There’s still a lot of hockey to be played and regardless of where a team is now, much can change in the second half of this season. Nevertheless, there are those teams–residing in those middle spots in their conference–who are currently (or will be soon) facing critical points in their schedules, especially in the MIAC and NCHA. With conference play at the forefront, teams that are looking to give themselves not only a numerical edge, but a psychological confidence lift as well. Again, it’s still far too early to do much forecasting, but it’s at this point that league battles have truly begun in earnest. This week we check in to take a look at those teams who can especially help themselves a great deal in the next couple of weeks–either by accumulating points or playing the spoiler.
MIAC teams muscling for position
The MIAC is currently witnessing an early three-team battle unfold just beneath the unbeaten St. John’s Johnnies. With a three-way tie for second in the league, the rest of the month of January into February will be a critical juncture. For the three teams trying to gain some separation from each other, it’s appropriate that they will soon have to battle it out amongst each other to do just that. These teams include:
1) A team falling a bit short of their expectations so far (St. Thomas)
2) One doing better than anyone thought possible (Bethel)
3) One team pretty much satisfying preseason predictions (Augsburg)
“We have not played up to our potential,” said St. Thomas coach Terry Skrypek, whose team was riddled with injuries in the first half. “We are somewhat back to full strength. Our goalie was out for two weeks and our captain, Dustan Lick, is near 100 percent.”
Though St. Thomas began the season with wins over ranked NCHA teams St. Norbert (currently No. 4) and Lake Forest (preseason No. 13), they blew leads against UW-Stout and Superior for a loss and a tie, respectively, in two of their next three games. Then, they tied a St. Scholastica team they should have beaten with little trouble. While those games individually do not make or break a season, losing points–and momentum–in the regular season can most certainly have an effect down the line.
“Our team can’t look past any weekend,” said Skrypek of the upcoming playoff push. “We have to show up for every game.”
Skrypek believes the MIAC has become energized this season because of its increased competitiveness.
“The MIAC is very balanced this year. Every team is capable of beating someone on any given day,” said Skrypek, who believes the top MIAC teams are beginning to be on equal footing with the NCHA in particular.
As the Tommies look toward the next few weeks, Skrypek had nothing but complimentary things to say about his fellow cohorts now clambering for position.
“Bethel without a doubt is the biggest surprise in our league,” Skrypek said. “No one expected them to be contenders for the MIAC title…[and] Augsburg had a great recruiting year and will also be a factor in the race.”
To say that the Royals’ 2004-05 season is an improvement over last year would be an understatement. For Peter Aus, his 11th season behind the bench at Bethel has been a memorable one, to say the least.
“At this point … I am very pleased with the way the season has gone,” Aus said. “We had the best record of any MIAC team versus the NCHA and are off to a good start in the MIAC. Our 10-3-0 record is by far the best start we have had in my time at Bethel.”
Aus said that part of the reason for Bethel’s success derives from a more confident mindset on the part of his team, as well as team-wide improvement in their own zone.
“We have a great group of young men who have their sights set high,” said Aus. “Our team has been focused and [we’ve] kept from panicking if we’ve fallen behind. Our team defense and goaltending has been excellent and we have spread the scoring around to several different players.”
As the scoring has become more balanced, the Royals now have multiple weapons at their disposal, a fact that has shocked opponents expecting a weaker Bethel squad. But now that the surprise factor is gone for the Royals, they must focus on finishing strong. Aus believes that these conference matches are critical, especially considering what happened last year at this time.
When they entered full-tilt conference play last December, the Royals were 0-5-1 and obviously weren’t a factor in the overall D-III landscape, let alone the West. So they concentrated on the task of getting wins in their own league, and they won their first series–only to lose the next 12 through January and into February before winning their last two games. Aus wants to make sure history does not repeat itself in 2005.
“Obviously we are not the same team [this year] but we treat each MIAC game as a playoff game,” Aus said. “Each is important and there are no teams we can take lightly.”
Aus agrees with Skrypek in his assessment of the MIAC as a whole.
“Certainly St. Thomas and St. John’s are the favorites but throughout the rest of the league every game will be a dog fight,” said Aus. “Augsburg is off to a great MIAC start. … I think the MIAC overall is stronger and is very balanced.”
Augsburg’s year has gone according to predictions and coach Mike Schwartz has used the first half of the season to get a team with more than a few new faces accustomed to one another.
“We have come along right on schedule. We had a young team last year, and this year, with the good recruiting class we had, we changed over a lot of player again,” Schwartz said. “It has taken us the first half of the year to get acquainted and understand our approach to the game.”
The Auggies did not fare well in their early season tests against the NCHA and then failed to close out series against Minnesota-Crookston and Concordia. However, Augsburg has bounced back (albeit against struggling teams) and Schwartz realizes that his team must up the intensity to compete regularly.
“With only five teams making the playoffs in our league you have to treat every series as a playoff scenario,” said Schwartz. “[Goalie] Tony Ciro is going to have to play with the same intensity as his last four games and our special teams need to be very good to contend for the title.”
Whether or not Augsburg can come through this season is very much up in the air. Until they can show a consistency in their games against stronger opponents, Augsburg is definitely the longshot of the group. Still, Schwartz will probably be happy with the experience his new core of players will get as the games take on new meaning.
NCHA tight near the top
For Wisconsin-River Falls, the time is now, according to head coach Steve Freeman.
“Every point is precious in the NCHA because it is usually very tight for playoff positions at the end of the regular season,” said Freeman, whose Falcons are facing a couple of key games against co-league leaders in the near future–this Saturday at home against St. Norbert, and on Jan. 21 when UWRF goes on the road to face Wisconsin-Superior.
“The NCHA is the toughest, most competitive league from top to bottom in the nation at this level,” Freeman said. “We always have four or five extremely strong teams and a brutal schedule … so now we are jockeying for position and measuring ourselves to see where we are and where we have to go before playoff time. Playing St. Norbert and Superior over the next [few] weekends will certainly make us battle harder.”
This will be the first time the Falcons have seen either team this year. Though they’ve only lost once (3-1-0) in their still-young conference schedule, River Falls has seen its ups and downs in its season overall.
“[W]e’ve been very inconsistent,” said Freeman. “We have 13 new players in our program and getting everyone on the same page has been challenging.”
Freeman admitted that his nationally-ranked team has had moments of overconfidence this year, and that perhaps that tendency has been a factor in the inconsistency.
“At times, we’ve gotten ahead of ourselves and overlook our opponent, which has cost us,” Freeman said. “I know coaches don’t overlook anybody but convincing the players–especially on a young team–not to overlook anyone will be the key.”
The Falcons can ill afford to be overconfident now as they approach the matchup with St. Norbert. Though their recent string of wins includes some wins against weaker teams in Marian, St. Scholastica and a slumping Lake Forest, St. Norbert is not to be taken lightly, according to Freeman.
“St. Norbert may be the most talented team in the country at this level,” said Freeman. “[They’re] very fast, skilled and physical, which can really present problems that become magnified on special teams…so you have to be disciplined to give yourself the best opportunity for success.”
In action last season, River Falls went 1-1-0 against St. Norbert. But what lingers for Freeman and his squad are the losses to the Green Knights in the playoffs the past two years. Still, the Falcons seem to realize via Freeman that getting the chance to settle a playoff score is earned in the regular season.
“I believe [we] will keep improving as we continue on, which we hope is fast enough to put us in the hunt at the end of the season,” Freeman said. “It’s a great rivalry, and we are excited about the challenges that are coming up…As I said, nothing comes easy in the NCHA.”
The Pointers are in an interesting position. Last week they caught a tired Superior team at the end of a stretch that saw the Yellowjackets play three games in three nights. Stevens Point earned a tie that night and lost the next evening to St. John’s, but a point out of that weekend is better than a lot of teams could muster.
So began a six-game road stretch that will take them back to Superior on Friday and out to St. Norbert seven days later. While the Pointers have only won an away game once this year, they’ve only played six of 15 games away from their own building–so it would be premature to say they have a difficult time winning on the road.
Here’s why this could be an intriguing stretch for Stevens Point … and the NCHA in general. It would be overly optimistic to say that Stevens Point will upset Superior on Friday, but Joe Baldarotta’s team may be able to build on their recent experience against the Jackets to put a scare into Superior. But this is if everything falls into place for the Pointers, a scenario that they would need to play out against St. Norbert as well.
However, if they can get wins at St. Scholastica and Lake Forest–and at least be competitive, or better yet, get a point or two against Superior and St. Norbert–the Pointers will have set themselves up nicely in terms of their own confidence. Staring down the barrel of six straight on the road is an unenviable position for any team, but especially for teams in the NCHA. All in all, a big test.
Games of note …
MSOE @ Northland, January 14 & 15
• Not a clash of the titans, but should give the Raiders some more distance between themselves and the rest of the pack.
UW-Stevens Point @ UW-Superior, January 14
St. Norbert @ UW-River Falls, January 15
• As mentioned before, Stevens Point would love to shock Superior on the Jackets’ home ice. But Superior is rested, up to the task and should pull this one out.
• River Falls would also like to make a statement against the other NCHA leader. St. Norbert has been beating up on lesser teams lately and may be ripe for a loss. Tough call here, but look for the Falcons to make it close, if not win on Saturday.
St. Thomas @ St. Olaf, January 14; St. Olaf @ St. Thomas, January 15
• These teams played each other very close last season, tying each other at St. Olaf, then moving to St. Thomas where the Tommies squeaked out a win. The Tommies can’t overlook anyone, but the Oles make it interesting on their home ice. Could be a weekend split.