Coming off the last weekend of non-league games, every team in the MIAC was focused on one thing: conference matchups. With most non-conference action out of the way, the vast majority of games left on the schedule are league games, which will determine the five teams that have a shot to make some noise in the postseason.
Some teams came in fighting to rise in the standings while others were struggling to keep their status as one of the leagues top teams. Some were riding winning streaks while others were coming off bad losses. No matter what each team was coming into the weekend with, when its time for league games, you can throw most of it out the window. This is the real season for most teams in the MIAC, with non-conference games being a chance to test yourself, try new things, and get tuned up for the battle for the playoffs.
The top of the league remains mostly unchanged, with Gustavus Adolphus sitting atop the conference standings. Right behind them though is Hamline, who has played two fewer games than the Gusties. In third place is a team that may be a surprise to some people after their ninth place finish last season: the Concordia Cobbers. Well catch up with them and coach Howe later on.
Bethel fell from second place into a tie for fourth with surging St. Olaf. Sixth place is an unfamiliar spot for St. Thomas, as they currently sit outside the playoff picture. Following them in seventh is an Augsburg team that struggled this past weekend after running off a seven game winning streak. In a tie for the last two spots are St. Johns and St. Marys.
No team is separated by more than two points from the team ahead or behind it, so each weekend provides an opportunity for plenty of movement in the standings. These last five weeks of the regular season are guaranteed to be action packed as teams jostle for position and their playoff lives.
Cobbers Climbing Up the Ladder
Concordia (MN) has had one of the toughest non-conference schedules of any team in the country. Some of their more notable opponents from outside the MIAC include the two winningest teams in the NCHA (St. Norbert and St. Scholastica, ranked fourth and seventh in the USCHO.com Division III poll, respectively), the top team from the MCHA (Adrian, No. 12), and if that wasnt enough, theyve also played the team with the most wins in the MIAC (Hamline, ranked eighth.)
Given that the Cobbers finished last in the MIAC last season, some might have thought that they were taking on more than they can chew.
Concordia head coach Chris Howe has a different perspective on this kind of schedule.
Every game weve played, weve taken something from it, he said. When we play teams like Adrian or St. Norbert, we see what it takes to be that kind of team, and how we need to elevate our play to match it.
The Cobbers are a team that shows up to play hard for 60 minutes every night. They try to play physical, smart, and focus on their defense and special teams. After losing to UW-Stevens Point 7-1 in their last non-conference game, some teams may have been disheartened returning to league games. And when the Cobbers trailed 3-0 to St. Thomas midway through the second period on Friday, it looked like that very well may have happened.
But starting from 12:25 in the second period until 15:01 in the third, the Cobbers ripped off five straight goals to take a 5-3 lead that they would never relinquish.
That was huge, said Howe. Coming off that loss to Stevens Point, and being down early, being able to go on a run like that was a big confidence builder. Im proud of the way the team responded to that situation.
Sophomore forward Jared Collen scored three goals during that five goal outburst, including the tally that gave the Cobbers the lead and well as the game-winning goal.
This is a team thats primarily made up of freshmen and sophomores, with their top seven scorers being underclassmen. The leadership from the teams three seniors is not to be overlooked, though.
Each one of those seniors brings something to this team that will be missed when theyre gone, Howe said. Whether its leadership, pumping up the team, or keeping us focused, each one of them brings something that helps us as a team.
After Fridays emotional comeback win, the Cobbers faced St. Thomas a second time on Saturday. They never held a lead in the game, but were never out of it either. Concordia battled back from 2-0 and 3-1 deficits before netting the tying goal in the dying seconds of the third period.
While he didnt score a single goal on the weekend, sophomore defenseman Erick Galt was a big key to the Cobbers success. On Friday he had two assists, getting a helper on Concordias first goal, as well as the one that gave them the lead. On Saturday he did even better, getting assists on Concordias first two goals, as well as the one that tied the game.
Hes one of the most unselfish players on the team, said Howe. If he could give his assists to his teammates, he would. All he cares about is doing what he can to help us win.
Another key to the Cobbers success so far has been goaltender Jacob Vatnsdal — also a sophomore. His overall numbers are solid — a 3.07 goals against average and .907 save percentage — but he has stepped it up a notch in conference games, posting a stat line of 2.53 and .917. After last years four win season, Vatnsdal has backed the Cobbers to a 3-2-3 MIAC record and four wins overall, with still around half the season left to play.
This isnt a team thats built around a top line that provides all the scoring; instead they are built on hard work, defense, and special teams.
Last season, the Cobbers finished dead last in league power play and seventh on the penalty kill. Those two combined to give Concordia the leagues worst overall special teams. This season, though, the Cobbers are in the top half of the league in both categories. They rank fourth in power play percentage and fifth overall on the penalty kill. Combined, they have the leagues second best special teams.
Their biggest improvement — up seven percent from last year — has been while down a man on the penalty kill. This means that if someone takes a penalty playing physically, the team knows they have a good shot to go out and kill it off. Their penalty kill could be tested this coming weekend, as they face Augsburg who is armed with the leagues second best power play.
With Augsburg coming up this weekend, weve put some extra emphasis on defense and the penalty kill, said Howe. Theyre a very talented team offensively, and if you make a mistake, they can make you pay.
On top of returning most of last years potent offense, the Auggies have also improved their defense immensely this season, giving up one goal fewer per game.
With Augsburg sitting in seventh place and three points out of the final playoff spot, this is a huge weekend from them. If Concordia can take three or four points, it will be very difficult for the Auggies to climb back into the playoff picture, but if Augsburg manages at least a win and a tie, theyll be breathing right down Concordias neck in the standings.
After facing Augsburg at home for two games, the schedule turns even rougher for Concordia. Their final six games are all on the road, and the last two weekends pit them against the current top two teams in the MIAC: Gustavus Adolphus and Hamline.
This is the time of the year where their difficult non-conference schedule could pay dividends, as squads have seen what it takes to be a top team. Now they have the chance to show that they can play at that level as well, as they fight to ke