In 2004-2005, the Minnesota-Crookston Golden Eagles saw their hopes of a MCHA tournament three-peat get swept up in a pair of losses to the Raiders of the Milwaukee School of Engineering.
While the Raiders have all the tools necessary to repeat as champions, there are plenty of teams looking to snatch away the Harris Cup.
A new mountain to climb for the MSOE Raiders
For the defending MCHA regular season and tournament champion Raiders, this season’s success will largely depend on their men between the pipes.
Junior netminder Matt Burzon was an honorable mention for the Preseason All-USCHO West team and the only player in the MCHA to receive a vote.
As a sophomore, Burzon led the conference in save percentage at .922, goals against average at 2.26, shutouts with three and was tied with Minnesota-Crookston’s Jaden Isakson for the best record at 8-3-0. Bruzon’s backup, junior Joe Dovalina, put up impressive numbers as well, posting a 2.66 goals against average and an .882 save percentage en route to a perfect 5-0-0 record. Also in the mix is junior goaltender Josh Rudolph. Rudolph didn’t see much time last season, but his team knows he will be solid in goal when the time comes.
“We expect (Burzon) to be as good as last year if not better,” coach Mark Ostapina said. “We feel that we’ve got a trio of good goaltenders that make our guys better everyday just by facing them in practice.”
But the Raiders are hardly a one-dimensional team.
Last season, the Raiders led the MCHA in team offense at 5.00 goals per game, team defense at 2.44 goals per game, power play conversions at 24 percent and penalty killing at 88.3 percent.
Don’t expect those numbers to decline either.
The Raiders are returning three-fourths of their scoring, including their top three scorers; senior James Shipley, sophomore Blair Hanberg and sophomore Lee Swallow, who combined for 71 of the team’s 209 points.
Even though the Raiders are returning much of last year’s Harris Cup winning team, they don’t think this season will be smooth skating at all.
“Last year we made it to the top of the mountain,” Ostapina said. “Right now we’re at the bottom of the mountain again, but it’s a different mountain. It’s a steeper mountain because we’ve got the targets on our back.
“I think everyone improved in our league and we feel we’ve improved,” he continued. “But it’s going to be tough fight, there’s no doubt about it. We’re not expecting anything or assuming anything. We feel we have to go out there and earn it again.”
But with all that returning firepower, look for the Raiders to stay atop the MCHA.
Experience plus youth equals success for Vikings
While the gap between MSOE and the rest of the MCHA is significant, the Lawrence Vikings stayed relatively close last season, placing second by mere six points with a 9-7-0 record.
This season, the Vikings will be looking for someone to step up and replace their two all-time leading scorers, Ryan Blick and Mike Burkhart, who were lost to graduation.
Senior Mason Oakes and junior Joe Searl are the likely candidates, as Oakes tied for the team lead in goals scored and Searl tied for the team lead in assists in 2004-05. But Lawrence also has four freshmen forwards who will be looked to as well.
“We’re looking for some freshmen to come in and step it up right away,” coach David Ruhly said. “But we’re also really looking to our returners who have worked hard over the off-season to come out and get the job done.”
The Vikings were in the middle of the pack in terms of team statistics and will rely on a defense that was second in the MCHA, allowing an average 3.44 goals per game. But with the addition of five freshmen defenders, that number could swing either way.
“I’ll tell you that right now we have a phenomenal defense class that came in,” Ruhly said. “I think we have three guys there that could step up into our top six right away, maybe even four.
“But what it’s going to take from us [to win] is more teamwork,” he said. “I think we have the team mentality right now through our leadership from our captains to go out there and make sure that we’re grinding, every single shift, every single game, every single practice and that’s something that maybe we didn’t have as much of last year.
“So that hard work ethic is putting a lot of commitment out there from the team and I think that’s going to turn around and lead to some good things on the ice as well.”
The Lions’ offense is on the prowl
Don’t be fooled by Finlandia’s 7-8-0 conference record last year. It was only the Lions’ first season and MCHA and this year they may be the surprise team in the MCHA.
Last year the Lions finished tied for third in the conference with the Minnesota-Crookston Golden Eagles. But the Lions have an extremely talented sophomore class that should gain some recognition this year after solid freshmen campaigns.
Led by sophomores Joe Lewis and Josh Paquette, Finlandia returns a mind-boggling 95.8 percent of their scoring punch. Lewis and Paquette were number one and two in scoring in the MCHA as freshmen with 29 and 28 points, respectively. Lewis tied for the league lead with 17 lamp-lighters and Paquette led the conference with 21 assists.
“I think (Lewis and Paquette) came in and surprised some people,” coach Joe Burcar said. “I think not only did they some surprise some people, I think as a team we surprised people.”
But the scoring doesn’t end with Lewis and Paquette. Sophomore Mike Parks had a solid freshmen season with 23 points, and junior Joe Welgos led the league with nine power play goals.
However, Parks will be starting this at defenseman this season and will hopefully shore up a defensive unit that was next-to-last in team defense, giving up an average of 4.31 goals per game.
“We really want him to anchor that defense,” Burcar said. “We’re looking for him to groom some of our young guys along and obviously stabilize the defensive core.”
While it will be comforting having Parks back there, Burcar is by no means content with his defensive situation.
“[Defense] is still an area of concern,” Burcar said. “But that’s something that we work on every day in practice, not only from our defensive position but from our forwards down to our goalies. Let’s face it; defense wins championship so that’s something that we’re really looking at right now.”
If the Lions can come up with any sort of defense and continue to score goals at their blistering pace, look for them to climb into the top of the MCHA standings.
Golden Eagles looking to soar once again
After two heartbreaking one-goal losses to the Raiders in the MCHA tournament finals, the Minnesota-Crookston Golden Eagles are looking to win the conference championship that they won in 2003 and 2004.
Anchoring the Golden Eagles will be sophomore goalie Jaden Isakson. Isakson was tied for the league lead with an 8-3-0 conference record and was second in the MCHA with a 3.01 goals against average.
Minnesota-Crookston will have lost their top scorer in Brock Anundson to graduation and will be looking to their number two scorer, senior Patrick Knutson, to fill the void. Knutson was only one point behind Anundson with 21, on 13 goals-7 on the power play-and eight assists.
On paper, Minnesota-Crookston is at the bottom of the MCHA, but luckily for the Golden Eagles, the games are played-and won-on the ice.
Marian and Northland look to make up ground
Despite having the second-best offense in the MCHA last season, the Marian Sabres managed only 16 points and a 7-8-1 record in conference play.
With the loss of three of their four leading scorers, in addition to zero seniors on this year’s roster, the Sabres are going to need their young players to step up in a big way. Sophomore Bryan Gallagher may be one to take charge of the team after scoring 17 points in only 14 conference games last season.
The Sabres (0-1-0 overall) dropped their first game of the season at the hands of No.2 St. Norbert’s by a score of 8-2 on Tuesday. But their youth did come through as three underclassmen notched all of Marian’s points on two shorthanded goals.
Sophomore Carl Bresser scored less than one minute into the third period on a pass from freshman Eric Rakow. Two minutes later, freshman Kyle Rasmussen notched an unassisted goal to pull the Sabres within one. But the Green Knights were too much and scored five unanswered goals to end the game.
First-year head coach Steve Fabiilli has his work cut out for him at Northland College. The Lumberjacks have been at the bottom of the MCHA the past four seasons and last season only managed 42 goals in conference play on their way to a 2-14-0 record.
But the Lumberjacks return their two leading scorers, seniors Jeff Affleck and Winston Bothner as well as sophomore goalie Todor Petkov, who notched all three wins for the Lumberjacks in 2003-2004.
Let the games begin
This weekend has a slew of non-conference games.
On Friday, Lawrence travels to Wisconsin-Stout, Lake Forest visits Milwaukee to take on the Raiders and Marian will host Buffalo State. Saturday pits Minnesota-Crookston at Wisconsin-Stout, MSOE at Lake Forest, Lawrence at No. 13 Wisconsin-River Falls and Fredonia at Marian.
Conference play begins next weekend as Marian takes on MSOE. On Friday November 4, MSOE will host Marian, and on Saturday, Marian will host MSOE. Barring a major catastrophe, look for the Raiders to start conference play with a pair of wins.
Northland will also see action next weekend as they play a pair of games at Concordia and on Saturday, Finlandia will host the Toronto Rattlers in the Rattlers’ first of four games against the MCHA.
Mark your calendars
While none of these games are going to be seen on cable, there are plenty of MCHA games worth keeping an eye on this season.
On December 26, MSOE takes on Babson at the Babson Inivational. This will be one opportunity to gauge where MSOE ranks nationally. The other big non-conference game will be on January 7, when second-ranked St. Norbert travels to MSOE. If the MCHA hopes to garner any national respect, MSOE needs to make a decent showing against St. Norbert’s.
The biggest conference games will be in the final weekend of the season, when MSOE hosts Finlandia for a home and home series against the Lions. If the youthful Lions put together a solid effort throughout the season, these two games may shuffle the pecking order in the MCHA.