After three weeks, it is safe to say the season has officially begun. Nearly all MCHA and NCHA teams will be hitting the ice this weekend as the MCHA begins league play and the NCHA confronts week two of the MIAC Interlock.
Speaking of the NCHA-MIAC Interlock, things didnâ€™t go the way the NCHA had hoped last season. Only River Falls and Stout managed 2-0 weekends; Superior checked in at 0-1-1 and Lake Forest at 0-2. The rest of the league split its series, with St. Norbertâ€™s home loss to Gustavus Adolphus being perhaps the most surprising of all, as it was only the fourth loss for the Green Knights in their last 86 games at the Cornerstone.
That makes it 8-7-1 in favor of the NCHA after week one, which is a marked change from the past three seasons.
Over the past three years, the NCHA has posted a regular season record of 113-54-17 against MIAC competition, including records of 30-18-9 in 2004-05, 37-20-6 in 2005-06, and a resounding 46-16-2 advantage last season.
Though last weekendâ€™s tight contests might have surprised some, it should be noted these things are always cyclical and the MIAC did hold a winning record against the NCHA in 2003-04.
With the NCHA teams hitting the road for round two, it will be interesting to see if the MIAC hangs tough again, or the NCHA reasserts its dominance.
One Game at a Time?
I know it has been brought up before, but these early season games have the potential to play a major role down the road.
Last season was a prime example, especially the situation with UW-Stout. Finishing 21-5-2, the Blue Devils had their greatest season in school history and tied for the NCHA title. Unfortunately for the Stout faithful, the Blue Devils did not receive a berth to the NCAA Tournament.
Often overshadowed by Stoutâ€™s surprising season is UW-Superior. The Yellowjackets also finished with 20 wins on the season but were left on the outside looking in.
Itâ€™s quite intriguing that the depth of Division III hockey these days makes it possible that multiple programs, from the same league no less, can post 20 win seasons and still be left home. That being the case, it would seem to put an absolute premium on winning every single game. There simply is no room for error; this, of course, is what makes the MIAC Interlock contests so potentially critical.
As the NCHA figures to once again have numerous teams in the running for the NCAA Tournament, it is interesting to examine the varying degrees of importance NCHA coaches put on the inevitable number crunch.
Interestingly, the coach least concerned with it is UW-Stoutâ€™s Terry Watkinsn.
â€œYeah, thereâ€™s some pressure,â€ he said. â€œBut if you worry every night about getting into something in February, itâ€™s not going to be a lot of fun.â€
On the other hand, St. Norbert coach Tim Coghlin realizes that itâ€™s just a fact of Division III hockey.
â€œIt goes without saying you canâ€™t take any games for granted. Itâ€™s the same thing every year, particularly in the playoffs.â€
He continued: â€œItâ€™s highlighted by the Stout situation last year, but itâ€™s this way every single year. If you look at it critically, it does not really matter, as with the way it is the West Region gets three teams every year. Itâ€™s been that way for ten years.â€
There is plenty of merit to Coghlinâ€™s statement, as the last time the West Region landed four teams in the field was the 1997-98 season.
Steve Freeman of River Falls and St. Scholasticaâ€™s Mark Wick appear to take a little more direct approach.
â€œWe stress this to our players how important it is,â€ said Wick. â€œWithin our league you have to set yourself up for the playoffs. As we saw last year, everyone knows the only guaranteed way in is to win the playoffs.â€
Freeman shared similar sentiments, stating, â€œ[The NCAAâ€™s] are the goal. You know the only way in is to win games. Weâ€™ve talked about this with our players already — we have to get out there and not horse around and have to win some games.â€
Wick added, â€œAgain, as we saw last year, you get four or five games against top-ranked opponents. Thatâ€™s it. The margin for error is just so slim.â€
And slim it is.
Not to put the cart ahead of the horse, but with five NCHA teams legitimately holding designs on the NCAA tournament, Stout and Superiorâ€™s failures to get in with twenty wins last year only amplifies the urgency of these early season games — especially considering conference losses are going to be inevitable this season.
River Falls and Stout held court at home last weekend, but with St. Norbert, Superior and St. Scholastica all dropping games to MIAC competition, there is little time, as Freeman pointed out, to be â€œhorsing around.â€
Hereâ€™s our first look at early returns of one of the four NCHA and MCHA programs with first-year head coaches. Stay tuned as next week Iâ€™ll catch up to speed with Adrian, Concordia-WI and Eau Claire.
Under new head coach Wil Nichol, Stevens Pointâ€™s season didnâ€™t exactly get off to an ideal start, as three giant defensive breakdowns led to the Pointers trailing St. Johnâ€™s 3-0 a mere seven minutes into the Nichol era.
â€œI thought weâ€™d have a better start on Friday,â€ said Nichol. â€œSt. Johnâ€™s was ready to go and I think we were a little bit nervous. We have a pretty young team with only one senior and for a lot of our guys this was their first game here at Stevens Point.â€
The Pointers did respond with three consecutive goals to tie the game up only five seconds into the second period and from there things settled down.
â€œItâ€™s not easy to get down right away like that, but our guys didnâ€™t quit. That game had a lot of ups and downs with some great teaching moments for our staff. Iâ€™m happy with the effort of my guys.â€
Things didnâ€™t pan out for the Pointers, however, as a Johnnie goal with under ten minutes to play in the third would put them up 4-3. The Johnnies added an empty netter and the Pointers would drop their opener, 5-3.
Stevens Point fared a little better on Saturday, downing Concordia-MN, 4-2, in front of a raucous crowd and landing Nichol his first win as head coach.
The Pointers didnâ€™t suffer a hangover from Fridayâ€™s slow start as Saturday they put up two goals of their own in the opening four minutes, and would add two more later in the period to take a 4-1 lead into the first intermission.
â€œI think we were just a lot more comfortable on Saturday,â€ said Nichol. â€œI think the guys got it all out of their systems on Friday.â€
The final two periods turned into a bit of a quagmire, littered with penalties and stoppages in play but the four first period goals would be all the Pointers needed.
Heading into the weekend, Nichol admits he was a tad worried about his teamsâ€™ powerplay, but the Pointers finished the weekend 4-14 (28.6%) with the man advantage. One weekend does not a season make, but that nearly doubles the dismal 14.7% clip the Pointersâ€™ powerplay unit sputtered at last season.
â€œI thought weâ€™d struggle more on the powerplay,â€ he said. â€œIt was not a good week of practice, but we scored four powerplay goals so that was a pleasant surprise.â€
In Nicholâ€™s mind, the early returns are also positive when it comes to the Pointersâ€™ heralded new-look defense.
â€œIf you take out the first six minutes on Friday I thought we played well defensively. After that, we allowed one five-on-five goal the rest of the weekend.â€
The Pointers hit the road this week to take on St. Maryâ€™s and St. Thomas. St. Thomas in particular should pose quite the test after sweeping Superior and St. Scholastica last weekend.
â€œOur biggest thing is probably the same thing most teams need at this point. We have to put 60 minutes together and I donâ€™t think we did that in either game last week. Against teams like St. Thomas and St. Maryâ€™s you have to put a full game together. Itâ€™s going to be a tough test, but hopefully it will help us out come league play.â€