Concordia (Minn.) is headed back to the MIAC tournament, but as far as coach Chris Howe is concerned, his team has spent an entire season in postseason mode.
The Cobbers have played in nine games decided by one goal, going 5-4 in those encounters, and four of those games have gone to overtime. Concordia has also tied an opponent five times.
“Our whole season has been like the playoffs,” Howe said. “We’ve played a lot of close games and thankfully, we have won quite a few of them. Our guys will be ready for what the tournament throws at them.”
Concordia is the fifth seed in the tourney, edging Augsburg by a point in the final standings for the last playoff berth, and will take on fourth-seeded St. Olaf on Friday in a quarterfinal-round game.
The winner plays conference champion St. Thomas on Saturday in the semifinal round.
Howe is quite familiar with the Oles and not just because his team has played them twice during the season, falling 5-4 and ending the other game in a 2-2 tie.
He said playing the Oles is like looking in a mirror. Not to mention the fact that St. Olaf coach Sean Goldsworthy was an assistant at St. John’s when Howe was a player for the Johnnies.
“He’s a great coach and playing his team is like looking at our team,” Howe said. “We are similar in the way we play. It’s a huge challenge playing them because they are so talented and so disciplined. We know it’s going to take a great effort by us to win this game.”
The Cobbers are certainly capable of a great effort and their success hinges largely on the play of Caleb Suderman.
The senior defenseman is having an unreal season, having tallied 16 goals and 14 assists.
“As a coach, you never expect a defenseman to be one of the top scorers in the country,” Howe said. “It’s great to see him have the success he has had. He brings so much to our team on and off the ice and I’m happy for him.”
Andrew Deters has stepped up as well this season and has come through with nine goals and 22 assists.
“He does things the right way, on and off the ice, and he’s been a great story this season,” Howe said. “He’s come a long way as a player and it’s great to see him succeed.”
Jordie Bancroft has tallied nine goals and 17 assists and Garrett Hendrickson has tallied nine goals and 12 assists. Three other players have scored at least five goals this season.
While Howe is pleased with the balance his team features offensively, he knows this playoff game will likely come down to defense.
Chris Neamonitis has been solid in goal, having racked up 551 saves.
“Both teams are disciplined and structured and the team that makes the fewest mistakes is going to win,” Howe said. “We are confident in our goaltending and our defense.”
The Cobbers are certainly focused on the task at hand. The regular season no longer matters and looking ahead isn’t an option at the moment.
“We have playoff experience, and that can help, but it all comes down to how you play in this game,” Howe said. “We are focused on the game in front of us and we’re excited about the opportunity we have to play in the postseason.”
Although Concordia will have to take the long road if it wants to win a championship, Howe will tell you the title is up for grabs. After all, the MIAC standings paint a picture of just how competitive the league is. The third- through seventh-place teams were separated by a total of 11 points.
“The tournament is very much up for grabs – every team in it has a legitimate shot to win it,” said Howe. “I’m happy with the success we have had as a league this year. It’s a competitive league from top to bottom.”
Familiar Look: The playoff teams for this year are the same as last season, only it was Gustavus Adolphus and St. Olaf playing in the opening-round game a year ago.
St. John’s, the third seed this season, won the tournament last year with a 3-2 win over Gustavus, the second seed this year with St. Thomas the top seed.
The Johnnies and Gusties will play in the other semifinal on Saturday, with the championship game set for March 8.
Spoiler Alert: St. Thomas was hoping to become the first team to go unbeaten in MIAC play since Augsburg did it in 1981-82, but St. John’s took away that opportunity with a 1-0 win over the Tommies on Saturday night in the regular-season finale.
Jason Johnson scored with 3:55 remaining to lift the Johnnies to the win over their rival. The goal was the fifth of the season for Johnson.
Saxton Soley did his part to help St. John’s secure the win as he racked up 21 saves. It was his second shutout of the season and the fourth of his career. The Johnnies finished 11-3-2 in the MIAC, marking the first time since the 2005-06 campaign that it has won 10 league games.