Finally, the month we have all been waiting for. It’s nothing but conference action from here on out for both the NCHA and MCHA, and both are figuring not to have much of anything figured out until the final weekend of the season.
The NCHA finished up with the MIAC Interlock portion of its schedule on Monday as Stout dropped a 4-2 contest at St. Mary’s. Despite the loss, the NCHA once again claims bragging rights over its Minnesota foes, having finished the season with a 29-20-8 record against its cross-border brethren.
On the national scene, for the fourth week in a row St. Norbert finds itself atop the USCHO.com Division III poll. The Green Knights are currently in the midst of a 15 game unbeaten streak and obtained 18 of 20 possible first place votes.
A big win by River Falls over Stout last week moves the Falcons up a spot to fourth while the loss drops the Blue Devils a spot to No. 10. Adrian’s 9-1, 14-2 sweep of Crookston was enough to slide the Bulldogs up two spots to no. 13, while Marian’s road split at Finlandia cost it the lone vote it garnered last week.
It should only be a few weeks until the NCAA Regional Rankings emerge and we can begin to follow the NCAA tournament hopes of some of the region’s elites. For the time being however, conference play it shall be.
With eight games remaining in the MCHA regular season, there will be plenty to follow in the weeks to come. For now, though, let’s take a look back at the MCHA and where it stands in its first season with eight teams.
As discussed in the MCHA season preview, this is a banner year for the league. Between its expansion to eight teams, the hopes for an NCAA autobid, the buzz created by Adrian, and the continually improving on-ice product of the league as a whole, the MCHA has garnered more attention this season than in perhaps all other years combined.
One needs to go no farther than the USCHO Fan Forum to see this as the â€œMCHA Regular Seasonâ€ thread has been one of, if not the most, active discussion of the season.
With all the positive signs around a league that I’m quite frankly beginning to love, its play in non-conference action cannot be ignored, as on-ice performance is of course the most important factor of all.
Last year it was discussed here among some MCHA coaches that for the league to earn respect they would have to perform in non-conference play.
Let’s see how they did.
Overall: 3-2-0 (29 GF, 20 GA)
Wins: Potsdam, Neumann, Geneseo
Losses: Potsdam, Neumann
Overall: 1-4-0 (15 GF, 20 GA)
Wins: Gustavus Adolphus
Losses: Stout, Bethel, Bethel, River Falls
Overall: 1-2-2 (10GF, 16 GA)
Losses: Superior, Superior
Ties: Stevens Point, Augsburg
Overall: 2-3-0 (9 GF, 19 GA)
Wins: Lake Forest, Lake Forest
Losses: Superior, St. Norbert, St. Norbert
Overall: 0-3-2 (11 GF, 23 GA)
Losses: St. Norbert, Eau Claire, St. Mary’s
Ties: Lake Forest, Bethel
Overall: 0-5-0 (3 GF, 37 GA)
Losses: Stout, River Falls, Superior, Stevens Point, St. Scholastica
Overall: 1-4-0 (11 GF, 24 GA)
Losses: Franklin Pierce, Bethel, Bethel, Hamline
Overall: 0-5-0 (6 GF, 44 GA)
Losses: Stout, St. Olaf, Stevens Point, Hamline, Hamline
Looking inside these numbers, the MCHA was 8-28-4 in its non-conference games. In those 40 contests, the league was outscored by a wide margin, 199-94. Dismissing Adrian and Concordia, the two first-year programs, the league was 5-21-4 in out of conference competition while being outscored 135-59.
Surprisingly, this is actually a regression from last season when the MCHA as a whole was 9-19-1 in non-conference games while being outscored 136-85.
So far this season, the MCHA’s records against other leagues are as follows:
Breaking things down even further and looking at only Adrian, Marian, Finlandia and MSOE, the current top four teams in the league, they posted a collective record of 7-11-2 in non-conference play, with Adrian and MSOE accounting for five of the seven wins.
Marian appears to be the league’s biggest hard luck story, as after playing all five of its non-conference games against teams who have received votes in the national poll this season, they are only 1-4-0 despite only being outscored by five goals.
Among the leagues notable performances this season are Adrian’s wins over Neumann and Geneseo, Marian’s 4-0 shutout of Gustavus Adolphus, Finlandia’s 1-1 tie with Stevens Point, and MSOE’s two game sweep of Lake Forest. Additionally, just this week Lawrence scored a 6-6 tie with Bethel — last season’s MIAC NCAA tournament representative.
The fact remains, however, that the MCHA’s 8-28-4 out of conference record speaks for itself and with quality non-conference wins few and far between, it’s bound to draw criticism from those who are willing to write the league off as a joke. This despite the fact that these same critics are more often than not the same people who have never seen a MCHA game.
But with perception greatly influencing reality, it would certainly do the league good to kick it up a notch against teams from other leagues.
Along with MSOE, Finlandia has fared respectable well in non-conference play, and has defeated St. Olaf, Superior and Augsburg over the past two seasons. Still, in that span the Lions are only 3-5-2 against out of conference opponents.
“Obviously we didn’t do as well as we’d like to,” said Lions head coach Joe Burcar. “I think our league is continuing to improve though, and we are slowly closing the gap on the MIAC and NCHA.”
He continued: “We are still a pretty new league, comparatively speaking. We really haven’t been around that long. A lot of those other teams everyone knows and I just think they may be getting the better players right now.”
Anyone who has seen any MCHA action would certainly agree with Burcar regarding the league’s progress, but this season’s non-conference record is certainly not going to win the league any sympathy from outsiders.
“We have to, overall as a league, be over .500,” said Burcar. “All of us. We have to come out of it with a winning record to start gaining that respect.
“We beat Superior last year and everyone said it’s a fluke. Marian ties River Falls and everyone says it’s a fluke. Until we can start playing like that on a consistent basis, especially at least the top echelon of the league, and keep all these games tight we aren’t going to get rid of that tag right now.
“It’s not just one game. I think you’re seeing five teams in our league start to beat people and keep games close. I also think you’re seeing teams from our conference play better teams and I really think we are starting to close that gap.”
Considering the MCHA hit list has grown to include teams like St. Olaf, Gustavus Adolphus, Lake Forest, Babson, Neumann, Geneseo, Potsdam, Superior and Augsburg, it would remain wise not to look over MCHA teams no matter what the numbers say.
Although many ill-informed fans consider this league to be nothing more than a glorified beer league, it would probably be best served to trust me when I say that numbers don’t lie, but they sure can mislead.
The Crystal Ball is Back
With St. Norbert atop the league, I had originally intended on spending this week on River Falls, Stout, and Superior — the other three teams in the top half of the NCHA standings. But as River Falls and Stout square off with Superior and St. Scholastica this weekend, itâ€™s possible that by this time next week, the standings are drastically different than they are now. Instead, letâ€™s recap the league at its season midpoint and take a stab at how things might look come Peters Cup playoff time.
Itâ€™s hard to tell at times whether they are actually a hockey team or merely a pink bunny with a drum, but St. Norbert is once again at the top of the conference. Despite a relatively inexperienced lineup, the Green Knights finished the first half of the NCHA season at 6-0-1 and hold a two point lead over 5-1-1 River Falls.
Only 1.5 games separate third through seventh, but Stout leads the pack with eight points, three behind River Falls and five behind St. Norbert. 3-3-1 Superior trails the Blue Devils by only a point and is currently holding onto fourth place by a point over 3-4 Eau Claire and Stevens Point.
St. Scholastica is in seventh but only a point behind the Blugolds and Pointers, while winless Lake Forest rounds out the league.
The four big match-ups in the western half of the league this week could likely spread these teams out a bit, at which point we will take an in-depth look at a little more defined NCHA.
For now, however, letâ€™s once again gaze into the crystal ball and try to remove the necessity of playing any more games this season.
Who will win the NCHA regular season title?
St. Norbert might be a little bit of a surprise at 6-0-1 considering it has 20 underclassmen on the roster, but the Green Knights have picked up right where they left off. They have held at least a share of the NCHA regular season title in each of the past six seasons, but if they wish to claim it a seventh straight season they are going to have to take care of business on the road. Five of the Green Knights seven remaining games are away from the friendly confines of the Cornerstone, and include trips to River Falls, Stout, Scholastica and Superior.
That leaves River Falls as a possible candidate. The Falcons lost 5-2 to St. Norbert earlier in the season, but can make those two points up if they can defeat the Green Knights at home in February. The addition of D-I transfer goaltender Stephen Ritter could be the final piece in the Falconsâ€™ puzzle, as they have now won five in a row and Ritter is 4-0-0 since taking over in net.
The Falcons lead the NCHA in offense with 4.89 goals per game and offer scoring depth that was not present last season. In fact, the Falcons second line has already scored more than their second line did all of last season. At a robust 34% they also boast the top power play in the NCHA and look to be entering the second half with no apparent weaknesses.
With third place Stout already five points behind St. Norbert, itâ€™s safe to say St. Norbert or River Falls will end up atop the league. However, I have said it before and Iâ€™ll say it again: I refuse to bet against St. Norbert — ever — until someone shows they can step up and beat the Green Knights consistently. For that reason, once again, your regular season champion will be:
Can anyone make a run at the top?
For the sake of context, Iâ€™m going to assume that St. Norbert and River Falls are the leagueâ€™s elite teams. Having tied for the conference title last season, Stout is a likely suspect but after an 11-2-1 start the Blue Devils have lost three of four, including a key home loss to River Falls last weekend. They still have to hit the road to play Superior, Stevens Point and River Falls — none automatic wins.
The Blue Devils are second n the NCHA offensively scoring 4.5 goals per game, but have only scored nine goals in their last four games. They certainly have the potential to do it but following a loss at St. Maryâ€™s on Tuesday, the Blue Devils must get it rolling again this Friday.
Superior on the other hand has taken the opposite approach of Stout. The Yellowjackets had a disappointing start to the season, going 5-4-4 in their first 13 games. Since a disastrous home weekend that included losses to Stevens Point and Eau Claire, they have been on fire, going 4-0-1 in their last five.
Included in those are a key NCHA win over St. Scholastica and an 8-1 trouncing of Finlandia on the road — the same Finlandia team Superior only beat 2-1 at home earlier in the season. They may be peaking at the right time, especially considering defenseman Dustin Cosgrove and forwards Braden Desmet and Chris Berry are all back for the stretch run.
I picked Superior to finish second in the league prior to the season, and Iâ€™m not willing to give up on them yet. Theyâ€™ve got some points to make up on those ahead of them, but they very well may be one of the most dangerous teams in the league down the stretch. Keep an eye on:
Can anyone from the bottom half of the league make a run at the top half?
Things are so close right now that Stevens Point, Eau Claire and St. Scholastica are all within striking distance of playoff home ice. While all three have the potential to get into the top four, I give Stevens Point the edge.
The Pointers have already won as many NCHA games as they did all of last season, and should only get better down the stretch under first year head coach Wil Nichol.
There are two reasons I think the Pointers have an advantage. The first is a highly favorable schedule in which they get River Falls, Stout, St. Scholastica and Superior at home. The second is a team with a hot goaltender is always dangerous. With freshman Thomas Speer routinely standing on his head, the Pointers figure to be in every game they play.
Speer, however, will get his first major test this Saturday as the Pointers travel to St. Norbert. The Cornerstone has been a house of horrors for the Pointers lately as since scoring a 4-4 tie there in 2002, the Pointers are 0-5 and have been outscored 26-10, including an 8-3 rout last season.
Never count out the hot goaltender. If Speer can continue his high level of play against the highest level of competition, the team to threaten for home ice might be:
Who will win NCHA Player of the Year?
Far too close to call, but here are some likely candidates:
G Kyle Jones, St. Norbert (10-1-1, 1.48, .927)
F Tyler Dahl, River Falls (5-27-32)
F Pat Borgestad, River Falls (21-11-32)
F Derek Hansberry, River Falls (17-15-32)
F Marc Belanger, St. Norbert (14-16-30)
Who will win NCHA Coach of the Year?
The coach of the team atop the league doesnâ€™t always necessarily deserve coach of the year recognition; I think it does in this case. While their level of success over the past decade is unparalleled, the Green Knights are doing it this season with 20 underclassmen. So much for rebuilding. The NCHA COTY is:
Tim Coghlin, St. Norbert
What will the standings look like at the end of the year?
1. St. Norbert
2. River Falls
t4. Stevens Point
6. St. Scholastica
7. Eau Claire
8. Lake Forest
How many NCHA teams will make the NCAA tournament?
Two. At most.