This Week in West Region D-III: Dec. 2, 2004

When it comes to early season expectations this year at St. John’s, goaltender Adam Hanna says it best.

“It’s silly to think you’ll go undefeated the whole year,” said Hanna. [But] you can’t lose to teams early in the year, especially those you’re supposed to beat.”

Hanna speaks from experience. Since his arrival from St. Cloud State two years ago, the Johnnies have won the MIAC regular season title and even a MIAC championship in 2002-2003. But despite the great win-loss records, the preseason All-American honors and the 5-0-0 start this season, everyone in Johnnieland knows that this team could have–and maybe should have–loftier standards for the club.

“I certainly don’t stress that [past regular seasons] to the guys,” said head coach John Harrington, now in his 12th season at the helm. “We prefer to look right in front of us at the game ahead.”

Though they won their final 16 games before losing to St. Thomas in the MIAC final last year, Harrington believes the Johnnies failed to prepare themselves sufficiently for what an outsider would consider “easy” early season games against weaker opponents. Taking the non-conference competition lightly is something that Harrington and his team don’t want to relive this season.

“We have to understand as the two-time defending regular season champions that all teams will be ready to play us,” Harrington said. “We can’t make assumptions about who we play.”

St. John’s points leader Ryan Langenbrunner (2-7-9) knows that a better record means a better seed in the playoffs, and that early games might make all the difference in giving the team an edge. In their first five games, St. John’s has outscored its opponents 33-10. But juniors Langenbrunnerand Hanna want to make sure overconfidence doesn’t set in as the Johnnies begin conference play this weekend, with a home-and-home series against Gustavus Adolphus.

“Those [early games] are games we should win and work on different things,” said Langenbrunner. “But playing against these teams that are working hard…you might beat them but you develop some bad habits and you have to overcome those.”

Hanna, a preseason All-American who is undefeated (3-0-0) this year with a 1.33 GAA agrees with the notion that the team must stay sharp, even while playing what might seem like meaningless non-conference games.

“We’ve had some defensive zone problems … when you’re up a bunch of goals, everyone wants to get in on the act offensively,” Hanna said, specifically noting the team’s wins over Northland in the first two games (11-0 and 9-3, respectively). “You start to forget about your own zone, and everybody rushes to the front. You’ve got to fight through that and [understand] that the level of competition goes up through the season.”

Finlandia finding their way in MCHA

Though they were somewhat of an unknown quantity prior to the start of their conference matchups, new addition Finlandia is holding steady in their first year in the MCHA, and their third season in existence. The Lions are familiar with a couple of MCHA teams (Minn.-Crookston and Northland), having played them in non-conference games the previous two years, but now they have the chance to see how they stack up against regular league competition.

Thus far, Finlandia has adjusted fairly well to its new environment. They are 3-4-0 overall and are 2-2-0 in league play, picking up wins against the Milwaukee School of Engineering and Lawrence along the way.

Most impressive has been the play of the Finlandia underclassmen. With only four upperclassmen on the roster, the freshmen and sophomores have stepped up their play and occupy the first four slots on the scoring chart. Mike Parks, a freshman forward, has led the way, averaging over a point per game and was named the MCHA freshman of the week for his four-point offensive outburst in Finlandia’s weekend split at Lawrence in late November. Parks has nine points on the year and has been aided by fellow underclassmen–and point-per-gamers–Joe Lewis and Jamie Leffler.

Nevertheless, defense still remains a struggle for this young team. In five of their first seven games they have given up over 40 shots, including a game against MSOE, in which they won 7-5 despite being peppered with 52 shots. With two inexperienced goalies, team defense has to improve before Finlandia can make its move up the MCHA ranks.

The Royal Treatment

Speaking of moving up the ranks, the most surprising team of the past three weeks has been the Bethel Royals, who are quietly making opposing teams very nervous–and also making people forget their dismal 6-17-1 record of last year.

After being trounced 8-2 by Wisconsin-Eau Claire in their opener, Bethel–under the tutelage coach Peter Aus–has fashioned a 5-1-0 record by beating the likes of Wisconsin-Stout, Lake Forest and Wisconsin-River Falls. As the icing on the cake, the Royals broke into this week’s Division III poll at No. 15.

“The first game we played this year, we got beat pretty bad,” said Aus. “We told our guys that we just weren’t satisfied, that we really haven’t seen what they could do.”

With last year’s disappointing campaign behind them, and since the opening night defeat, the Royals have truly embraced the team concept, something that Aus believes has sparked their current success.

“We have quite a few guys back from last year, and we were actually in a lot of [last season’s] games, but we just couldn’t get the wins,” Aus said. “Our returning guys made up their minds then…our whole attitude changed.”

Sophomore Ryan Adams is one of those returning players who is finding out what a difference a year makes. With his seven goals on the year, he has nearly matched his grand total of eight goals last season.

Also playing well is sophomore netminder Dustin Thompson, who delivered Bethel’s first shutout ever during the Peter Aus era. Aus takes a different perspective with regard to his underclassmen, which is perhaps the reason they have performed so well up to this point.

“Your young guys determine the leadership of your team,” said Aus, who instructs his junior and senior players to serve the underclassmen by hauling gear, gathering pucks in practice and all the other traditional “rookie” duties. “Our older guys realize that we have six freshmen playing very well right now, and that a lot depends on them. A big key to our team is that our guys have gotten along really well. That’s a huge thing.”

Of course, it doesn’t hurt a team’s confidence to get wins over top 5 teams like River Falls, either.

“That was a huge win for us,” Aus said. “You match up well against certain teams, and for some crazy reason we seem to play well against [River Falls].”

As they move into their conference schedule (beginning with St. Mary’s this weekend) we’ll just have to wait and see if Bethel can handle the transformation from spoiler to contender.

“I don’t think we’ll be sneaking up on anybody from now on,” said Aus.

Doubting Tommies?

After beating St. Norbert and Lake Forest in their first two outings, the question began being asked: Are the Tommies for real? They appeared to have everything in place–an experienced team, consistent goaltending and a seasoned coach with a proven track record.

So why–after their early success–does the team stand at 3-2-3 after eight games?

The first finger gets pointed at captain Dustan Lick, not because he hasn’t produced, but because of the shoulder injury that held him out of a handful of games the Tommies could have been competitive in, if not won. When Lick is healthy, he can break games wide open while either passing or scoring. His absence is one of the reasons St. Thomas has slipped a bit in the rankings. If you need proof, look at the box scores since the injury occurred at St. Scholastica.

Two consecutive ties against St. Scholastica and Wisconsin-Superior added to a four game slump that saw the Tommies follow up their great start with a whimper, going 0-1-3.

Therein lies the second reason for the recent trouble at St. Thomas. Though Lick is a fantastic player, he is surrounded by equally capable counterparts. So why is it that the Tommies can’t seem to put various teams away for good, rather than scrambling for (or giving up) a late goal for a tie?

Although the situation isn’t dire yet, St. Thomas must make up ground. A good opportunity presents itself this weekend against Hamline.

Battle of the Wisconsins

This weekend begins NCHA league play, and all eyes are focused on the battles of the various arms of the Wisconsin empire. The surprising Blugolds of Wisconsin-Eau Claire will go up against Wisconsin-River Falls this Friday. River Falls has only given up 14 goals so far this season, while Eau Claire has a nice six-game win streak going.

But remember, the Blugolds lost to both River Falls and Stevens Point earlier this year in what are officially non-conference games. Plus, wins over Gustavus Adolphus and Concordia aren’t true measurements of greatness. Eau Claire will get the chance to prove itself for real this weekend. Look for the No. 5 Falcons to eke this one out.

Other games this weekend…

Finlandia @ Marian (December 3 & 4)

This is a chance for Finlandia to get its first major MCHA challenge. Marian has been lousy on the road this year (0-4-1), so they should get a boost from playing on their home rink. Still, Finlandia remains a mystery to most of its conference opponents, so the “nothing to lose” factor is on their side. I see Marian getting the win on Friday, but Finlandia earns the split with a win on Saturday.

#12 St. Thomas @ Hamline (December 3); Hamline @ St. Thomas (December 4)

The Tommies dropped four spots to #12 in the DIII poll this week, and they need to get on track–big time. The two wins they should get against Hamline should do the trick.

#7 Wisconsin-Superior @ #4 St. Norbert (December 3)

This is a big game for both teams. The Yellowjackets have been road warriors, playing away from Wessman Arena for five of their first seven games. In those road games they have outscored the opposition by a combined total of 26-10. St. Norbert has played good, consistent hockey since their 1-2-0 start. In reality, this game looks about as even as it could get, but Superior gets the edge–and the win–this Friday.