This Week in the MIAC

Battle at the top

Last weekend saw a crucial series of play in the MIAC with the two teams tied at the top of the standings playing a home-and-home series. Last year’s conference champions, the Bethel Royals, were facing the upstart Hamline Pipers, who have already set a program record with their 10 wins this season. Nationally-ranked St. Thomas lurked just a point behind the two squads heading into the weekend.

The Royals were able to notch 5-3 and 4-3 victories to sweep the series and get the four points they would need to stay above the Tommies.

“They were four huge points,” coach Joel Johnson said this week. “Particularly Saturday, they outplayed us for various portions of the game so I felt very fortunate that we were able to play solid enough defense and get the goaltending we did to win two games.”

“The first game they played well and deserved to win,” Hamline’s Scott Bell agreed. “The second night I thought we deserved the win.”

The Pipers were able to wear down a Bethel squad that only played three lines Saturday night, out shooting them by 14 and seven in the final two frames.

“We knew they’d be fatigued, and that was part of our game plan.” Bell said. But the outstanding play of Bethel’s Aaron Damjanovich, who made 37 saves in Saturday’s victory, was too much for the Pipers to overcome.

“He’s hit his stride and that’s been exciting for us,” Johnson said of his sophomore goaltender, who has given up more than four goals only once in 2008 — a 6-3 loss to Wisconsin-River Falls the first week of January.

Damjanovich improved his goals against average to 3.01 and save percentage to .913 on the season after last weekend’s games.

One of the keys in the Royals’ sweep was Bethel’s ability to prevent the Pipers from getting their power play unit on the ice. Hamline has the best power play in D-III, connecting on a whopping 33 percent of their man advantages.

Bethel’s Johnson said slowing down the Pipers potent power play attack was one of the things his team discussed heading into the weekend.

“We wanted to avoid giving them that opportunity,” he said. “Part of it was us being intentional as a team, and part of it was, they were just two good hockey games. There wasn’t a lot of chippy play. I give credit to the players, it was just good, clean college hockey.”

The Royals went to the box just four times in each game, allowing one goal with a man down in each contest. The combination of strong play from Damjanovich, especially in Saturday’s match-up, along with limiting the opportunities for the Pipers special teams were certainly key to Bethel holding on to get the four points.

The weekend sweep keeps the Royals at the top of the MIAC standings, but St. Thomas currently sits just one point behind, and the conference’s uneven number of teams means the Tommies have two more games in the regular season than do the Royals.

With that in mind, coach Johnson has the team focused on trying to earn at least three points in each weekend moving forward to stay in the hunt for home ice in the playoffs. He says his squad gained some confidence from this weekend’s sweep of the Pipers, and that he wouldn’t be surprised to see Hamline again in the postseason.

Around the League

St. Thomas kept pace with the Royals by sweeping Concordia, 8-2 and 4-2, last weekend. The Cobbers were held to just 32 shots on the weekend in falling to 1-17-1 on the season. Jeremy Boniface came into net in relief of Mike Persson Friday for Concordia and made 18 saves in 27 minutes. He stopped an additional 45 pucks in Saturday’s loss. Nate Ryan and Adam Davis led the way for the Tommies, with four points each on the weekend. Dustin Holland had three of the Cobbers four goals in the series.

Augsburg showed why no team in the league can be overlooked, getting their first league victory of the season, 4-3, over Gustavus Adolphus on Friday. The Gusties came back to defeat the Auggies, 2-1, on Saturday. Augsburg’s Joe Sauer scored in the opening minute of Friday’s game, and the team never trailed, surviving Gustavus’ two comeback attempts later in the contest. The Auggies were 4-for-6 on the power play in the series, but couldn’t get an even strength goal past Josh Swartout in the second game. Swartout made 23 saves to get his sixth win of the season. The split drops Gustavus to third in the league standings.

The St. Olaf Oles kept themselves in playoff contention with a 5-2 and 2-1 sweep of St. Mary’s. The Oles’ 41 shots were too many for the Cardinals’ Dan Smith, who made 36 saves Friday. He faced just two shots in the third period of Saturday’s game, but Jake Busch was able to secure the narrow win on the other side for St. Olaf. Jeff Budish led the way with two goals and two assists on the weekend.

Series of the Week

Playoff positioning is on the line as Gustavus Adolphus takes on St. John’s in a home-and-home series. After a surprise loss to Augsburg last weekend, the Gusties sit in third place and would currently have to travel for the semifinal round of the playoffs.

The Johnnies, on the other hand, were idle last weekend, and remain a point behind the Oles who are forced to sit out this week. Even a split of these two games moves St. John’s back into the playoffs. These are two of the four teams fighting for the final three playoff spots.

However, the Series of the Week has to go to a pivotal match-up between fifth ranked St. Thomas and Hamline. The Pipers are looking to rebound from last weekend’s sweep at the hands of the Royals, while the Tommies know if they take care of business, the road to the MIAC title will go through St. Paul.

Goaltending and team defense are the keys to knocking off the Tommies, according to Pipers Coach Scott Bell.

“We go on the old cliché ‘one game at a time’ where we’re working on Friday night, and that’s our focus,” he said. “And we’ll move to Saturday after that.”

It won’t be an easy hill to climb for the Pipers, as Tyler Chestnut has a 2.14 GAA in conference for the Tommies. Combined with St. Thomas’ 87.2% penalty kill rate, it could be hard to find the back of the net. But the Pipers do have the strongest power play unit in the nation, and whoever wins the battle of special teams has the inside track to this series. Given the two strong efforts by Hamline last weekend, the Tommies will have to battle for every point as the Pipers look to stay in the playoff hunt.

Extracurricular Activity

This season the Hamline Pipers have reversed recent history, already notching a program-record 10th victory. One of the keys to the Pipers success has been the play of junior captain Dustin Fulton. On the ice, Fulton has 12 goals and 18 assists on the season, both second on the team, and the combined 30 points leads the Pipers. His 1.60 points per game in conference is good enough to tie him for fifth in the MIAC.

But Fulton exemplifies the term student-athlete, excelling both on and off the ice.

Dustin’s classes at Hamline are all scheduled on Tuesday and Thursday, allowing him to pursue an internship full-time at a local investment firm the rest of the week. Even on game days, Fulton will be at work at 7:30 in the morning and leading his Pipers on the ice 12 hours later. Despite this workload, he carries a 3.5 GPA and coach Bell says he’s a leader in the locker room.

“Dustin’s not a leader by being very vocal. He’s more of an example guy. We can always use him as an example with other players … helping them develop good life habits, good work ethic, things like that.”

With a player like Dustin Fulton leading the way and showing his teammates how to achieve well-rounded success, it’s no surprise the Pipers are emerging as a playoff threat for this year and beyond. If coach Bell can continue to bring this caliber of player into his program, it makes Hamline a threat at the top of the conference for years to come.