At the holiday break, everything in the West appears to be going to plan. The NCHA still remains the strongest of the three leagues, the MIAC has had a few surprises and the MCHA — well, let’s just say that in two to four years, that league will look a lot better.
So now, as players head home for mom’s cooking, we’re left to sort out the season so far and what to expect when play resumes in the West in January. To get into the spirit of this festive holiday season, I’ll be playing Santa and giving teams gifts based on their performance so far, whether they’ve been good, average to disappointing, or just not a factor.
To be fair, I’m also handing out a gifts to myself based on the success (or lack thereof) of my weekly individual game picks: a lump of coal and copies of Pearl Harbor, Gigli and Jersey Girl to reflect and commemorate my own embarrassing Affleckian descent into prognostication mediocrity. What he has done to contemporary film, I have done to weekly game picks. My apologies.
NCHA: Success Points North
The NCHA was picked to be the cream of the crop in the West, and this year has been no exception. Currently, three NCHA teams are ranked in the USCHO.com D-III top 10: St. Norbert (No. 4), Wisconsin-Superior (No. 5) and Wisconsin-River Falls (T-No. 9). While all three of these teams have looked good in their few conference games, they’ve also made the most of early season contests against weaker opponents.
• River Falls has looked unsure of itself at times, being defeated by Stevens Point and tying Augsburg and Bethel, although Bethel has surprised a few rivals this year. Consistency should be the key for Steve Freeman’s team as they begin 2005 with games against St. Olaf and Marian–games that they should expect to win. Getting momentum in those games would bode well for their next three contests against tough customers Lake Forest (who should be a much healthier team by January), St. Norbert and Superior.
• St. Norbert began the season a bit slowly, but has racked up wins–and goals–since early November. They’ve got no more non-conference patsies to look forward to, so their offense may slow down. If their goaltending holds up, that would help a great deal as they face stronger teams. To do that, Eric Van Den Bosch needs to cut down his goals against, and promising freshman Kyle Jones must continue his tremendous play (5-0-0, 1 shutout) in a backup role.
• Dan Stauber’s Superior Yellowjackets still have yet to lose a game. They’ve got a big challenge ahead of them on January 6 when they face fellow undefeated team St. John’s. After that, they have five straight home games to pad their record before hitting the road for the home stretch. But considering that they’ve only played three home games this season and stand at 9-0-3 on the season while only allowing 26 goals, going on the road shouldn’t matter all that much.
Socks and Underwear
• Lake Forest: As I wrote last week, many of the Foresters’ woes this season have been the result of forces out of their control: injuries, sudden player moves, etc. Once this team gets healthy, they’ll be back on track.
• Wisconsin-Stout: They began the season with a win here, a tie there. A couple of wins here, a couple of losses there. For the past two weeks, it’s just been ties and losses. They won’t be able to score 5+ goals every night, especially with the schedule they have left.
• Wisconsin-Eau Claire: They may not be contenders for a while, but coach J.F. Laforest should be commended for taking a 1-22-0 team and making them respectable.
• Wisconsin-Stevens Point, St. Scholastica
MIAC: Surprises, Darkhorses and Disappointments
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
• St. John’s has beaten every team they should have, and that just happens to be all nine teams they’ve faced so far. With a paltry 15 goals against them, St. John’s is the cream of the MIAC crop. They’ll get some good competition in early January and early to mid-February from the likes of Superior, Bethel and if they get their act together, St. Thomas. Their upperclassmen have been sensational, especially at the forward position. Still, the key for the Johnnies will be goaltending, and Adam Hanna has been nothing short of brilliant in that capacity. St. John’s feels they have a great deal to prove; they’ll get their chance in the latter half of this season.
• Bethel has been the surprise team in the West, using wins against River Falls, Lake Forest and Stout as confidence builders to propel them into the DIII polls. Though they have since fallen out of the top 15, the Royals are still on the cusp in most pollsters’ minds. Coach Peter Aus has done a phenomenal job in keeping the early success from going to his team’s head. Look for Bethel to keep up the pressure in the MIAC the rest of the way.
• St. Thomas: The team with so many expectations has faltered this season, but especially in the crucial month of November, going a disappointing 3-2-3 for the month. Terry Skrypek’s Tommies had a great December, however, and are looking to build on that momentum.
• Augsburg: The Auggies didn’t fare well in their crossover with the NCHA, but have won five of their last seven since then. Junior forward Joe Haehn has potted six goals on the power play, and the team has gotten decent offensive production from their blueline.
• St. Olaf: The Oles aren’t lighting the world on fire, but they’re not imploding either at 3-3-2. More goal scoring from their veterans would help, but remember, they’ve only played eight games so far. There’s much yet to be seen here.
St. Mary’s, Gustavus Adolphus, Hamline, Concordia
MCHA: Slowly Getting Better
• MSOE: Milwaukee School of Engineering has been the beneficiary of having seven of their eight wins come in-conference. But in the MCHA, with all of its developing teams, winning the league at this point means everything. After being tied with Lawrence for the conference lead, they made a statement in beating the Vikings in back-to-back games last weekend. If the Raiders can capitalize on this, they’ll pace the rest of the conference.
• Lawrence: It’s a steadily developing team with a few proven stars in Pete Mossberg and Mike Burkhart, and emerging forces in players like freshman defenseman Josh Peterson. Still, for all their speed, the Vikings must develop with patience and use this season to learn how to win consistently and bounce back after missed opportunities.
• Finlandia: The Lions have been respectable in their first MCHA season, getting wins against league leaders MSOE and Lawrence. They’re an incredibly young team–nine of their top 10 scorers are underclassmen–and are seen by many observers as a team that can surprise anyone on a given night. As long as they can keep this core together, look for this team to get better in the coming years and be a force as these young Lions mature.
Marian, Minnesota-Crookston, Northland
That’s the story for the season thus far in the West, but there’s plenty of time for things to change — that’s the great thing about college hockey.
On that note, I’d like to wish every D-III fan out there a great holiday season, and I’ll see you on the other side in ’05.