This Week in West Region D-III: Jan. 20, 2005

Green Knights hoping to finish strong

Before the season began, it would have been understandable if St. Norbert started a bit slowly out of the gate after falling just short of a national championship last year. After all, a long playoff run takes the steam out of many clubs.

And that’s exactly what happened — if you can call beginning the season 1-2-0 a remnant of a post-playoff hangover. But that’s precisely how St. Norbert coach Tim Coghlin described his team’s first three games.

“For lack of a better term, we had a bit of a hangover,” said Coghlin, whose Green Knights currently sit atop the NCHA in a dead heat with UW-Superior. “We started sub-.500 for the first time in years. In the beginning of the year we were not achieving what we expected to achieve. You don’t just show up and win.”

In fact, St. Norbert had not carried a losing record in the opening games of a season — or the rest of a season for that matter — since 1999, when the team went 2-3-0 over their first five contests. They eventually went on to lose only two more games including the playoffs. Not exactly the longest of droughts.

So, as the 2004-05 campaign got underway, Coghlin wanted to make sure his team understood that getting through the regular season and into a redemptive playoff run wasn’t going to happen just because they willed it so. Furthermore, the team would once again have to go toe-to-toe with its league rivals before even having a sniff at the NCAAs.

“We’ve won the league twice in a row. We get a lot of teams’ best games,” Coghlin said. “When you play in the NCHA, you can’t take any teams lightly, so we ask a lot from a dedication standpoint from our players. We’ve asked our leaders — our upperclassmen — to take hold of the ship.”

While the upperclassmen have stepped up for Coghlin, the most pleasant surprise has been the play of freshman goaltender Kyle Jones, who is undefeated this season. Jones was pursued in earnest by Coghlin this past summer, even after a year that saw incumbent starter Eric Van Den Bosch finish out his sophomore season with an 11-1-0 regular season record. By mid-season this year, Jones stepped in for Van Den Bosch on what now appears to be a permanent starting job.

“[Jones] was the goaltender we wanted this summer, and it turned out favorably for us,” said Coghlin. “Eric [Van Den Bosch] was expected to have the lion’s share of the starts. But here you [can] earn your stripes and work your way into the lineup.”

But first the Green Knights have a chore in front of them — the remainder of their games against NCHA foes. Next up: UW-Stevens Point this Friday, a team that is best when the games mean the most, in Coghlin’s estimation.

“We’ve not seen them, but they’re similar to us in different ways, [and] on the power play,” said Coghlin of the Pointers (8-6-3, 3-2-1 NCHA). “I expect the Friday game here will be a highly competitive one. [Stevens Point] have been competitive in their biggest games.”

St. Norbert may be shorthanded going into the match, as Coghlin noted his team was currently being bitten by the injury bug. Defensemen Tyler Gow and Mikael Virta are both recovering from shoulder injuries.

“We’re a little thin in the defensive end [this week],” Coghlin said. “We may end up playing just 13 forwards and five defensemen on Friday.”

A Tale of Two Goalies

As mentioned above, St. Norbert has benefited from the play of freshman goalie Kyle Jones, who currently boasts a record of 8-0-0 with a goals-against average of 1.93. While there are plenty of freshmen contributing throughout Division III, it’s a bit more rare to have a solid freshman contributor in the net. Of course, when you’re on a high-performing team like St. Norbert, a college rookie may not necessarily be counted on to stand as the team’s sole foundation.

The case is a bit different with Northland’s Todor Petkov. Usually at this time of the year, there’s not much to say about players from three-win teams; by late January’s playoff push it is the contenders that grab the headlines, and rightfully so. What’s interesting about Petkov is that over the summer, he was vying for the spot that Jones now occupies at St. Norbert. Who knows? Petkov — had his timing been different — could have been the surprise underclassman for the Green Knights.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, we get the opportunity to look at two talented young goalies nearing the completion of their debut seasons and earning the confidence of their coaches in the process. Looking even closer, we see the specific burdens and pressures of backstopping a proven winner with championship expectations versus the equally heavy weight of being the cornerstone of a team searching for a level of success still out of reach.

Kyle Jones

Kyle Jones doesn’t need (or want) to be a flashy stopper making an acrobatic diving save. He’ll tell you himself that he’d rather be a steady presence behind his defensemen in the mold of the goalies of old.

“My dad taught me everything and he’s pretty old school,” said Jones of his playing style. “I think I’m more like the old school goalies than anything.”

At the outset of his first season at St. Norbert, Jones was held in great regard by the coaching staff but not really expected to get much playing time as one of three goaltenders. Eventually Jones would get his shot. And right away, he learned some subtle differences in the college game versus the hockey he played previously in Canada.

“The guys are faster and smarter; that’s been the biggest [adjustment] so far,” said Jones.

Instead of being intimidated, Jones took the reins and played a steady positional game to complement his defensive counterparts and the Green Knight offensive attack. That ability to play with such self control has been Jones’ biggest asset, according to Coghlin.

“He’s just a very calm guy with a calm demeanor,” Coghlin said. “He’s not a kid who makes a lot of spectacular saves. He’s just in the right places at the right time, a lot of the time.”

Jones also began to understand the pressures of staying on top as the Green Knights look to get back to the title game and bring home a different result.

“We know how good we are, [but] our division is one of the toughest in the country,” said Jones. “[Upperclassmen] keep us humble. We try not to get too high or too low.”

At goalie, where confidence is everything, Jones seems to have it in spades. However, Jones is quick to point out that it was Coghlin’s trust in him that made a huge difference.

“That helps my confidence big time. Coming in I had nothing to lose and everything to prove,” Jones said. “Having three goaltenders, I didn’t expect to play much. But it’s been a great experience so far.”

Todor Petkov

Northland coach Dan Huntley will be the first to admit that he was more than a little forward when recruiting Petkov in the summer of 2004. Petkov had expressed interest in playing for Coghlin at St. Norbert, and Huntley knew that selling the young man on a Northland program that had registered only 17 total wins in its last four seasons would require a Godfather-esque offer that he couldn’t refuse.

“I told Todor, ‘I’ve seen how you play, and you’re going to be the starter from day one,'” said Huntley. “Going in, he knew this was going to be his spot to keep.”

It was done. As St. Norbert chose to go with Jones, Petkov was preparing to be the foundation of a bottom-dwelling Northland team that has struggled to recruit talent. Moreover, a sudden turnaround wasn’t in the cards for quite some time for the Lumberjacks. But Petkov reveled in being able to play a great deal as a freshman.

“[Coach Huntley] told me all I had to do was come in shape and I should play most of the games,” said Petkov.

Little did Petkov know, “most of the games” meant “all of the games.” Up to this point, Petkov has already set numerous records, most of which sprung out of necessity because of the sheer volume of shots Petkov faces. These include an MCHA record for minutes played (1,061) and a league record for most saves in a game (67 in an 8-1 defeat against Superior).

Yes, some of these records are dubious honors. Nonetheless, Petkov is happy to be seen as the fulcrum of Northland’s future — whatever it brings. And Huntley is happy to have him.

“He’s doing all kinds of great things for our program,” Huntley said. “In [many] aspects, he’s setting the stage for us to get better.”

Huntley also recognizes the toll that frequent losses can take on any player, but especially a goalie.

“It hurts when you don’t win,” said Huntley. “You want these kids to be successful. You have to find other ways to measure success. Being the little guy in the MCHA, we’re trying to get a little more respect for our team.”

For now, Petkov will have to deal with some losses and a ton of shots against him, but he appears to be as positive as he is fundamentally sound. The numbers may not show it, but Petkov is a savvy, fiery goaltender in the mold of his heroes Patrick Roy and Jean-Sebastien Giguere — a player Petkov worked with at goalie camps while the future Conn Smythe winner was beginning his career in the Hartford Whalers organization.

Still, Huntley hopes those losses may engender even more confidence in Petkov.

“It pushes a kid to be better,” Huntley said. “We’re depending on him to make big saves every game.”

“It does add pressure in every way,” said Petkov of the expectations placed on him. “My performance is the key. Even when we’re losing and I can come up with a big save, [the team] plays with more confidence. I’m just happy with playing a lot right now. I guess that’s pretty good for a freshman.”

Other games of note:

Bethel @ St. Thomas, Friday 1/21
St. Thomas @ Bethel, Saturday 1/22

These could be defining games for both teams. The Tommies swept St. Olaf last weekend and need the points to try and catch St. John’s. Bethel — fresh off a bye week — is looking to do the same, but this could definitely be a stumbling block in their surprising season. If the Royals can get some points, they could be able to use these games to give them leverage as the last three weeks of their season sees them getting well against some lesser lights in the MIAC.

UW-River Falls @ UW-Superior, Friday 1/21

Again, big tests for both teams, though Superior probably has an advantage. But remember, the past few weeks have seen the Jackets being played very closely by St. John’s and Stevens Point. River Falls can make a statement Friday, but underachievement has plagued them at various points this season.