This Week In The NCHA and MCHA: Dec. 15, 2006

NCHA/MCHA Mid-term Report Card

Last weekend marked the end of league play for both leagues until January and brings us to about the midpoint of the season for most teams. With that being the case, let’s take a look at how each league has played itself out so far, and at how well each team has been able to address the questions they had upon entering the season.

Before I get to that, however, I would like to wish everyone a safe and happy holiday season. I know I’ll be having one as for the first time in years I’ll be spending it with my family in California. It’s things like family and friends, not hockey, that are ultimately important (well, to a point, it is hockey after all). So cherish the time you have with those family and friends as no one can ever be sure what life will throw at you next.

That being said, don’t get too attached, because we have a half a season to go in the Upper Midwest and it’s shaping up to be a great one. So travel safe everyone and enjoy your time off from school or work. I’ll see you back here in January.


UW-Stout Blue Devils

2006-07 Coach’s Poll: Sixth
2006-07 USCHO predicted finish: Seventh
Current League Standing: First
Grade: A

So far it looks like everyone missed the boat on these guys. The Blue Devils are likely one of the biggest surprises in the nation this season, and are certainly the biggest surprise in the NCHA. While some foresaw a Blue Devil team that would be improved this season, few would have penciled them in at 10-1-2 overall, and 5-0-1 in the NCHA heading into the break.

Much of Stout’s success this season had been due to their ability to come behind. Though currently undefeated in the NCHA, the Blue Devils have trailed in all six league contests. Two of their more impressive comebacks include rallying from a 3-1 third period deficit to tie St. Norbert, and defeating St. Scholastica last week after trailing 4-2 in the final period.

Heading into the season the Blue Devils expected their defense to be solid, and that it has, ranking second in the NCHA in scoring defense. It was the offense that would be the question mark, but Stout has scored nearly four goals per game, which considering their defense is enough to win more often than not.

Though it may not be reasonable to expect the Blue Devils to run the table in the second half, this team is for real and has offered very little to find fault with in the first half.

UW-River Falls Falcons

2006-07 Coach’s Poll: Second
2006-07 USCHO predicted finish: Second
Current League Standing: Second
Grade: A-

After defeating St. Norbert two weeks ago, the Falcons were off to a nearly perfect start, but last weekend’s loss at Superior and narrow win over St. Scholastica are enough to keep them from getting the perfect grade.

With almost everyone returning from last season’s roster, questions were few and potential was abundant heading into this season. The Falcons have lived up to the expectations, opening the season 11-2, and winning eleven of twelve since an opening night loss to UW-Eau Claire.

Forward T.J. Dahl has been lights out so far, posting 26 points in 13 games, and A.J. Bucchino has been just as stellar in net, leading the NCHA with a save percentage of 93.2.

The big question facing the Falcons is whether they can keep up this pace for the entire season, as they have been prone to sluggish second halves. For now though the Falcons have lived up to expectations and therefore deserve high marks across the board.

St. Norbert Green Knights

2006-07 Coach’s Poll: First
2006-07 USCHO predicted finish: First
Current League Standing: Third
Grade: A-

Despite being the elite NCHA team over the past decade, St. Norbert has been the victim of a one-point weekend for the second season in a row. Aside from that, the Green Knights have been perfect save for a tie at Fredonia.

Though the Green Knights returned a large amount of scoring, there were still early season questions when it came to their offensive cohesion due to some key losses to graduation. The questions have been answered as St. Norbert currently leads the NCHA in scoring and is posting over five goals per game. Individually, the Green Knights have four of the top six scorers in the NCHA and eight players scoring over a point per game.

Everyone expected the Green Knights to be strong defensively, and that they have been. As usual, goaltender Kyle Jones ranks near the top of every statistical category, and the Knights as a team are only allowing 1.64 goals per game.

By most standards, St. Norbert’s 11-1-2 start is about as much as anyone can expect. Not everyone is St. Norbert, however, and the Knights expect perfection. Overall they’ve been close to it, but not close enough to snag perfect marks.

UW-Superior Yellowjackets

2006-07 Coach’s Poll: Third
2006-07 USCHO predicted finish: Third
Current League Standing: Fourth
Grade: A

Heading into the season the Yellowjackets had perhaps the two most obvious questions of anyone in the league. One, would the lack of experience in net pose a problem? And two, who was going to carry the offense?

Sophomore goaltender Chad Beiswenger has answered the first question and done it with undeservedly little fanfare. Beiswenger is 9-2 on the year, allowing only 2.10 goals per game while posting a .928 save percentage. One of the better stick-handling goalies in the league, he has done everything asked of him and anchors a defense currently ranked second in the NCHA.

In regards to the questions on offense, the Yellowjacket’s recruiting class looked strong on paper – and they have backed it up on the ice. Led by Braden Desmet, three of the top four Superior scorers are freshman, and their top seven are all underclassmen.

A grade of A may seem a little high for a team currently in fourth in the league, but considering the unknowns surrounding this team this, Superior is off to a fine 10-2-0 start. Their losses came at Stout and St. Norbert, and there is no shame in losing at either. As usual, you can count the Yellowjackets as one of the premier threats in the league.

St. Scholastica Saints

2006-07 Coach’s Poll: Fourth
2006-07 USCHO predicted finish: Fifth
Current League Standing: Tied for fifth
Grade: C+

It’s been a long time since it’s been possible to call a 6-5-1 St. Scholastica team a little disappointing, but this season it’s reasonable to. Not so much because of the way they have played, because they are playing solid hockey, but because of the way they are losing games.

Want to talk about a frustrating season? Try these on for size: All four of the Saints’ league losses have come by one goal, despite leading after the second period against UW-Eau Claire the Saints were resigned to settle for a tie, and perhaps most painful, the Saints’ held two goal third period leads in losses to UW-Stout and UW-Stevens Point.

Despite the disappointing start, there is some good news. Last year’s impressive freshman class picked up right where they left off, as the Saints’ top seven scorers are sophomores.

What may also be good news for the second half is that even in some of the games they lost, St. Scholastica thoroughly outplayed their opponents. Faced with big expectations, remember that these guys are still a young team that is putting the pieces together and maybe still needs to learn how to win big games. Trust me on this, though: Their grade is not indicative of how well they have been playing, but it is indicative of the fact they have let numerous opportunities slip through their fingertips.

UW-Eau Claire Blugolds

2006-07 Coach’s Poll: Eighth
2006-07 USCHO predicted finish: Eighth
Current League Standing: Tied for fifth
Grade: B
Trying to grade the Blugolds is a tricky proposition. They are only 1-4-1 in the conference, but compared to the past few seasons are markedly improved. As it’s unrealistic to expect too big of a turnaround on only one season, I’ll error on the side of generosity.

The Blugolds have only been outscored 16-8 in six league contests this season, which compares favorably to the 25-10 scoring deficit they faced over the same stretch last season.

Though it’s expected for a team in the process of climbing out of the cellar, the Blugolds are almost a tale of two teams when it comes to league play. For example, their defense has been respectable in allowing fewer than three goals per contest, but their offense ranks last in the NCHA at under 1.5 goals per game. Special teams tell a similar story. The Eau Claire powerplay ranks in the top of the league, but their penalty kill ranks dead last and is allowing opponents to score 22% of the time.

As mentioned, this sort of inconsistency can be expected for a team rebounding in the manner the Blugolds are. At the same time, however, I think head coach Luke Strand deserves some credit for re-establishing the Blugolds as a team who is capable of giving anyone a fight.

UW-Stevens Point Pointers

2006-07 Coach’s Poll: Fifth
2006-07 USCHO predicted finish: Fourth
Current League Standing: Tied for fifth
Grade: C

Over the previous four seasons, the Pointers have never finished better than three games over .500. Over that same span, they have failed to finish below .500. Currently at 4-5-2, it looks like this season will bring much of the same for a team once again struggling with consistency.

The Pointers have shown flashes of brilliance at times, playing exceedingly well in non-conference wins over St. Thomas and Bethel earlier this season. In their lone conference win they overcame a two-goal deficit to beat St. Scholastica in overtime, thanks largely due to a nearly flawless third period.

Unfortunately, that level of performance has not been there on a weekly basis as the Pointers are 1-4-1 in the NCHA and have been outscored 24-8 by the top four teams in the league.

One area where Stevens Point has been consistent is special teams. Unfortunately for the Pointers, they have been consistently poor. Their powerplay and penalty kill units currently both rank 7th in the NCHA.

Part of the Pointers’ difficulties can be blamed on injuries. Rarely have the Pointers started the same lineup this season, which does little to establish the consistency required to win in the NCHA. The break comes at a great time as they look to regain their health and get on a roll, which they have the talent to do. For now though, as their grade indicates, they have merely been average.

Lake Forest Foresters

2006-07 Coach’s Poll: Seventh
2006-07 USCHO predicted finish: Sixth
Current League Standing: Eighth
Grade: D

Less than a year ago the Foresters finished fourth in the conference and swept an opening round playoff series. Currently 2-10-1 overall and winless in the NCHA, it doesn’t look like Lake Forest is on track for a repeat performance.

Before the season began, head coach Tony Fritz said it was essential for his Foresters to keep teams from getting the puck on the Lake Forest net. It sounds simple enough, but the Foresters have not been doing the job. They are allowing over 40 shots per game, nearly ten more than anyone else in the NCHA.

To make matters worse, the Foresters have not even been overly competitive, getting outscored by a two-to-one margin on the year. While it doesn’t seem the loss of one player could have such an impact on the offense, the potential return of star forward Mike Kneeland for the second half might be exactly what the Forester offense needs.

The Foresters rank at or near the bottom of the league in every team statistical category, and their performance has left many scratching their heads as to what’s going on down in Illinois. Heading into the season they looked like a fairly experienced with a lot of potential, but so far they have been rather disappointing.


MSOE Raiders

2006-07 USCHO predicted finish: First
Current League Standing: First
Grade: B+

The Raiders have not done anything to change their status as the team to beat in the MCHA. They are a perfect 7-0-1 in the league and head into break with a one point lead on second place Finlandia.

What the Raiders have done, however, is given detractors reason to doubt the quality of their team.

With the 20 game MCHA league schedule, MSOE is afforded little opportunity to prove itself against out of conference opposition. Despite quality wins over Lake Forest and Gustavus Adolphus, for better or worse people will remember the event which happened most recently. In MSOE’s case, that’s a 9-0 torching at the hands of Neumann in MSOE’s own Thanksgiving tournament.

Perception is reality, and despite an impressive season aside from the Neumann game, all talk about MSOE and a potential NCAA Tournament birth have subsided for the time being. The Raiders will get one more crack at earning the elusive statement win when they travel to St. Norbert in early January.

As mentioned, there is still no reason to believe MSOE will not win the MCHA, as they remain a quality team with a lot of talent in a lot of areas, but the loss to Neumann looms large for a team many of us are just hoping will burst onto the scene.

Finlandia Lions

2006-07 USCHO predicted finish: Third
Current League Standing: Second
Grade: B+

Prior to the start of the season, Finlandia was one of the teams hoping to challenge MSOE for the conference crown. So far they are right there, having won seven straight MCHA contests since an opening night one-goal loss to Marian.

The Lions lead the MCHA in scoring, hanging over five goals per game on the competition. They are led by Josh Paquette who leads the league in scoring with 1.8 points per game.

As usual, Finlandia is excelling on special teams, leading the MCHA in powerplay percentage while being the least penalized team in the league.

Finlandia failed to make noise in their two conference games, dropping a pair against Augsburg and Bethel in the Augsburg Tournament.

The MCHA schedule will make the second half interesting as the Lions still must face MSOE in four games that will prove pivotal in sorting out the conference. This could work to their favor as they will be in midseason form by the time they have to face their stiffest test. So far though, the Lions have been very solid in the MCHA and are in just the position they wanted to be at this point.

Marian Sabres

2006-07 USCHO predicted finish: Second
Current League Standing: Third
Grade: B-

The Sabres got off to a rough start this season. After opening the season against St. Norbert and then traveling to New York to take on a pair of SUNYAC foes, the Sabres found themselves at 0-3. It didn’t get any easier the following week as MCHA play began and they were the unlucky team who got to play MSOE. The Sabres only picked up one point on the weekend, but played the Raiders tough, tying one and dropping the other 4-2.

Since then, things have been going much better as Marian is 4-2 in its last six, including a split against Finlandia.

Along with Finlandia, Marian was penciled in as a team who might be able to challenge MSOE for the league crown, but they find themselves five points back at the break.

If the Sabres wish to get back in the hunt, they will need to cut down on the penalty minutes. Taking almost 30 minutes a game will come back to haunt a team whose penalty kill is only succeeding 78% of the time. This trend reared its ugly head in a 6-2 loss to UM-Crookston in which the Sabres allowed four powerplay goals.

Despite their slow start, the Sabres are still one of the better teams in this league and appear to be back on the right track. They still are five points back, however, which isn’t quite where they’d like to be right now.

Lawrence Vikings

2006-07 USCHO predicted finish: Fourth
Current League Standing: Tied for fourth
Grade: C

Under the supervision of first year head coach Mike Szkodzinski, this was expected to be a year of growth for the Vikings. All evidence suggests that it is.

Though Lawrence is only 2-8-1 overall, one needs to look no further than their recent series against MSOE. On Friday the Vikings were outshot 29-12 and shutout 3-0. Though they lost 5-1 the following night, they were only outshot 28-24 and took it to the Raiders in the first period, outshooting them 12-5.

The disciplined attitude Szkodzinski was hoping to bring to the program appears to be taking hold as well, as the Lawrence powerplay and penalty kill both rank in the top half of the league.

While there are signs of improvement, the fact remains that the Vikings have only won two league games with both coming over Northland.

UM-Crookston Golden Eagles

2006-07 USCHO predicted finish: Fifth
Current League Standing: Tied for fifth
Grade: C-

It was only three years ago the Golden Eagles won the Harris Cup by defeating Marian in the finals of the MCHA Tournament. After tailing off the past few seasons, the Golden Eagles entered 2006 eager to re-establish their winning ways.

So far, it hasn’t happened.

Crookston opened the season by playing MSOE extremely tough, and picked up splits against Lawrence and Marian the following weeks. The relative success was short-lived, however, as in their last three contests the Golden Eagles are winless and have been outscored 21-4, including a 10-2 loss to Finlandia.

Much like Marian, special teams have plagued Crookston so far this season. The Golden Eagles are the most penalized team in the MCHA and their penalty-kill ranks dead last. Partially as a result, they are allowing 4.78 goals per game which also ranks last in the league.

Overall, no one really expected the Golden Eagles to do much this season, and they haven’t. After their last three outings, the break might be exactly what these guys need to try to find their winning touch.

Northland Lumberjacks

2006-07 USCHO predicted finish: Sixth
Current League Standing: Sixth
Grade: D

They say that numbers don’t lie, and unfortunately for winless Northland it means they are once again at the bottom of the league.

The Lumberjacks are 0-11 on the year and have been outscored 50-15. As I have been mentioned before, one bright spot despite those numbers has been the play of freshman goalie Bo Storozuk. Through eleven games, Storozuk has posted a save percentage of 90.7. While not out of this world, it is remarkably high for a goaltender that faces a barrage of shots on a nightly basis. For comparison’s sake, that’s the highest save percentage of any Northland goaltender in years.

Part of Northland’s lack of success thus far may stem from the fact they are operating with a short bench. Very similar to Marian’s situation a few years ago, the Lumberjacks are taking the ice with only 17 skaters – three of whom are goalies.

In only his second season as head coach, Steve Fabiilli is in the early stages of trying to comprehensively build a program from the ground up. If Storozuk is any indication of the type of players Fabiilli will be able to bring in, things bode well for the future. Unfortunately for the Lumberjacks, however, for now they remain the least formidable team in the MCHA.