This Week in West Region D-III: Feb. 10, 2005

Looking out for number one

The curse has struck again. For a third straight week, a team — this time St. John’s — earned the No. 1 ranking and lost it by the following poll, joining Manhattanville and Wisconsin-Superior, respectively.

Okay, so it’s more of a coincidence and a symptom of intensified late-season competition than a curse. Nevertheless, the Johnnies probably hoped to hold on to their top ranking for longer than a week before they were upended by Bethel to split last weekend’s series with the Royals. Instead, the Johnnies will go against St. Thomas in a series that — in all likelihood — will determine the regular season MIAC champion.

Johnnies get Royal treatment

The loss to Bethel might not be the worst thing to happen to St. John’s, and head coach John Harrington now wants to move past any talk of rankings and concentrate on the games ahead.

“We hadn’t dwelled on our record at all, and it was rather a quick stay at number one. We lost a game, and we’ll try to get better and prepare for the next one,” said Harrington, who added that while the program was thrilled with the No. 1 ranking, the short-lived title itself was not a distraction. “It was something our team and school were very excited about. I imagine teams we are playing, or any teams that are playing number one ranked teams, really get ready to play great games to try and knock those people off.”

St. John’s took the first game from Bethel on their home ice, capitalizing on two power plays in a 3-1 victory that Harrington called the key to “a tight game”. The next night, however, Bethel struck back in a 5-3 win in a game where the Royals used two goals 25 seconds apart in the first period to take the lead they would never relinquish. Still, Harrington said his team was hopeful that they could even things up.

“We had a pretty good start to the game, even when it was tied at 1. We had some defensive lapses that led to their second and third goals, but we certainly didn’t feel like we were out of the game after the first period,” Harrington said.

But the Johnnies were unable to capitalize on the man-advantage, Bethel scored twice then tightened down to hold on for the win despite giving up two more goals to St. John’s. The Royals’ game plan, said Harrington, was no different than the one they had employed the night before, but was executed with more success.

“It was a tight game the first night, and the difference in that game was special teams. I didn’t notice anything they were doing different from a defensive standpoint. They played a solid game.”

Now, the Tommies will try to replicate Bethel’s success in trying to upend the Johnnies. This weekend series, with all its importance, is one that Harrington says he will use to gauge his team’s mental preparedness.

“If [St. John’s and St. Thomas] were playing tiddly winks, it would be a battle,” Harrington said of the rivalry. “St. Thomas is a year in and year out power in our league and nationally. They are the measuring stick to see if your team has the ability to be a champion. Hopefully, we have gotten better in a few areas this week and will be able to stay in the games. I think the games will be low scoring. If we try and race UST to five goals, I don’t think we will have a chance to be successful.”

Tommies tough it out

As far as St. Thomas is concerned, the Tommies have placed themselves in prime position to overtake the Johnnies for the regular season conference title. The series between the two has yet to be played, but expectations have been heightened since St. Thomas recovered from a middling first half to put together their current eight-game unbeaten streak (7-0-1). The Tommies face a St. John’s team fresh off its first setback of the year — and St. Thomas coach Terry Skrypek says it’s no mystery what’s at stake.

“We want to win the MIAC conference title and the series will probably decide the MIAC championship,” said Skrypek. The weekend series will feature two one-loss goaltenders in the much-touted St. John’s sophomore Adam Hanna and the Tommies’ Kevin Hennessey.

“It should be a great series with closely contested games,” Skrypek said. “Hanna is a great goalie and we have to be patient.”

While Hanna (15-1-2) has carried the load for the Johnnies for nearly the entire year, Hennessey (7-1-2) took over the starting job from Zach Sikich for the Tommies around mid-season. Skrypek said the move from Sikich to Hennessey was done with confidence in his backup’s abilities and has paid dividends thus far.

“Sikich was having some problems in confidence and not playing well so Hennessey got his chance to play. He has made the most of it and has won seven straight games,” said Skrypek, who also noted that the goalie arrangement is not set in stone and could be changed as circumstances dictate.

“It is [Hennessey’s] job to lose. If he does not play well, Sikich will get another chance.”

As the Tommies came back from the holiday break, they had been pegged as a team that wasn’t quite playing up to potential despite having only three losses. After a second-half opening tie against UW-Eau Claire, the Tommies began to hit their stride. Oddly enough, it was during an exhibition game of no consequence to the standings that initiated the turnaround, according to Skrypek.

“The win over Southern Alberta Technical School helped to get our team on track. [SAIT] beat St. John’s and St. Olaf. With a solid win, [we] gained new confidence,” Skrypek said.

More recently, the team’s series sweep of Bethel was even better evidence of a revival. However, the price of those wins was heavy, reminded Skrypek. Star forward Dustan Lick was lost for the year with a broken leg in the first game of the series after a controversial hit by Bethel’s Kris Birch.

“Losing Dustan Lick has not been easy. Without question, he is probably the best forward in the MIAC. He anchors our power play and penalty kill. He will be missed,” said Skrypek, who now believes the Birch hit was not as deliberate as it first seemed. “The hit by Birch was not malicious but definitely a mistake on his part. It did not have to happen.”

It will take an extended run by the St. Thomas to see Lick back in action and Skrypek’s assumption is that a miraculous recovery is out of the question.

“Dustan is probably done for the season. If we can extend our season into March, there is a possibility that he could play. We hope to get him another game,” Skrypek said of his injured captain. “He has become a rallying point for our team. With a broken leg [and] a metal plate with eight screws, his future for this season does not look bright.”

The Tommies are looking for the opposite to happen to their own future when they meet St. John’s this weekend.

Pointers have “3” wishes

Coming off a brutal six-game road streak last month that saw them go up against three teams that have all spent time at the number one poll position this season, Wisconsin-Stevens Point could have easily lost any late-season motivation they may have had stored up. When the Pointers returned home after going 1-4-1 during that stretch — with games against St. Norbert, UW-Superior and St. John’s — they did just the opposite. They continued to play tough against more talented teams and stayed in the middle of the NCHA standings. And with the help of head coach Joe Baldarotta, they tried to get back to enjoying the game and staying inventive in their individual play.

Though the league regular season title is out of reach, Baldarotta’s approach has helped the Pointers stay in the hunt for the number three spot in the NCHA. The result of this weekend’s contest against River Falls will most likely be the determining factor in whether or not that happens.

“You go through sections of seasons like that [where] you’re on an emotional roller coaster every game,” Baldarotta said. “It’s not the team that rides the emotional roller coaster, it’s the team that can come back from it that will be successful.”

The daunting task that was the January road streak was not lost on Baldarotta. Rather than create a “win-or-die” mentality, Baldarotta said he encouraged his players to concentrate on staying loose and getting creative in their play in the hope that the team could at least come off the road with a sense of confidence, no matter what the results were.

“We tried some new things; some kids found some things they really liked to do,” said Baldarotta. “We played some great teams…[and] we didn’t want anyone to get down from the losses.”

The usual suspects continue to come through for the Pointers. The trio of seniors Mike Brolsma, Ryan Kirchhoff and Adam Kostichka have kept Stevens Point tied with Superior for second in goals scored in league play (53).

“They not only score goals, they score big goals,” Baldarotta said of his three top scorers, and added an example of the kind of timely goals that the group has provided, especially in big games.

“In the [Feb. 5] game against Superior, they scored on a penalty shot to tie the game. On the ensuing [5-on-3] penalty kill, Brolsma scores a shorty. That’s a big deal, and it doesn’t happen a lot.”

Baldarotta said he has been pleased with the play of his younger players and his defense as well.

“We need everybody to contribute, and I think our defensive corps hasn’t gotten enough credit. [They’re] way underrated,” Baldarotta said. “We’ve got [defenseman Chris] Gehrke, who’s tough as nails and plays great defensively
and a guy like James Jernberg, who moves extremely well for a guy who’s 240 pounds.”

So it’s on to Wisconsin-River Falls, a game that Baldarotta says he is looking forward to. The Pointers beat the Falcons 7-4 earlier this season, but now the stakes are a little higher — and Baldarotta expects a tightly contested game.

“Me and [River Falls coach] Steve Freeman are friends and we have a special rivalry. We know we’re going to have to play a great game against them,” Baldarotta said. “[River Falls] are great. They’re very skilled and have great goaltending. You can never underestimate this league. We can’t afford to take any days off. There’s one point between us and River Falls, but there’s also one point between us and Lake Forest [in the standings]. There are a lot of points out there to get.”

Not feeling so Superior

They’ve only lost twice and are still considered one of the nation’s top teams. But with the exception of their rout of Wisconsin-Eau Claire last Friday, it’s been a tough couple of weeks for the UW-Superior Yellowjackets.

First, it was Wisconsin-Stout (the same team that almost gave Superior their first loss the previous week) that managed a tie against the then-No. 1 Jackets on January 28. Then, Superior was shut out by River Falls the following night to put a dent in the Jackets’ formerly unblemished record. Coach Dan Stauber talked about the intangibles that led to the initial loss.

“I think with any team if you don’t prepare mentally you are going to have a tough time winning. There is that old saying that you can’t win on talent alone. You need to be mentally ready and outwork your opponent.”

River Falls got the goals when they counted, and while the loss to the Falcons surprised some, Stauber pointed to at least a couple of reasons for the defeat.

“River Falls played with a lot more sense of urgency,” said Stauber. “They did add a couple of players to their roster and that has added to their depth.”

Superior appeared to have bounced back after the defeat by whipping Eau Claire 10-2. However, the Stevens Point won the special teams battles at home last Saturday and ground out a tough and deserved 7-5 win.

“Stevens Point is a good team, they have played us hard in all three contests [this year],” Stauber said. “They could be a great playoff team.”

What will Stauber do to keep his team from looking past Friday’s Lake Forest contest to the Saturday showdown with new No. 1 St. Norbert?

“Keep reminding them that Lake Forest is trying to move up in the standings and we must win on Friday.”

Games of the week

St. John’s @ St. Thomas, Friday 2/11
St. Thomas @ St. John’s, Saturday 2/12

Huge games and huge implications. Neither team should have a problem getting amped up for this series. St. John’s has no undefeated season to play for, so that shouldn’t be a distraction. How will the loss of Dustan Lick affect that Tommies against a tough Johnnies team? One can only guess. Harrington is correct, however. The Johnnies cannot afford a shootout with St. Thomas. On the other hand, if St. Thomas can’t solve Adam Hanna early on, it will be extraordinarily difficult to get the points they need out of this weekend.

UW-Stevens Point @ UW-River Falls, Friday 2/11
This should be a hard-fought match for two teams looking to secure the third spot in the NCHA before post-season play. The only two teams to have defeated Superior could get involved in a barnburner, and with the Pointers’ firepower, that kind of game favors Stevens Point. River Falls will need a home-ice advantage and solid goaltending all night long.

St. Norbert @ UW-Superior, Saturday 2/12
This game has lost a bit of its luster since the mini-slump of the Jackets, but should still be entertaining. Even if the Green Knights have the NCHA regular season title knotted up, they can’t afford to take the night off on Saturday.