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This Week in MCHA

College Hockey:
This Week In The NCHA and MCHA: Feb. 16, 2007

Well, a lot sure has happened since last week.

First off, the MCHA played itself out so all but two spots in the conference are locked up, even though one weekend of regular season play remains. Conveniently enough however, the two spots up for grabs are first and second. Even more convenient is that the two teams vying for those spots, MSOE and Finlandia, square off this weekend in a series that will determine the regular season MCHA Champion.

Secondly, even before the season began it was common perception the NCHA would go down to the final weekend of the season, and boy did it ever. The end result was a three way tie for first place among UW-River Falls, St. Norbert and UW-Stout, who all finished with 10-3-1 records in conference play. Though the regular conference championship will officially be shared among the three, UW-River Falls claimed the top playoff seed as a result of tiebreakers. Somewhat interestingly, though fully in-line with stated tiebreaker procedures, St. Norbert received the No. 2 seed over UW-Stout despite finishing the season 0-1-1 against the Blue Devils.

Finally, Manhattanville did indeed do its part to help out NCHA teams, beating and tying Neumann. Neumann’s 0-1-1 weekend has catapulted UW-Superior above them in the National PWR which bodes well for the NCHA in terms of placing a maximum amout of teams in the NCAA Tournament. As other leagues still have to finish up their regular seasons, I’m going to lay off any more NCAA talk this week. I will reopen the can of worms next week as the picture will be even more clear, especially considering the recent release of the NCAA Regional Rankings. It would be a fun endeavor to tackle again this week, but quite frankly, there are too many other important things going on in the MCHA and NCHA to even worry about it…for now.

This Week in the MCHA

Falling Into Place

As mentioned, last weekend’s results have locked teams into positions 3-6 as far as postseason seeding is concerned. Northland finishes in the six spot, while UM-Crookston is locked into the fifth. Lawrence failed to get a point against MSOE which when paired with Marian’s sweep of Northland cements the Vikings’ fourth place finish and lands the Sabres in third.

For All The Marbles

It is 327 miles almost due north from Milwaukee, Wis., to Hancock, Mich. The home of Finlandia is one of the northermost in Division III and is not the easiest road trip to make. Aside from having to face a formidable team on back-to-back nights, the ever-present threat of Lake Effect snow is more than enough to question even the most well laid out travel plans.

That’s the trip MSOE must make this weekend, and if they wish to claim their third consecutive MCHA regular season title they must earn one point while there. Just one.

With the Raiders holding a four-point cushion in the MCHA standings and only needing a tie, the pressure falls on the Lions. Two wins this weekend and they will have earned their first ever league championship – in only their third season of MCHA play. Anything else and they won’t.

They split the earlier season meetings with MSOE holding on for a 2-1 win in the Friday game despite being outshot 33-18, while Finlandia controlled all aspects of the Saturday meeting en route to a 6-1 win.

Based on their performance on the road, the Lions have to at least feel they have a shot this weekend, but MSOE has not suffered a sweep in conference play since Feb. 2004. In what has been a theme all season long in the MCHA, this weekend features yet another matchup of very even teams. Both are capable of piling up huge offensive numbers and both are led by a dominant first line of forwards. The Beaudry-Paquette-Sullivan line for Finlandia has amassed 103 points on the season, while MSOE’s top line of Hanberg-Soik-Swallow has rung up 98 points so far.

The series will also feature the deepest and most talented defensive units in the conference. In net Lukas Alberer (9-3-0, 2.32, .905) and Joe Juntilla (7-4-0, 3.08, .882) have split time for Finlandia and the Lions are confident in both. Meanwhile, Matt Burzon (13-2-2, 2.37, .914) has been MSOE’s go-to-guy in the pipes all season and will likely carry the load this weekend.

Not much else really needs to be said about these two, who are well on their way to establishing perhaps the MCHA’s most heated rivalry. If MSOE and Finlandia keep meeting in games as important as the two this weekend, rest assured it soon will be the leagues most heated rivalry.

This Week’s MCHA Schedule

Friday, Feb. 16
MSOE @ Finlandia
Marian @ Lawrence
UM-Crookston @ Northland

Saturday, Feb. 17
Finlandia @ MSOE
Lawrence @ Marian
UM-Crookston @ Northland

This Week in the NCHA

It took a a while to figure itself out, but when the NCHA regular season was finished, four teams had pulled away from the rest of the field. UW-River Falls, St. Norbert, UW-Stout and UW-Superior all finished at least six points clear of the bottom half of the conference, earning as a result the right to host an opening round playoff series.

The stratification with the league stretches beyond the standings however, as attitudes heading into this weekend clearly differ among the home and visiting teams, and probably for good reason.

On The Road Again

By now, the coaches at St. Scholastica, UW-Stevens Point, UW-Eau Claire and Lake Forest are more than aware they will not be receiving an at-large bid to to the NCAA Tournament. UW-Stevens Point and Lake Forest are coming off what they consider to be disappointing regular seasons, while St. Scholastica and UW-Eau Claire continued their runs at improvement but failed to make significant noise in the conference race. Regardless of each team’s specific circumstance, one thing is for sure: The pressure is off. All that matters now is they all have at least one more weekend of hockey to play, and they have nothing to lose.

This is perhaps best exemplified by UW-Stevens Point head coach Joe Baldarotta, who will lead his Pointers into a weekend series at UW-Stout.

wissp baldarotta This Week In The NCHA and MCHA: Feb. 16, 2007

BALDAROTTA

“We didn’t have a very good season, at least in terms of wins and losses,” he said. “The great thing is that none of that matters now. We’re just grateful to be playing another weekend. That’s the great thing about this tournament, right now we have just as much chance to go on to the next round as anyone else does. Of course we have the same chance of going home, too, as Stout is a very good team that tied for first in the league for a reason.”

The deck appears stacked against a team like UW-Stevens Point, as they were swept by the Blue Devils this season and must hit the road for a playoff series in a very difficult environment. Baldarotta insists none of that matters.

“I like our chances, I really do,” he said. “This group of guys are all on the same page, and we’ve been doing some good things lately. It doesn’t bother us going on the road one bit. Hey, we get to play another weekend, that’s all that matters, our season could be over but it’s not. At this point we’ll play anyone, anywhere, and be happy.

“Heck, we would play the Russians on rollerblades at the mall at this point if that’s what we needed to do,” he added.

St. Scholastica head coach Mark Wick had similar sentiments as the Saints prepare for what should be a hotly contested quarterfinal series with UW-Superior.

“That’s our hope,” he said. “That there is a little more pressure on the top four teams. They are the teams that are supposed to advance, they are expected to go through. Hopefully we can come out, focus on ourselves and play with a no-lose attitude. Hopefully then there is a little more pressure on Superior as they are the favored team.”

Though it speaks for itself that all four underdogs highly respect their opponents this weekend, the lower seeds are indeed capable of stealing a series or two on the road, and it just may work in their favor that they all will be hitting the ice with absolutely nothing to lose.

Home Sweet Home

With the lower seeded teams feeling loose and relatively confident, there is always the risk that a favored team will play too tight and that is nothing but a recipe for an upset. Adding to the pressure are the potential NCAA chances of all four top seeds, and although that remains almost a month away it has to be in the back of team’s minds. While that’s mostly speculation on my behalf one thing can be stated with certainty: None of the higher seeds are taking their opponents lightly.

At first it may seem like lip-service from the frontrunners, but the numbers this season back up the causes for concern. Things are even a little restless at No. 2 seed St. Norbert according to head coach Tim Coghlin, and rightfully so considering the way UW-Eau Claire dogged them in their regular season games.

“Right now we need a real competitive series, and Eau Claire is definitely going to give us that,” he said. “Eau Claire plays extremely hard all of the time, (coach) Luke Strand used to coach here so they know us really well. I think their top line of Vesel-Garrity-Stockdale is as good as any top line in the league, and was clearly the best line on the ice the last time we played them. That team as a whole will work you for sixty minutes.”

stnorb coghlin This Week In The NCHA and MCHA: Feb. 16, 2007

COGHLIN

Coghlin is making reference to a game that the Green Knights won 4-3 in overtime, although the Blugolds held a 3-1 lead with only seven minutes remaining.

“I think the final scores are one thing, but even with the 5-1 victory we had over them at home, these two teams played an awful lot of close minutes this season and that’s probably the important thing,” he continued.

Coghlin did downplay St. Norbert’s NCAA tournament chances, citing the fact it is a necessity to go one weekend at a time. UW-Stout head coach Terry Watkins also downplayed the matter, as his focus was clearly on this weekend’s games against UW-Stevens Point. Watkins should know better than anyone that upsets are possible as just last season his Blue Devils won their opening round series despite being a No. 7 seed.

“They are scary,” he said. “I think Point is a sleeping giant. They’ve got great forwards. What scares me so much is that we were on the other side of this last year so we know what can happen.”

Adding to his concern is the playoff experience of the Pointers under Baldarotta. Road teams have only ever won four NCHA quarterfinal series, but the Pointers have done it twice – once at UW-Stout in 2001.

Watkins continued, “Baldarotta has been there. He isn’t some first or second year coach; He has a lot of experience and his teams have a lot of experience when it comes to playoffs, and especially mini-game series.”

Even though UW-River Falls scored their first conference title in eleven years as well as the No. 1 seed for the postseason, head coach Steve Freeman is yet another who isn’t taking anything for granted. Though Lake Forest was winless in the NCHA this season, the Foresters played the Falcons extremely tough, scoring a loss and a tie but were only outscored by a 6-4 margin in their meetings.

“We were swept last season as the No. 2 seed so we know anything can happen,” Freeman said. “Lake Forest matches up pretty well with us, their top line is very good and their goaltending is excellent. Remember, all it takes is one win to force a mini-game and from there anything can happen. At this point, the x’s and o’s don’t change a whole lot, we just need to do what we’ve been doing and limit mistakes.”

It’s interesting that coaches of the top four seeds are the ones doling out all the legitimate praise for their competition this week, even moreso that all four of their teams have had fantastic seasons. With so much on the line and the conference deceptively tight top to bottom, upsets are certainly a possibility. In fact, a road team has won a playoff series in each of the past three seasons.

It will be fun to look back and see if one coach’s prophecy is correct, as he anonymously stated with confidence: “Someone is going to get upset this weekend.”

With all four home teams being forced to bear all the pressure and all four road teams playing with nothing to lose, it just may happen.

This Week’s Schedule (with playoff seeds noted)

Friday, Feb. 16
No. 8 Lake Forest @ No. 1 UW-River Falls
No. 7. UW-Eau Claire @ No. 2 St. Norbert
No. 6. UW-Stevens Point @ No. 3 UW-Stout
No. 5 St. Scholastica @ No. 4 UW-Superior

Saturday, Feb. 17
No. 8 Lake Forest @ No. 1 UW-River Falls
No. 7. UW-Eau Claire @ No. 2 St. Norbert
No. 6. UW-Stevens Point @ No. 3 UW-Stout
No. 5 St. Scholastica @ No. 4 UW-Superior

For The Love Of The Game

This weekend myself and five others loosely based out of Stevens Point, Wis., will participate in the 2nd Annual USA Hockey/Labatt Blue Adult Pond Hockey Championships in Eagle River, Wis. We also participated last season and would recommend the experience to anyone.

Four-on-four, no goalies, no offsides, no scoreboards, no officials and no boards – hockey in its purest form, and the manner in which most of hockey’s all-time greats learned to play the game. It is a game where creativity and flow are required to succeed and obstruction penalties are non-existent.

If you talk to many people in the Northeast or Upper Midwest who grew up in hockey-rich regions, you’ll learn that pond hockey is a dying game. In many areas rinks are no longer packed with youngsters like they used to be, and this decline in participation is troubling to those who grew up playing on the old pond. Here are the days of structured games and practices at an early age, $150 sticks, and parents who take things more seriously than their children do. Not that there is anything wrong with the growth of organized hockey as it only serves to create more players while exposing the sport to more people than ever, but it does seem something is lacking from days past where a day off from school consisted of a trip to the town park with a stick, a pair of skates, and maybe a sandwich to eat in the warming house.

For a team like ours, comprised of players who didn’t learn to play until they were in college, a weekend like this can be a special one. It’s a little refreshing to know that while college games are being played all over the place, 83 teams from all corners of the nation come to a place devoid of cell phone service to play some hockey out on a lake, and perhaps even relive a little of their childhoods while they are at it. Granted, as far as our team is concerned we probably won’t win a game, and in our skill division concepts such as creativity and flow are not the most commonly seen items, but you know what is? Passion. And in my world that goes a long way.


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