Strength From Top to Bottom

With three teams in the top 15 of the preseason poll and seven members of the Preseason All-USCHO first and second teams, the Northern Collegiate Hockey Association is arguable the strongest conference in Division III hockey.

King of the Hill

Even though St. Norbert won their fourth consecutive NCHA regular season title and third straight Peters Cup, most of the talk concerning the Knights’ season was their NCAA Quaterfinal loss to St. Thomas.

The Green Knights (3-0-0 overall, 0-0-0 NCHA) are returning all but three of their players who suffered through that stunning loss, so will the bitterness from that loss carry over to this season?

“We have not talked about the St. Thomas game at all, we really haven’t,” coach Tim Coghlin said. “I guess when I reflect back on it, that’s where I ask myself, ‘Okay, if our depth is so good and the supporting cast around Jason Deitsch and Ryan Tew is so strong, where were those guys in that 3-2 loss?’…That’s where the questions come in for this year.”

While depth will be crucial for St. Norbert, the Knights will also have to find a way to replace Deitsch and Tew, who both graduated. Deitsch was a three-time All-American and the all-time leading scorer at St. Norbert, and Ryan Tew was also a three-time All-American and, “Arguably the best defensemen that’s ever played here,” according to Coghlin.

Coghlin said that those two men were relied on in nearly every situation imaginable over the past three years, from being two men up on the power play to down two men on the penalty kill, Deitsch and Tew were the go-to guys.

Senior captain Connor Hughes will be relied on even more, with Deitsch and Tew no longer to around to share the load.

“I think he’s been the most underrated player on our roster for the last two years,” Coghlin said. “He’s our world. He does everything for us… He seems to have a knack to score big goals when we need ’em. I mean, he’s clearly one of those guys I think that’s gonna step forward.”

Spencer Carbery may be one to step up as well. Carbery scored 11 points in conference play last season and has been named to the Preseason All-USCHO West First Team. Joining him on the All-USCHO teams are Hughes and sophomore goalie Kyle Jones, who were both named to the West Second Team.

Jones will play a huge roll on this year’s squad, because while St. Norbert was averaging 4.57 goals per game last season to lead the NCHA, they were also keeping opponents to a league-low 1.79 goals per game.

Jones took over the starting job part way through the season and posted mind-boggling numbers. He led the league with 9-0-1 conference record and five shutouts. He didn’t fair too badly against the rest of the competition and compiled a 17-1-1 overall record. His 1.15 GAA and .950 save percentage were all tops in the league.

Jones is 2-0-0 in two games played this season, allowing only two goals in 90 minutes of action, but he’s only faced 23 shots.

“When you’re a goaltender, and you’re only facing 15, 16, 17 shots a night, I think that’s a tough place to play,” Coghlin said. “I think Kyle has demonstrated that he can do that.”

The Knights will return much of that stingy defense that keeps their opponents from reaching the night, but that defense will be without their anchor, Ryan Tews.

Besides Tew, St. Norbert returns most of their experienced defensive core, including junior Andrew Derton, who is leading St. Norbert, and is tied for the Division III lead with eight points this season.

The Knights are ranked second in the preseason USCHO poll, but Coghlin is making no guarantees about the upcoming season.

“I think personally we’re a little bit overrated right now,” Coghlin said. “I look at us as yes, we have some upside, but we do have a long ways to go.”

St. Norbert will get an early indication of how they good they are as they travel to take on No. 5 St. John’s in Collegeville, Minn. on Friday, November 4.

Superior Staying With The Pack

If the seventh-ranked Wisconsin-Superior Yellowjackets hope to improve upon last year’s 9-2-3 conference record, and beat perennial power St. Norbert, they will have to find a way to replace three of their four leading scorers, and four other seniors, who as a class combined for 90 of Superior’s 155 points last season.

Michael Wiggins was second in the NCHA with 22 points and a league-leading 13 goals, seven of which were with the man advantage. Teammate Kyle Nosan was second on the squad with 18 points and Dale Lupul was fourth with 17 points and a team-high 16 assists.

“Obviously they helped us tremendously last year,” coach Dan Stauber said. “We’re gonna miss them but we have to move on… It’s hard to replace those guys but there’s always someone that steps up.”

Superior (1-0-0 overall, 0-0-0 NCHA) had eight freshmen on last year’s roster, but those eight only managed 16 points between them.

“Offensively it’s going to Myles Palliser, Jay Dardis and Colin Giuguet,” Stauber said. “Derek Miller should us out quite a bit from a defensive standpoint.”

While it may be a question of who’s going to be scoring goals for the Yellowjackets, there is no question as to who will be keeping them out.

Senior Mathieu Bonnelly and junior Baron Bradley split time in conference games last season. Bonnelly posted a 5-1-1 record with a 2.12 GAA and a .921 save percentage. Bradley put up similar numbers, finishing with a 4-1-2 record with a 2.21 GAA and a .912 save percentage. But so far this season, Bradley is the only one to see time.

“Our goaltending situation is still kind of up in the air right now,” Stauber said. “Baron’s gonna play Friday night and we’ll see what happens.”

Superior travels to take on Hamline and Bethel this weekend. Look for Bethel to make the game interesting for the Yellowjackets.

As for success in the long-run, Stauber summed it up best.

“We gotta gel together we have to be a team,” Stauber said. “I think if we can get good solid goaltending and play sound defensively and wait for our offensive opportunities, I think we’ll be able to be successful.”

Life Without Larson

Like the Green Knights and Yellowjackets, No. 13 Wisconsin-River Falls Falcons will have to do without their leading scorer from 2004-2005.

River-Falls (2-0-0 overall, 0-0-0 NCHA) finished 9-5-0 in the NCHA last season, thanks in large to senior Garrett Larson. Larson led the Falcons with 19 points and a team-high 10 goals.

One man who step up and fill that void is sophomore Tyler Dahl. Dahl was second on the team with 18 points and a team-high 12 assists. But most likely it will be “scoring by committee” rather than one person taking charge for River-Falls.

“I think we’ve got a couple recruits that are gonna be pretty good players as far as putting the puck in the net,” coach Steve Freeman said. “Losing (Larson) is tough, we lost 20 goals, but I think we’ve got some guys that can fill that in with 10 or 12 goals here and there.”

Freeman mentioned that his defense, who ranked third in the NCHA, giving up 2.50 goals a game, took a few hits as well. Now it will be up to five freshmen defenders to keep the pressure off of the Falcons’ goaltenders.

“I think we brought in some pretty good players,” Freeman said. “But the question is, how fast can they adjust to the pace of college hockey and especially in the NCHA when we get into the heat of the battle?”

River-Falls also got a veteran defender back in Mike Salmela. Salmela left the program two years to pursue some medical school endeavors, but has come back for his senior year, and will hopefully be able to help the young defenders adjust to the college level.

While the Falcons may have an inexperienced defensive unit, their goaltenders are anything but.

Senior Dan Meneghin had a 4-3-0 conference record and compiled a 2.42 GAA and .924 save percentage. But it was senior Andy Scanlon who was the big game goalie. Scanlon finished 5-2-0 in the NCHA with a 2.31 GAA and a .919 save percentage. River-Falls also brought in freshman A.J. Bucchino, who played for the Des Moines Buccaneers of the USHL. Bucchino started the Falcons’ first game against Wisconsin-Eau Claire and made 34 saves in the 5-1 win.

“We believe we have a good, solid hockey club,” Freeman said. “I think with our goaltending and team defense we can make a run.”

Pointers Looking to Score

Despite having two of the top three scorers in the NCHA last season, the Wisconsin-Stevens Point Pointers could only muster a 15 points and a 7-6-1 conference record.

The Pointers (0-1-0 overall, 0-0-0 NCHA) were second in team offense behind St. Norbert, scoring an average of 4.50 goals per game.

Mike Brolsma led the NCHA with 26 points and league-high 17 assists, while Ryan Kirchhoff added another 21 points on eight goals and 13 assists. But both were lost to graduation. Stevens-Point also lost its leading goal-scorer in Adam Kostichka, who lit the lamp 11 times.

Without their three leading scorers, the nagging question for the Pointers is; who will step up and pick up the offensive slack?

“I think that’s a big question mark for us right now,” coach Joe Baldarotta said. “Everybody loses scorers every year, especially if they’re older guys and it seems like those are the guys that always are very prolific. I don’t know if anybody really ever is able to replace them.”

But it’s not just the scoring punch that Stevens Point lost.

“You lose personality, you lose different styles of play, you lose leadership and you lose that production,” Baldarotta said. “I’m not sure that we’re looking to replace the guys that we lost, we’re looking to develop new ones.”

The Pointers have 12 freshmen and seven sophomores on their roster. Tom Vernelli led last year’s freshmen class with 13 points on nine goals and four assists. But the most important underclassmen on the roster are the Stevens Point goaltenders.

Last season, Bryn Davies received the majority of the time between the pipes, finishing with a 6-5-1 record in conference play, giving up an average of 4.14 goals per game with an .866 save percentage. Baldarotta is expecting another solid season from his sophomore net-minder, but expects his freshmen, Marcus Paulson in particular, to challenge for that starting spot.

“(Paulson) is really a quality goaltender and we really needed him for a couple of reasons,” Baldarotta said. “Number one, we think he’s capable of playing and winning some big games for us, but the second thing is he really pushes Bryn.

“You know the competition factor for any goaltender is important and it’s something we didn’t have last year at the end of the year,” Baldarotta continued. “No one was pressing our goaltenders and consequently, (Davies) didn’t step up the way he needed to, but now the pressure is on everybody to play.

Youth in Net

Lake Forest finished fifth in the NCHA last season with 14 points and a 7-7-0 conference record. Unlike many teams in the conference, the Foresters will have last year’s leading scorer back for their 2005-2006 campaign.

Tyler Canal led the team in goals, assists and points last season as sophomore, with seven, 13 and 20 respectively.

But Lake Forest did lose nine players to graduations, including five forwards and their only two goaltenders.

Cody Brown and Joel Cameron split time between the pipes last season. Brown had a 5-3-0 conference record, with a 2.51 GAA and a .925 save percentage. Cameron went 2-4-0 with a 3.32 GAA and a .904 save percentage.

This season, Lake Forest will rely on three freshmen netminders-Brandon Kohuch, Scott Campbell and Bobby Alderman. Kohuch picked up the win in the Foresters’ season-opener against the Milwaukee School of Engineering, allowing only one goal on 26 shots while Campbell made 28 saves the following night in the 3-2 loss.

Lake Forest (1-1-0 overall, 0-0-0 NCHA) also has a number of freshmen skaters who have played well in this young season. Four out of five freshmen skaters have notched a point in the two games played, including team leaders Peter Morrison with three points and Mike Kneeland with two.

This season’s success will largely depend on the Foresters’ freshmen, and their ability to replace proven seniors.

Stout, Scholastica and Eau Claire

Three teams finished below .500 in conference play last season; Wisconsin-Stout, St. Scholastica and Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

Wisconsin-Stout returns all but two players, and two points, from last year’s team. That experience, granted it wasn’t the best kind, will certainly help the Blue Devils in their attempts to climb out of the cellar.

Junior Andrew Stearns led Stout last season with 13 points in conference play. Teammates Justin Huth and Mike Kautz followed with 11 points apiece.

In their two wins this season, the Blue Devils (2-0-0 overall, 0-0-0 NCHA) have seen 14 different players notch a point. They are led by a pair of freshmen, Jeff Wheeler and Nick Klaren, who have three points each.

Stout has three goalies on the roster this season, two of which, Matt Stone and Glenn Walker saw time last season. The Blue Devils also added freshman goaltender Matt Koenig, who played for the Billings Bulls out of the AWHL last season.

St. Scholastica only had two wins last season against the rest of the NCHA, the Saints lost three from last year’s squad, but return all of their scoring. The biggest loss may be goalie Tyler Johnson, who earned both of Scholastica’s wins.

But the Saints do have at least one goaltender that saw time last season in senior Josh Liebig.

If Scholastica hopes to win more than two games this season, they will have to improve upon an offense that was last in the NCHA at a dismal 2.36 goals per game.

The Wisconsin-Eau Claire Blugolds definitely have their work cut out for them in their attempt to improve upon last season’s 1-10-3 conference record.

The Blugolds (0-1-0 overall, 0-0-0 NCHA) will be without four of their five leading scorers, but do return junior Dave Coleman, who was tied for the team lead last season with 15 points.

First-year head coach Luke Strand will have to find a way to improve upon the NCHA’s worst defense at 4.86 goals per game and find someone to step up and replace the scoring void left by the Blugolds departing seniors.

Don’t touch that dial

Friday night’s contest in Collegeville, Minn. pits second-ranked St. Norbert against fifth ranked St. John’s in a game that features the top two goalies in the west, St. Norbert’s Kyle Jones and St. John’s Adam Hanna. If St. John’s picks up the victory, look for them to climb up in the national rankings.

In what is sure to be the biggest non-conference game in the West, and possibly the country, No. 3 St. Thomas travels to De Pere, Wis. to take on second-ranked St. Norbert, in a rematch of last year’s NCAA Quarterfinal game that saw the Tommies upset the Knights 3-2, in their march to the NCAA Championship game.

On Saturday, February 4, Superior plays host to River Falls in a conference contest that could affect both teams’ standings heading into the postseason.