This Week in West Region D-III: Feb. 17, 2005

It’s playoff time again. The MCHA and NCHA postseasons have begun while the MIAC finishes out its regular season games this weekend. This week, we’re going to take a look at the NCHA quarterfinal in a general overview. Next week, we’ll tighten the focus on individual matchups for the NCHA semifinals–as demonstrated this week with the analysis of the MCHA. Next week, we’ll do the same overview for the MIAC, so stay tuned for that as well. As the playoffs progress, each detail of the games will become more important as league titles (and eventually NCAA berths, in the case of a few teams) are fought for.

NCHA–Quarterfinal Action

Wisconsin-Eau Claire at St. Norbert

The Green Knights enter the NCHA playoffs as the No. 1 team in Division III–and for good reason. With the exception of a couple of early non-conference bumps, St. Norbert won the games they should have and played up to their ability when faced with more talented opponents. Not much more can be said about goaltender Kyle Jones; the freshman has been a significant factor on an already talented and balanced team. The old cliche applies as always, however: they cannot afford to get cocky. There are too many good teams in the NCHA to have a letdown, and according to head coach Tim Coghlin, he remains wary of Eau Claire despite the talent gap.

“We are expecting a tight series. They play us very tough this year,” said Coghlin, who pointed to the series with the Blugolds earlier this year as evidence that Eau Claire may not go down without a fight. “In our barn we were only up 3-2 with less than three minutes to go. In their place the game ended up 5-4. They have a physical lineup with solid goaltending. Braunlich is a big tender [who] has played very well against us. So, having said that, we are going into this weekend with the mindset it will be physically challenging.”

In the case of the Blugolds, the year couldn’t have ended up any worse as they won only once in their final 15 games. Coach Jean-Francois Laforest is trying to build the Blugolds back up after their abysmal one-win season two years ago. Senior Rob Ouimette is the driving force behind this team, but he can’t do it himself. Right now, the Blugolds are giving up almost five goals a game to their league opponents. If they have any hope of pulling an upset, they’ll have to play flawless hockey, according to Laforest.

“[St. Norbert is] the number one seed in the nation at DIII and have the best team in the NCHA. We have competed well against them but must stay disciplined in terms of the number of penalties we take,” Laforest said. “We’ve taken untimely penalties throughout our season and St. Norbert’s has a team which will capitalize on the power play. Our system execution has to be at a season high if we are to defeat St. Norbert’s. They are a team with a great deal of depth and are well coached.”

Predicted winner: St. Norbert

St. Scholastica at Wisconsin-Superior

Remaining unbeaten until late January, the Yellowjackets are on par with St. Norbert in terms of talent and potential to go deep into the playoffs, both league and NCAA. Though they faltered a bit at the end of the year, UW-Superior is expected to regain their form, if indeed they ever lost it. The Jackets are a seasoned group, which could be the determining factor in closer games. If their best players rise to the occasion, Superior is incredibly tough to beat, especially on home ice. But their best players need to stay healthy–any lingering injuries to key players (Dale Lupul, especially) could be a big setback for the Jackets.

However, against St. Scholastica, that shouldn’t be an issue. The Saints simply don’t have the firepower or the physical elements to be a serious upset threat to Superior. This is a young team that may be able to gel over time, but right now they aren’t ready to compete among the big boys.

Predicted winner: UW-Superior

Wisconsin-Stout @ Wisconsin-River Falls

This could be one of the more competitive series in this year’s playoffs. The Falcons of River Falls finished with two wins to lock up the No. 3 spot, which was especially helpful this year. River Falls is good, but they can always be better. They fall into the middle in nearly every statistical category, and while that’s not necessarily a harbinger of doom, it speaks volumes about the Falcons’ propensity to look like a different team from game to game. Garrett Larson has had a fantastic year. Goaltenders Dan Meneghin and Andy Scanlon have almost split playing time evenly and have done well in the process. Team defense and goaltending will be key here in a series anticipated by coach Steve Freeman to be “Very fast paced, extremely high energy … with lots of up and down, no-nonsense action.”

Terry Watkins’ Blue Devils fell apart at mid-season, but for all the missed opportunities and occasional blowout losses, UW-Stout still managed to put a scare into Superior in two straight games near the end of the season. Was that a symptom of Superior playing poorly or Stout finding another gear? The argument probably favors the former; still, Stout has shown potential at times. It’s that potential that could come back to haunt River Falls, depending on which Falcon team shows up. Winning the first game of the series would benefit Stout tremendously and could push the momentum and the series in their favor.

Predicted winner: UW-River Falls

Lake Forest at Wisconsin-Stevens Point

The Pointers are Exhibit A in the case of Great Offense vs. Sub-par Defense. The trio of forwards Mike Brolsma, Ryan Kirchhoff and Adam Kostichka have been the engine that drives Stevens Point all year. Every time a big goal was scored for the Pointers, it seemed like one of those names was the culprit. If only the defense and goaltending could follow suit. Nonetheless, the Pointers have a physical team that likes to punish opponents. If the blueliners can’t chip in offensively, chances are good that they’re busy plastering opposition forwards all over the boards. The Pointer team that shows up for these playoffs needs to merge these two elements of their game to be successful. This matchup has the potential to be very tightly played, so the Pointer forwards need to strike early and often. An abundance of penalties could sink Stevens Point and a balance of disciplined play with tempered aggression must be the key for Joe Baldarotta’s team.

Lake Forest did rebound from a prolonged slump earlier in the year, but never really developed a dangerous scoring touch. There is a pronounced drop-off in production among the Foresters’ top scorers; it will be difficult to overcome any team, let alone the Pointers, if they can’t balance their offensive attack. Though they have a pair of experienced goaltenders in Cody [nl]Brown and Joel Cameron, they’re not game-defining players and they had a down year after a respectable effort last season. Still, don’t be surprised if Lake Forest tries to bring a more physical game to Stevens Point. Just like the Pointers, though, the Foresters especially have to stay out of the box. The Pointer power play has wreaked havoc throughout the NCHA all year. In the end, it will come down to recovery after mistakes and penalties and better goaltending for both squads.

Predicted winner: UW-Stevens Point

MCHA–Semifinal Matchups

Minnesota-Crookston (13-12-2, 9-7-0 MCHA) @ Lawrence (10-12-2, 9-7-0 MCHA)

Lawrence Vikings

2004-05 vs. Minnesota-Crookston: 2-2-0

Key stat: 6-6-0 at home this season

Players to watch: (F) Mike Burkhart, (F) Ryan Blick, (D) Josh Peterson, (D) Kalle Larsson

The Vikings have officially bounced back from their disappointing season last year and are a legitimate contender for the MCHA behind the Milwaukee School of Engineering. After stumbling hard in non-conference competition at the middle of the season, Lawrence continued won three straight before struggling to the finish line in their final six games. Still Lawrence had big wins against MSOE and Finlandia to help preserve their number two spot in the seedings. The key for Dave Ruhly’s team will be solving standout freshman goalie Jaden Isakson, who has won his last six starts for the streaking Golden Eagles. On the defensive end, containing top scorers Brock Anundson, Patrick Knutson and Matt Hann–who was a huge contributor in the final games of the season–will be a must. Scoring from their blueline would also be a great boost for the enthusiastic Lawrence squad. More importantly, the Vikings need to take advantage of their home crowd as they have not been able to capitalize on their own ice as much as they wanted to. “We are extremely excited about the upcoming semi-final play-off series with Crookston,” said Ruhly. “They’re a red-hot team right now, but we are ready to prove we deserve the series and to move on to the finals next week. How can you not be excited to be playing your best hockey of the season?”

Minnesota-Crookston Golden Eagles

2004-05 vs. Lawrence: 2-2-0

Key stat: 11-1-1 in last 13 games

Players to watch: (G) Jaden Isakson, (F) Brock Anundson, (F) Patrick Knutson, (F) Matt Hann

Going 2-11-1 to start the season was obviously not how head coach Gary Warren wanted to see his Golden Eagles defend their MCHA title. But the second half of the season was a dream come true for Minnesota-Crookston as they clawed their way back up to respectability. Now they have to hope that their winning ways continue as they face a big jump in opponents talent-wise from their first round opponent, Northland. The Eagles will have to get contributions from their role players to take some of the pressure off their top line. It’s also yet to be seen how consistent Isakson will be as he progresses through the playoffs. Minnesota-Crookston has to concentrate on limiting penalties and killing off power plays to subdue Lawrence’s special teams. If contributions come from unexpected places, the Eagles may have a few more games to add to their current streak.

Predicted winner: Lawrence

Marian (9-16-2, 7-8-1 MCHA) @ MSOE (16-8-0, 13-3-0 MCHA)

Milwaukee School of Engineering Raiders

2004-05 vs. Marian: 4-0-0 (one game won by forfeit)

Key stat: 5.00 goals per game average in conference

Players to watch: (F) Blair Hanberg, (F) Lee Swallow, (G) Matt Burzon

One of the biggest surprises of the year, the MSOE Raiders stormed to their first league regular-season title through sheer consistency–and they did it with a duo of freshmen leading the way. Blair Hanberg and Lee Swallow led the way offensively, but the Raiders’ success was a team-wide effort. The Raiders’ power play has been exceptional, with five players notching at least four man-advantage goals. In the nets, Matt Burzon showed he could handle as many or as few shots as opponents put on net, while Joe Dovalina was very good when he rotated in for Burzon. On paper, the Raiders should have no problem defeating Marian. But since the title won’t be won on paper, MSOE’s younger players must continue their solid play in all three zones. Mark Ostapina’s club knows that NCAAs or no NCAAs, how they perform under added pressure will set the tone for a repeat of this year’s success next year. “We are expecting very competitive games against Marian,” Ostapina said. “The key reason is they have a great senior class that knows what it takes to win.” Despite the youth of their top performers, MSOE seems to have too much firepower and defensive strength for the Sabres.

Marian Sabres

2004-05 vs. MSOE: 0-4-0 (one game forfeited)

Key stat: 11 shorthanded goals this season

Players to watch: (F) Jon Daigle, (F) Bryan Gallagher, (D) Matt Bobo

After an upset of Finlandia in a tie-breaking mini-game, the Sabres find themselves suddenly in the semifinals. Jasen Wise’s first year behind the bench for Marian was a tough one as the team tried to recover from the departure of some key seniors from their roster. This season, the Sabres found themselves on the positive end of several high scoring affairs. Unfortunately, they also found themselves on the receiving end of other high-scoring contests. Nevertheless, Marian and MSOE are fairly comparable in terms of offensive output and defensive stopping power. Where the difference is made is between the pipes. Marian sophomore goaltender Kyle Grabowski has had a difficult time all year and faltered early in games at times to set the Sabres back. Can the Sabres find a way to extend their playoff run? Only if they can eliminate MSOE’s options on the power play and give Grabowski more goal support so that the burden isn’t squarely on him.

Predicted winner: MSOE

Harrington hits milestone

With last Saturday’s 5-4 victory over the Tommies, St. John’s head coach John Harrington earned his 200th career win. Harrington, who has been at the helm for the Johnnies since 1993, recognized those around him as part of his success.

“I am thankful and appreciative for the great student athletes that have decided to come to St. John’s University … [and] also for the contributions of my assistant coaches over the 12 years,” Harrington said. “I guess if you are fortunate to be able to stay with something for a while, you reach milestones. I’m just thankful that one showed up in the left hand column before it showed up in the right hand column.”