This Week in Division III: Feb. 13, 2003

Welcome To The Postseason

One conference will officially start its postseason this weekend, and for many other teams, their postseason has also unofficially begun. Win now and make the playoffs, or lose and go home.

Phoenix Rising

One team that’s been on the brink of elimination since December is Gustavus Adolphus. The Gusties’ early-season struggles have been mentioned here before: the 0-9 start, the seven one-goal losses including three in overtime.

But you can’t keep a good team down, and Gustavus is a good team — picked to finish second in the MIAC in the preseason poll and picked to finish first in this column back in October. Since the 0-9 start, Gustavus is 11-2-1, and 6-7-1 in conference after an 0-6 start. That leaves the Gusties tied for fourth place, and they can clinch a playoff spot by taking three points from last-place Bethel this weekend.

“Obviously, it was not the way we wanted things to go,” said head coach Brett Peterson. But we fought the urge to get discouraged. In most of those games we played well, but didn’t win.

The will and the skill were there, but there was no “puck luck” to be found, according to Peterson.

“We certainly suffered from a lack of offensive output. I think we scored something like 12 goals in six games. We had lots of chances, but the puck just wasn’t going in.”

The tide began to turn in December. Gustavus went 4-1 in interconference play against the NCHA and then built on that momentum, only losing one of its eight MIAC games since.

Said Peterson, “I don’t think there was any particular game. It’s been a culmination of things. … We didn’t change our work ethic and eventually started getting the bounces and the breaks.”

All that stands between Gustavus and the playoffs are the Bethel Royals, who are eliminated from playoff contention but have shown signs of life in recent weeks with wins over St. John’s and Augsburg.

“They’re a dangerous team right now because they’re loose and can put it all out there,” said Peterson.

“The important thing right now is that we control our own destiny. If we make the playoffs we know we have a tough draw. No question about it. We’ll have to play three games in three days to win.”

The MIAC playoffs are being held at the Bloomington Ice Garden, which for many years hosted the MIAC Thanksgiving Tournament, which was shelved a few seasons ago in favor of a scheduling agreement with the NCHA.

“It will be good to go back there,” said Peterson. “There’s been a lot of great hockey played in that building.”

Never Say Never

In a weekend of big upsets, there was none bigger than MSOE’s sweep of Marian. The Raiders, behind the goaltending of Adam Blomfield, defeated the Sabres by identical 2-1 scores, the first night in overtime. Those were only the second and third losses by the Sabres in 39 conference games, and snapped a 20-game winning streak by Marian over MSOE.

“It was a great atmosphere. College hockey at its best,” said MSOE head coach Mark Ostapina, no stranger to coaching in upset games. In 2001 his New England College Pilgrims shocked defending national champion Norwich 2-1 in the ECAC East title game, knocking the Cadets out of the NCAA tournament and earning NEC’s first-ever trip to the Big Dance.

In his opinion, the wins last weekend were almost as big, and just as much fun to be a part of.

“Even if we had tied a game or split the series, it still would have been a great weekend,” he said.

“The games were terrific.”

The wins finally gave the Raiders, which were just 3-15-3 coming into the weekend, something to cheer about.

“We’re a young team and it’s taken some time to come together,” Ostapina said.

“We lost to Marian 6-2 and 11-0 the first time we played them. That’s 17 goals allowed. We knew we were better than that.

“Our strategy this time was to try to let them come to us a bit, to bottle them up and keep shots to the perimeter. It was a Shawn Walsh style of hockey, to be quick on transition and outwork your opponent.”

The games were actually more important to Marian, which could have clinched the MCHA regular-season title with a sweep. Now the Sabres lead Minnesota-Crookston by a single point heading into this weekend’s series with the Eagles.

For the Raiders, they knew that win or lose they could finish no higher than fourth, meaning they are relegated to the MCHA play-in game on February 21.

“We gave away too many games early in the season,” said Ostapina “It will be tough having to play on Thursday. It’s exam week and a ten-hour bus ride (to Crookston, which is hosting this year’s MCHA tournament), so the laptops will be out in force.”

Other Big Upsets

There were a few other epic upsets this weekend:

Hobart 6, Elmira 5 — The Statesmen had lost 19 straight to the Soaring Eagles, and 32 of the last 33 meetings.

Bethel 6, St. John’s 5 — The Royals were 2-19 coming into the game; the Johnnies were 16-5-1 and in first place, ranked 12th in the nation.

St. Michael’s 2, Bowdoin 0 — The Purple Knights lost to Bowdoin 8-1 last season. The Polar Bears were ranked eighth in the poll going into the game.

What’s On the Line This Weekend

ECAC East — Norwich has clinched home ice and can wrap up the regular-season title with a win over second-place New England College on Friday. NEC, win or lose, has also clinched a home-ice quarterfinal game.

ECAC West — RIT controls its own destiny in its quest for a fifth straight regular-season title. But lose or tie the rematch with Elmira on Friday, and the title will most likely be decided between Elmira and Manhattanville on March 1.

ECAC Northeast — Only two points separate the top four teams with most teams still having three or four games left. Nichols, W. New England and Framingham State have been eliminated from postseason consideration, leaving 10 teams to battle for eight playoff spots.

MIAC — The schedulers did a good job here with first-place St. John’s (23 points) and second-place St. Thomas (21 points) squaring off in a two-game series to finish the regular season. Augsburg is locked into third place, with four teams fighting it out for the last two playoff berths: Concordia (13 points), Gustavus Adolphus (13 points), St. Olaf (12 points) and Hamline (12 points). Concordia hosts St. Olaf in a weekend series, while Gustavus squares off against last-place Bethel. The Royals and the St. Mary’s Cardinals are eliminated from playoff contention.

MCHA — Another good job by the schedulers with first-place Marian (21 points) hosting second-place Minnesota-Crookston (20 points) in a two-game series. Lawrence will finish either second or third, while MSOE (fourth) and Northland (fifth) are locked into their final positions in the standings.

NCHA — Playoffs begin this weekend, and if history is any indication, the top four teams will advance to the semifinals. Only once in the history of the league has a road team won a quarterfinal series — Wisconsin-Stevens Point over Lake Forest two seasons ago. Only three points separated those two teams in the NCHA standings, and they’ll battle in a quarterfinal series this weekend. The other series are not expected to be close. The quarterfinal host teams were a combined 42-11-3 in league this season, the road teams 11-42-3.

NESCAC — Middlebury and Trinity have each clinched home-ice quarterfinal games, and all 10 teams are still in the running for the eight playoff positions. The big game this weekend is Friday, when Trinity travels to Middlebury for a first-place showdown.

SUNYAC — Fredonia has clinched one of the two first-round byes, and still leads Oswego by three points with three games to play. The Blue Devils need to get four points in their final three games to win their first regular-season title since 1995. All eight teams are still in contention for the six playoff spots.