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

One league has already been decided; now there are two more to go. Last week, Milwaukee School of Engineering took home its first MCHA title ever when it used two consecutive one-goal wins to defeat defending champ Minnesota-Crookston. This week, the NCHA titlist will be crowned and the MIAC semifinals get underway. Here is the breakdown of all the weekend matches in the West.

NCHA — Championship

UW-Superior (19-2-7) @ St. Norbert (23-2-3)

UW-Superior Yellowjackets
2004-05 vs. St. Norbert: 0-0-2
Key stat: Have scored 5 goals or more in all three playoff games
Key playoff performers: F Myles Palliser (averaging 2 points per game); F Michael Wiggins (5 assists)

The Yellowjackets went into last week’s clash with River Falls with a bad taste in their mouth from their last meeting with the Falcons — a shutout loss on Jan. 29 that ended Superior’s unbeaten streak. The matchup was expected to be tightly contested, and was just that early into the second period with the score knotted at 2-2. But the Yellowjackets prevailed with a 4-goal outburst that the Falcons were unable to come back from, and Superior earned its way into the final with St. Norbert.

“We have played well at times. [I]f we want to continue to play we have to play a lot better,” said Superior head coach Dan Stauber. “The one area of concern is penalties. We have taken our share but we are never sure on how the game will be called.”

The Yellowjackets have taken 31 penalties during the playoffs, which isn’t so alarming when you’re playing a seventh-seeded team. Giving St. Norbert’s power play — the third-most potent in D-III — too many chances could spell Superior’s undoing. Still, Superior has scored on nearly 25 percent of its man-up chances this season, so the Green Knights can’t afford to go to the box too often either. However, Stauber would rather see his team be successful at even strength this weekend.

“Special teams will be a key,” Stauber said. “I would like to see five-on-five hockey this weekend. If there are a lot of short-handed situations or power plays it will be difficult to win.”

Defenseman Dale Lupul should be ready to go after seeing limited action last week. However, Stauber admitted injuries are still a factor for his squad, though he declined to name players or go into detail about the injuries specifically. Superior played two very good games against St. Norbert and must stay composed on the ice. Most importantly, the Yellowjackets need their veterans to perform well and have an aggressive first period. Superior, for all intents and purposes, matches up well with St. Norbert. The turning point could come between the pipes. As good as St. Norbert freshman goalie Kyle Jones is, this is the biggest game he’s played in at the college level thus far. If the Jackets can get to Jones early, Superior then has the chance to quickly set the tone for the rest of the game. Defensively, the Yellowjackets need to stifle early offensive rushes by the Green Knights, a hallmark of their success this season.

“Another key factor is getting off to a good start. [St. Norbert] plays well in their building and if they score first they are tough to beat,” Stauber said.

St. Norbert Green Knights
2004-05 vs. UW-Superior: 0-0-2
Key stat: 39, 46, 53 SOG in 3 playoff games
Key playoff performers: F Spencer Carbery (5 goals in playoffs); F Connor Hughes (7 points)

The playoffs often do come down to who performs best on special teams. The Green Knights found this out in a near-disaster against Lake Forest last week. Despite outshooting the Foresters 53-17, St. Norbert needed two power play markers to hold off Lake Forest by a final of 2-1. While St. Norbert was able to pull out the win last week, it certainly was a surprise that might be a cause for concern for the Green Knights as they face a team in Superior that has given them their best games this season.

The Knights’ focal point is Kyle Jones, who now has a few collegiate playoff games under his belt. Still, Jones needs to retain the calm, focused demeanor coach Tim Coghlin has praised him for. In front of Jones, the defense will be expected to play a physical yet controlled game. The forwards, however, should still feel comfortable enough to open up the game in terms of speed — an offense that is overly concerned with not making mistakes defensively may find themselves out of position for quality scoring chances. St. Norbert career points leader Jason Deitsch can help pace things in that regard.

All in all, Stauber is correct: a quick start by St. Norbert could be deadly. According to the St. Norbert record book, the Green Knights are 151-1-2 at home when leading after two periods. But who was the last team that came back to tie the Knights after two frames? None other than the Yellowjackets earlier this season (12/3/04, 5-5 tie). In short, Superior has shown they are on par with St. Norbert in all phases of the game. All that’s left to push one team ahead of the other are the intangibles: bounces and special teams.

Outlook: This game should be a great one. These two teams have been consistently excellent all year, and it’s fitting that they should meet in the final. Look for a close game throughout, with both teams keeping each other in check for the most part — this is truly an instance where one mistake leads to the game winner. Take St. Norbert in a nail-biter.

MIAC — Semifinals

St. Olaf (14-6-6, 8-4-4 MIAC) @ St. John’s (22-1-2, 14-1-1 MIAC)

St. Olaf Oles
2004-05 vs. St. John’s: 0-1-1
Key stat: 3 straight one-goal wins
Players to watch: (F) Keith Townsend, (F) Ted Bickel, (G) Dan Kehler

The Oles have made a nice, quiet run to the playoffs. Before sneaking past Gustavus Adolphus 3-2 in the play-in game, St. Olaf was unbeaten in its final eight games of the season. They’ve been steady on defense, second only to the Johnnies in goals allowed per game. They don’t have any truly explosive goal-scorers, but get the job done offensively by spreading out the scoring throughout the lineup. Sean Goldsworthy’s Oles are a workmanlike club, and may surprise a St. John’s team that has been fantastic in so many ways this year. The Oles need to play an extraordinarily tight defensive strategy against a loaded Johnnies offense. Creating traffic in front of St. John’s star goaltender Adam Hanna is critical — they can’t give him any opportunity to see an unscreened puck. If the Oles can do this, they have a shot at frustrating the Johnnies. But it would take a perfect effort to do so.

St. John’s Johnnies
2004-05 vs. St. Olaf: 1-0-1
Key stat: Allowed only 41 total goals this season (#1 in DIII)
Players to watch: (G) Adam Hanna, (F) Scott Bjorklund, (D) Ryan Langenbrunner

The Johnnies also have balanced scoring that has been productive for them through this year’s campaign. But it’s their team defense that is truly staggering. St. John’s has only allowed three or more goals seven times this year, losing only one of those seven games — their one loss on the season. They’ve blown teams out and won close matches, showing great versatility in doing so. Now comes the real test. Despite the seeming talent gap between St. John’s and the Oles, this team needs to concentrate on winning little battles. St. Olaf is going to be ready to play physically, and John Harrington’s players need to remember what it’s like to scratch and claw their way through games. They have the talent to beat virtually anyone in the West. Now the Johnnies must be able to continue their superb all-around play into the MIAC playoffs.

Predicted winner: St. John’s

Bethel (17-8-0, 10-6-0 MIAC) @ St. Thomas (15-5-5, 12-3-1 MIAC)

Bethel Royals
2004-05 vs. St. Thomas: 0-2-0
Key stat: Only 1 win against Tommies since 1992
Players to watch: (F) Kris Birch, (F) Ryan Adams, (D) Josiah Matuszewski

Head coach Peter Aus has done a fantastic job with the Royals this season, turning a six-win unit into a MIAC contender within the span of a year. Bethel doesn’t necessarily overpower opponents in one phase of the game or another, but they especially shine in the first period. Collectively, their offensive units produce over four goals a game, and 39 of their 110 goals on the season have come in the opening frame. From then on, the Royals like to tighten things up and wait for mistakes. Because of this, St. John’s has the Royals to thank for giving them their only loss of the season. However, since beating the Johnnies, the Royals haven’t exactly been tested, so they need to open the game looking sharp and focused. Their games against the Tommies, though close, exposed some weaknesses in the Royals’ game. Mentally correcting those mistakes before the game even starts will be tremendously beneficial for Bethel. Also, the Royals can’t give the MIAC’s best power play in St. Thomas a chance to do its damage.

St. Thomas Tommies
2004-05 vs. Bethel: 2-0-0
Key stat: #1 PP in MIAC this year (22.3%)
Players to watch: (F) Brandon Wilcox, (F) Dan Krmpotich, (G) Kevin Hennessey

The Tommies bounced back from a tepid start, and the goaltending of Kevin Hennessey helped St. Thomas maintain its position near the top of the MIAC standings. Gone is captain Dustan Lick, but Wilcox has been phenomenal, and is currently riding a 17-game point streak. There was a bit of bad blood between the Tommies and Bethel during their series earlier this year as Lick was lost for the season on what Tommies coach Terry Skrypek viewed as a questionable hit by Bethel’s Kris Birch. St. Thomas has to maintain their focus and not get mixed up in any “extra-curricular” activity that could put them down a man. The second half of the Tommies’ season was more indicative of the kind of team they really are. Scoring from their upperclassmen is essential for the Tommies to come out on top this weekend.

Predicted winner: St. Thomas