Gustavus Adolphus, the top team in the MIAC for the first half of the season, continued its second-half slide right out of the playoffs Tuesday with its 3-1 loss to St. Olaf. That leaves just four teams vying for the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
The Olies are the fourth seed, the same seed they were last year when the blitzed through the MIAC playoffs and into the NCAA tourney, and will take on top-seeded Bethel. The Royals won their first-ever conference title, finishing one point ahead of blistering-hot St. Thomas. Bethel is nearly as hot, winning nine of its final 10 games. But the Royals’ lone loss in the final month of the season came at the hands of St. Olaf last Saturday, so this matchup could certainly be interesting. The Tommies are the second seed and on a nation-best nine-game win streak. Their last loss was against St. John’s on Jan. 26, a 2-1 decision. St. Thomas will talk on third-seeded Augsburg. The Auggies are in the playoffs for the first time since the 2002-2003 season. All season long, coaches have talked about the parity in the conference so expect these final few games to be good ones.
#1 Bethel vs. #4 St. Olaf
As previously mentioned, the Royals enter their semifinal matchup with the Olies as winners of nine of their final 10 games. Their lone loss came to St. Olaf last Friday, 4-3 in Northfield. But Bethel came back the next night on home ice and beat the Olies 6-3.
“We’re glad we’re at home and we just need to play our game and do the things that we’re supposed to do and things will work out OK hopefully,” Bethel coach Pete Aus said.
All season long teams have talked about Bethel’s offensive firepower — and for good reason. The Royals are second in the conference in team scoring at 3.96 goals per game in conference play, first in scoring margin at 1.04 goals and second in power-play conversion at 25 percent. All the firepower doesn’t come from just one or two player either. Bethel has 13 players with at least nine points in conference play, 11 with at least four goals, 11 with at least five assists and eight with game-winning goals.
While the Royals’ offense is certainly impressive, the defense has held its own as well this season. They are third in the conference in scoring defense at 2.92 goals per game, second on the penalty kill at 82.6 percent and have only given up four or more goals once in their final 12 games, (the 4-3 loss to St. Olaf).
“We just tell our guys to take care of the defensive end first, make sure we’re not making any mistakes there,” Aus said. “And then obviously our goaltender has been outstanding.”
That goaltender is freshman Aaron Damjanovich. Damjanovich is tops in the conference in goals against average at 1.88 goals per game, first in save percentage at .930 and has a league-leading three shutouts in 13 conference games. He has started the last 12 games for Bethel and is 10-2-0 in that span. And don’t expect Damjanovich to be nervous tonight at all either.
“He’s been solid all year long for us,” Aus said. “He doesn’t panic, he’s not up or down, he’s just a real steady kid and that’s the kind of kid you like to have in the net.”
The Olies certainly aren’t slumping into the playoffs either, as they’ve won seven of their last nine contests. Their only losses came against Hamline, 4-3 on Feb. 2, and Bethel, 6-3 last Saturday. But St. Olaf will be playing on only a couple days rest after beating Gustavus on Tuesday in the play-in game.
“At this point in the year I don’t think conditioning is going to be an issue,” St. Olaf coach Sean Goldsworthy said when asked if the minimal rest would hurt his team.
“I think things are starting to come together,” he said. “We’re playing pretty good and obviously it’s a short turnaround after last weekend’s split with Bethel so we’re obviously both pretty familiar with who’s playing and how the teams are going to prepared so it’s going to be another tight game, we’re anticipating another one-goal game going up there.”
St. Olaf hasn’t been spectacular in any one area, but is toward the top half in most team statistical categories. The Olies are a defensive team more than anything. They’ve only given up more than four goals twice this season and haven’t let a many games truly get away from them — all but two of their games have been deciding by three goals or less.
“We’ll just keep playing our game, which is defense and playing smart, and see what happens,” Goldsworthy said.
#2 St. Thomas vs. #3 Augsburg
“I feel good about the playoffs,” St. Thomas coach Terry Skrypek said. “I feel good about our team right now cause we’re playing very well.”
St. Thomas is riding a nation-best nine-game winning streak into the playoffs and its offense has been unstoppable. The Tommies’ first line of Nick Pernula, Nick Harris and Kevin Rollwagen are the top three scoring leaders in the conference this season with 34, 34 and 32 points, respectively.
Many of those points have come on the power play. St. Thomas struggled early in the year on the man advantage, but has been on a tear of late and leads the league with a 33 percent conversion rate.
“Special teams are really important and that’s what really kind of turned it around for us and we started scoring some power play goals,” Skrypek said. “We’ve been averaging more goals than we did in the first half so that’s the big thing — we’ve been able to score.”
These two teams met Jan. 19-20 with the Tommies coming away with a sweep, winning 4-0 the first game and 7-3 the second game. But Augsburg coach Chris Brown says St. Thomas will see a different Auggies team this time around.
“We’re a different team than we were the last we played them,” he said. “Just from the standpoint that we’ve got some wins under our belt and I suspect they’ll be a different team too. They’re one of the hottest teams in the country right now so they’ve obviously progressed from those games and I don’t know how they’ll be, but I know we’ll be different than the last time we played them.”
After getting swept by the Tommies, Augsburg went on a run of its own, winning seven of its final eight games. During that span, the Auggies put their new defensive identity on display, giving up three goals three times and two goals five times. They are second in the conference in scoring defense, giving up 2.62 goals per game. Augsburg is even better on the penalty kill, killing off 86.5 percent of penalties this season.
But it’s not as though Augsburg can’t score. Aaron Johnson and Critter Nagurski are fourth and fifth in the conference in scoring with 28 and 25 points, respectively. Johnson is coming off a huge eight-point weekend against Hamline and Nagurski had a four-point showing.
“There’s excitement to be in the playoffs and playing a quality program that’s used to being in the playoffs,” Brown said. “I think we’re as ready as we can be so we’ll see what happens.”
Player of the Week
Augsburg senior forward Aaron Johnson earned MIAC Player of the Week honors for his eight-point weekend against Hamline last week. Johnson scored four goals and added four assists — one goal on Friday and seven-point effort Saturday. His seven-point performance Saturday was his second seven-point night of the season. In that game, he also recorded his first career hat trick. Johnson finished fourth in conference scoring with 28 points — he was tied for second in goals (12) and scored and was third in assists (16). He’s tied for 15th in the country with 42 points on the season.