This Week in West Region D-III: Nov. 18, 2004

With only one team having a losing record last season, the Northern Collegiate Hockey Association sent its two best teams (St. Norbert, Wisconsin-River Falls) to the big dance. The two powerhouses met in the quarterfinals, with St. Norbert prevailing. Unfortunately for the Green Knights of St. Norbert, they lost an overtime heartbreaker to Middlebury in the championship.

So what should we expect from this year’s edition of the NCHA? It’s looking like more of the same, with three of the league’s eight teams currently appearing among the top 10 in last week’s USCHO poll. Still, a lot can happen from now until February.

Falcons finding their way

The University of Wisconsin-River Falls Falcons–currently #2 in the nation–are looking to reclaim lost glory. Their last NCHA title came in 1996, and they won it all in 1994. But since then, it’s been a case of lots of promise coming up short.

One look at the Falcons’ goal differential this year tells the whole story about their prospects for 2004-05. Part one of the story goes like this: They’ve outscored their opponents 27-10, and that’s without the help of their top three scorers from last year–graduated forwards Jim Murphy, Matt Elsen and Jess Johnson. Instead, senior forward Garrett Larson and senior defensemen Marc-Andre Lalande have stepped up to the offensive plate and lead the team in scoring. Not far behind are upperclassmen Josh Schlipp and Aaron Degerness.

Part two tells a tale of solid defensive play: A good mix of young players and veterans, size and mobility. Then there is the goaltending situation, perhaps the best it’s been in recent years for UWRF. Team MVP Andy Scanlon returns for his junior season after putting up a 1.74 GAA and winning 13 games. Behind him is the steady Dan Meneghin, another junior who had great stats of his own (8-2-1, 2.03 GAA). This is where the Falcons will undoubtedly shine.

The question now is whether Steve Freeman’s team can put the early-season rankings and expectations out of their minds and continue to get timely goals. The defense and netminding will show up every night, but if their forwards enter a prolonged slump near the end of the season, that could cause the Falcons to stagger into the playoffs. This is something they can’t afford if they want to avoid the disappointing, “we almost made it” endings that have plagued them in previous years.

Green Knights on championship crusade

Conventional wisdom says that a team who has spent the past three seasons compiling records of 23 wins (2001-02), 27 wins (2002-03) and another 27 win season (2003-04) is going in the right direction. That same rationale would say that a team that finished each of those seasons in the NCAA quarterfinal, semifinal and championship game, respectively, is destined to end this season as an NCAA champion.

In his 12th year as head coach, Tim Coghlin has gotten his team within striking distance of the title in a step-by-step journey. But for a few bounces, the championship could have been theirs last year instead of Middlebury’s. Still, this is a team for whom great team stats and regular season records are no longer acceptable. Fortunately for Coghlin, he is at the helm of a seasoned team that has the talent to steal games and overcome the occasional lackluster effort.

The Green Knights have underclassmen who can contribute, but it is their core of battle-tested juniors and seniors that make the difference. St. Norbert’s entire corps of defensemen returns this year fronted by the sensational Ryan Tew. The 6-foot, 210-pound rearguard is valuable at both ends of the ice, using his strength to pinch off forwards while being able to run the point on the power play, as his five man-advantage markers can attest

Offensively, St. Norbert had seven forwards in double-digits in goal scoring, with only two of them playing as seniors. That says a great deal about the Knights’ ability to score often as a committee. The are led by returning All-American Jason Deitsch, who is looking to improve on his stellar 27-goal effort last year.

The goaltending could be a question mark for this team. Chancy Colquhoun has graduated, leaving junior Eric Van Den Bosch as the starter. Though Van Den Bosch had an amazing season as a backup last year (11-1-0, 1.75), it remains to be seen how he handles being the main man. Thus far in 2004-05, the results are so-so: 1-2-0, 3.38 GAA. Stay tuned.

Foresters looking for strong start

You can say this about Lake Forest and head coach Tony Fritz–stick with what you know, and you’ll make progress.

A fixture at Lake Forest, Fritz is entering his 27th year of service behind the bench and his current Forester team is ready to leave behind the futility that has plagued them over a 10-year period (1991-2001). Since then, the win totals have gone up and so have the expectations. The question is, will the Foresters be able to deliver before Fritz calls it quits?

The Foresters haven’t made it past the NCHA semifinals in their history, so this is not exactly a team with much championship experience at the collegiate level. They are returning most of their top forwards, including promising sophomore Tyler Canal (9 points in 5 games this season) and Robin Charet, a stoutly built forward out of Quebec.

Also returning are two experienced netminders in Joel Cameron and Cody Brown, either of which could be the number one man between the pipes.

However, last year’s tight defense that allowed only 63 goals on the entire season has promise, but close games are a problem this year for everyone on the squad. Lake Forest should be a force this season, but only if they can create some momentum by the time they arrive at the league playoffs. A start like last year–opening the season 11-0-1–would help.

A Yellowjacket return?

First, a hard fact. Wisconsin-Superior has made it to the Frozen Four in Division III seven times in the past 11 seasons, with their last championship title coming in 2002.

Now, with a recent history like that, should Dan Stauber’s Jackets have anything to worry about? Only the other three teams at the top of the NCHA heap. Though their road to another championship may be a little rockier, the Yellowjackets have a lot to be thankful for with this season’s roster.

Put simply, the Wisconsin-Superior defense is, well … superior. It’s a group that is big, tough and responsible. Senior defenseman Dale Lupul excels in the rough stuff as well as the occasional finesse of special teams. As Lupul goes, so do the Yellowjackets.

Captain Kyle Nosan is one of the best, not just for his offensive ability but for the way he has led by example. Following Nosan is a group of cagey veterans sprinkled with a handful of underclassmen. This could be critical to the team’s motivation this year–guys like Randall Smisko, Nosan and Michael Wiggins have one last kick at the can before calling it a college career.

Superior’s goaltending tandem of Mathieu Bonnely (Jr.) and Baron Bradley (So.) are a year older, so that won’t hurt. But up and down games like the ones seen in the second half of last season won’t help.

The Devils and the details

Since his arrival as head coach in 1996, Terry Watkins has led the Wisconsin-Stout Blue Devils from the outhouse to respectability to the outhouse once more. But the past two years saw a remarkable turnaround as the team went from six wins in 2002-03 to a record of 14-10-3 last year. Two questions remain: Which team shows up this year? Will they make the most of a winning season?

Now the details. There’s no question that the Blue Devils have the potential to be a sleeper team in the NCHA this year. But they’ll have to overcome the loss of departed leading scorer Mitch Kellin, whose 27 points last season paced Stout. Still, the next-closest scorer had only two goals and 14 points, a huge discrepancy in offensive output.

With a very young roster, the Blue Devils will try and outwork teams rather than match up talent and experience-wise. Hey–it worked for the Calagary Flames last year…

The rest…

Wisconsin-Stevens Point–There’s nothing really wrong with the Pointers. It’s just that unlike previous years, they don’t have the same strengths in all areas. With two freshman goaltenders and an offense that can score–but not set the world on fire–Joe Baldarotta will have a couple of years to make a winner out of some disparity in experience

Wisconsin-Eau Claire–The Blugolds have a good opportunity this season, not necessarily to win the league championship, but to build on the foundation started by coach J.F. LaForest. You can’t expect a great deal from a team that went 1-22-2 just two seasons ago. But LaForest put together a solid squad (and a winning season) in 2003-04. Senior forwards Phil Cherneski and Rob Ouimette will have to provide steady leadership for a Blugold team that is just beginning to gel.

St. Scholastica–The Saints enter this season with a new coach (Mark Wick), new systems and not many expectations. Although they have a couple of goaltenders who are no strangers to seeing a lot of shots, they still aren’t quite ready to carry the team. Meanwhile, the forwards do a good job of sharing the puck and the defense has room to grow. With this template in place, it’s up to Wick to try and get St. Scholastica moving ahead.


St. Olaf @ #4 St. Norbert (Friday, 11/19)

A big test for the Oles. St. Norbert is at home with a lot of confidence after moving up three spots in the national polls. But the Oles are primed for an upset. Seriously, I could flip a coin on this one (Why not? It couldn’t hurt after my picks last week). But, I’ll play it safe and stick with St. Norbert on this night.

St. Mary’s @ Wisconsin-Superior (Friday, 11/19)

The Yellowjackets can’t afford to slow down, even this early in the season. Too much defense, too much goaltending. Superior downs St. Mary’s easily.

St. Olaf @ Lake Forest (Saturday, 11/20)

This is where the Oles get even. Both teams are on the verge of inching their way back into the polls. One of them has to make their move, and St. Olaf will need this win to do that if they indeed lose to St. Norbert. Take the Oles over the Foresters in overtime.

#5 St. Thomas @ #10 Wisconsin-Superior (Saturday, 11/13)

Everyone wants to know: are the Tommies for real? They fell short last week, going 0-1-1. But after their easy game on Friday, the Yellowjackets may feel the fatigue early and often in this one. Go ahead and take St. Thomas.