Playoffs Nearly Set
The MIAC playoffs are set — well, the five teams competing are set but not the seeds just yet. Red-hot Bethel (23 points) and St. Thomas (20 points) are sitting in the top two spots in the league. Idle Gustavus Adolphus is in third with 19 points but has no chance of improving while both Augsburg and St. Olaf are tied for fourth with 18 points apiece.
Bethel needs to win just one game over the Olies this weekend to secure its first-ever league title and the top seed in the playoffs. St. Thomas would need to sweep St. Mary’s and get some help from the Royals to vault into first place, but second seems pretty secure at this point. Gustavus is stuck in third and will likely drop to either the fourth or fifth seed as both Augsburg and St. Olaf have two chances to move up in the standings. The Auggies have a really good chance of moving up a few spots with Hamline on the docket this weekend and the Olies will have a challenge on their hands as they take on Bethel.
A Whole New Augsburg
After a pair of wins over Concordia last weekend, Augsburg clinched its first playoff berth since the 2002-2003 season. The Auggies also have the best shot of anyone in the MIAC to move up in the standings and get out of the play-in game. With a pair of games against Hamline this weekend, Augsburg a great shot at a sweep and the three seed in the playoffs. St. Olaf also has a shot of leapfrogging into the third spot and owns the tie-breaker over Augsburg, but the Olies take on Bethel this weekend and no one has beaten the Royals in a month.
“We still control our own destiny as far as if we can win our games, then that forces (St. Olaf’s) hand a bit,” Auggies coach Chris Brown said.
Moving into that third spot is important for a couple of reasons. First, the Auggies wouldn’t have to turn around and play on Tuesday after their Saturday game against Hamline, and second, if the top seed is upset, they would have a shot at a home playoff game. A home playoff game would definitely be beneficial for Augsburg as its just 2-4-2 on the road but 8-5-2 at home.
“I think your goal every year is to try and finish as high as you can in the conference,” Brown said.
“I definitely think it’s a factor as far as just the number of games you play and the rest factor because you have turn around and play on Tuesday night after the regular season ends as opposed to getting rest until Thursday.”
It might not matter how many games Augsburg has to play considering the roll the Auggies are on. While it’s not eight-game win streak Bethel is on, or the seven-game win streak St. Thomas is on, Augsburg has won five of its last six and hasn’t given up more than three goals in a game in that span. And defense has been key according to Brown.
“Not only team defense but goaltending, it’s all related,” he said. “That’s been something we’ve stressed from the start. In fact my assistant and I were just talking about that same exact thing about five minutes ago before he left and how we haven’t been scoring the amount of goals we’d like to and certainly not the amount of goals we’ve scored in the past. But I just truly believe team defense is where everything starts and you know if you can keep teams off the board and frustrate them and good defensive teams also play hard. So I think the fact that a lot of our kids, even our top kids offensively, they’re first commitment is on defense and I think yeah, that’s definitely been key for us I mean it’s the old phrase in any sport, good defensive teams win more games.”
Brown’s team has certainly exemplified that theory considering as Augsburg is 9-2-3 when giving up three goals or less this season. And unlike last season when the Auggies gave up five goals or more in 10 games — all losses — Augsburg has given up five or more goals just four times this season, three of which came against NCHA teams in the first week of the season. Brown says the improved defense is partly because of his coaching philosophy.
“I think that is more of my coaching style is to defend first and limit the (opposing) team’s opportunities for quality scoring chances,” he said. “And I don’t think you can have the best of both worlds, I think you have to be one or the other … I don’t know any coach that has both. You certainly have to balance it.
“We want to play defense that tries to force teams to make mistakes so that we can get more offense so we try and find that balance. But it definitely starts with defense and I think just committing to things like blocking shots, committing to things like communicating and knowing your responsibilities and accepting your responsibilities in the defensive zone, just a lot of fundamentals … It’s not a real defensive system that we play. So I think my philosophy as a team, we want to have pride in how we defend and a lot of things stem from that but we don’t have a defensive system by any means, we just do a lot of defensive fundamentals.”
As for this weekend, don’t expect a letdown from the Auggies. Brown said his team was not pleased with their performance against Concordia and will be ready to for Hamline, especially with the chance to move up to third in the conference standings.
“It’s never easy to win in this league or at this level,” he said. “I think there’s so much parity and they’re no different. I don’t think our kids will look past them at all. In fact, we don’t make it a habit to talk a lot about who we’re playing. We just talk about how we want to play and executing the things that we practiced this week and we’re more concerned with executing that because we believe if we do we’ll have a good chance to win every night so I don’t think they’ll past them I think it means a lot to our kids to, even though we’re in the playoffs, I still think we have a lot to play for, I mean you asked earlier, is it important to finish in the top three and I think our kids say yeah it is, so we’ve got a lot to play for.”
Player of the Week
St. Thomas junior forward Nick Pernula earned the MIAC Player of the Week award for his performance against Hamline last weekend. In the Tommies’ 5-1, 7-2 sweep of the Pipers, Pernula scored six goals and an assist. Pernula helped St. Thomas clinch a playoff birth for the 22nd straight season and also finish with a winning record for the 25th consecutive season. Pernula is leading the MIAC with 15 goals in 14 conference games and is 13th in the country in scoring with 40 points on the season.
Objectivity is going out the window for a second so bear with me. One of my best friends, Andy Nadeau, is starting in goal tonight for St. Mary’s. The Winona-native has only appeared in two games in his career and has been waiting four years for his shot tonight. He loves the game of hockey and I have a lot of respect for him for sticking it out all four years despite barely playing. Good luck tonight Nadeau.