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Men’s hockey poised for hosting first round of playoffs

February 17, 2012

In order to carry the team’s regular season success into the playoffs this year, the UW-River Falls men’s hockey team will have to work hard and play well defensively.

The Falcons won the WIAC regular season championship for the 16th time in the program’s history with an overtime win over UW-Stout on Feb. 4, according to UWRF Sports Information. It is their third consecutive conference title and their seventh in the past nine years.

Head Coach Steve Freeman says that this year’s success is due to a variety of factors.

“We move the puck pretty well and we have a few more playmakers than in years past. Some of our players are having some big years and some of our new players have really contributed too. Our vets taking another step and upping their skill level,” said Freeman, the winningest coach in the program’s history.

Unfortunately, the team fell short of winning the Northern Collegiate Hockey Association (NCHA) regular season title by four points to St. Norbert College. The team finished tied for second place in the NCHA but lost the tiebreaker to St. Scholastica College by losing all three of their games to the Saints this season.

Finishing in the top three in the NCHA earned the Falcons the right to host the first round series in the NCHA Peters Cup against UW-Eau Claire. Freeman explained how important home playoff games are to the team.

“It’s huge. You want to play at home as much as you possibly can. We get great fan support from the students at the University,” said Freeman. If they win the UW-Eau Claire series, they will play the next round on the road unless St. Scholastica is upset by a UW-Stout team that finished in last place in the NCHA.

Playoff games can ramp up in intensity as the stakes get higher. Senior captain Jason Yuel, who has been a crucial part of this year’s team with a team-leading 19 assists, said that playoff success will come if the team is driven.

“It comes down to how much energy we bring to the rink, if we’re working hard and playing to our structure, no one in the country can beat us,” said the Winnipeg, Manitoba native.

Sophomore goalie Scott Lewan, the Feb. 1 WIAC and NCHA player of the week, said that discipline defensively is important come playoff time. “We just have to be tight defensively, and structured. We can’t get caught running around,” Lewan said.

The winner of the Peters Cup receives an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament. There are a few at-large bids available, but Freeman believes the Falcons will have to play themselves into one of those bids if they fail to win the Peters Cup.

“We have a chance but we need wins. We have to have a strong finish,” Freeman said.

Both Lewan and Yuel agreed that anything is possible if the team plays their game and does not give up until the end.

“Anything is possible, anything can happen. If we get through the first round, we have a good enough team to be successful,” Lewan said.

“It’s never really over in hockey, it came down to the last 20 seconds of our season last year, we get that late goal, force a mini game, and then win the mini game,” Yuel said referring to last year’s 4-3 overtime victory over UW-Stout in the first round of the Peters Cup. “You have to play a complete 60 minutes if you expect to win.”

The Falcons will be hosting the first round of the NCHA Peters Cup tournament at 7:05 p.m. at Hunt Arena on February 10 and 11.