This Week in West Region D-III: Feb. 24, 2005

The playoffs continue this week in the MCHA, as Milwaukee School of Engineering hosts Minnesota-Crookston for the MCHA title series. In the NCHA, the league semifinal games get underway Saturday night. Last week’s seemed to follow expectations, with a few exceptions. The MCHA semis were particularly competitive, with both series being determined by 20-minute mini-games.

This week, we’ll look at the MCHA championship series and break down the semifinal matchups in the NCHA. Next week, after the MIAC seedings are determined by Tuesday’s play-in game, we’ll preview that league tournament as well.

MCHA — Championship Series

Minnesota-Crookston (14-13-2) @ MSOE (17-9-0)

Minnesota-Crookston Golden Eagles
2004-05 vs. MSOE: 0-3-0
Key stat: Have scored 5 goals or more eight times in past 15 games
Key playoff performers: F Brock Anundson (2-4-6 in playoffs); F Patrick Knutson (hat trick vs. Lawrence in game 2)

The Golden Eagles were 40 seconds away from missing their chance to get the three-peat last week. After losing the first game of their semifinal series with Lawrence, Minnesota-Crookston found themselves down by one late in the third period. But a tying goal by senior forward Kurtis Dukelow and an overtime game winner by Patrick Knutson (who also scored the winning goal in the following mini-game) helped keep the Golden Eagles’ chances alive.

Because Minnesota-Crookston is officially a Division II team, they are prohibited from competing in the NCAA Division III tournament. This makes the league championship the pinnacle of the Golden Eagles’ season. But at midseason this year, few people saw the Golden Eagles as a threat to once again win the MCHA. Going into the Christmas break, Minnesota-Crookston was a dismal 2-11-1. However, when they came back in 2005, the difference was obvious, said head coach Gary Warren.

“The time off at Christmas helped. We recharged our batteries,” Warren said. “I met with our captains and they decided they would revisit the team goals for the year. With guys settling into their roles and with our goaltender feeling more comfortable, we have a better commitment on the defensive side.”

The Golden Eagles will need that commitment to defense against the Raiders, who have used an opportunistic power play and stingy defense to put together a fantastic season. The Eagles must look to their battle-tested veterans to play mistake free hockey against one of the most promising clubs in the West.

“They’ve led our conference in many team categories and individual categories,” Warren said of the Raiders. “They’re very deep in their lineup; they’re the total package.”

Milwaukee School of Engineering Raiders
2004-05 vs. Minn.-Crookston: 3-0-0
Key stat: 9 PPG in past five games
Key playoff performers: F Jacob Basten, Jr. (4 goals in past 3 games)

The Raiders have been a great story all season and Mark Ostapina’s club would like nothing more than to cap off their first MCHA regular season title with a league championship. They have a variety of weapons and can beat teams in most phases of the game. By all accounts, MSOE is ready to be a championship team.

Still, their semifinal matchup with Marian should be a wakeup call for the Raiders. The first game went MSOE’s way, as the Raiders capitalized on two of five power play chances and held their own penalties to a minimum despite Marian getting a man-advantage goal of their own in the third period. The second game, however, was quite a different contest. The Sabres looked rejuvenated and although the Raiders outshot Marian 44-26 on the night, they couldn’t convert on the power play and allowed goals late in the first period and early in the second to deaden any momentum they had at the time. Fortunately for MSOE, the Sabres were spent by the time the mini-game began, allowing the Raiders to make short work of them and win 3-0.

The Raiders, it could be argued, had more than enough talent to get the sweep. Any team can have an off game, but it only takes one off game to lose confidence — and possibly a championship. Luckily for MSOE, they have a solid core of forwards and can get good goaltending from either one of their netminders. Their special teams units must continue to deliver; if they are able to capitalize on mistakes, it’s tough to beat this team.

Nevertheless, many of the Golden Eagles have been to the big game before and that experience could make the difference. In fact, the Raiders have been stopped short of a title shot by Minnesota-Crookston for the past three years. Above all, MSOE has to stick to what got them to this point. If they are able to set the tempo early, they should be successful.

Outlook: The Raiders have to have the edge in winning this series. However, out of all the playoff matchups this weekend — regardless of league — this is the one with the most potential for an upset. Even though MSOE’s play has been consistently great this season, Minnesota-Crookston’s second-half run still has some steam. Take MSOE to win the championship, but don’t be surprised if this series goes to a mini-game to decide the winner.

NCHA — Semifinals

Lake Forest (13-13-1, 7-7-1 NCHA) @ St. Norbert (22-2-3, 12-0-2 NCHA)

Lake Forest Foresters
2004-05 vs. St. Norbert: 0-3-0
Key stat: 8-2-0 in last 10 games
Players to watch: (F) Robin Charest, (F) Tyler Canal, (F) Tyler Steen, (G) Cody Brown

The Foresters, quite surprisingly, were able to stifle the powerful UW-Stevens Point offense last week despite being outshot 83-43 on the weekend. Tony Fritz’s squad held on for the 4-3 win on Friday, then routed the Pointers 6-1 on the road to advance to the semifinals. Now they face a huge challenge in the No. 1 ranked Green Knights of St. Norbert. The Foresters’ best shot is to try and play a strict defensive strategy against the Knights and wait to pounce on any mistakes. St. Norbert’s top scorers are consistent and Lake forest must find a way to disrupt their opponents’ game plan. A good first period will only help Lake Forest; if St. Norbert starts strong, the Foresters probably don’t have enough to weather the storm. If Charest can continue scoring key goals — and solve St. Norbert goalie Kyle Jones in the process — and the role players beyond the first line pitch in, the Foresters have some hope.

St. Norbert Green Knights
2004-05 vs. Lake Forest: 3-0-0
Key stat: Unbeaten since 11/5/04
Players to watch: (G) Kyle Jones, (F) Jason Deitsch, (D) Ryan Tew

St. Norbert has become a juggernaut at this point. Aside from a 2-2 tie with UW-Superior earlier this month, the Green Knights truly haven’t been tested since early in the season. The key, obviously, has been goaltender Kyle Jones, the freshman sensation who edged out incumbent Kyle Van Den Bosch for the starting job and has put together a masterful debut season. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he has some very talented offensive weapons in front of him. Forward Spencer Carbery did a great job of scoring back-breaking goals against UW-Eau Claire last weekend and the scoring for St. Norbert has been spread around very nicely all season. Barring a total collapse by Jones or an utterly mistake-free game by Lake Forest, St. Norbert should advance to the title game.

Predicted winner: St. Norbert

UW-River Falls (17-8-2, 9-5-0 NCHA) @ UW-Superior (18-2-7, 9-2-3 NCHA)

UW-River Falls Falcons
2004-05 vs. Superior: 1-1-0
Key stat: 15-1-2 when they score 3 or more goals this season
Players to watch: (F) Garrett Larson, (F) Tony Sikich, (F) Tyler Dahl

River Falls had a great opening game against UW-Stout, but unfortunately blew their chance at a sweep in the first half the third period last Saturday. Of course, Stout (by way of goalie Mike Stone) was able to withstand a 20-shot barrage from the Falcons to stay alive for the ensuing mini-game. The Falcons, quite frankly, almost let the series get away from them before winning the mini-game 2-1. The Falcons have shown that they can compete — and beat — UW-Superior this year. Whether or not they can do it again will be determined by their ability to stick to what worked for them against the Yellowjackets in January. The keys to that game apply for this semifinal matchup as well, keys that head coach Steve Freeman outlined after that regular season win: “We played well without the puck, stayed pretty balanced on the rink, and played the body.” The Falcons (should they go with him in net) will need a stellar effort from goalie Andy Scanlon to keep from racking up early goals. If River Falls can respond with a good defensive effort, Superior may have its hands full.

UW-Superior Yellowjackets
2004-05 vs. River Falls: 1-1-0
Key stat: 10-0-3 at home this season
Players to watch: (F) Michael Wiggins, (D) Dale Lupul, (D) Mathieu Bonnelly

The Yellowjackets have a pretty well-rounded game. They’ll need it to be firing on all cylinders on Saturday, as the Falcons will be watching for weaknesses in Superior’s game. Superior seems to have gotten back on track after a short skid beginning in late January that saw them not playing their best hockey. The Jackets need to go back to physical play and need steady play from their younger guys, even if that means just taking the body without lighting the lamp. Most importantly, the health of blueliner Dale Lupul will be a big issue. Though they did fine without him last week, the difference between St. Scholastica and River Falls in terms of talent is significant. His status remains questionable and his absence in a winner-take-all scenario would hurt the Yellowjackets. However, Superior can score early and often, and has the defensive prowess to hold onto a lead. That ability has factored into most of their biggest wins this year. They’ll need it again this weekend.

Predicted winner: UW-Superior