Big Sweep for Auggies
Coming off its first sweep of St. John’s since the 1998-1999 season, Augsburg is in prime position to reach the MIAC playoffs for the first time since the 2002-2003 season. With just two wins in eight conference games, but enough ties to start a kissing booth with their sisters, the Auggies really got a boost with their 4-3 overtime win Friday and their 5-2 victory Saturday.
“It was obviously important for us from a confidence standpoint to beat a quality team like St. John’s twice, especially after coming off our last conference weekend where we got swept by St. Thomas which was the first time we had been swept since the second week of the season,” coach Chris Brown said.
“The biggest thing was it was good to see that we had the confidence to come back from a 3-1 deficit in the third period Friday night and then win in overtime cause I thought that momentum really did carry over to Saturday’s game and it played it out … so that was the key to the weekend.”
Trailing 3-1 in the third period, Augsburg climbed back into the game thanks to the play of senior captain Aaron Johnson. Johnson, who is tied for sixth in points with 13 in conference play, scored an unassisted goal five minutes into the final frame, then assisted the game-tying goal just three minutes later. On his goal, he bet a defenseman on the right side of the ice, then worked his way across to the left side and snuck the shot in along the far post. There ended up being a pileup near the goal and Johnson limped off the ice with a huge thigh contusion according to Brown, but played through the pain to help his team get the win. Senior forward Greg May became the hero in overtime when he redirected sophomore defenseman Patrick Fogerty’s shot to give the Auggies a much-needed two points.
“(Johnson) scored the huge goal,” Brown said. “He scored the goal to make it 3-2 and I think you could just see everybody stand up on the bench and they had more jump in their step. That was Aaron leading the way with a big, big goal and then the whole rest of the way he was a factor but I just thought that goal was big to turn the tide of the game.”
Augsburg never trailed Saturday as senior forward Critter Nagurski picked up the second hat trick of his collegiate career in the win. Sophomore goaltender Andy Kent rebounded from a pair of poor performances against St. Thomas the week before by making 19 saves Friday and another 20 on Saturday to pick up pair of wins. Kent is fifth in the league in both goals against average (2.70) and save percentage (.902).
With just six games remaining, the Auggies are tied for fourth in the MIAC with 12 points and trail conference-leading Gustavus by four points and will take on the Gusties this weekend in a home-and-home series. Augsburg has split the season series with Gusatvus in each of the past two years but this season, the Gusties are coming in on a four-game losing skid.
“Anybody that wins eight games in our league in a row, especially six one-goal games, is a heck of a team,” Brown said. “To see them lose four in a row is a bit surprising because I still think they’re a top team.”
The Auggies should be in good shape after their series with Gustavus as they take on the two cellar-dwellers of the conference — Concordia and Hamline. Still, Concordia and Hamline have snuck up on a few teams this season and Augsburg certainly doesn’t want to fall victim to either team in the final weeks of the season.
“Let’s say we go out and things down go well, well then we look on the bright side and say we’ve got four games left we can pick up some points and make that up,” Brown said. “Any time you’re playing a first-place team it’s so hard to look to the next week on … our message to them has been all week actually to not even focus on this series. We said all week focus on Friday. That’s been our motto this whole week, focus on Friday because nothing matters if we don’t play our best game on Friday, none of that other stuff even matters.”
On the Outside Looking in
It’s been three years since St. Mary’s has made the MIAC playoffs and this year, and right now, the Cardinals are on the outside looking in this season. St. Mary’s is in sixth place in the conference with nine points, three points behind both Augsburg in St. Thomas for the final playoff spot.
“We’ve got a shot at it, that’s the nice thing,” coach Don Olson said. “And in a sense we control our own destiny … we probably have to win four games to get to where we want to be to make the playoffs.”
The Cardinals’ playoff chances took a big hit last weekend in their split with Hamline. St. Mary’s escaped Friday with a 5-4 overtime win in a back and forth contest. Mike Christensen’s goal with under five minutes to play in regulation sent the game into overtime where Matt Staehely scored the game-winner a little over a minute into the extra period.
But the momentum from Friday’s win didn’t carry over into Saturday as Hamline jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first period, then fought off the Cardinals’ comeback with two unanswered goals in the third period. Dustin Fulton and Joe Long each had a pair of goals for the Pipers in the win. A win Saturday would have pulled St. Mary’s within one point of the final playoff spot heading into their brutal final stretch.
“Maybe in the back of our mind our hope was those would be four points that we could win,” Olson said.
“It’s one of those things where yeah, you’d like to have those two points back or you’d like to have one back where you lost in overtime to Gustavus,” Olson said. “I guess the biggest thing is we have to not look back and just look forward and say, ‘OK we still have control of these next six games. We have a say in it and let’s make sure we put our best effort forward.’ ”
The Cardinals’ remaining six games are against three teams in the top five in the MIAC. This weekend, St. Mary’s does battle with St. Olaf (third in the conference with 14 points), next weekend the Cardinals square off against Bethel (second in the conference with 15 points) and in the final weekend of the regular season St. Mary’s takes on St. Thomas (tied for fourth in the conference with 12 points). Last season, the Cardinals were 2-0-0 against the Olies, 1-1-0 against the Royals and 0-2-0 against the Tommies, but those were a pair of one-goal losses to begin conference play.
“Very honestly I’m going into these last three weeks really realizing from a practical standpoint we’ve got a tough road but I feel good about it,” Olson said. “I’m excited for us to play, I’m excited for us to see if we have improved to the point where we can play with these top three teams and have success.
“It’s a tough road. We’ve got St. Olaf, who’s playing well, and Bethel and St. Thomas who are going to probably be towards the top but we feel like we’ve been improving and we’re getting to the point where, we feel like we can compete against anybody right now at this stage of the season.”
It looks like St. Olaf is the team St. Mary’s has the best chance of catching for a playoff spot. The other two options are Augsburg and St. Thomas, but both of those teams have favorable schedules and the Tommies are playing especially well as of late.
Yes the Cardinals are trailing the Olies by five points, but St. Olaf only has four games left, and after taking on St. Mary’s this weekend, the Olies take on Bethel to end the regular season. So a sweep of the St. Olaf would put the Cardinals in the driver’s seat.
“I think is much as anything, it’s a matter of — obviously if we can get a split or we get a sweep that not only gives us four points if we get the sweep — but it also gets us a lot of confidence and momentum,” Olson said.
“I think as much as anything it’s the confidence issue,” he said. “Obviously if we get swept that puts a ton of pressure on us and it also affects our confidence so being able to play head to head with St. Olaf right now and hopefully have a successful weekend obviously gives us points but gives us momentum and confidence.”
Like St. Mary’s, St. Olaf let an opportunity slip away against Hamline two weekends ago as the Olies split with the Pipers, falling 4-3 on Feb. 2 but bouncing back to win 3-1 on Feb. 3. St. Olaf blew a commanding 3-1 lead in the loss as Hamline scored three unanswered goals in the final two periods, including the game-winning power-play goal with less than two minutes remaining in the game. Fortunately for the Olies, there was no hangover effect the following night as they never trailed and picked up the crucial two points.
It’s hard to tell where St. Olaf is at right now because the Olies are such a streaky team. After opening the season with five straight losses, St Olaf went undefeated in its next fives games (3-0-2) before going 1-4-0 in five games in early January, which included getting swept by Lawrence of the MCHA. The Olies then opened the second half of the conference season with a pair of one-goal losses to Gustavus, but both coaches said those games could have gone either way. After the sweep at the hands of the Gusties, St. Olaf scraped out a pair of one-goal victories over cellar-dwellar Conordia — which prior to that game had lost by at least three goals in seven of its nine losses.
Player of the Week
St. Thomas senior forward Kevin Rollwagen had an impressive weekend performance in his team’s 6-5, 6-0 sweep of MIAC-leading Gustavus Adolphus. Rollwagen notched eight points in the two-game set. Rollwagen scored one goal and added four assists in Friday’s 6-5 win and had two short-handed goals and an assist in Saturday’s 6-0 romp. Rollwagen’s four short-handed goals this season has him tied for the Division III lead in that category. He has six in his career. Rollwagen has scored a point in 10 of his last 11 games and has helped the Tommies win five of their last six contests to move above .500 (10-9-0) for the first time since Nov. 17 when they were 3-2-0.