut the deficit in half right before the end of the period.

The second period was scoreless, but the scoreboard didn’t tell the story. The Blue Devils dominated the period, out-shooting the Falcons 14-3.

“We didn’t play really well in the second period,” Falcons’ Head Coach Steve Freeman said. “They had a lot of opportunities. [Bucchino] kept us in there and gave us a chance to win the game in the end. He’s been a rock of Gibraltar for us all year.”

Being barraged by shots all game, it was only a matter of time before another got by Bucchino. Stout tied the game 4:16 into the third period with a goal by Paul Henderson.

Halfway through the third period, Hansberry scored on the power play for his team-leading 20th goal of the year. But much like in the first period, the Blue Devils came right back at the Falcons. Just 22 seconds later, Mlynarczyk scored his second goal of the game to tie it at 3-3. That would be the final goal of regulation play.

“It was definitely a momentum booster for us to score and then a momentum booster for them to score,” Bucchino said. “It was definitely disappointing going into an overtime, and our only option was to win.”

Fortunately, the Falcons had 1:21 of power play to work with to start the overtime. With 39 seconds left in regulation, Norman was chasing down a long lead pass and was checked into the end boards by Blue Devil Bobby Kuehl. Kuehl threw a few punches to the back of Norman’s head, but Norman wisely kept an even keel.

In overtime, the Falcons had the power play set up in the Blue Devil zone. Norman, who has recently joined the top power-play unit, did a great job holding the zone on a deflected puck near the blue line. Seconds later he was set up around the left wing face-off circle on a pass from defenseman Jim Henkemeyer.

“Before we went on the ice for overtime, Coach Freeman just said basically ‘Get the puck to Norman’ and he told me to look backdoor for Dahl or Hansberry,” Norman said. “I looked backdoor either time and nobody was there, so I just let it rip, and it went in the net.”

The celebration ensued for the Falcons and the hundreds of Falcons fans who made the trip to pack the Dunn County Ice Arena. Norman doesn’t quite know what to make of his championship-clinching goal celebration.

“It was the biggest goal I’ve ever scored in my life,” Norman said. “I figured I might as well just go for the big dive right in front of their bench.”

Getting back at Stout for the Falcons’ early playoff exit, and the way that it played out, ranks in his top coaching moments, Freeman said. But he seemed more excited for what it meant to the players.

“Having a chance to hang a banner and become a part of Falcon Hockey history, that’s the most important thing for me, for these guys to have that,” he said.

Although this was definitely a revenge-fueled weekend, Bucchino’s sentiments seem to echo that of his teammates.

“It felt good,” he said. “But it’s going to feel even better if we see [Stout] again later on in the playoffs.”