Dont sleep on the MIAC
The MIAC is the most underrated conference in the country, from top to bottom.
Thats the message heading into this season as the Western league that isnt considered a powerhouse and doesnt have Adrian within its ranks laces up the skates for the 2008-09 hockey season. With the national tournament expanding to 11 teams for the first time this season, many in the western region are hopeful the west can break in with four teams in the big dance.
While Hamline head coach Scott Bell believes the usual western allotment of two NCHA teams and the MIAC champion will be joined by the MCHA champion, the top of the MIAC is strong enough that we may see two MIAC teams in the tournament for the first time since 2005.
The St. Thomas Tommies were picked as a top five team in the USCHO.com preseason coaches/media poll, while the Hamline Pipers were the first team outside of the top 15, and the Bethel Royals also picked up votes. Toss in young teams like the St. Johns Jonnies and Gustavus Adolphus Gusties, and the prospect of two MIAC teams in the national tournament is not far-fetched.
The remaining four teams in the conference all have question marks surrounding their teams as they enter the season. Can St. Marys and Concordia improve on weak goaltending corps that may have lost games last season? Can Augsburg increase its offensive efficiency and get more than one player in double-digit goals this season? Can St. Olaf improve its power play to above 12 percent on the strength of young players?
The opening results against the NCHA-Interlock will help to paint the picture of where the MIAC is this season. Some early signature wins could help propel the conference to national significance and help make the case that more than one MIAC team might deserve a bid to the tournament. Scott Goldsworthy of St. Olaf understands the importance of these early-season games.
The west seems to really beat each other up consistently throughout the year, Goldsworthy said. And at the end of the year, your record might not indicate your talent pool but certainly I think youre going to be more prepared when it comes to league play and more prepared at the end of the year.
Games to Watch
With the stakes set, here are the top five games/series (in chronological order) involving MIAC teams this season:
Nov 20 — Bethel vs. St. Johns: This early-season Thursday night game could have significant playoff implications down the line and will tell us a lot about these two teams.
Nov 28-29 — Primelink Tournament: St. Thomas opens up against Middlebury and then will face either Plattsburgh or Norwich the following day. Potentially the top teams in four separate conferences will face off in one tournament. A strong showing by the Tommies would improve the MIACs national standing.
Jan 4 — Adrian vs. St. Johns: The most talked about team in Division III hockey faces a team near the top of the MIAC. The Bulldogs national title hopes could be dashed with a loss to the Johnnies to start out the new calendar year.
Jan 9 — St. Norbert vs. St Thomas: The defending national champions against the defending MIAC tournament champions. Both games these teams played last season went into overtime.
Jan 30-31 — Hamline vs. St. Thomas series: The top two teams and MIAC conference finals participants from last season face off in a home-and-home with just three weeks remaining in the regular season. Home ice in the MIAC playoffs could effectively be determined with this series.
Augsburg Auggies: Getting It Together
Last year was the first season of a rebuilding effort by Augsburg coach Chris Brown, and that effort will continue into this season and beyond. The Auggies are composed this season of 10 freshmen, nine sophomores, four juniors, and three seniors. The onus will be on these young players to try and make an impact and ensure that Augsburgs season this year represents the second half of the 07-08 campaign more than the first half.
It was January before the Auggies won their first game last season, but then the team finished nearly .500 in the second half. However, even that doesnt tell the whole tale of Augsburgs year. Four of the teams first six games were one goal games or ties, including against such stiff opponents as the University of Wisconsin-Stout, UW”Superior, and St. Scholastica. On the early part of the season Chris Brown reflected:
We were giving up easy goals because we were so young. And it was hard on our goalies to sit there and stop some point blank opportunities.
But it was over winter break that the team refocused and with the increased experience, were able to rattle off some victories.
We came back after the break with a new attitude and took the approach we were going to play it as a new season, Brown said.
That approach seems to have paid off in many areas of the game. However, one weakness of the Auggies last year was their inability to stop opponents power plays. With just a 75 percent kill rate, Augsburg was getting behind a man down. Brown views a lot of that as the result of several issues.
Three things played into that poor statistic. On the penalty kill, experience helps. Obviously we had to roll out a lot of young players. The second thing you need on a good penalty kill is good goaltending, and I think our goaltending was average last year at best. And the third thing that contributed was our confidence. Its hard to be a team that has confidence, especially when youre a man down, when you havent won a game in a semester.
Night in and night out, Augsburg was skating eight to nine freshmen, and Brown feels that the increased experience of those players this season will help the team get off to a better start.
Now were in year two [of the rebuilding process] and many of those players played in a lot of situations. the Auggies coach said.
Part of that rebuilding process will involve once again relying on young players to move the program forward. Brown claimed the team needed to hit a home run with this recruiting class, his first as the full-time head coach of the team.
He feels he was able to do that, bringing in a very experienced freshman class that includes six freshmen aged 21 or older. Among those hell be looking to have an impact early include blue liners Brandon Bukowski and David Hines, both of whom played three years of juniors, and Nick Guran and Travor Doden in the offensive zone.
The young players on this team lead to a lot of uncertainty. And while the program looks to have a bright future ahead of it, in the short term, Brown admits that the result this year is up in the air.
Well its hard to say. Obviously I think every teams goal every year is to make the playoffs. And in our league, thats a challenge every year. I think come February, hopefully were peaking at the right time and we still have a shot at being a factor in the playoff race. I think with this young group as the season goes on theyll only get better and better. And if we can win a few along the way and stay in the hunt come February, I think good things will happen for us.
Bethel Royals: Rebuilding or Reloading?
We graduated five guys that scored 127 points, coach Joel Johnson says with a chuckle.
The laugh isnt to make light of the situation, but more of a release as he expresses his understanding of the challenges the Bethel Royals face in the upcoming season.
When we take the ice, 50% of our lineup is going to be freshmen . . . [b]ut weve still got some key guys in some key spots. So I hope its not a total rebuilding year. I feel like it has some rebuilding aspects to it, but I