For the first time in over two months, Gustavus Adolphus lost a hockey game. The Gusties’ last loss came on Nov. 26 to Wisconsin-Stout in the Milwaukee School of Engineering Thanksgiving Tournament. Gustavus dropped a pair of games to Bethel last weekend and is now just four points ahead of the Royals for the top spot in the conference.
“Our biggest issue is, can we show up and play a full 60 minutes?” Gustavus coach Brett Petersen said. “And when we do that, usually things go pretty good and when we don’t it’s kind of a tough night. … So that’s our challenge here coming down the stretch is to see if we can put some games together back to back of consistent effort and then we’ll just see what happens.”
While the race for the top spot in the conference will undoubtedly be interesting, it might be more exciting to see the race for the final playoff spot. Three teams — Augsburg, St. John’s and St. Thomas — are tied for the final playoff spot with eight points each. The Tommies and Auggies have the luxury of playing two more games than the Johnnies down the stretch. St. John’s does have the opportunity to even things out with Augsburg this weekend as the two teams square off for a home-and-home series.
Still on top, but for how long?
After dropping a pair of games to Bethel, Gustavus still has a four-point lead over the Royals, but with the Gusties’ remaining schedule, a runaway league title doesn’t seem so sure anymore. Granted, the tree teams Gustavus has on the docket aren’t exactly stellar this season, St. Thomas, Augsburg and St. John’s won’t be easy wins either as those three teams are battling for the final playoff spot.
“I think we’re kind of right where we’ve always been, we’re trying to make the playoffs,” Petersen said. “We got off to a good start and if people would have said, ‘Through 10 games if you were 8-2 would you be happy?’ I would have said, ‘Yeah, I’d be thrilled.’ ”
As for the losses to the Royals, Petersen said his team played well and the games could have gone either way.
“We played pretty good, Bethel played good, it was two good games and I think in all honesty either one of them could have gone either way so it’s just the way hockey is.
But the losses haven’t changed the team’s focus according to Petersen. He’s said on multiple occasions that the only that matters is the number 20 — the number of points he feels his team needs to get into the playoffs.
“I’m a 20-point guy, if we can get 20 points we’re going to be in the playoffs,” he said. “One team from our league is going to go to the national tournament and that’s going to the winner our playoff and how you do in the regular season kind of helps your cause a little bit into the playoffs, but the key is you have to get in and to do that you need 20 points. That’s been our goal from day one and that won’t change here coming down the stretch.”
The stretch will by no means be easy. This weekend, the Gusties have a home-and-home series with the Tommies, who seem to be peaking at the right time. St. Thomas has won three of its last four games, and the two one-goal losses before that were to a pair of top-five teams (Wisconsin-River Falls and Wisconsin-Stout). Following the series with St. Thomas is a series with Augsburg and a series with St. John’s to wrap up the regular season.
“I think there’s tremendous parity in our league,” Petersen said. “If you looked at all the scores every weekend, 90 percent of the games are one-goal games. We’ve played 10 (conference) games this year. We’ve had two games that were not one-goal games and I expect the same thing this weekend. We’re going to battle, my hunch is in two, tough competitive games that’ll be decided by a goal at the most, and we’re going to see that next weekend against Augsburg and St. John’s and into the playoffs, that’s the way the whole year’s been and I expect that to continue through February and into March.”
In conference play, Gustavus has the best mark in one-goal contests with a 6-2 mark. Bethel is 3-0, St. Mary’s is 2-1, St. Olaf is 3-3, St. Thomas is 2-2, Hamline is 1-3, St. John’s is 1-4, Concordia is 0-3 and Augsburg has yet to play in a one-goal game.
Freshman forward Eric Bigham has played well all season, but especially as of late. Over the past four games three goals and six assists, including assists on both game-winning goals against St. Olaf two weekends ago. He’s the teams leading point scorer with nine goals and 13 assists this season.
“He’s had a really good second half, not that he was bad the first half,” Petersen said. “We’ve seen him take a nice step in his game after Christmas and anytime you can get that kind of production from a freshman … it just gives you a lot of extra boost and we certainly need that but he’s a great kid and I anticipate him having a good four-year career for us.”
Moving on up
Coming off the sweep of Gustavus, Bethel is just four points behind the Gusties for the conference lead. The Royals have a favorable schedule the next few weeks with series against Concordia and Hamline. While Bethel may be the huge favorite against the two worst teams in the conference statistically, coach Pete Aus said his team better not take anyone for granted.
“You try to make sure that the players … don’t take somebody for granted,” he said. “We got beat by Hamline last year toward the end of the year and we don’t want to let that happen again. But we just have to take it a game at a time and we have to win Friday night and try to come back on Saturday and do it again — same thing with Hamline. If you start looking ahead, and it’s easy to do, you could take a look here and say, ‘Boy we’ve got a great opportunity,’ but it’s only going to happen if we work hard and play together.”
Player of the Week
Bethel freshman netminder Aaron Damjanovich earned MIAC Player of the Week honors for his performance against Gustavus Adolphus last weekend. Damjanovich stopped 31 shots in Friday’s 4-3 win and another 17 in Saturday’s 3-2 victory. They were the Gusties first two conference losses of the season and cut their lead over the Royals to four points. Damjanovich is leading the MIAC with a 1.58 goals against average in conference play and .943 save percentage. He’s 3-1-1 in league play.
“Well he’s been real consistent,” Aus said. “He makes the saves that he should and then he makes some big saves. And that’s what you need, you have to have a guy that can make some of those saves that you might not always get and those are the kind that win games.”