By Kim Wrona
2/17/15 – DeKalb, IL | The DIII Huskies had one goal in mind going into the weekend of February 13: to win a championship.
The team traveled down to Owens Center in Peoria on Friday morning before they took on Wheaton College in the afternoon for the first round of the MACHA Bronze playoffs.
The Huskies didn’t wait to get all of their cylinders firing as they scored eight goals in the opening period and had an 8-1 lead going into the middle frame. NIU received tallies from senior forward and team captain Jc Weems, junior forward Tyler Hilton, sophomore forwards Jeremy Bilecki (twice) and Ryan Saunders and freshman forwards Eric Brennan (twice) and Trevor Bondarowicz; Bilecki recorded a point on the first five goals of the contest (2G, 3A).
The Huskies tacked on four more goals throughout the rest of the game from senior forward Brian Staffeldt, junior forward Aaron Lewis, Hilton and Saunders to take a 12-1 victory over Wheaton. With the win, the Huskies advanced to the championship game on February 14.
“We’ve played [Wheaton] four times prior to this playoff game and we knew what we had to do: get shots on the net,” Saunders said. “We knew their goalie pretty well so we just wanted to get shots on the net, take care of business, play our full 60 minute game and just play it play by play. We played a full 60 minute game and we came out with a W.”
“Friday’s game was good,” head coach Nick Madonia said. “We came out and accomplished everything we wanted to do. We came out strong. After the first period, it was 8-1, so, we were able to rest some of our key guys the rest of the game, just so everyone had legs for Saturday since it was going to be a big game.”
“It was good momentum for Saturday,” sophomore defenseman Bryan Peterson said. “We really needed it.”
The Huskies now only had Robert Morris University – Black, their biggest rival, in between themselves and reaching their ultimate goal.
The Huskies were on a mission and were determined to reach their goal as they came flying out of the gate and scored two quick goals, courtesy of Saunders and Peterson.
RMU was able to get one back, but the Huskies responded before the period ended with a marker from Lewis.
The Huskies were able to add an insurance tally in the third period as junior forward Mike Holum stood in front of the net and tipped in a Peterson shot from the point to make it 4-1 NIU. With the clock ticking down, RMU was shorthanded with 4:36 left in regulation and was able to score a goal to cut the deficit to two.
The chippiness of the game increased in the last four and a half minutes as the Eagles tried to desperately claw their way back to tie the game, but the Huskies stayed strong and were able to hold on for the 4-2 victory, making them MACHA Bronze champions.
“Saturday’s game was the best game we’ve played,” Madonia said. “Our entire game plan went as close to perfect in a hockey game as you can go. Everything from our breakouts being near perfect, everything coming up the boards and staying away from the middle, avoiding turnovers, hard on backchecks, good zone pressure and, most importantly, we stayed disciplined. There were a couple points in the game where things could have gotten out of hand, but our players skated right away from it. We were only shorthanded once or twice, which in a game like that is huge because we had a couple big five minute power plays. To be able to execute a game plan like that is everything you want in a big game like that.”
“Saturday’s game was really intense,” Saunders said. “We knew RMU Black was going to probably be one of the toughest teams to beat for sure. We just came out and played our game. We buried two goals on them first and kind of got into their heads a little bit. Then they switched goalies. Then we did the little things to win. There’s nothing better than [a championship].”
“We played an unreal game, probably one of the better games we’ve played all year,” sophomore goaltender JoJo Durrbeck said. “It started out from defense to offense. We came out with a bang, scored a couple quick goals. Then they got a quick one there and then we got one back before the end of the period. So, I think we were just really right there and we wanted to beat them. … It just felt unreal to beat this team and beat them in that kind of a way. It wasn’t a big butt-whoopin’, but we knew that the way we played [was] just a really strong, hard-fought game.”
The Huskies made sure they were all ready to play on Saturday.
“Saturday’s game was pretty unreal,” Peterson said. “The whole team pretty much hit their secret gear and everybody was on their best game. All the way around, everybody tightened up and knew what to do. For the first time all year, we didn’t panic after they scored a goal. We actually scored the next one. [The championship] was pretty fun though. It’s the best experience probably of playing hockey.”
“We were all feeling good before the game,” Durrbeck, who made 17 saves in the victory, said. “Pre-game was really good. … We were all in the right mindset. You could just tell, right when we stepped on the ice for that warm-up, that we were all just ready to go. It really felt like a championship game. We were treating it as the most important game of our year. We really wanted to show this Robert Morris team that we’ve struggled with all year that we could beat them and beat them on the biggest stage that we’ve had all year.”
For Madonia, the day was an extremely special one.
“The celebration on the ice was something I had never been a part of,” the first year head coach said. “As a player, I never got to play for anything big like this. I told some of the guys that this is the first time the last game of the season for me has really meant anything. To be able to share it with such a great group of guys… everyone in that locker room is just a pleasure to coach. It really meant something. Everyone was extremely excited and it was a great feeling.”
Another special accolade for the Huskies that came out of that game was that they had the most valuable player of the playoffs on their roster.
Peterson was named the MVP; it’s an honor the defenseman feels anyone on his squad was worthy of having bestowed upon them.
“I don’t know if I played better than anybody else there,” Peterson said. “I think everybody else pretty much played their best. I’m thankful for it, but I don’t know if I should have got it.”
His coach knows that the right choice was made.
“Quick shoutout to Bryan Peterson, who played probably the best game I’ve seen a defenseman play in-person,” Madonia said. “He had a huge goal, huge assist. He blocked at least five or six shots. He got beaten up pretty bad and was playing through a lot of pain and he probably played a touch over 30 minutes on the game. He played every other shift the entire game. Sometimes he had to be double-shifted and he played an amazing game. So, congratulations to him. He earned and deserved that MVP.”
With the initial celebration over, the focus for the coaching staff turns to next season as the team looks to repeat as champions.
“I can’t wait to see what’s in store for this team for next season because we set the bar pretty high for [ourselves],” Madonia said. “I know everyone is going to come back; we’re only losing a couple of players [senior forwards Kyle Cornier and Brian Staffeldt and senior goaltender Jessica Stubitsch]. So everyone’s going to come back just ready to build off of this for next year.”“