This Week in West Region D-III: Jan. 25, 2005

West teams earn poll trifecta

After sweeping their respective series last weekend, Wisconsin-Superior, St. Norbert and St. John’s now occupy the 1-2-3 spots in the USCHO Division III poll. Manhattanville’s stay at the top of the heap was a short one and they weren’t helped by dropping their first game to Hobart while Superior and St. John’s stayed undefeated on the year.

St. John’s wasn’t expected to surpass St. Norbert on its undefeated record alone; strength of schedule has to factor in at this point and the Green Knights have the edge there. If the Knights and Jackets can continue to lead the league, this sets us up for — barring a total collapse by one or both of the teams — a heavily hyped showdown for the final game of the year, pitting Superior against St. Norbert on February 12.

So, yes, printing a few thousand “Throwdown in Souptown” t-shirts, mugs, pennants and commemorative plates may be a bit premature. We’ll just have to wait and see.

River Falls trying to keep pace

A couple of weeks ago, the Wisconsin-River Falls Falcons wanted to show the rest of the NCHA that they could sneak up on co-leaders St. Norbert and Superior, and to finally shake the “overrated” label that has accompanied them at times this year. While not necessarily overrated, River Falls has been too inconsistent to truly remain in the hunt with the top teams — and the past two weeks have shown that the Falcons, despite their top 10 ranking, have a great deal of work yet to do after dropping both contests earlier this month against the Knights and Jackets.

“Obviously when you go against [St. Norbert and Superior] back to back it’s a battle,” said River Falls head coach Steve Freeman. The Falcons were able to hang with St. Norbert and in fact, gave the Green Knights a scare after weathering 21 shots in the first and keeping the score tied at one. River Falls did eventually take the lead, but weren’t able to maintain it in a 3-2 loss.

Then came last Friday’s contest against Superior, which saw the Falcons wither under three quick goals in the second en route to a 4-1 loss. Freeman looked immediately to special teams as a deciding factor in the defeat.

“We took a lot of bad penalties and they scored two power play goals and that sunk us,” Freeman said. “We’ve been so inconsistent this year
and we’ve also played very well at times. Playing catch-up has hurt us.”

As a positive for River Falls, Freeman notes that the team is on the mend from some nagging injuries, something that will help his team as they attempt to put themselves in a better position as the regular season comes to a close.

“We’re getting healthier, which is always a plus,” said Freeman. “At this point in the season it’s all a matter of keeping everyone sharp.”

Bethel tussles with Tommies

Last weekend’s MIAC series between Bethel and St. Thomas was being anticipated not just to see if Bethel could surprise yet another team. It was also an opportunity to see if the Tommies could continue to rebound from a somewhat inconsistent first half.

The Tommies did just that, winning both of the games and staying within two points of St. John’s in the standings. The games were close, with each team getting up by two goals on both nights, only to have the other storm back and tie things up. Friday’s game required late goals from St. Thomas forwards Nick Harris and Dustan Lick to give the Tommies the win; Saturday’s match went into overtime until Kevin Rollwagen notched his second goal of the night at the 3:58 mark to end it.

Despite losing both matches, Bethel coach Peter Aus saw the series as a learning and confidence-building tool for the Royals.

“We had a great series with [St. Thomas]. The good thing is we proved that we can play with them,” said Aus, who noted that his record against the Tommies hasn’t been the most successful. “We’ve only beaten St. Thomas once since I came here in 1992. To say the least, they’ve dominated us. One of our guys said after the game, ‘This is the first time I went through the [handshake] line at the end of the game not hanging my head.'”

As the Royals looked back at the series with hope for better results in the future, others saw the games — Friday’s to be exact — in an entirely different light.

Lick was going to the Bethel net late in the third period, looking to increase the Tommies’ lead by two. As Lick scored on the rebound, he was hit by Bethel’s Kris Birch and subsequently went into the boards at a bad angle, breaking his leg. A fracas ensued, and the Tommie bench was fuming at what they believed to be a dirty hit on Birch’s part. By the time everything cleared up, Birch was given four minutes for roughing and St. Thomas was once again without its All-American forward.

St. Thomas coach Terry Skrypek was unavailable for comment on the situation, but Aus maintained that there was no intent to injure on Birch’s part.

“Unfortunately, [Lick] went into the boards. It was just one of those things where it just so happened he went down a certain way,” Aus said. “I looked at the tape about 20 times. The hit wasn’t a cheap shot.”

There is probably still some debate with regard to the hit. The part of the story that’s not in question is that the competitive nature of the two games made it clear that the MIAC isn’t just a one-team race. Nevertheless, the one team that everyone will have their eyes on is St. John’s as both St. Thomas and Bethel face the Johnnies in the first two weeks of February.

Bad luck for Lick

With his broken leg, Dustan Lick has seen his college hockey career (at least in the regular season) officially ended. However, the word out of St. Thomas is that Lick might be ready for any playoff games the Tommies may play. The full prognosis could not be verified through the St. Thomas Athletic Training office, as those records are confidential. Hopefully Lick can come back in some form or fashion for the Tommies to end his career at St. Thomas in a better way.

Games of note:

Augsburg @ Bethel, Friday 1/28
Bethel @ Augsburg, Saturday 1/29

These may not matter much as St. John’s extends their league lead and the Tommies are widening the gap between themselves and the third-place Auggies. But remember that Bethel has a couple of games in hand. The Royals need to rack up points as the year winds down to try and stay within striking distance. They get a crack at St. John’s next week, followed by games they should win. If they can go into next week with some extra points, the Royals will have at least some leverage. Meanwhile, if Augsburg falters this weekend, that will probably be it for Mike Schwartz’s team — they face two tough back-to-back series against motivated clubs in St. Thomas and St. John’s after this week.

MSOE @ Lawrence, Friday 1/28
Lawrence @ MSOE, Saturday 1/29

This game’s purely for bragging rights in the MCHA. These teams met up earlier in the year and the Raiders took them both. Lawrence would love to gain some ground on MSOE and their destiny is in their own hands. But the Raiders can go ahead and seal up the league regular season title with a sweep this weekend, which may prove too much to bear for Lawrence.

UW-Superior @ UW-River Falls, Saturday 1/29

Last week the Jackets cruised to a 4-1 win over the Falcons at home. Steve Freeman’s team now has the opportunity to avenge that loss in their building. River Falls will have to play mistake-free hockey and set the tempo early if they want to knock off the top-ranked Jackets. Special teams could be a key on Saturday as it was last week.