When Western Washington University's men's hockey team ended its season last year, it was on top. The Vikings won the Collegiate Ice Hockey Association championship and put together the most impressive season in WWU hockey history.
Now they have a chance to top that.
The Vikings boast an undefeated 18-0-0 record going into their return to the CIHA National Championship from April 3-5, in Newark, Ohio. WWU goalie Tyler Zetting called last season's title run the No. 1 highlight of his career, but thinks this season has a good chance to take over the top spot.
"It's hard to surpass last year, but this year we've done even better," Zetting said in a phone interview. "As the team plays better, it reflects on my stats; I think I've improved from last year. A lot of that is a testament to our defense."
To say that last season's national title was the best moment in Zetting's hockey career is quite a statement, considering his accomplishments. A 23-year-old senior from Palmdale, Calif., Zetting has gone skate-to-skate with some current NHL players in his young hockey career.
While playing in the British Columbia Hockey League for the Burnaby Express, Zetting played against a handful of current professional hockey players, the most notable being Kyle Turris of the Ottawa Senators. Turris was just named the first star of the week by the NHL after leading all players with seven points during the last week.
Zetting also played for the Okotoks Oilers in the Alberta Junior Hockey League. The experience of eating, sleeping and living to play hockey taught Zetting how much dedication it takes to be successful in life.
"I had to learn to make hockey my No. 1 priority," he said. "It's really about how much time and effort you put in to see results. That carried over to college where I'm juggling so many more things."
Zetting eventually decided he wanted to return to the Bellingham area for college, where his family had moved when he was in middle school. He joined the WWU hockey team when he enrolled at WWU, bringing the Vikings and coach John Dougan a wealth of knowledge and experience.
"He's a top-level goalie. You're very lucky to get a goalie like him at this level," Dougan said in a phone interview.
Dougan thinks Zetting's excellence in the net is what gives the Vikings their confidence. With an experienced and elite netminder, the team can afford a couple of mistakes here and there, which will be key against the top teams in the league at the national championship.
"He's probably going to have to play like he did last year for us to win," Dougan said. "Usually it comes down to which goalie is the best when the teams are this close."
Zetting's most important skill as a goalie may be his ability to recover. He never gives up on a play, even when he gets caught out of position, Dougan said.
"He makes the saves that make you shake your head," Dougan added. "Sometimes I go, 'I don't know how he caught that.' Those are the saves you need."
On top of his prolific goaltending, which earned Zetting All-American honors the past two seasons, he was also named an Academic All-American last season. Defenseman and captain Brett Tobin will also need to be on top of his game during the championship, Dougan said. Tobin, also an All-American last season, brings composure and leadership to the Vikings.
"Billy Holbrook, a freshman, has stepped up and been our best forward this year," Dougan added. "Those are the guys who have to lead us to give us a chance to win."
Dougan also praised the depth of his team. He has four lines of forwards this season, each one as strong as the next, he said. That doesn't mean the Vikings will have an easy path to a repeat, though.
"The biggest difference (from last season) is we didn't play as tough of a schedule," Dougan said. "We were a little more prepared last year. This year we had some trouble getting teams to play us."
WWU will begin the tournament-style championship at 3 p.m. Thursday, April 3, against a team to be determined due to the Vikings earning a first-round bye. WWU is the only returning team from last season's championship, but it does own a victory over one of the schools in the tournament, University of California-San Deigo.
"We'll see a lot of intensity from (UCSD)," Zetting said. "There was a lot of rough stuff and bad blood the first time we played. I don't think we were even allowed to shake hands after the game."
The other schools may hail from areas better known for hockey than Bellingham, such as Buffalo, N.Y. and Pittsburgh, Pa., but the Vikings know what to expect after last year's title run.
"Last year the teams were big and strong. This year with the layoff (due to WWU's recent spring break) we're going to have to keep our composure, make the right play and keep up with the speed," Dougan said.
To keep up with the Vikings' quest for a second-consecutive national title, visit wwu.edu/hockey or cihahockey.com.
Reach Alex Peterson at 360-715-2285 or firstname.lastname@example.org.