This Week In The NCHA and MCHA: Jan. 12, 2007

Though it has been almost a month since this column last appeared, little has changed in terms of the MCHA and NCHA when it comes to the national scene. Led by St. Norbert at No. 3, the NCHA still boasts four teams in the top ten of the Division III poll. The Green Knights are followed by UW-River Falls at No. 4, UW-Stout at No. 5 and UW-Superior at No. 8. UW-Eau Claire is also receiving votes this week, checking in with a single point. Despite registering a paltry nine shots on net in a 5-2 loss at St. Norbert, MSOE remains the lone MCHA team to receive votes.

With the NCHA continuing play in the MIAC Interlock, all eyes fall on the MCHA this week as league play resumes with a couple of huge series. MSOE and Finlandia, currently first and second in the league respectively, clash in their first two meetings of the season. Third place Marian and fourth place Lawrence also get together for the first time this season.

MCHA Confidence Growing

Lake Forest, Gustavus Adolphus, St. Olaf, and UW-Superior …

… have all fallen victim to a MCHA team this season. Finlandia has been most impressive, knocking off St. Olaf and UW-Superior — both of whom made last season’s NCAA Tournament field. Finlandia isn’t the only MCHA team to have roughed up St. Olaf as just last weekend, Lawrence swept a two game set with the Oles. And though MSOE didn’t get a much desired marquee win over Neumann or St. Norbert, they did defeat Lake Forest and Gustavus Adolphus, scoring a combined 18 goals in the wins. Additionally, Marian played 4th ranked UW-River Falls to a 4-4 stalemate last week.

While still struggling overall in non-conference play, these wins are more impressive than anything MCHA teams have been able to accomplish in the past. According to Lawrence head coach Mike Szkodzinski, the wins are a sign that the MCHA is improving.

“I think the league is slowly making a name for itself,” he said. “It’s not something we can talk about yet though, it comes down to what its (the MCHA) is doing on the ice. Some of our teams have some good wins this year, but we still do have to prove ourselves as a league though I think we are headed in the right direction.”

Even NCHA loyalists will admit the MCHA is leaps and bounds ahead of where it was a few years ago, and much of that stems from the youth and energy of the coaches in the league. Among the Division III schools in the league, MSOE head coach Mark Ostapina is the longest tenured and is only in his sixth season at MSOE. Finlandia head coach Joe Burcar is in fifth season overall but only his third in the MCHA, while Marian’s Jasen Wise is also in his third season. Northland’s Steve Fabiilli and Szkodzinski bring even newer blood into the MCHA coaching ranks as they are in their second and first seasons respectively.

Collectively, that’s all of fifteen seasons in the MCHA. For comparison’s sake, the current coaches in the NCHA have a combined 92 seasons of experience.

As mentioned however, it’s the youth (in terms of years coached in the MCHA) of the coaches that is serving to make it a better league. Five or six years ago it was almost a given that a team like Lawrence would play a NCHA school and lose badly. In fact, double digit scores were not uncommon. With the new leadership the MCHA has a new attitude, which is also something Szkodzinski feels is very beneficial.

“There are a lot of younger coaches, and that’s good for the league. They expect to win,” he said. “Take me for example. I think it really helps that I came from a program like St. Norbert where I was able to learn a lot from some very successful people. A lot of us have some good experience, and that’s a good thing.”

It’s not all roses for the MCHA, however. Just last weekend offered league favorite MSOE another chance at grabbing a win over an elite team as they traveled to St. Norbert. The night resulted in a Raider team that struggled mightily and mustered a paltry nine shots on net en route to a 5-2 loss. The game was even more lopsided than the final score indicated.

Having been there myself, games like the St. Norbert-MSOE one are clear evidence that the MCHA is still a few steps behind. What is good news is that it’s a talent-gap causing the problem — not a “hockey gap” as I’ll call it. Over the past two seasons, the MCHA teams I have seen play smart, disciplined and fundamentally sound hockey — perhaps even more so than their NCHA counterparts. They make few mistakes and are clearly well-coached.

They say the proof is in the pudding. Right now the MCHA is still operating with a pretty small bowl, but based on some of their results this season, there at least is some pudding in it — something that hasn’t been the case in the past.

This Week in the MCHA

Commenting on Lawrence’s sweep of St. Olaf, Szkodzinski stated, “Two victories over anybody is a great way to start the second half of the season.”

His next line was: “What’s in front of us is what’s our big challenge, though,”

Those sentiments would most certainly be echoed by the rest of the coaches around the league as MCHA play resumes with two big series, the main event of which is Finlandia at MSOE.

The Lions and Raiders sit one point apart atop the MCHA standings, and it’s only fitting the two have not played yet this season. Past history gives a slight edge to MSOE, having gone 4-2-1 against Finlandia over the past two seasons. Momentum is likely on the side of the Lions however, as they enter the series coming off a big win over St. Olaf, while MSOE was most recently dominated by St. Norbert.

Both teams bring high-powered offenses into the meetings, as eight of the top nine scorers in the MCHA play for Finlandia or MSOE. As teams, they boast the top two scoring offenses in the league with both averaging nearly 4.5 goals per game.

Something is going to have to give as they also possess the top two scoring defenses in the league, though the Raiders best the Lions by about a half goal per contest.

With MSOE’s top line once again a scoring machine, and Finlandia receiving acclaim as being an excellent transition team, the series could well be decided by the play of the goaltenders. Matt Burzon (7-1-1, 2.70, .893) has been MSOE’s go-to guy all season. The Lions could counter with Joe Juntilla (4-3-0, 3.72, .868) or Lukas Alberer (5-1-0, 2.5, .906).

Both teams are experienced and are more than familiar with each other. Heading into the season everyone wondered who would step up and challenge MSOE and it’s been Finlandia who answered the call. With the Lions on a roll and MSOE reeling from last week’s defeat, someone is going to make a statement this week. Either Finlandia will stake their claim to the MCHA throne, or MSOE will rebound and defend their title with a vengeance…or of course they could split and solve nothing.

The other big series pits Marian and Lawrence against each other, which each hosting once. According to Szkodzinski, this matchup is eerily similar to the Finlandia-MSOE series.

“Our teams are very similar,” he said. “We both have a lot of guys returning, both are coming off big games and both are very confident right now. It will be an interesting weekend – closely contested.”

While he was speaking to more intangible items, the two closely resemble each other on paper as well. Marian is 4-7-1, Lawrence is 4-7-2, and they are quite close in almost every major team statistical category.

Lawrence sits four points behind Marian in the MCHA standings and would most certainly love to move into a tie after this weekend. Likewise, a Marian sweep could move them to within a few points of the league lead depending on the results of MSOE-Finlandia.

Overall, the conclusion of this week’s games will mark the halfway point of the MCHA season, which makes it fitting that it features two key matchups that could go either way.

This Week’s MCHA Schedule

Friday, Jan. 12
Finlandia @ MSOE
Marian @ Lawrence
UM-Crookston @ Northland

Saturday, Jan. 13
Finlandia @ MSOE
Lawrence @ Marian
UM-Crookston @ Northland

This Week in the NCHA

With only one weekend to go in the MIAC Interlock schedule, the NCHA has clearly set itself apart. Over the past month, NCHA teams went a combined 12-4-0 against the MIAC, running their season record to 37-10-1 – the most dominant performance from either league since the inception of the full crossover schedule. With the NCHA hosting only one game this week, the MIAC has it’s best chance at redemption yet, though it still may be a long shot considering the way things have gone this season. Stay tuned as next week as I’ll preview the second half of the NCHA season …

Friday, Jan. 12
St. Scholastica at Augsburg
UW-River Falls at St. Thomas
St. Mary’s at UW-Stout
UW-Eau Claire at Gustavus Adolphus
UW-Stevens Point at St. Olaf
St. Norbert at Hamline
Lake Forest at Bethel

Saturday, Jan. 13
St. Scholastica at St. John’s
UW-Superior at Augsburg
UW-River Falls at St. Mary’s
UW-Stout at St. Thomas
UW-Eau Claire at St. Olaf
UW-Stevens Point at Gustavus Adolphus
St. Norbert at Bethel
Lake Forest at Hamline

Sunday, Jan. 14
UW-Superior at St. John’s