This Week in West Region D-III: Dec. 9, 2004

Sometimes, bad luck will hit a team for no apparent reason. And sometimes bad luck will clock a team like Jermaine O’Neal on a tubby, court-storming Pistons fan.

Such is the case with this year’s Lake Forest team, ranked No. 13 in USCHO’s D-III preseason poll and expected start strong and eventually challenge for the NCHA title. Instead, the Foresters find themselves at 5-5-1. But don’t ask if this team is searching for answers; coach Tony Fritz knows exactly what ails his Lake Forest team-pure, bad mojo.

“You never want to make excuses for a slow start, but the fact is, three of our best rookies did not come back this year. We really got surprised,” said Fritz.

The players, defenseman Bill Fetherston, forward Scott Taje and last year’s third-leading scorer Cam Doull all elected not to return to Lake Forest. A problem, to be sure, but not necessarily a harbinger of doom for entire season. Unless, of course, the players announce their departure in September.

“One of the [departed players] I haven’t even heard from yet. He left to become a firefighter,” Fritz said. “Another wanted to play and was upset about leaving … he and the other player wanted to go into particular academic programs at different schools. I can respect that.”

What Fritz had most trouble with was the awful timing of the announcement. Because of the anticipated return of three valuable freshmen, Fritz and his staff didn’t recruit any blue chip players during the offseason, leaving a void the head coach felt would be filled by equally capable players.

In the first 11 games of this season, however, the Foresters have gotten a second dose of horrible luck with injuries. Gigantic forward Matt Forsyth (6-7, 240) went down with an MCL injury, but the most alarming are the injuries suffered by four of last year’s top six scorers: Ryan Panet (MCL), Tyler Steen (shoulder separation) and most recently, its top two scorers this year in forwards Tyler Canal (shoulder injury) and Robin Charest (MCL).

Don’t look to Fritz to pin the season’s lackluster start totally on bad luck. Just forgive him if he chuckles a bit at the almost comical string of misfortune suffered by Lake Forest.

“It’s just Murphy’s Law,” said Fritz. “All the bad things that could happen did happen. I just think we’re going to get a lot better once we get healthy. Right now we’re getting chances but we can’t finish…our goalies have yet to play their very best, and if we get can get healthy, we will be tough to beat.”

Entering this season, the Foresters had rising expectations. Since the 2000-01 season the team had made steady improvement and went 18-6-4 last season. Nonetheless, despite the injuries and early departures, Fritz believes his team is patient enough to ride out the storm and contend once again in the NCHA.

It won’t be an easy road, however. The battered Foresters need all the rest they can get until they play their next games in the Times-Argus invitational against No. 2 Manhattanville (Dec. 30) and either Elmira or No. 3 Norwich (Dec. 31st)

“We did it before and we can do it again,” said Fritz of his team’s efforts to regroup. “You can’t lie to yourself about it being just [bad luck]. I’m not sure that once you’ve got some success, you can get it again without doing the work to get there…[the players] have to believe that they can win. It’s what you do with what you’ve got that counts.”

A hot start for the Devils

There is another team in the NCHA whose story is reading a bit differently (at least so far) in the early part of this season. To be fair, their seven wins have come against non-conference competition. Still, the Wisconsin-Stout Blue Devils have exceeded expectations, beating St. Thomas back in November and earning two ties last week against its first two NCHA opponents, Wisconsin-Stevens Point and Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

It all starts with goal scoring for Terry Watkins’ club. As of last weekend, UW-Stout’s 59-goal total was second only to Oswego (68 goals) in Division III — an offensive output Watkins sees as a pleasant surprise.

“I thought if we were going to struggle anywhere [this year], it was going to be scoring goals,” Watkins said. [The scoring] has been spread around.”

The Blue Devils first line doesn’t do the majority of the scoring. In fact, the second and third lines have collected more points individually than the first. This kind of balance is a far cry from the team that and had difficulty recruiting talented players upon returning to DIII play in 1996 and finished 6-21-0 just two years ago.

“When you’re a new kid on the block it’s harder to get [the best] players,” said Watkins, who has led the team since the program’s mid-90s revival. “The expectations at the university are higher. Athletics are becoming a big thing now…it’s important again to overall education.”

As teams like UW-Stout get better, Watkins believes the supposed gap between elite teams and their struggling counterparts-especially in the NCHA-narrows for the better.

“The line between teams used to be really black and white … but now it’s changing to more of a grey area,” Watkins said, acknowledging the need to utilize skill and speed to surprise the top teams. “There’s no weekend off in the NCHA. If you don’t play well, you don’t get points. We make our kids aware of what they’re going to see … and we love to outwork people.”

At times, there is a temptation among coaches to stress a strict defensive scheme when a team is finally getting its legs and gelling as a team. Watkins, on the other hand, has no time for the clutch-and-grab defensive antics and quasi-traps employed by some of the bigger, more physical teams. In fact, this may be the best time of all for the Blue Devils to go on the offensive, with referees watching obstruction like hawks throughout college hockey.

“I guess I’m kind of [traditional],” Watkins said. “I like the creativity of offense. I just think the flow is so much better.”

The Blue Devils have put a premium on goaltending as well. Watkins’ and staff have played four goalies this year, but will be primarily relying on the freshman tandem of Jake Schuman and backup Mike Stone. Is there a risk in playing rookies over the long haul in the West’s toughest league?

“Both of them are playing well,” said Watkins, who has been happy with the quick learning curve of his young netminders. “How well they hold up over the season is another matter.”

Vikings raiding first place

Tom Conti’s scoring records are falling at Lawrence. Last weekend, Viking forward Mike Burkhart (7 goals this season) scored his 41st career goal to surpass Conti (Lawrence ’02), and Ryan Blick notched his 51st career assist to pass the former Viking great.

“It was quite cool,” Blick (1-8-9) said of the broken records. “We knew we were close, but not how close.[Not knowing] took the pressure off.”

Lawrence coach David Ruhly believes that both players-but especially Blick-deserved the accolades for their achievements.

“Last year, [Blick] was out almost all season. It’s been great to have his leadership on the ice this year,” Ruhly said of his assistant captain.

Currently, Lawrence shares the MCHA lead with the Milwaukee School of Engineering with matching league records of 5-1-0. The two teams will meet up December 11 and 12 for the first time this season. This will be a big test, because while they’re not a storied program, Lawrence hockey is worth talking about this year-If for no other reason than to marvel at their persistence.

After struggling through one, four and eight-win seasons, Lawrence looked like the next breakthrough team in the MCHA with a 12-15-0 season in 2002-03. The team then took a step back last year, netting only four wins.

“Last year we had three guys that left right away. That took its toll on the team,” Ruhly said.

Instead of instructing the team to simply try and stay with opposing teams rather than beat them, Ruhly used a mental approach to get the team back on the right track.

“We’ve talked about [positivity] non-stop … and putting [the players] in the right mindset,” said Ruhly, now in his fifth year as head coach. “We wanted to bring intensity and focus to every shift.”

“We definitely have had some obstacles to overcome,” Blick said. “The seniors we have are experienced, and we look forward to our [MCHA] schedule.”

That optimistic outlook is bolstered by recruiting steals like freshman blueliner Josh Peterson (2-8-10), who is fourth on the team in total scoring and who has impressed the Lawrence coaching staff with his mature play in all three zones.

“It’s really great to have [Peterson] here,” said Ruhly. “He’s made an excellent contribution to the defense.”

Peterson’s quiet humility belies a true gamer who wants the puck in every key situation. “I like to use my skating to get past guys,” said Peterson. “The more I handle the puck and spread things out, the better.”

Lawrence will need contributions from both young and old if it wants to continue its winning ways. Although the MCHA isn’t as prominent a league as the NCHA or the SUNYAC, its style of play is one that can give nightmares to even the most elite of teams.

“I’m sure we’re classified as a sub-par league, but we’re a fast-paced league,” said Blick. Teams like Lawrence in the MCHA have been concentrating on getting numerous power play chances against larger teams whose aggressiveness often leads to penalties. “We’re not the biggest conference, but we make up for it with speed,” Blick said. “And especially with the [increase in penalties] this year, those power plays make a huge difference.”

Ruhly agrees, noting that the MCHA gets better — and gets better recruits — with every year.

“All in all, our league is making improvements,” Ruhly said. “It’s real college hockey. Kids want a shot and want to play, and [they] have the opportunity to play in this league right away. That’s something that a lot of the other conferences don’t have.”

Trouble subsides for Gusties

Anyone who was in the stands at Don Roberts arena for the game between Gustavus Adolphus and St. John’s on December 4 had to think something was out of the ordinary. The Gusties that took the ice weren’t the familiar names everyone was used to. In fact, the team looked suspiciously like the Gustavus Adolphus JV squad.

Indeed it was the JV team — save for a few varsity players — that dropped the puck against the Johnnies and were blown out 7-0. The reason? Coach Brett Petersen suspended 20 players after he discovered that specific team rules were broken during Thanksgiving weekend. After discovering the rule violations, Petersen and his staff decided to hand down the suspensions en masse as opposed to a drawn out series of small group suspensions throughout the season.

“All we’re stating is that it was a violation of team rules,” said Petersen, whose team faces Marian on December 11. “It was just a one-game deal … there was no school [sanction], just a team rules policy.”

The rule that was broken is still officially unknown, and Petersen declined to comment as to the specifics of the incident, saying only that nothing criminal took place. However, sources have stated that those players involved left the team hotel and went out on a mini-road trip/party, a violation of Gustavus team policy.

While the incident itself turned out not to be as earth-shattering as it first appeared on December 4, the sheer volume of players suspended at once drew attention throughout Division III. After the suspensions at Skidmore and Bowling Green in this season, it appeared that perhaps another college hockey team would be mired in scandal.

In fact, Petersen’s move to suspend everyone at once was the best he could have made in order to put the events of Thanksgiving weekend behind the team. Dragging the suspensions out would have made the molehill of an isolated incident into a mountain of questions and speculation.

“It’s been a difficult situation..[but] it was a learning experience. We’ve used it as a teaching moment,” Petersen said. “We hopefully can learn more about ourselves from this.”


Wisconsin-Stout @ #9 Wisconsin-River Falls (December 10);
#9 Wisconsin-River Falls @ Wisconsin-Stout (December 11)

The Falcons had a mixed bag last weekend. They got three 3rd period goals on Friday to beat Eau Claire. The next night they had to play catch-up and paid the price, dropping one to Stevens-Point. Accordingly, River Falls dropped four places in the Division III polls. Meanwhile, Stout got two ties in its first NCHA matchups. The question is, which River Falls team will show up? If it’s the one we all expected at the beginning of the season, the Falcons win the weekend. If not, we’re looking at a split series or a tie for one of the games in this home-and-home series.

Wisconsin-Eau Claire @ Wisconsin-Stevens Point (December 10);
Wisconsin-Stevens Point @ Wisconsin-Eau Claire (December 11)

The Blugolds got fat on their non-conference schedule, winning six in a row before running into River Falls (L, 5-3) and Stout (T, 2-2). If they relive their in-conference collapse of last year, it could sink their season. Stevens Point has been inconsistent at best, but has the potential to surprise a team. Eau Claire needs to prevent a flameout. Look for the Blugolds to be on the positive end of a win and a tie this weekend.

Lawrence @ Milwaukee School of Engineering (December 11);
Milwaukee School of Engineering @ Lawrence (December 12)

On any other occasion, this matchup may not garner that much attention. But with Lawrence and MSOE both standing atop the MCHA at 5-1-0, this weekend will give one of these teams an edge before their late-January rematch. These are just too close to call, so look for a split with a win going to each home team.

St. Olaf @ #15 Bethel (December 10);
#15 Bethel @ St. Olaf (December 11)

Bethel has been a great story so far, and continued their winning ways last weekend with a sweep of St. Mary’s. The Oles haven’t done much scoring over the past three games, averaging 2 goals per game. That won’t cut it in the long run, and Bethel will be coming into these matchups with a full head of steam. With Bethel getting the first game at home, the momentum should carry through the entire weekend and the Royals keep their intriguing win streak going.