NCHA Back in Action, Finishing Up Interleague Schedule with MIAC
The NCHA makes its return to the ice this weekend following a three week layoff for the holidays and finals. Wisconsin-River Falls leads the way for the NCHA after the first half of the season, but things get tougher from here on out. Early season surprise Wisconsin-Stout sits in second place, just two points behind River Falls, followed by St. Norbert in third and a three-way tie for fourth between Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Wisconsin-Eau Claire and Lake Forest. Wisconsin-Superior and St. Scholastica are in seventh and eighth, respectively.
The first half of the NCHA schedule ended on what some are hoping is a good note. Despite the one-game suspensions of several players following a game against Augsburg and the one-month suspension of their coach, Wisconsin-Eau Claire was able to knock off River Falls in the final game of their first half 3-2, in a nonconference matchup.
Around the league
Wisconsin-River Falls: The Falcons finished the first half of the season in first place, but slipped a bit, and now lead the NCHA by only two points.
This week, the Falcons take on the Gusties of Gustavus Adolphus on Friday night and the St. Olaf Oles at home on Saturday.
Even with their slip at the end of the first half, the Falcons shouldn’t have much problem this weekend. Gustavus is last in the MIAC with a 2-7-2 overall record, with their wins coming against St. Scholastica and Bethel. St. Olaf is just percentage points ahead of Gustavus in the MIAC standings. Falcons sweep handily.
Wisconsin-Stout: The Blue Devils are easily the biggest story of the first half of the season. In a preseason news conference, head coach Terry Watkins said, “There may be more talented teams out there, but no one will outwork us.”
He couldn’t have been more correct. So far this season, the Blue Devils have outscored their opponents 54-40 while being outshot 470-359. They’re not flashy, but they’ve been very effective.
But like their travel partners to the south (River Falls), the road gets tougher from here on out. Unlike the rest of the NCHA, there is one more week of nonconference action next week against Marian. After that weekend with Marian, the Devils head into the meat of their NCHA schedule, and looming on the horizon are St. Norbert and Lake Forest.
This week, the Devils will have to keep playing the blue-collar style that Coach Watkins was looking for before the season. The games will be close, but the Blue Devils will sweep Gustavus and St. Olaf.
St. Norbert: The Green Knights also struggled a bit toward the end of the first half, going 2-3-1 in their last six games.
This weekend, the Knights face Augsburg and Bethel on the road, which may benefit their MIAC opponents. St. Norbert currently holds a 3-2-1 record on the road. St. Norbert will sweep its final nonconference weekend of the season, but not without some trepidation. Augsburg scares the Knights, but falls.
Wisconsin-Stevens Point: The Pointers couldn’t have reached the holiday break early enough, catching a case of the splits following their five-game winning streak, going 2-2 in their last two weekend series. Stevens Point looks to get back on track this weekend with a home-and-home series with St. Thomas and St. Mary’s. If history is to be the present, the Pointers will have a tough weekend ahead of them. Last season, St. Thomas bounced the Pointers 8-5 in Stevens Point and St. Mary’s defeated a beleaguered Pointer squad 5-4.
St. Thomas, which got off to a very slow start, has started to pick things up lately. The Tommies dropped a 6-5 thriller to Superior to finish off the first half, but just the week before, they tied St. Norbert and defeated Lake Forest.
St. Mary’s struggled into the break, dropping back-to-back games to St. Norbert and Lake Forest, only able to muster a goal a game. There’s one catch: the Cardinals haven’t lost to Stevens Point in two years.
The Pointers will sweep this weekend, but not by a margin that one should brag about. St. Thomas has had a knack of playing big in big games and Friday will not be any different. This game may very well go into overtime, but the Pointers will prevail. Saturday’s game in Stevens Point won’t be much of a game at all. The Cardinals will be overmatched from the opening faceoff and will also fall.
Wisconsin-Eau Claire: The Blugolds are struggling right now, even following their defeat of River Falls just before the break. The players have now had a full three weeks to soak in everything that happened, and to realize that their coach is still out this weekend.
The Blugolds will split this weekend with St. Mary’s and St. Thomas. On Friday, they will be riding high coming out of the break and will beat St. Mary’s soundly. However, the shine will be off on Saturday, as a good St. Thomas team will show them that they still have some work to do.
Lake Forest: The Foresters limped badly into the break, going 2-3-1 over their last six. Their wins were expected: Marian, St. Mary’s and St. Olaf. Their tie, however, wasn’t: Marian.
The road gets no smoother this weekend as they take on Bethel and Augsburg. The Royals of Bethel can put some goals on the board and will do so again this weekend against the Foresters. Augsburg, already with big wins against Stevens Point, Eau Claire and St. Scholastica, will add another to their list: Lake Forest.
Wisconsin-Superior: Interim head coach Dan Stauber has had an interesting first half of the season. After taking over for Steve Nelson, his Yellow Jackets stumbled out of the gate and currently sit in seventh place in the NCHA. This would worry a lot of people, but the recent play of the ‘Jackets should ease a bit of the concern. Heading into the break, Superior had won six out of their last seven games, outscoring their opponents by a margin of 41-23. The other bright spot is the ‘Jackets still have the majority of their NCHA schedule ahead of them, giving them numerous opportunities to move up in the standings.
This weekend, the ‘Jackets face off against St. John’s and Concordia, two teams that have been somewhat of a disappointment. Following the break, which gave the ‘Jackets time to spend together without the distraction of school and other students pulling at them, they will continue their strong play and sweep the weekend series.
St. Scholastica: The Saints ended last season with high hopes for this season. Unfortunately for them, they lost their top goalie (Kaleb Christenson) before the start of the semester to the ECAC East’s Salem State.
The Saints have shown that Christenson was a major cog in the works for the Saints, sitting with a 5-8-0 record. Their wins came against Northland (MCHA), Hamline (MIAC), Bethel (MIAC) and Lawrence (MCHA) (twice).
Unfortunately for the Saints, they won’t be playing any of those teams this weekend, and will reach double-digit losses before any other NCHA or MIAC team — and it won’t be pretty. St. John’s and Concordia roll through the weekend with the Saints.
Game(s) of the week:
There are several games to watch this weekend in the NCHA. Stevens Point is taking on two teams that defeated them last season (St. Mary’s and St. Thomas). If you have the gas money, it would be wisely spent on a trip to the Twin Cities and Stevens Point. Both games should be exciting to watch.
In addition to the Pointers’ series, watch St. Norbert take on Augsburg and Bethel. Both the Auggies and the Royals showed late in the first half that their offenses can score some goals. Before a forfeit was called, Augsburg lead Eau Claire (a team that beat Stevens Point and took St. Norbert to OT) 11-1 and Bethel put a scare into the Pointers the night before.
Obviously, there will be quite a few eyes keeping watch on the scoreboard in the River Falls games. Was their loss to Eau Claire a fluke? Or are the Falcons beatable? Most likely, they’re not going to be beaten this weekend, but it’s always fun to wonder …