This Week in West Region D-III: Feb. 3, 2005

Another new #1

Another one bites the dust after a week at the top. First it was Manhattanville who fell after a short reign. Then UW-Superior took over the driver’s seat last week, only to tie at UW-Stout and lose their first of the year at UW-River Falls. Now it’s up to the St. John’s Johnnies to carry the torch, and while he and his team are excited about the recognition, Johnnies coach John Harrington would rather sit atop the rankings at the end of the year.

“First of all, it is really exciting for our school, our alumni, our fans and certainly our hockey team,” said Harrington. “It is the first time in school history that [Saint John’s] has been ranked No. 1 in hockey, and that fact is something that the players will always remember, and be remembered, for. But as you know, and as we found out last year, the poll in Division III doesn’t mean anything when it comes to NCAA Championship selection time.”

Harrington knows firsthand about that. Finishing 22-4-1 last season, the Johnnies hit the wall against St. Thomas in the MIAC playoffs. Besides, with NCAA spots scarce (especially since the polls are clogged with Western teams at the top), Harrington’s team can’t afford to coast, and recent close calls on consecutive Saturday nights against St. Mary’s and St. Olaf are proof positive that anyone’s run can come to an end at any time. Harrington believes the Johnnies are getting an education in game preparation as the target of the last undefeated grows larger on their chests.

“We are learning to understand what type of mental, physical, and emotional preparation it takes to consistently play in these types of games, and that we have to be on top of our game to give ourselves an opportunity to stay successful,” Harrington said. “Our league has gotten much stronger in the last few years, and regardless of won-loss records of the teams we’ve played, they are quality teams. Each time we go out to play, the opposition has the opportunity to be the first team to beat us.”

St. John’s offensive output at the forward position has been nicely balanced with contributions from veterans and underclassmen alike. However, it’s their play without the puck that has people talking. Harrington wanted to put together a multifaceted team, equally likely to play a stifling defensive game as they are to score loads of goals. This year the Johnnies have done that, allowing a paltry 26 goals to date.

“[O]ur players understand the value of team defense, and are committed to that part of the game. They understand that playing great defense always gives us a chance to win,” said Harrington, who didn’t neglect to note a major reason for his team’s consistent play. “Nobody has a great defense without a great goaltender, and we have one of the best in Adam Hanna. His numbers speak for themselves.”

Hanna has indeed been spectacular since arriving at St. John’s, posting a 29-3-2 record. Still, it’s yet to be seen how he can hold up as the games take on more meaning, especially on a Johnnies squad looking to get back to its first non-play-in NCAA competition in four years. But Harrington insists that the should be beginning to build now, as St. John’s must tangle with a solid Bethel team and a revived St. Thomas club — both of whom are looking to knock off their MIAC rival.

“Bethel has the best team they have had since I have been [at St. John’s], and [St. Thomas] never has less than a championship-caliber team,” Harrington said. “Both of those teams will be prepared to play their best against us, and I think that if we are not ready to take on those challenges, it could be a long night for us in any of those games.”

St. Norbert skipped

Even though they’ve yet to be beaten, some expected St. John to be ranked No. 2 behind St. Norbert after the Green Knights’ solid play recently. In fact, St. Norbert garnered more No. 1 votes than the Johnnies, but lacked the total votes in the top three to move ahead. Harrington himself was a bit stunned by the order when he first saw the poll.

“I thought that was really surprising. I think that a few of the voters must have decided that since [St. John’s] hasn’t lost a game, they deserve an opportunity to be number one. But if I was voting, St. Norbert would have gotten my vote.”

Superior foiled by the Falcons

The Yellowjackets probably want to forget all about last weekend after tying UW-Stout and losing to River Falls for the first blemish on their unbeaten season. The Falcons, on the other hand, seem to want to use the win as motivation for the rest of the season.

“Every win is important but to beat such a highly regarded rival, who was undefeated and ranked number one at the time, was exciting for us and our fans,” said River Falls head coach Steve Freeman. “The key now is to keep building momentum and fully mobilize as the regular season winds down and the playoffs begin.”

Whether or not the Falcons can parlay that momentum into more late-season heroics remains to be seen. But Freeman said he was pleased with his team’s preparation and execution.

“The most important thing is when you play a great team like Superior, you are forced to kick it up to another level, it was fast and extremely physical with lots of ice bags afterwards,” Freeman said. “It was a tight game and could have [gone] either way. Our penalty killers did a great job keeping us in the game early on, and our goaltender Andy Scanlon, was sharp. We played well without the puck, stayed pretty balanced on the rink, and played the body. It was fast paced, lots of hitting, and overall tough game.”

Freeman believes the Superior game wasn’t “a statement game or an upset” by his team. Rather, Freeman said that the win was the result of adjusting to Superior’s play and placing importance on every homestretch game.

“I don’t think it was a statement game or an upset,” Freeman said. “It was another exciting dramatic NCHA game against two established and proud programs. Having played each other the weekend before, we knew what to expect and what minor adjustments to make. At this point in the season there is an urgency to really dig in , battle and scratch for those points.”

Now the Falcons (14-5-2, 7-3-0 NCHA) can look forward to tangling with a St. Norbert squad that currently sits alone atop the NCHA. The Falcons and Green Knights met in the middle of January, with St. Norbert winning a close 3-2 contest. Can another top three team be upended by River Falls?

“We wanted to step up and show that we could play with the best. Now we have the same challenge, probably greater because we are on the road against St. Norbert,” said Freeman. “This will be the fourth straight weekend that we’ve played either Superior or St. Norbert and any team in the nation would certainly have their hands full with a schedule like that. We now have an idea the level we have to rise to in order to have a chance for success. Then it’s taking care of all the small details, maybe getting a bounce and taking advantage of the opportunity.”

Vikings hanging around

The Milwaukee School of Engineering Raiders have already clinched the MCHA and Lawrence is locked in for the number two spot. And unless the NCAA selection process changes radically in their favor within the next few weeks, we won’t be seeing the Vikings playing beyond the league playoffs. But don’t tell Lawrence head coach Dave Ruhly these games don’t mean anything; his Vikings have bounced back from a dismal year of non-conference play and have shown steady improvement they want to use as a springboard into this year’s MCHA postseason.

“We’re showing signs of getting out the old mentality of just showing up to play and going out every game believing in ourselves enough to get the job done,” Ruhly said, adding that the team is setting its sights on finishing strong enough to compete with MSOE for the league championship.

“It all goes back to hard work, intensity and focus. If we outwork our opponent and win the battles, we will have a good chance at coming away from most games with a win,” said Ruhly. “We are currently in the mindset of doing what it takes to meet [MSOE] again in the playoffs this season.”

At 9-11-2, the Vikings still have some work to do. Nonetheless, their recent games against the Raiders have shown that Lawrence has made progress from the two straight defeats they suffered at the hands of MSOE earlier this year–losses that subsequently began their mid-season five-game losing streak.

The Vikings kicked off last weekend with a 6-3 win in which they used a third period explosion to take the wind out of the Raiders’ sails. The next evening, despite being outshot 50-21, the Vikings made it close against MSOE but ultimately fell short in the loss. To Ruhly, though, the loss isn’t as disappointing when his team has shown tenacity in trying to improve. They’ll get a chance to close out their season on a positive note this weekend in their final two games (vs. Finlandia).

“I believe the Finlandia series will be another hard-fought set of games,” Ruhly said. “With a very tight race for third through fifth, the Lions will be out to secure their third place finish in their first season with the MCHA. We are really looking forward to the games up in Hancock.”

Raiders rebound

Last year’s 10-17-0 record is all but forgotten for the Raiders as MSOE clinched its first MCHA title on Saturday against Lawrence and have been bracketed for the league tournament. The Raiders’ win snapped a minor two game-losing streak
or so we thought.

Prior to MSOE’s loss to Lawrence on Friday (1/28), the Marian Sabres surprised the Raiders on their home ice 5-4. Unfortunately for the Sabres, they were forced to forfeit the win, giving MSOE the extra points. Check out the full story on the Marian situation in Chris Lerch’s weekly column.

Game of the week

St. John’s @ Bethel, Friday 2/4
By Friday night, these two teams will have already played the first game of the series on National Hockey Center’s big ice. This is all the more reason to pay attention to Friday’s rematch as the Royals look to this series as a potential rebound from their first real slump this season. They’ve gone 1-3-0 over the past two weeks, while the Johnnies will be trying to hold on to their No. 1 ranking for longer than Manhattanville and Superior. Thursday’s game should favor the Johnnies, but Bethel has surprised us all year long. When they get St. John’s back to St. Paul, anything is possible.