Gene's Blog: Up and down... then a crown (times 2)

Gene's Blog: Up and down... then a crown (times 2)

The headlines -- "Tommie men win another MIAC championship on ice" and "UST women's hockey shares conference title" -- didn't shock the world.

But, Holy Zamboni, the back stories of how St. Thomas pulled off those championships introduce the surprise element.

The Purple and Grey are no strangers to the MIAC hockey winners' circle. The latest gold plaques mark championships No. 52 and 53 combined for UST. That includes 35 regular-season and 10 playoff titles for men, and four regular-season and four playoff for women.

But this was just the second time (with 2013-14) that St. Thomas swept MIAC regular-season crowns in both women's and men's hockey.

The St. Thomas teams combined to go 17-2-3 since mid-January on their championship quests, including five one-goal victories. Both teams called on back-up goalies in a pinch. And balance reigns for the men and women -- the Tommie men's last 12 goals have come from 11 different skaters, while eight of the last nine women's goals have come from different players.

UST men's coach Jeff Boeser scored 201 points during his Tommie hockey playing career in the 1970s. Women's coach Tom Palkowski scored 168 in his three St. Thomas seasons in the 1980s. So naturally (sarcasm) these two are building Tommie programs with defense at the core.

 

Early Obstacle

The women were picked to tie for third in the preseason poll of conference coaches, even after graduating All-America forward Kathryn Larson and having two starters transfer to another MIAC team. With pieces in place for a promising season. St. Thomas also added two skilled assistant coaches in Marty Sertich and Alexandra Kleinhuizen.

But Palkowski's players had to block out a major disappointment. A team alcohol offense in the March 2017 postseason came to light, and university officials self-imposed a penalty for 2017-18: No postseason play.

The Tommies had won three consecutive conference playoff titles to advance to the NCAA playoffs. Thus the news stung. When was the last time you saw a team end the regular season with a 13-game unbeaten streak like UST just did, then pack up the equipment in storage?

"Our team set one goal this season -- to win the conference," Palkowski explained. "I'm awfully proud of them for accomplishing their goal. It was a strange season. We had injuries, sickness, you name it. We have two talented freshmen who never really hit the ice all year.

"As many things that went wrong and were negative, we had so many positive things happen that help you forget about the negatives," Palkowski said. "Senior Paige (Kittelson) got an opportunity and played well. Senior Bre Mahoney scored her first career goal late (in her 91st game) against St. Olaf. Kaylee Druk had her best year as a senior, she just plays gritty and can put the puck away. She loves the dirty work in the corners."

Palkowski has been around the UST program as an assistant or head coach all for 20 seasons, so his praise of senior captain Allison Borgstrom carries extra volume.

"Quite honestly, I think (Borgstrom) is the best all-around player in program history," Palkowski said. "I hope she gets rewarded when the (MIAC) Player of Year voting comes around. She was a forward her first two years then moved to defense for us last season. I think by playing defense last year it took her game to a new level."

Borgstrom led a senior class that won five of a possible seven MIAC regular-season or playoff titles. She had 15 goals and 22 assists to lead the 2017-18 team in scoring, and in 108 career games finished with 75 points to tie for 10th on the school career list. St. Thomas was 26-5-6 against MIAC opponents in her career in games when she scored a point.

 

Turning Point

A January series with Gustavus jump-started the Tommies. After a 0-0 tie in St. Peter, UST rallied to beat the ranked Gusties 5-4 the next day at home. That win started an 8-0-3 final stretch for the Tommies that produced a 16-3-6 final record.

Palkowski pointed to senior leadership and team resolve in January and February when an injury knocked out three-year starting goalie Kenzie Torpy for six games. Senior backup Paige Kittelson helped the Toms go 4-0-2 in her relief role. The offense did its part with 27 goals while Kittelson led a defense that allowed just nine goals in that six-game span to help keep the Toms in the title race.

UST finished its season with two games against first-place Hamline. A split or two ties wouldn't be good enough, as it needed three or four points for a championship. Palkowski felt that the Toms outskated and outshot the Pipers on Friday but was pleased they stayed alive with a 3-3 tie. After a slow start on Saturday, St. Thomas finished the job with a strong performance on both ends in a 3-0 win.

"Hamline has a high-scoring line, but we felt that if Kenzie played adequately our defense could slow down their offense," Palkowski said. "On Friday, we gave away three leads, and that was a little discouraging. On Saturday, Hamline came out and took it to us over the first five minutes. I think the shots were 10-3 for them. But we settled down and the next time I looked up at the scoreboard, the shots were 25-14 in our favor. We were able to take care of business and get the shutout victory."

Torpy (44 wins, nine shutouts on career) will lead the 2018-19 returners. Forwards coming back after breakout seasons include sophomore Rachel Werdin (13 goals, eight assists in last 11 games) and freshman Alyssa Wallace (seven goals, eight assists in last 11 games).

"We lose some leadership, and that's always difficult to replace, but basically have our full defensive corps back, and have a good nucleus up front. I thnk we're in good hands moving forward."

UST set one school record -- its three losses are the program's fewest ever in one season. The Toms also allowed two or less goals in 19 of 25 contests.

 

Close Call for Men

The Tommie men made it six MIAC championships in the last seven seasons -- an impressive run in the men's conference sport with the most parity.

MIAC men's hockey has had six of its nine schools win a team title during the last 10 seasons, and a seventh school was a recent runner-up. Contributing to the parity is the wealth of talent coming out of Juniors hockey.

"We know how good our league is -- everybody is tough," Boeser says, with no trace of coach speak. "We have to bring our 'A' game every night. People bring their best against St. Thomas, but that makes us better in the end."

Few in mid-November thought a conference regular-season title would happen for the Tommies. They had taken only one point with a loss and a tie in a two-game series against St. Mary's. They had a 2-3-1 overall record, with just one senior among their 26 forwards and defensemen. Consider that last season's St. Thomas MIAC title team had eight seniors.

"I really like the guys we have," Boeser said. "We have some guys who can skate, and some can pass well. But I knew early in the season we had a ways to go. We just kept working hard, and our player leadership was phenomenal."

Boeser said a good sign came in January with what he called a "mental toughness" trip. Weather forced them to fly out early for a trip to Boston and compete that night, play again the next afternoon, and have another road trip on Tuesday night to UW-River Falls. "Our players didn't complain," Boeser said. "We had to wake up and be at the rink at 4 a.m. to go to the airport, and had to play at 6 p.m. that night. We lost that game but we played pretty well in the second and third periods. We had to play the early game the next day, too, came home Sunday, then came back played at River Falls on Tuesday night. Even though we lost two of these games (3-1 and 3-2), we knew if we could get through that stretch with a good attitude we'd be better for it."

The next weekend, the Toms lost 5-2 at home on Friday to Gustavus, meaning a 1-3 January start. Boeser's guys responded the next night with a 4-1 road win over the Gusties, a victory that started a 9-2 run over their last 11 games and included a 6-1 mark in road games.

St. Thomas were in close games with St. John's in their Feb. 9-10 series but lost each one 4-1 to drop into second place. Boeser felt that some of his players played tight.

When the Johnnies split two close games with Gustavus last weekend, it opened the door for UST. Boeser's team needed a sweep of Hamline to claim the championship. On home ice on Friday, a 3-2 Tommie lead was erased with a Piper goal with 52 seconds left. With overtime looming, Tommie Tanner Barnes took a pass and buried a go-ahead goal with :09 left for a 4-3 victory.

"We always tell our guys don't ever quit in a game," Boeser said. "This team doesn't quit."

With the title on the line Saturday night in game two against Hamline, things didn't start well. The Toms fell behind 3-0 in the first 9:15 on the clock, and Boeser replaced All-America goalie Benjamin Myers.

Junior backup goalie Andrew Rohkohl settled in and stopped 23 of 25 shots the rest of the game, and four early second-period goals for UST flipped the momentum. In all the Toms received four goals from players on its fourth skating line, including the first two goals of the season by Ben Vikich. UST held on for a 6-5 win and claimed the program's 34th MIAC regular-season championship, edging the Johnnies 34-33 in the standings.

 

Next up on Saturday night -- a home semifinal playoff game against either Gustavus or Concordia.

"We didn't play well last Saturday, and our guys realize that," Boeser said. "I think it has kept us grounded as we prepare for the playoffs. Now it's one and done if you lose, so you have to leave it all out there each night."

Holy Zamboni, let's see what our guys can do for an encore.

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Gene's Blog is a sports column penned by UST sports information director Gene McGivern. Gene is working his 24th season at St. Thomas and 30th overall in the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. He blogs periodically on various topics regarding the Tommies, the MIAC and Division III sports.

If you have comments or questions, e-mail Gene at [email protected]