Down the Stretch They Come
This is the second-to-last weekend of regular season games in the MIAC, and the playoff picture is as muddy as ever.
The parity in this league becomes more prevalent each week as teams continue to demonstrate that any team can beat anyone else on a given night. The top two teams in the league are separated by only one point, while the third through seventh spots in the standings are separated by only two points.
Thats about as close a league as you can hope for, and it provides exciting hockey each and every week as each game over the course of the season could be the difference between making or missing the playoffs at the end of the year.
If the schedule makers knew what the standings would look like this week, they couldnt have drawn things up any better.
The top two teams meet in a series that will likely decide the regular season title, the two teams tied for third and fourth face off, fifth and sixth place will be fighting each other tooth and nail for their playoff lives, and the eighth and ninth place teams also battle it out.
With that said, lets take a look at some of these matchups, and what they mean for the teams involved.
Augsburg vs. St. Olaf
The Auggies are currently sitting in fifth place by themselves, leading the Oles by a single point. With only five teams making the playoffs, this is a huge series for both teams. A successful weekend by either team will see them jump up the standings and put their playoff fate in their own hands.
I spoke to St. Olaf coach Sean Goldsworthy about this upcoming weekend and what he was expecting. Not surprisingly, hes expecting a close series.
Ill be surprised if the games are determined by more than one or two goals said Goldsworthy. Itll come down to special teams and goaltending, whoever can execute the best and focus for 60 minutes should come out on top.
These two teams met in a non-conference game earlier in the year, with Augsburg winning 4-3 in overtime. Special teams and goaltending were indeed key, as the Oles Krauss turned aside 27 shots and Augsburgs Zitor turned aside 19. All four of the Auggies goals were scored on the power play, while two of St. Olafs were scored in like fashion.
It was a hard fought game with several penalties on both sides. I will be shocked if the intensity is any lower this weekend, but will be similarly shocked if there are anywhere close to the 20 combined penalties that occurred in this game.
Both teams have received good goaltending this year. The Auggies have mainly relied on freshman goaltender Justin Lochners 2.33 goals against average and .923 save percentage. When in net, hes led the Auggies to a record of 8-4-1. Behind him though, two other goalies have save percentages above .900, giving Augsburg tremendous depth in goal.
Across the ice, the Oles also have depth in goal, with two solid netminders. Junior Nick Krauss has a 3.07 GAA and .895 save pct., while sophomore Ben Leis (2.53, .916) also has stellar numbers.
Last year we were blessed with great goaltending, and this year were blessed with two solid goalies, said Goldsworthy. We feel confident that we can go out and win with either of them in net, and its great to have that kind of depth.
When it comes to scoring, both teams rely heavily on their top lines to deliver. For St. Olaf, theyll be looking for a big weekend from forwards Isak Tranvik and Britton Smith, as well as defensemen Caleb Harrison and Derek Grogan. These four players have accounted for over half of their teams 69 goals this season, and if they produce this weekend, it will be hard to stop the Oles.
The Auggies will be looking for their big three goal scorers (Joel Sauer, Nick Guran, and Chris Johnson) to have a good weekend, as well as assist-machine Jim Jensen to keep making plays. Those four players have accounted for 39 of Augsburgs 63 goals on the year.
With the top lines and goaltending fairly matched, special teams may play a larger role than normal in this game, and here things tip in Augsburgs favor. St. Olafs penalty kill is pretty much right where it was last season, killing 80.6% of their league opponents power plays. The power play however, has taken a big hit, dropping from 23.8% to 12.7%.
This is one of the reasons that the Oles scoring is down this season, and theyre going to have to be able to convert on the power play if they want to be able to make a run in the playoffs. One thing that may help the Oles is they are one of the least penalized teams in the league, averaging only 13.2 penalty minutes per game.
For Augsburg, their power play is clipping along at a healthy 21.7% in conference games, and their penalty kill is much improved this season. Last season the Auggies were dead last in the MIAC, killing off only 72% of their penalties. This season? Theyre up to 85.2% on the penalty kill, one of the main reasons their combined special teams rank third in the league.
Our goals against have improved a lot this season said Auggie coach Chris Brown. Consistent goaltending and a better penalty kill are a big reason for that improvement, now we need to focus and hopefully peak at the right time.
One thing the Auggies could do a little better is close out their games. Over the course of the season as a whole, theyve outscored their opponents in the first and second periods, but have been outscored in the third.
We need to finish games a little stronger, I think. You win by going out there and being aggressive, doing things that got you the lead in the first place, not by sitting back and hoping not to make a mistake. We need to actively forecheck and create some pressure late in the game, and if we do, good things should happen.
This would definitely be the right time to be playing your best hockey. The games this weekend have a playoff feel to them, and its not even the last weekend of the season. Big matchups now set up potentially bigger ones next week, and then its right into the conference playoffs.
This is a great time of year for the league said Goldsworthy. It really shows the parity of the league with so many teams fighting for the playoff spots, and its great for the fans and the players to have meaningful games all season long.
These types of series are great to follow and with so many of them the last few weeks, it makes for exciting hockey across the league. Whoever is playing their best hockey this time of year will be able to move up the standings and have a shot at taking the conference playoffs and earning a spot in the NCAA tournament.
For some teams, the playoffs have already begun, as these series will determine who will be on the outside looking in when the league tournament begins.
Now, lets take a look at the biggest series of the weekend, as two teams fight for first place in the conference.
Hamline vs. Gustavus Adolphus
No matter what happens this weekend, Hamline and Gustavus Adolphus will be the top two teams when its over.
Whats up for grabs though is which team will be in first place. Currently the Gusties hold a one point lead over the Pipers, and control their own destiny. If Gustavus wins a game this weekend theyre assured of being in first place going into their final series against last place St. Marys.
For the Pipers to claim first, theyre going to have to come away with at least a win and a tie. This makes Fridays game at Gustavus a huge one; its outcome will determine just how important Saturdays game is.
When you look at the teams records, goals scored, and goals against, its clear that they are very even. Gustavus is 9-1-2 in conference games, scoring 52 goals and givin