Once again it will be the MIAC and NCHA squaring off in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament as MIAC champion Bethel (17-9-1) will travel to at-large bid recipient UW-River Falls (21-5-2) for a 7:05 p.m. CT Wednesday faceoff. The winner will advance to play at St. Norbert (24-3-2) in Saturday’s Quarterfinals.
The Royals enter the tournament on a bit of a tear, going 11-1 down the stretch and claiming their first ever MIAC Tournament title. Bethel’s appearance in the tournament is its first in school history. Meanwhile, UW-River Falls is no stranger to NCAA tournament play, making its 11th appearance in the tournament field but first since 2004. The Falcons claimed national titles in 1988 and 1994 and are 22-12 all-time in NCAA Tournament games.
River Falls head coach Steve Freeman happily stated, “We’re excited about it.”
The two met earlier this season in River Falls, with the Falcons coming out on top 7-4, but only after six third period goals erased a 3-1 deficit. Bethel’s strong finish, however, suggests they will be a dangerous team to play this Wednesday.
“They are very deep,” said Freeman. “I saw them play last weekend and they are playing very good hockey. They have good speed and play extremely hard. They are especially deep up front.”
The Royals deep offensive cast is led by sophomore Nick Miller (10-18-28). He is accompanied by junior Jeff Balvin (7-18-25), senior Steve Eastman (9-14-32), and five others with at least 20 points on the season.
The Falcons are also loaded offensively, but clearly sparked by the T.J. Dahl-Derek Hansberry-Pat Borgestad line. Led by NCHA Player of the Year Dahl’s 52 points, the unit has combined for 105 on the season. River Falls also has three others with over 20 points on the year, and seven more who check in with double digits. The scoring depth is something Freeman suggests the Falcons might not have had in the past.
“Last year we weren’t getting any scoring out of our other lines,” said Freeman. “People could really key in on those guys (Dahl, Hansberry and Borgestad). Those guys will still get their chances, especially on the powerplay, but the scoring depth is something that really works in our favor.”
One of the most intriguing story lines in Wednesday’s meeting is that Bethel is on a roll and just beat two good teams last week, while River Falls lost to St. Scholastica in the NCHA Semifinals and will have been idle for ten days.
“We’ve been working on cleaning up our game a little bit,” said Freeman. “We have to stick with our game. We’ve been working on getting everyone on the same page and on staying solid defensively. Against a team like Bethel you have to stay solid defensively or you’ll get beat.”
The Falcons’ defense was second-best in the NCHA this season at 2.25 goals per game and all starts with sophomore goalie A.J. Bucchino (20-5-2, .932, 2.12). The Royals are likely to counter with freshman Aaron Damjanovich (13-5-1, .912, 2.56).
“He’s been solid all year long for us,” Bethel coach Peter Aus told USCHO’s C.J. Spang. “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 meeting will mark the 10th straight season a NCHA team has faced a MIAC team in the NCAA Tournament. NCHA teams are 9-3-1 against the MIAC in that stretch. The last time a MIAC team defeated a NCHA team in the NCAA’s was in 2005 as St. Thomas scored a 3-2 quarterfinal win at St. Norbert. The next most recent instance occurred in 1998 when Augsburg swept UW-River Falls in a two-game quarterfinal series.