With three weeks left in the MIAC schedule the title race has three teams battling for the driver’s seat, and five teams within five points of the final playoff spot. Concordia and Bethel are in the front seat and control their own destiny. St. Thomas is trying to sneak over from the back, and St. John’s and Augsburg are hanging on by the back bumper.
Last weekend brought the pack closer together as Concordia split with St. John’s, while Bethel, St. Thomas and Augsburg swept their series. The biggest impact was made on the Minnesota-North Dakota border, where St. John’s went into Concordia’s home rink and almost swept itself back into the race for first place.
The Cobbers, after threatening to run away and hide in the early weeks, have split their last three series and find themselves tied with Bethel as St. Thomas nips their heels. Three of the bottom four teams were swept, yet still cling to the chance of making the playoffs.
As the race enters another pivotal weekend, several teams have make-or-break series. St. Mary’s hangs on to slim playoff hopes, and has a huge series with Augsburg. St. Olaf, like St. Mary’s, is dangling by a thread and has to play third place St. Thomas in a series that will decide if the Oles will break out the bats or settle in for a run at the playoffs.
Augsburg stuck to the same script in its weekend sweep of Hamline; score in bunches early and then hang on for dear life. On Friday night the Auggies jumped to a 7-2 lead and then settled for a 7-5 victory. On Saturday the Auggies scored five straight goals to open the game, then battened down the hatches to stave of the Piper storm and win 6-4. Tim Olsen scored two goals and added an assist in the first game, while five different Augsburg players scored to start the second game. Brad Holzinger added a second to provide all the insurance the Auggies would need. The Auggies play an important series this weekend with St. Mary’s before finishing with St. Olaf and Bethel.
Like a piece of gum you can’t shake off your shoe, Bethel refuses to let go of its hold at the top of the MIAC. After starting the MIAC season 3-3, including being swept at conference co-leader Concordia, the Royals have responded with a six-game unbeaten string. This stretch leaves them in a first-place tie, and puts them in a position to win the MIAC championship, or at least make the playoffs for the first time ever. Last weekend Bethel swept St. Olaf 6-2 and 5-4. In the first game Bethel was down 2-1 late in the second period before rattling off five straight goals. Chad Anderson and Chris Carroll had two goals apiece. In the series finale the two teams were deadlocked at 4-4 after two periods before Mike Marshall scored the game-winner at 15:24 of the decisive third period. The Royals have been sparked by the play of goaltender Steve Witkowski, who has won five out of the last six games since taking over the starting spot on a full-time basis. The Royals take a break from MIAC play and host Lawrence on Saturday. Their final two MIAC series are against St. Thomas and Augsburg.
A funny thing happened on Concordia’s way to a wire-to-wire championship — the rest of the league found a higher gear. The Cobbers, who have been three games in front of the pack since early December, suddenly find themselves tied in the standings and in the middle of a title race. This storyline is playing out due to three consecutive split series. The latest stumble was against St. John’s, where Concordia lost the first game 3-2 and needed third period heroics in the second game to win 4-2. Concordia has been led all season by All-American goalie Bryan Howard, and the series against the Johnnies played out the same. Concordia struggled on Friday night, but was kept close by Howard’s steady influence and almost scored the tying goal late in the game. On Saturday, Concordia scored two goals in the third period to pull away from St. John’s. The two teams were tied after two periods before the Cobbers were able to pull away, and remain atop the MIAC. Jon Tranby scored the ga me-winner at 2:53 of the third period, and St. John’s would have no answer. Howard had 25 saves on the afternoon and upped his league leading win total to eight. The two teams combined for 29 penalties and 82 penalty minutes. Concordia has the easiest schedule left among the top teams, as they have two series left, both at home and against the bottom two teams in the conference; Gustavus and Hamline.
Gustavus was the only team idle in MIAC play last weekend. They used the gap to play a tough home series against MCHA leader UM-Crookston. After opening the 2001 calendar year by taking three out of four points from Augsburg and being swept St. John’s, the Gusties were looking for consistency, but failed to find the answer. On Friday Gustavus scored first, but then collapsed on defense, and gave up four straight goals to lose 4-1. On Saturday Gustavus took control early, and put the game out of reach by scoring five straight goals. Senior defensemen Ben Puder was the unlikely offensive hero as he scored two of the first three goals. The Gusties played all four goaltenders in the series. First-year goalie Dan Melde held the statistical edge among the four, as he earned the win on Saturday and stopped all seven shots he faced. Gustavus travels to Concordia for a spoiler series this weekend before finishing the season with Hamline and St. Mary’s.
Two five-goal periods spelled doom for Hamline in its series against Augsburg. In two of the six periods over the weekend the Pipers allowed 10 goals, while in the other four periods they allowed just three. On Friday, a 7-5 loss, the second period was the culprit and in Saturday’s 6-4 loss the first period sealed the Pipers fate. The shot count told a similar story as the Pipers were outshot 34-16 in the two decisive periods, and held the advantage in the other four 57-40. Troy Urdahl scored three goals on the weekend. Despite their 2-8 mark in conference, Hamline has the third best overall record at 9-10. Hamline plays a home-and-home series with St. John’s before finishing with Gustavus and Concordia.
So close and yet so far. St. John’s was 20 minutes away from sweeping league-leading Concordia and busting the league wide open, but had to settle for a split and remain battling for the fourth playoff spot. In the first game the Johnnies, behind back-up goalie Adam Laaksonen stifled Concordia’s attack, and scored twice in 1:27 in the third period to take a decisive 3-2 victory. John Konrad and Shane Taylor made the most of a defensive lapse, and gave the Johnnies the lead they would not relinquish. On Saturday the teams were tied at two after two periods. St. John’s came out flying in the third period only to be derailed by two penalties right before each of Concordia’s goals. The Cobbers first goal of the period came 13 seconds after St. John’s had killed off a power play. The second goal came six seconds after the St. John’s penalty kill unit had done their job. St. John’s had several chances to score after the final goal at 8:32, but each time they were denied by Concordia goaltender Bryan Howard. St. John’s has a must-win series against Hamline.
After free-falling down the MIAC standings, St. Mary’s still clings to playoff hopes. The Cardinals have not won a league game since they beat Hamline November 11, but have three series remaining, two against other playoff contenders, and could still steal the fourth playoff spot. St. Mary’s was swept by third-place St. Thomas last weekend. On Friday they allowed the Tommies to score four goals before they found their legs and played even the rest of the game. The four first period goals proved to be the difference in the 8-4 loss. Ryan Stinson had two goals in the losing effort. The two teams combined for 85 shots in an offensive explosion. The second game found St. Mary’s tied after one period, but then the Tommies scored three unanswered goals, two in the second period and the third nine minutes into the third, to take a commanding 4-1 advantage. Matt Hangge got St. Mary’s within two, but St. Thomas shut the door and scored one final goal to push the final margin to 5-2. Dan Byr on took the loss in goal for the Cardinals, despite stopping 29 of the Tommies’ 34 shots on goal. St. Mary’s plays Augsburg this weekend and then St. John’s, before finishing with Gustavus.
Close only counts in horseshoes, etc. Don’t tell that to St. Olaf, which took MIAC co-leaders Bethel to the wire in both their weekend losses. In both games St. Olaf was tied, or in the lead, late in the second period, and both times they came away with a case of the what-ifs. In the Friday game, St. Olaf and Bethel were battling to a 2-2 tie with 20 seconds left in the second period when Bethel scored the decisive goal. The Oles couldn’t recover and fell off 5-2. ‘What if’ — what if Bethel didn’t score just before the end of the period and the game was tied in the third. On Saturday St. Olaf stood on familiar ground, tied late in the second period. This time they stayed even until late in the third period when Bethel broke through on the power play. ‘What if’ number two — what if St. Olaf didn’t take three consecutive penalties in the third period and have their penalty kill unit allow a goal on the final power play. Six different players scored in the series with Justin Simison tallying three points to lead the Oles. St. Olaf takes on the hottest team in the MIAC, St. Thomas for a home-and-home series.
Don’t look now, but they’re back. Like Jason rising from the dead, St. Thomas has dusted itself off and is steamrolling towards the top of the MIAC. The Tommies have won five straight, and are tucked right behind co-leaders Concordia and Bethel. The difference has been a Steve Aronson-like performance from Tommie junior forward Tony Lawrence. Lawrence has a torrid 10 goals in the last five games. In the series against St. Mary’s, Lawrence had four goals and an assist on Friday and two goals on Saturday. He is turning St. Thomas into title contenders for the fourth straight season. In the first game he pulled the trifecta by scoring on the power play, at even strength and shorthanded. This offensive output helped the Tommies to take a 4-0 lead after the first period and coast to a 8-4 victory. On Saturday, with the game in the balance and St. Mary’s starting to press the attack, Lawrence reeled off two straight goals and put the game out of reach at! 5-2. Two games, six goals, one assist and an awfully sore back. Another reason for the success is the improving play of goaltender Brad Moore. In the past five games he has a goals against of 2.40. St. Thomas has two series left, this weekend against St. Olaf and a February 9 and 10 showdown with Bethel.
Series of the Week: Augsburg vs. St. Mary’s
Augsburg is tied with St. John’s for the fourth and final playoff spot. St. Mary’s is four points behind, and desperately clinging to playoff aspirations. The Auggies have won three of four league games, while the Cardinals haven’t won in the league since November 11. Last year the teams were in a similar spot and Augsburg swept St. Mary’s, 10-1 and 4-2. The sweep catapulted Augsburg towards a second-place finish, while St. Mary’s slid all the way down to seventh place.