MIAC Preview: Best of the West?

Even though the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference plays second fiddle to the five Division I hockey programs in the state of Minnesota, there are plenty reasons to keep a watchful eye on the MIAC this season.

For years, the Northern Collegiate Hockey Association has been considered the cream of the crop of the West. Last season, the MIAC made a big push for that honor, as St. Thomas made it all the way to the NCAA Championship game. The Tommies lost in the title game, but along the way they upset the NCHA’s best-St. Norbert-a team that is consistently in the upper echelon of Division III hockey.

This season, the MIAC starts with two teams ranked in the USCHO.com top 15, and four players on the Preseason All-USCHO West Teams. While St. Thomas and St. John’s both opened the season with losses at the hands of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and St. Norbert respectively, the rest of the MIAC picked up the slack and the MIAC went 9-5-2 against the NCHA.

While it’s early in the season, watch for the MIAC to continue their surge toward the top of the West.

Looking to Repeat

Fourth-ranked St. Thomas is looking to turn heads again this season with another trip to the NCAA title game.

After losing both regular season games against archrival St. John’s, the Tommies won the only two games against the Jonnies that mattered-the MIAC title game and the NCAA first round game, thus ending St. John’s season.

St. Thomas (1-1-0 overall, 0-0-0 MIAC) went on to stun St. Norbert in the quarterfinals and advance all the way to the NCAA title game where their Cinderella run was ended in a 5-0 loss to Middlebury.

“Well we were playing really well at the time and we kinda regrouped and got things going at that time,” coach Terry Skrypek said. “It was a great run. It was a lot of fun. Guys were high and they skated on a high and rode it out as far as they could and we ran out of gas at the end.”

Expectations are undoubtedly high in St. Paul, as the Tommies return over three-fourths of their scoring and all but one defender from last year’s squad. But St. Thomas lost two All-Americans in Dustan Lick and Adam Blumer, two key components in last year’s success.

“(Lick and Blumer) are tough guys to replace,” Skrypek said. “I think some guys will come to the forefront here so you’re likely to see the cream rise to the top and we’ll see who comes up and becomes a leader.”

The Tommies also took a hit with the loss of two senior goaltenders, All-MIAC goalie Zach Sikich as well as senior Kevin Hennessey.

“I feel right now we’ve got two good goalies,” Skrypek said. “We’ll find somebody that wants to play and we’ll get it going.

Senior Jeremy Earl got the start in Friday night’s season-opener against Wisconsin-Stevens Point and allowed three goals on 30 shots in the loss.

“Well Earl I thought did an adequate job for us tonight,” Skrypek said. “I don’t think any of ’em were his fault.”

St. Thomas had its chances, but just couldn’t convert all game. It was a tough way to start the season after so much success last season.

“We had some great opportunities in the second period on that one power play,” Skrypek said. “Sometimes those missed opportunities…come back to haunt you. You only get so many in a game and if you don’t take advantage of ’em when you get ’em, then you’re gonna fall on the short end of it.

“I think there’s room for improvement,” Skrypek said. “We’re getting better as the season goes on. One game does not make the season.”

Still a Favorite

Last season, St. John’s went 14-1-1 in conference play to win their third straight MIAC regular season title. In a repeat of 2003-2004, the Johnnies were upset in the championship game by St. Thomas, 2-1.

St. John’s (1-1-0 overall, 0-0-0 MIAC) had their chance for revenge in the first round of the NCAA tournament though, but once again was upset by the Tommies 4-1.

“I thought we played pretty well in the MIAC championship game,” coach John Harrington said. “When we came back in the NCAA tournament they just outplayed us. It’s not like they had a bad team, they certainly didn’t. They never do. As I’ve told people, they just have varying stages of great. They’re either unbelievably great or they’re great, they’re never bad, I don’t remember ’em ever being bad, so it’s not like it was an upset.”

The start of this season wasn’t any better. Seventh-ranked St. John’s opened the season at home against No. 2 St. Norbert. The Johnnies couldn’t manage a goal and lost to the Green Knights 3-0.

“Well that was their fourth game and our first and it looked like it,” Harrington said. “We just had to throw our guys out there and see what we had and then go back to work and kinda break it down and put things back together.”

But St. John’s bounced back on Saturday and picked up a 3-2 win over Lake Forest, thanks in part to a two-point night from senior captain Darryl Smoleroff.

“I always use the word “warrior” with Darryl because the bigger the game the better he plays,” Harrington said. “Darryl is a great talent and he certainly is a great leader for our team and he’s been a good player since the day he got here. He’s been a good one, one of the best we’ve had.”

St. John’s also returns its top nine scorers from the last year’s squad that averaged 5.13 goals per game. Senior assistant captains Scott Bjorkland and Aaron Getchell were the Johnnies’s top two scorers with 22 and 20 points respectively, and will be relied on heavily for both leadership and offensive production this season.

“Those are the guys that when you’re in the big games you look for to produce,” Harrington said. “So that’s what we’re gonna be looking from those guys and hopefully they’ll be able to continue what they’ve done for the last number of years and that’s be our offensive leaders.”

The main ingredient in St. John’s recipe for success is senior goaltender Adam Hanna. Hanna, the Preseason All-USCHO West First Team goalie, led the MIAC with a 13-1-1 record, a 1.78 GAA, a .929 save percentage and three shutouts.

“He always gives us a chance to win,” Harrington said. “He doesn’t get rattled by anything, whether it’s good things going for us or bad things going for us he doesn’t get rattled and he thinks the game really well.

“He’s not a goaltender who’s prime concern is stopping the puck, he knows he’s gonna stop the puck,” Harrington continued. “His concern is what he’s gonna do with it afterwards and he’s able to control rebounds and put rebounds where people aren’t. He’s always ahead of what’s going on and his numbers have shown that he’s certainly one of the best players at his position in college hockey.”

Smoleroff will anchor the defense in front of Hanna, a defense that allowed only 1.75 goals per game, tops in the conference.

“Certainly in any sport, not just hockey, it seems to me that if you have a great defense you have a pretty good chance of being successful,” Harrington said. “So we’re gonna try to do that but again we’ll see how the season goes.”

On the Edge of Greatness

In 2004-2005, Bethel finished in a tie for third in the MIAC with St. Olaf, with a 10-6-0 record and 20 points. The Royals’ season ended with a loss to St. Thomas in a four-overtime thriller in the conference tournament semi-finals.

“Against St. Thomas our guys were really ready to go,” coach Peter Aus said. “It was just a tremendous hockey game up and down the ice and both teams played well.”

Bethel (2-0-0 overall, 0-0-0 MIAC) was led by seniors Kris Birch and Dan Ubl, who notched 22 and 20 points respectively, but those are the only two scorers the Royals don’t return this season. Junior Ryan Adams led last year’s squad with 12 goals and will be a big part of the Royals’ offense this season, an offense that was third in the MIAC last season averaging 4.50 goals per game, despite only getting points from 13 players.

“We have more firepower than we’ve had in the past,” Aus said. “We have three lines that are pretty well balanced and there are guys that can score on all three lines.”

Defensively, Bethel returns five of six defenders from team that was fourth in the MIAC in team defense at 3.50 goals per game as well one of the top goalies in the MIAC, junior Dustin Thompson, who went 10-5-0, with a 3.36 GAA and a .901 save percentage in conference play last year.

“You win the games with defense, and I think our goaltending is outstanding,” Aus said. “(Thompson) played very well last weekend for us and certainly is a key, but our team defense is a key to success.”

Bethel has started strong this season, picking up a pair of one-goal wins against NCHA foes St. Scholastica and No. 9 Wisconsin-Superior. Adams led the Royals with three goals and an assist on the weekend and teammates Jon Kramer and Dan McCauley each added three points on a goal and two assists.

“We have pretty high expectations but you don’t know how guys are gonna gel together,” Aus said. “I was really pleased with the way our guys played for the weekend and it’s good to start with a 2-0 record.”

Mighty MacMillan

St. Olaf finished 2004-2005 with an 8-4-4 conference record in tie with Bethel for third in the MIAC. The Olies won the play-in game over Gustavus, but lost 2-1 in double-overtime against St. John’s in the MIAC semifinals.

Freshmen Mike MacMillan led the St. Olaf offense that averaged 3.63 goals per game, with his 19 points, the highest freshmen total in the MIAC. The Olies had six other freshmen tally at least a point in conference play, including 11 from forward Jeff Budish and nine from defenseman John Paulson.

In two games this season, MacMillan has three assists, Budish has two goals and two assists and Paulson has a pair of goals, both on the power play.

St. Olaf (1-0-1 overall, 0-0-0 MIAC) had the third best defense last season after giving up an average of 2.81 goals per game. The Olies return four of six defensemen from last year’s squad, as well as three underclassmen who also saw playing time.

In net for St. Olaf will be senior Dan Kehler and junior Jeff Wilde. Kehler had the second-highest save percentage in the MIAC at .913 and a GAA of 2.21, while compiling an 8-2-4 conference record. Wilde had a rougher go of it last season finishing 0-2-0, but picked up the Olies first win this season against Wisconsin-Stout.

The Offensive Defenseman

The Golden Gusties of Gustavus Adolphus finished fifth in the MIAC with a 7-8-1 record, but were unable to advance in the postseason after losing to St. Olaf in the play-in game.

This season, the Gusties (2-0-0 overall, 0-0-0 MIAC) will undoubtedly be led by senior defensemen Keith Detlefsen. Last year, Detlefsen led the conference in scoring with 29 points on 10 goals and 19 assists, an average of 1.92 points per game.

Sophomore forward Cody Drysdale is leading Gustavus this season with five points in two games while teammate Steven Jensen has four. Six players have double digit point totals in the two games thus far.

Gustavus will desperately need to improve upon a defense that gave up an average of 4.00 goals per game last season, seventh in the MIAC. Senior goaltender Erik Kraska was the only goalie for the Gusties to pick up multiple conference wins. Kraska went 6-2-1 with a 2.86 GAA and a .889 save percentage. Senior teammate Steve Witkowski saw time in only one game last year, but has already equaled that this season when he picked up the 4-3 win over Wisconsin-River Falls.

Middle of the Pack

Despite having the sensational sophomore combination of Critter Nagurski and Aaron Johnson, who finished second and fourth in scoring in the MIAC last season, with 26 and 23 points respectively, Augsburg finished in a tie for sixth with 13 points and a 5-8-3 record.

Nagurski led the conference with 14 goals and Johnson led in assists with 20, but production dropped off after that. Junior Joe Haehn was the second-leading goal scorer for the Auggies with eight, followed by three players with five.

But in two wins this season, including a 7-4 upset over then second-ranked St. Norbert, three players have multiple goals, five others have lit the lamp once, nine players have multiple points and another six have one point, leaving only two skaters without a point.

If Augsburg (2-0-0 overall, 0-0-0 MIAC) wants to move up in the conference, they will need to improve upon the fifth-best defense in the MIAC at 3.56 goals per game. The Auggies haven’t improved that defense yet this season, giving up four goals in each of their wins this season.

Augsburg will also need big year from senior goaltender Tony Ciro. Ciro went 5-8-3 against the rest of the MIAC with a 3.41 GAA and an .893 save percentage. But the senior netminder has gotten plenty of offensive support this season and is 2-0-0 with 59 saves.

St. Mary’s finished tied with the Auggies last season with a 6-9-1 record behind Chad Damerow’s 18 points. But Damerow graduated, along with goaltender Ryne Ess, who went 6-9-1 in conference play with 3.48 GAA and an .884 save percentage.

Senior forward Adam Fingerhut will likely pick up the offensive slack left by Damerow. Fingerhut notched 13 points on eight goals and five assists this season and has a pair of assists in two games this season.

The Cardinals (0-1-1 overall, 0-0-0 MIAC) have four goalies listed on the roster, but the most likely to replace Ess will be senior Curtis Nosal and junior Nick Berra. Both goaltenders have seen time already this season, but Berra was the only one besides Ess to see time in conference games.

Bottom of the Barrel

Both Concordia and Hamline have a long way to go in the MIAC. Concordia had six points and a 3-13-0 record, while Hamline had only three points with a 1-14-1 record.
The Cobbers (3-0-0 overall, 0-0-0 MIAC) will be looking for someone to replace last year’s leading scorer, Nate Ronning. So far, it looks as though junior Dan Perry is up to the challenge. Perry has 10 points on six goals and four assists in Concordia’s three wins.

If Concordia hopes to improve upon the second-worst offense in the MIAC, Perry is going to need to keep up his blistering pace all season long.

Nineteen freshmen are looking to help turn things around at Hamline. Last season, the Pipers were last in team offense, team defense, power play percentage and penalty killing and finished last in the MIAC for the second consecutive year.

Hamline (0-2-0 overall, 0-0-0 MIAC) will need their newcomers to play like savvy veterans if they hope to climb out of the cellar.

Revered Rivalry

While the Tommies versus the Johnnies rivalry may not have the same hype that the Minnesota Gophers versus the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs rivalry does, as far as St. Thomas and St. John’s are concerned, these are the only games that matter.

This season will be no different, especially after St. Thomas knocked off St. John’s in both the MIAC championship and the first round of the NCAA tournament.

The Tommies travel to Collegeville on Thursday, February 2, in a game that is sure to see sparks fly and possibly a change atop the MIAC standings. The following night in St. Paul, the Tommies will have the home-ice advantage in another feisty confrontation between the two bitter rivals.

If you only watch the MIAC one weekend a year, that Thursday and Friday night will be the one to watch.