Playoff Picture Developing
Barring some cataclysmic incident, the five teams that have qualified for the conference playoffs and will vie for the MIAC’s one NCAA tournament berth are set. Bethel, Gustavus Adolphus and St. Olaf have all mathematically clinched a spot so they are in for sure. I don’t think I’m going out on too much of a limb by saying St. Thomas and Augsburg are considering their seven, and five-point cushions on St. Mary’s, respectively.
Any Chance in the Tourney?
The NCAA came out with its regional rankings Feb. 13 and only one MIAC team made the list — Bethel — sixth out of seven teams. Covering the MIAC hasn’t blinded me to the reality that this is fair considering the way the NCHA pounded the MIAC in their interlocking games this season. But looking at the two hottest teams in the MIAC right now, Bethel and St. Thomas, I’m willing to say the MIAC at least has a chance against the NCHA’s best.
The Tommies went 3-4-0 against the NCHA with two wins over Wisconsin-Eau Claire and one over Lake Forest. Yes, their two losses to St. Norbert and even Wisconsin-Stevens Point don’t really back up my point of view, but their losses to Wisconsin-River Falls and Wisconsin-Stout do. St. Thomas lost a pair of one-goal games to those teams before running off its current streak of seven wins in eight games. In the Tommies’ loss to the Falcons, the had a 17-shot advantage (38-21) and were one of just six teams to hold River Falls to two goals — and the only one to lose.
The game against Stout was evenly matched as well as there was only a three-shot differential. Granted, St. Thomas trailed early and needed a flurry of late goals to make it a game, but I think it’s indicative of where the MIAC is — and it’s not as bad as a lot of people think.
“I look back at two years ago when we beat St. Norbert’s down there,” Tommies coach Terry Skrypek said. “If a team gets hot and you get good goaltending you can beat anybody and right now, I know this, Bethel and St. Thomas can skate with any team in that league.”
Now, Bethel only went 2-6-0 against the NCHA with wins over St. Scholastica and Lake Forest. But I would argue the Royals’ 4-2 loss to St. Norbert — right before they proceeded to seven out of eight games — is indicative of where that team is at. Sure, Bethel had a 2-0 lead and gave up four third-period goals to lose, but with Bethel’s offense coming to life the way it has, and the solid goaltending the Royals have been getting from freshman Adam Damjanovich, they shouldn’t be written off either.
Bethel coach Pete Aus said he thinks the MIAC is capable of competing with the NCHA but admitted the NCHA deserves to be ranked ahead of the MIAC teams.
“We did not play well against the NCHA, none of our teams did,” Aus said. “So what are you going to say? They deserve to be where they are.”
While we’re talking about Bethel, in case you missed it, the Royals have now taken the top spot in the conference thanks to their sweep of Hamline last weekend. Sure, the last two teams they faced were the Pipers and Concordia which aren’t exactly the cream of the crop, but the way Bethel’s offense has come alive as of late doesn’t bode well for the rest of the MIAC.
“It’s a little bit scary,” Aus said of leading the conference. “But the good thing is that our destiny is in our own hands and we don’t have to count on somebody else beating somebody else so we just need to do what we need to do.”
Winners of seven out eight games, the Royals have put up 39 goals in that span while giving up just 14. That stretch has allowed them to grab the top spot in the conference, with a one-point lead over Gustavus Adolphus and St. Olaf. Bethel has the advantage of having two more game to play then both the Gusties and Olies however.
So what is the offensive key for a team that many predicted to be an unstoppable offensive juggernaut, but managed to score just 43 goals in its first 14 games of the season? It’s balance.
“One of the big keys for us is that we’ve had so many different guys scoring,” Aus said. “That makes it hard to defend us.”
Last weekend against Hamline, 18 different players scored a point for the Royals. The weekend before against Concordia, 17 different guys notched a point in the series. At this point in the season, 11 players have 10 points of more and coach Pete Aus credits that balance to his shakeup of the lines a few weeks ago. Aus had six returners from last season playing together and six new guys playing together before he decided that wasn’t “healthy” for his team so he decided to mix the old with the new.
“It’s just really changed the dynamics of our team,” he said. “It’s allowed us to play us four lines and boy, you’re not allowed to do that very often and really not even worry about who’s out against who because we’ve had good balance on all four lines so that’s been really neat.”
While Bethel’s offense is what most people see, its defense hasn’t bad as of late either. The Royals are tops in the league in scoring defense during conference play, giving up just 2.08 goals per game in 12 contests.
Damjanovich has started the last nine league games for Bethel and has posted a 7-1-1 record over that span. His 1.54 goals against average and .944 save percentage in league play are all conference bests.
And with everything going in the right direction for the Royals, their first league championship is within reach. A sweep of St. Mary’s this weekend would mean only red-hot St. Thomas could catch them, but a loss by the Tommies will give Bethel the crown and the coveted top seed heading into the playoffs.
“The home-ice advantage is huge,” Aus said. “Our guys love playing on our rink. It’s a tremendous atmosphere, holds about 1,000 people. We’ve got the best fan support in the MIAC and it’ll be a huge advantage I think for us and it’ll be a fun place to be.”
Yes Bethel is in the best shape to win a league crown but the league is still wide open and one of those teams with a shot at first place in the league is St. Thomas. That looked like quite a feat considering a few weeks ago the Tommies were on the outside looking in to reach the playoffs. But wins in seven of their last eight games has them sitting at fourth place in the conference, three points behind the Royals.
“From where we were, when we look back and we were 1-3 and now we’re 8-4, it says a lot about our club,” Skrypek said.
There is also some history on the line for this St. Thomas team as three more points would give the Tommies their 25th straight winning season and two points would send them to the playoffs for the 22nd straight time. Skrypek said his coaching staff brought in some alumni to talk to the current team about that tradition and said it’s all a testament to the players in the program.
“These guys don’t want to be the first team that didn’t make the playoffs, what a stigma that is, especially for our seniors,” he said.
Similar to Bethel, St. Thomas’ resurgence can be traced to its recent offensive success. Skrypek said earlier in the year his team was struggling to score goals but that has changed recently as the Tommies have scored 42 goals in their past eight games. They also have the league’s top three scorers — senior Nick Harris (10-15-25), senior Kevin Rollwagen (9-13-22) and junior Nick Pernula (9-12-21) — all of whom are on St. Thomas’ first line.
“They’ve just kind of exploded and they’ve been carrying us, so hopefully that can carry through here,” Skrypek said.
The Tommies are also dominating on the power play as of late. In their last five games — all wins — they are 17-for-36 with the man-advantage, are currently tied for first in the conference with a 31.2 percent conversion rate during league play.
“I think we turned a corner here and really the difference has been the fact that we’ve been able to score some goals and right now the biggest thing is our power play,” Skrypek said. “It’s been phenomenal in terms of what we’ve done with it.”
Player of the Week
St. Thomas senior forward Nick Harris earned MIAC Player of the Week honors for his brilliance in the Tommies two-game shellacking of lowly Concordia last weekend. Harris scored a career-high four goals and added two assists in Friday’s 9-3 thumping of the Cobbers, then came back Saturday and recorded five assists in his team’s 5-1 victory. He surged into the conference scoring lead with his 11-point weekend and also became the 40th St. Thomas player to reach 100 points in his career.
“You know it wasn’t that he wasn’t doing these things early in the year,” Skrypek said. “He was doing the same things but now the puck is finding the back of the net where it wasn’t finding the back of the net in those (earlier) games for him.”