ALBERT LEA, Minn. – Hoisting the Philip E. Schroeder Memorial Trophy, the Waldorf College hockey team celebrated after capturing the Northern Collegiate Hockey League (NCHL) Tournament championship.
The Warriors (23-8-3), ranked No. 12 in the latest American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) Division II Central Region poll, won the conference's inaugural tournament with a 3-1 victory over No. 15 Robert Morris University (18-15) in Sunday's title game.
"To win it on home ice in the first year of the conference, it's a very good feeling and accomplishing another goal we set out to do this year," Waldorf coach Brett Shelanski said.
The second-seeded Eagles, who split the regular-season series with the Warriors, got on the scoreboard with less than four minutes remaining in the second period. Michael Melka converted on a power play, slipping the puck off the near post and crossbar before it eventually crossed the goal line.
"Five-on-five, we felt it was our game," said Shelanski, who was named the NCHL Coach of the Year. "We felt like we controlled play, especially territorially."
Clinging to a one-goal lead after two periods, Waldorf simply stayed the course and looked to maintain the defensive edge it displayed from the first drop of the puck.
"We tried to continue to attack," Shelanski said. "That was our message between periods was don't change what we're doing. It was a message of staying with the plan, what got us our lead and sticking with the process."
Hard-hitting action filled the third period. The Eagles had a 5-on-3 power play two minutes into the period, but couldn't convert and a penalty of their own derailed the advantage.
Kaake delivered the final dagger for the Warriors, burying the puck in the net off an assist from Savelyev with 1 minute, 26 seconds to play.
"He stepped up at the right moment," Shelanski said. "He had a great game all the way around."
Fleming blocked a shot with less than a minute to play, helping the Warriors seal the win and their first-ever conference tournament crown in front of a large and energized crowd at Albert Lea City Arena.
"That was how the guys played the whole game," Shelanski said. "That was what it took. They were all behind each other and they all trusted each other. Everybody left it all out there and that's what it takes."
Kaake, a forward from Maple Creek, Saskatchewan, was named the NCHL Tournament's Most Valuable Player with three goals, one assist and four total points in two games. He leads Waldorf with 23 goals, 22 assists and 44 points on the season.
"He's really grown as a leader," Shelanski said. "He sets an example that we follow and he gets guys on board. That's what a leader does."
Nicholas Carroll fended off nearly everything Robert Morris fired in his direction. The sophomore goaltender from Litchfield Park, Ariz. collected 33 saves in the win.
Carroll answered the call for Waldorf when fellow goalie Ronald Paulson, the NCHL Player and Rookie of the Year, went down with an injury at the end of the regular season.
"The whole year, it's been a next-man-up mentality for every position," Shelanski said. "The guys have so much belief and so much faith and trust in each other. Nicholas is no different. When he has gotten a chance to play, he's played very, very well for us."
Despite appearing in just seven regular-season contests, Carroll was ready to roll in the tournament. He recorded 26 saves in a 7-0 win over Michigan Technological University (7-10) during Saturday's semifinal and finished the tournament with 59 saves in 120 minutes. His coaches and teammates trusted him every step of the way.
"You saw why," Shelanski said. "He made some huge saves for us and gave us a lot of confidence. I can't say enough for how hard he's worked in practice all year."
Carroll was one of five Waldorf players selected to the all-tournament team, joining freshman Jeffrey Bartel, Savelyev, Weber and Kaake.
A challenge was exactly what the Warriors expected. They topped the Eagles 3-1 on Nov. 22 at Bensenville, Ill. before falling in a 2-1 loss the following night. The two teams shared the NCHL regular-season title with 8-4 league records.
"It's a great conference and we saw that all year with how teams battled," Shelanski said. "Everybody could beat anybody on any given night and that's what happened. We knew this thing wasn't going to be easy."
Winning the conference championship was on Waldorf's agenda all season. Now, the Warriors wait for the news on whether they'll qualify for the ACHA Division II Central Regional for the second straight year.
"We just hope for the best," Shelanski said. "We hope our resume speaks for itself."