With another week in the books, the NCHA still looks to be in good shape when it comes to positioning for the NCAA tournament, as four NCHA teams still reside in the top eight of the PairWise Rankings (PWR). The week did see one big change as a NCHA team now claims the top spot – though it’s probably not the team anyone would have expected to be there. With another four point weekend and a win over highly-ranked St. Norbert, UW-Stout is now top dog in the national rankings. Despite the loss St. Norbert only drops one spot to #4 and is closely followed by UW-River Falls at #6 and UW-Superior at #8. This weekend’s games have the potential to shake things up however, as UW-Superior takes on both UW-Stout and UW-River Falls. At some level that potential will be realized, but the NCHA remains primed to put as many as three teams in the NCAA’s.
Led by MSOE at #20, the MCHA once again lands three teams in the PWR. Finlandia is right behind them at #21 and Lawrence checks in at #32.
As mentioned last week, these rankings are still incomplete as “record against ranked teams” is not included, but they still offer us the best estimations possible in terms of a possible NCAA tournament field.
Still a long way to go however, but expect the picture to clear itself up as the season winds down. When it does, keep checking here as this section will closely track NCAA possibilities as they relate to all teams in the NCHA.
This Week In The MCHA
As the grueling 20-game MCHA conference schedule wears on, four teams have set themselves apart in the conference standings. MSOE holds a two-point lead on second place Finlandia and is still in control of its own destiny. Lawrence and Marian sit a few games back but are only separated by one point for third place, but both are playing much better hockey over the past two months.
Perhaps the most intriguing story in the league right now is that of Lawrence. Since a surprising sweep of St. Olaf in early January, the Vikings have won eight of nine and currently hold a 10-8-1 overall record, reasonably improved from the 7-11 record they held at this point last season.
First year head coach Mike Szkodzinski is pleased with his teams play over their current winning streak, stating, “There is no doubt we have been playing very well. We played five games in eight days and were able to win them all, so that’s a huge boost for us.”
Lawrence has won their last four conference games but they have come against UM-Crookston and Northland, the bottom two teams in the league. From here on out however, they will be tested as they end the season with six games against the top teams in the league.
“We’ve improved in many areas,” Szkodzinski said. “But these next three weeks are going to be our toughest stretch of the season by far.”
The tough stretch begins tomorrow as Lawrence plays host to Finlandia in a series that features two possible candidates for MCHA Player of the Year. Lawrence is led by senior forward Joe Searl (16-10-26) who has flashed the ability to score in a variety of ways all while logging an inordinate amount of ice time. Included in Searl’s points are four game-winning goals, nine powerplay markers, and one shorthanded tally. Finlandia counters with an explosive top line led by junior forward Josh Paquette (13-19-32). Paquette is leading the Lions in scoring for the second straight season and recently notched his 100th career point.
With Paquette leading the way, the Lions have a reputation of being a run and gun team with a lot of talent up front, a style that makes the matchup with a blue-collar, stay-at-home team like Lawrence very interesting.
Szkodzinski is more than aware of the threat that Finlandia presents.
“Finlandia is an outstanding transition team,” he said. “They don’t stand around with the puck and when they get in the open with it they have the skill to put it away at anytime. What we need to do is stay within our systems and hopefully execute well enough to be extremely competitive with them.”
The defensive responsibilities for the Vikings will fall largely on senior goaltender Andrew Isaac (9-4-0, 2.73, .915) and a corps of defensemen led by junior Josh Peterson (3-8-11) and sophomore Mike Ackley (1-5-6).
Aside from the intriguing matchup of styles in this series, its result will loom large in terms of the final conference standings. With MSOE on the road at Northland, it is likely the Raiders will pick up four points, thereby putting pressure on Finlandia to do the same so as to remain a mere two points back in the conference race. Conversely, a four point weekend by Lawrence would put them within three points of second place with two weeks to go.
For now though it would be wise to follow the lead of Szkodzinski and his Vikings and not get too far ahead of ourselves.
“We have to go through some outstanding hockey teams coming up here. We are going to have to play as hard if not harder than we have been if we expect to have any success.”
This Week’s MCHA Schedule
Friday, Feb. 2
Finlandia @ Lawrence
Marian at UM-Crookston
MSOE @ Northland
Saturday, Feb. 3
Finlandia @ Lawrence
Marian @ UM-Crookston
MSOE @ Northland
This Week In the NCHA
It began with the season preview and has continued over the course of the season. With yet another mind-racking week of NCHA games upon us, the phrase “we might as well just flip coins” has once again found its way into the NCHA coach’s lexicon, and for good reason. Stout has still yet to lose a coin flip in league play this year and leads a group of five teams battling for playoff home ice, four of whom square off this weekend.
At heart, every team has a goal to win the league title. If they can’t do that they usually focus on finishing in the top half of the conference. Oddly, that’s not what anyone is talking about, as over the past two weeks most of the talk is of finishing in the top two, thereby securing home ice for the second round of the playoffs.
The comments did not seem significant at first, but after thinking about it there may be a very good reason that the coaches are placing such an emphasis on it. Logic suggests that the team hosting a semifinal game would have a leg up on making the NCHA finals, but why would making the finals be so important as to preferentially reference it over winning the conference playoffs?
I think I have it figured out.
As we all know by now the NCHA has four teams positioned to be in contention for an NCAA tournament berth, and the coaches know this too. Though it is mathematically possible to land all four in the NCAA tournament, it is highly unlikely that more than three will go and there is a chance it could be as few as two.
Based on this, the idea is that while no one will openly admit it none of them want to be in the fourth spot and get left out and. In their minds making it to the conference finals could very well be enough to escape that possibility, which is why so much emphasis is being placed on securing second round home ice.
So where does this leave us?
Quite frankly, it leaves us with a mess, but let’s take a gander at the five teams in contention, their remaining games, and examine who has the best shot at landing the conference semifinals in their own barn.
UW-Stout (1st place, 19 points)
Remaining games: St. Scholastica, @ UW-Superior, @ UW-River Falls, UW-River Falls
Outlook: The Blue Devils are in good position to win the conference outright, and great shape to finish in the top two. Though four difficult games lie ahead, two points will be enough to guarantee at least a tie for second. Helping the situation even more is that they own the head-to-head tiebreaker with St. Norbert and have already beaten Superior once. If they are able to score at least a point from Superior this weekend and two overall, they are a lock for at worst a second place finish.
UW-River Falls (2nd place, 15 points)
Remaining games: UW-Superior, St. Scholastica, UW-Stout, @ UW-Stout
Outlook: Here’s where things begin to get interesting. Six points will guarantee them at least a tie for second place. In the Falcons favor is that unlike the three teams behind them, they don’t need help from anyone else. Additionally, they get three of their final games at home where they are an impressive 9-1 this season. Working against them is that six points is easier said than done considering their schedule, which features teams with a combined record of 46-12-5. Still, bottom line for the Falcons is that they are still in control of their own destiny and could very well be playing Stout for the conference crown next weekend.
St. Norbert (3rd place – tied, 13 points)
Remaining games: @ UW-Eau Claire, @ UW-Stevens Point, Lake Forest, @ Lake Forest
Outlook: It looks like I was wrong when I picked these guys to win the league, but a second place finish is still a very legitimate possibility. The Green Knights have a very soft schedule to finish, playing opponents with a combined record of 16-40-7. At this stage in the season there is no excuse for St. Norbert not taking all eight points in their upcoming games, and when you look at the schedules of UW-River Falls and UW-Superior it becomes very easy to foresee the Green Knights ending up in second.
UW-Superior (3rd place – tied, 13 points)
Remaining games: @ UW-River Falls, UW-Stout, St. Scholastica, @ St. Scholastica
Outlook: The Yellowjackets are the guys currently on the hot seat. Out of the four NCHA teams highly ranked in the PWR they are the lowest, which means a strong finish will be essential. It doesn’t help that they finish with four difficult games while St. Norbert will likely take at least six points going down the stretch. The Yellowjackets are going to need some big wins to go along with stumbles from St. Norbert and UW-River Falls if they wish to get into the top two in the conference. Don’t count them out though as one only has to go back to last season to see that these guys have an established history of working late season magic.
St. Scholastica (5th place, 11 points)
Remaining games: @ UW-Stout, @ UW-River Falls, @ UW-Superior, UW-Superior
Outlook: With three of its final four games on the road, it’s probably asking too much of St. Scholastica to land in the top two, but they are certainly a player when it comes to opening round home ice. The Saints currently have a better road record than they do at home, they get four shots at the teams they are chasing, and have proven they are capable of beating them all. As mentioned, a top two finish is unlikely but home ice in the opening round is not, and it would be another fine achievement for a program that is constantly improving.
For now, that’s about where things stand. Stay tuned as next week it will be time to analyze any and all playoff scenarios, which oughta be a blast.
This Week’s NCHA Schedule
Friday, Feb. 2
St. Scholastica at UW-Stout
UW-Superior at UW-River Falls
Lake Forest at UW-Stevens Point
St. Norbert at UW-Eau Claire
Saturday, Feb. 3
Lake Forest at UW-Eau Claire
St. Scholastica at UW-River Falls
St. Norbert at UW-Stevens Point
UW-Stout at UW-Superior