Too Close to Call
We’ve been hearing that phrase a lot this week, but you heard it here first, almost a full month ago. We said that the field in Division III was going to be wide-open this season, and early-season results bear that out.
Around the leagues…
For years, the NCHA has been a conference divided. The top four teams: St. Norbert, Wisconsin-River Falls, Wisconsin-Stevens Point and Wisconsin-Superior have taken the top four spots in the regular season, and made up the NCHA “Final Four” in the postseason. That has left Lake Forest, St. Scholastic, Wisconsin-Eau Claire and Wisconsin-Stout on the outside looking in. But two early season upsets may mean the balance of power may be shifting, or at least evening out.
Last Saturday, both Wisconsin-Eau Claire and Lake Forest come back after Friday losses to register upsets in the second game of their weekend series. The Blugolds beat Wisconsin-Stevens Point 4-1, and Lake Forest defeated St. Norbert, 3-2 in overtime.
“No question we’ve been a four-horse league for several seasons,” said St. Norbert head coach Tim Coghlin.
“The line is grayer now. Lake Forest is one team that’s definitely poised to make that next step. They’ve taken points from the top four in the past, and they did it to us this time.”
“Eau Claire is also positioned to make a move,” said Coghlin. “I think now we’re talking about six teams that can really compete. Everybody’s going to be competitive. You also have River Falls, which should be even better than last season, and I think that Superior is a real dark horse as well.”
The two upset victims, St. Norbert and Wisconsin-Stevens Point will tangle this Friday. “It’s a nonconference game, but with us both coming off loses, I expect it to be a very competitive game,” said Coghlin.
Things also didn’t go according to plan in the MIAC. Bethel swept St. John’s (6-2, 5-3) and Augsburg split with St. Thomas, ranked #1 in the MIAC preseason poll. On opening night, the three conference games were all close contests — the aforementioned Bethel upset, a 3-3 tie between St. Mary’s and Concordia and a St. Olaf 3-2 overtime win over Gustavus. It’d going to be tight all season long.
That scramble leaves Bethel and St. Olaf in an early tie for first, a good start for two teams expected to be fighting for a playoff spot. The four points picked up by each squad will certainly come in handy in mid-February.
Conference play begins this weekend, and none too soon for the five teams from the MCHA, which are 0-15-1 out of conference so far.
Things will get interesting right away when Marian hosts Minnesota-Crookston for a weekend series to open conference play. These will be the only meetings between the two favorites this season. Each game will be worth four points in the standings, so if one team can sweep, it will be in the driver’s seat for several weeks, maybe even the entire regular season.
Nothing like a little early pressure…
As opposed to the Western conferences, things went pretty much to plan in the opening weekend of SUNYAC play. Plattsburgh may have been missing some players due to suspensions, but the first-place Cardinals didn’t miss a step. Plattsburgh had its way with Fredonia and Buffalo State, defeating the Blue Devils 6-0 on Friday, and then having an easy time with Bengals on Saturday, 12-3.
Oswego, which lost its opening game of the season to RIT, is 4-0 since then, including a sweep of Brockport and Geneseo last weekend. The Lakers host Fredonia and Buffalo State this weekend.
Elmira dropped a pair of close, exciting games to visiting Wisconsin-Superior last weekend, both by 4-3 scores. On Friday, Superior held off a late Elmira comeback, and on Saturday, the ‘Jackets made a comeback of their own, eventually winning in overtime.
“They were pretty decent games, exciting for the fans,” said Elmira head coach Glen Thomaris.
“On Friday, we made a lot of freshman mistakes, especially when we had the power play. But we fought back.”
“The next night, it was another good game, not worthy of all the penalties. The game was called extremely tight. We wanted to get ahead early, which we did, but I think that experience was a factor. We took a stupid major penalty and gave up a couple of goals. You can’t do that. (Superior) is a very good club.”
“We had a couple of glorious chances in the third period on Saturday,” said Thomaris. “But we couldn’t put one home. We get a bad bounce in the overtime, then a penalty results and we lose the game on a power-play goal.”
While an 0-3 start was not the way Thomaris wanted to open the season, he can take some solace in the fact that the losses were to very good teams.
“We have to find a way to win those games if we want to get anywhere at the end of the season, ” he said. We played better (Tuesday) against Lebanon Valley, winning 7-1. All three goaltenders played, and we looked good.”
The first league game was played last Saturday when RIT defeated Manhattanville 6-2 at Ritter Arena. RIT was three for four on the power play in the first period to essentially put the game away. The Tigers have scored an amazing 48% of the time with the man advantage through their first five games.
Defending champ Wentworth got off on the right foot with a pair of wins to quickly move to the top of the standings. Things get started in earnest this week with eight conference games scheduled.
ECAC East and NESCAC
The wait is almost over. Almost. Teams begin play the weekend of November 17 and 18.
Last week: 6-1 (86%)
On the season: 6-1 (86%)
It was a pretty good weekend for yours truly in the picks department. Can I stay as hot as Plattsburgh?
Minnesota-Crookston at Marian (11/10 and 11/11) – A sweep by Crookston last season paved its way to the regular-season title. This year, the games are at Marian, so things will be closer. Marian 5, Crookston 4 and Crookston 6, Marian 3.
St. John’s at No. 8 St. Thomas (11/10 and 11/11) – St. John’s, picked to finish near the top of the standings in the MIAC, is coming off an 0-2 opening weekend, while the Tommies had to settle for a split with Augsburg. They sweep this time. St. Thomas wins both (3-1 and 2-0).
No. 2 Wisconsin-Stevens Point at No. 4 St. Norbert – This game means nothing in the standings (it’s a nonconference matchup) but it still should be a war. The Green Knights are at home, but the Point still prevails. UWSP 5, St. Norbert 3.