The playoff format in the NCHA has changed, but the top four teams has remained constant. Once again, St. Norbert, Wisconsin-Superior, Wisconsin-River Falls and Wisconsin-Stevens Point make up the final four
But everyone’s excited about the new format: single elimination semifinals and finals. Previously, all three rounds consisted of a best-of-two format with a possible minigame. Now, only the quarterfinals use that system.
“What we’ve tried to do is emulate the NCAA tournament,” said St. Norbert head coach Tim Coghlin. “There’s not a lot of opportunity for us [during the season] to get into tournaments that are single-elimination, four teams at one site.
“Two [games] and the mini in the first round should eliminate upsets … it’s not a one-shot deal. Plus, this year, we took a bye week, and tried to get some bodies back and healthy, and I think that made sense.”
That week off between the quarterfinals and the championship may make a difference in the NCAA tournament, according to Coghlin.
“Back in the late 80’s when you had two teams coming out and it was two games and a mini-game for the championship, that format was advantageous to the NCHA at that time,” he said. “But there was a stretch of time there where Middlebury, as an example, had to choose tournaments, and would sometimes sit for two or three weeks, and they looked awfully fresh when they came out.
“That’s part of our thinking too, with the single elimination and the bye week. We grind ourselves enough in this league. Hopefully, it’s something that will help a western team in the future.”
Steve Freeman, head coach at Wisconsin-River Falls, also likes the format change, especially the week off.
“With that weekend, it gives you a chance to heal up and rest up,” he said. ” Last year we played Lake Forest, then we played St. Norbert, then we played Superior. Then we jumped right into the NCAA tournament. Certainly the Norbert-Superior, back-to-back weekends, it certainly takes its toll.”
And as far as the coaches are concerned, the hockey will be the best in Division III.
“This is as good a final four as we’re going to see anywhere, no question in my mind,” said Coghlin. I think this particular weekend of play will be exceptional.”
“There’s not another tournament anywhere in the world going on that’s going to be better than this one, now that the Olympics is over,” said Wisconsin-Stevens Point coach Joe Baldarotta.
“You’ve got four teams that have history with each other, four teams that have been playing really well the last half of the season, four teams that know each other fairly well. … There’s not a tournament out East over Thanksgiving or Christmas or anything that even matches up with it. This could be more prestigious at some point than even the final field for the NCAA.”
What are keys to winning the NCHA title? Dan Stauber, head coach at Wisconsin-Superior, thinks it’s going to come down to special teams this weekend.
“Five-on-five hockey, I’ve seen it this year, everybody’s pretty tight,” he said. “In a power-play situation, you’d better capitalize. That might be your only opportunity.”
With one and perhaps two NCAA berths on the line as well, the intensity level will be high.
“Every faceoff, every pass, this is the highest level it gets to,” said Baldarotta. “It may determine if you get a chance to survive and do what you love to do on Monday. I don’t envision anybody having a bad game. … That’s the most exciting part about it. Everyone’s going to be at their best.”
St. Norbert (22-3-2) — First team to go undefeated in league play in 18 years … Has leading scorer in the league (freshman Jason Deitsch) … Goaltender Ryan Gill is first in the league in GAA (2.07) and fifth in save percentage (.914) … Leads the NCHA in total offense, power play and penalty kill … Ranked third in the USCHO.com poll … The Green Knights are undefeated in their last 11 games.
Wisconsin-Superior (18-5-4) — Has lost only twice since the holiday break … Is 18-0 when leading after two periods this season … Goaltender Nate Ziemski is fourth in the league in GAA (2.64) and seventh in save percentage (.892) … Ranked sixth in the USCHO.com poll … The YellowJackets were 1-0-1 against semifinal opponent Wisconsin-Stevens Point this season.
Wisconsin-Stevens Point (17-8-2) — Undefeated in its last nine games after being just 10-8 in mid-January … Third in the league in both power play (18.0%) and penalty kill (84.5%) … Led by a freshman in scoring, as Mike Brolsma has 37 total points.
Wisconsin-River Falls (18-7-2) — Has won three in a row after a 2-4 stretch … Also led in scoring by a freshman, Josh Schlipp (30 points) … Is a combined last in the league in special teams (10.4% power play; 82.3% penalty kill) … The Falcons were 0-2 against semifinal opponent St. Norbert during the regular season, losing 5-2 and 2-1.
Ed Trefzger and Todd D. Milewski contributed to this piece.