What a beautiful mess we live in.
With two weeks of conference action remaining, the NCHA, on the heels of a few surprising results last weekend, has turned into a complete and utter pig pile. With everything going haywire in that league, at least MCHA has sorted itself out — to an extent. Though home playoff positions are still up for grabs, an Adrian sweep of Marian has just about locked up the conference title for the Bulldogs.
As the NCAA Regional Rankings will debut next week, this will be the final time weâ€™ll need to look at the USCHO.com Division III poll to gauge the national scene.
An Elmira split with Neumann was enough to once again propel St. Norbert to the nationâ€™s No. 1 spot. The Green Knights claimed 12 of 20 first place votes to land a mere three points ahead of second place Elmira.
Despite losing to Stevens Point and Eau Claire last weekend, River Falls only dropped from sixth to ninth and remains the second-highest ranked NCHA team.
Adrianâ€™s big weekend has moved them up to No. 10 this week, which marks the first time a MCHA team has ever been ranked in the top 10.
Stoutâ€™s three point weekend was enough for the Blue Devils to maintain their grip on the No. 12 ranking, while Stevens Point and Superior land just out of the top 15 on the heels of three point weekends of their own.
One of a Kind
Every once in a while a special player rolls through the NCHA. I can think of a few over the past 10 years that would qualify as â€œspecialâ€ and a few recent names like River Fallsâ€™ Tyler Dahl or St. Norbertâ€™s Kyle Jones probably come to mind for many.
One that might not instantly pop to mind, though, is Stout senior defenseman Jeff Defrancesca. But he should.
The Mt. Prospect, Ill. native was recently named one of eight finalists for the Hockey Humanitarian Award. The award, presented by BNY Mellon Wealth Management, covers all collegiate divisions seeking to name college hockeyâ€™s finest citizen and will be presented at the Division I Frozen Four in Denver on April 11.
As someone who knows Defrancesca well, Blue Devil head coach Terry Watkins is not surprised he has earned this accolade.
â€œHe has been involved in 20 plus activities either here in town on campus or in his community,â€ said Watkins. â€œRaising money for cancer, raising money for kids without parents, helping causes dealing with violence against women, kids with learning disabilities — itâ€™s just one thing after another he is involved in.
â€œItâ€™s unbelievable what this kid does.â€
As this is Defrancescaâ€™s fifth season at Stout, one would think Watkins would know everything there is to know about him, but as details regarding his off-the-ice activities surfaced even Watkins was taken aback.
â€œHonestly, I nominated him for the award because I knew he was involved in three, four, five things,â€ said Watkins.
He continued, â€œBut when I got his resume after he filled out the sheet I was shocked at what he had on his list. I mean, he is involved in everything. I donâ€™t think he sleeps — itâ€™s amazing.â€
Perhaps even more impressive is that somewhere between practice, travel and his off-ice involvements, Defrancesca finds time to succeed academically even though heâ€™s is fighting somewhat of an uphill battle of his own.
Elaborating, Watkins said, â€œThe amazing thing with all this is that he has dyslexia. So he struggles to get good grades and he gets like a 3.2. Bottom line is he is just an unbelievable student athlete.â€
â€œNever misses a practice, never misses a class, says heâ€™s going to do something he does it. Itâ€™s absolutely incredible what he does. Any of the youth coaches need someone to come out and volunteer with practice, boys or girls, heâ€™s the first one thereâ€¦heâ€™s just a very special young man.â€
As itâ€™s called the Hockey Humanitarian Award for a reason, it is only fitting Defrancescaâ€™s actions on the ice mirror those off of it. After missing nearly all of last season with an injury, he claimed captainâ€™s duties this season and while technically labeled a defenseman it comes as no surprise he is willing to do whatever it takes to help the team.
â€œHe plays forward and defense, kind of depending on the opponent. Weâ€™ve moved him around all four years,â€ said Watkins.
â€œHeâ€™s one of those guys. We have a defenseman hurt, heâ€™s that guy who steps up. We need a forward who can play a defensive role and heâ€™s right there. We need a forward who can do this or that heâ€™s that guy. Heâ€™s as versatile of a kid as Iâ€™ve ever had.â€
Defrancesca has played 64 games but has scored only 16 points in his career. Unfortunately for notorietyâ€™s sake, however, the score sheet doesnâ€™t count all the points someone is able to score in life. Thankfully thereâ€™s an award out there such as this that keeps track of such things.
Same Old Story
Two years ago the NCHA went down to the wire. Last year it was even tighter. Yet, one-upping itself yet again, the NCHA might be in the midst of its tightest season ever.
â€Itâ€™s exactly what we all said was going to happen three or four months ago,â€ said Watkins. â€œI donâ€™t remember it ever being this tight.â€
Recalling the preseason coaches poll in which St. Scholastica received two first place votes, it is apparent the league has even baffled itâ€™s own coaches. The Saints are currently 3-7-1 and mired in seventh place despite being just as dangerous of a team as anyone else.
Oddly, the one thing that is holding true to form is the dominance of St. Norbert. Itâ€™s not a shock to see the Green Knights leading the league, but with twenty underclassmen it is certainly a surprise to see them at 8-0-3 while having already clinched a share of the conference crown with three games still to play.
Even more impressive is their team defense which has allowed a measly 12 goals through 11 conference games so far — numbers that are quite frankly disgusting.
Behind the Green Knights are River Falls and Stout who are tied with 13 points and they are closely trailed by Stevens Point and Superior who have 12. Eau Claire stands alone in sixth with 10 points. As conveniently as always, Stevens Point, Superior and Eau Claire still all must play each other, as well as St. Scholastica, while River Falls and Stout square off in the season finale.
â€œIn the beginning of the year when we looked at it we thought it would be this tight,â€ said River Falls head coach Steve Freeman. â€œItâ€™s going to be decided on the last weekend yet again and itâ€™s so tight from top to bottom that if you donâ€™t bring your A-game youâ€™ll get beat for sure and thatâ€™s exactly what happened to us.â€
Up until last weekend it looked like River Falls was in prime position to finish second in the league. They held a three point lead over third place Stout and hit the road to take on Stevens Point and Eau Claire — teams the Falcons had already defeated once this season.
Lightning struck twice, however, as the Pointers rallied from a 2-0 deficit to defeat River Falls, 3-2, on Friday and Eau Claire served up a 5-0 whitewashing on Saturday.
The Falcons have now lost three straight conference games against teams below them in the standings, but Freeman thinks it was just as much a product of their opponents as it is was own team playing poorly.
â€œBoth Stevens Point and Eau Claire played us extremely tough,â€ said Freeman. â€œThe Point game we had that 2-0 lead and tried to hold on but once they got the momentum we couldnâ€™t hold them back. We had 17 shots in the first period and their goaltender played excellent or maybe we could have had a bigger lead.â€
â€œGive them a lot of credit, they really pulled it together and have a real nice hockey team,â€ he concluded.
Already facing injuries, the Falcons were not helped heading into Saturdayâ€™s contest with Eau Claire as they suffered two more against the Pointers, including one to defenseman David Moncur. It was Moncurâ€™s first action of the season and he was injured less than seven minutes into the contest.
â€œWe had a hard time bouncing back the next day. Without making excuses we lost a couple more players to injury following that Point game and Eau Claire came out and they played extremely well against us,â€ said Freeman.
â€œI was just extremely disappointed with our performance on Saturday,â€ he added.
Having lost three straight, the Falcons can no longer think conference title, but must focus on a top half finish and home ice for the NCHA Playoffs. In a less then helpful turn of events for River Falls, top-ranked St. Norbert rolls into town this Friday.
â€œYou know, we really donâ€™t have any time to drag our lip on the ground,â€ said Freeman. â€œWe have to straighten things out here and get our hockey team playing our best, get on a roll, and get some positive things going to close out the season.â€
The Falcons expect some players to return from injury this week and perhaps a meeting with St. Norbert will be exactly what the Falcons need to snap themselves back to attention, as they did defeat the Green Knights 3-2 at home last season.
UW-River Fallsâ€™ recent struggles have benefited numerous teams below them in the standings. None more so than Stout. Heading into this past weekend, last years tri-champs were in third place three points behind River Falls, but a 4-1 win over Eau Claire and a 1-1 tie at Stevens Point have drawn the Blue Devils into a second place tie.
â€œComing off last weekend we were hoping to be in the top four and thatâ€™s where we are right now,â€ said Watkins. â€œWith things being so tight though you better play well as one loss can drop you a long way right now.â€
Like River Falls, Stout must play St. Norbert this weekend but they first have to get by Lake Forest on Friday. Watkins insists the Foresters are not a team to be overlooked, especially after they dumped St. Scholastica 2-0 last weekend.
â€œLake Forest is one of the scariest teams in our league right now,â€ he said. â€œThey have played everybody tough lately. You see a bunch of kids with nothing to lose at this time of the year and they are extremely scary. Weâ€™ve been talking about Lake Forest since Sunday night. Weâ€™ll start to worry about St. Norbert on Saturday.â€
With St. Norbert having wrapped up home ice for at least the opening round of the playoffs, the remaining three spots are weighing heavily on everyoneâ€™s mind.
â€œNo question home ice is the goal. We just want to be in the top four and be playing well going into the playoffs,â€ added Watkins.
Itâ€™s no surprise that a premium is being placed on home ice as a road team has only won an opening round playoff series five times in the history of the NCHA, though it has happened twice in the past two seasons.
Freeman concluded, â€œThatâ€™s definitely our goal: home ice. We have to try to secure that second spot and secure home ice for the first two rounds of the playoffs. I think thatâ€™s what everyone is looking at right now.â€
Indeed it is.
Unlike the NCHA, the MCHA standings are a little clearer even though each team has four conference games remaining.
Adrian only needs one point from its series with MSOE or Concordia to lock up the MCHA regular season title and top seed for the playoffs. Finlandia, leaders of the MCHA North Division, is seven points clear of Lawrence and looks to be in fine shape to grab the second overall seed.
Also falling nicely into place is Marian, who despite only holding a three point lead on MSOE could very well land the three spot considering MSOE must face Adrian this weekend while Marian takes on last placed Concordia.
The bottom three are solidified and will be Concordia, Northland and Crookston in some capacity, unless Crookston runs the table which probably isnâ€™t going to happen.
What is left is a somewhat intriguing battle for the fourth and final home-ice playoff spot. MSOE is currently in the driverâ€™s seat, five points clear of Lawrence, but the Raiders have a tough go to close things out as they host Adrian this weekend and finish up with a home-and-home with Marian. Meanwhile, Lawrenceâ€™s final four games will be on the road; they draw Northland this weekend before finishing up at Finlandia.
The potential is there for the race to tighten up significantly this weekend, but the MSOE-Adrian and Lawrence-Northland series will be the ones to watch this week as the Raiders still control their own destiny.
Last Februaryâ€™s MSOE-Finlandia series in Hancock may have been the biggest series the league had ever seen. As a refresher, Finlandia hammered the Raiders 11-4 on Friday before MSOE rebounded quickly to win Saturday and claim its third straight conference title.
While perhaps not as dramatic, last weekendâ€™s Marian-Adrian series was perhaps just as big. The Bulldogs entered the weekend with a three point lead on the Sabres, but anticipations ran high as Marian is the only MCHA team to defeat Adrian this season.
The relatively long road trip didnâ€™t get off to a good start for Marian even though they hadnâ€™t even taken the ice yet.
â€œWe battled a snowstorm we drove through the entire way out there,â€ said Marian head coach Jasen Wise. â€œSo we got into our hotel at 4:30 in the morning on Friday. Not to make excuses, but come game time there was no jump in our step at all and playing a team like Adrian you better be firing on all cylinders and we clearly werenâ€™t.â€
When Marian beat Adrian 7-5 earlier in the season, it was in large part due to Marianâ€™s ability to pressure the Bulldogs. Fridayâ€™s game did not afford Marian that opportunity to apply that kind of pressure early as numerous penalties prevented the game from developing an early flow. All told, a Shawn Skelly goal would stake the Bulldogs to a 1-0 lead after one.
â€œI think this Fridayâ€™s game was a lot different than our first meeting,â€ said Adrian head coach Ron Fogarty. â€œIt was a real rough period. So much of the early game was spent with special teams out there I think it kind of negated their ability to pressure us like they did earlier in the year.â€
After killing off a 5-on-3 oenalty early in the second period, Adrian asserted itself, finally striking for three consecutive goals in a 3:05 span to stake itself a 4-0 lead.
â€œThe chances they had just went in,â€ said Wise. â€œBefore that our goaltender had been playing very well and if not for him it could have been worse. They just got three chances there and they buried all three of them.â€
â€œThatâ€™s been our MO all season. Once we score one we can score in bunches. I think we got that power-play goal and it just triggered it. Their goaltender had been playing extremely well,â€ Fogarty added.
Adrian center Adam Krug would tally at the 6:58 mark of the third to round out the scoring and the Bulldogs would win round one, 5-0. Brad Fogal stopped all 22 Sabre shots to pick up the shutout, his second of the season.
Saturdayâ€™s contest would tell a different tale, however, as though Adrian would jump on top 1-0 less than four minutes into the game, the Sabres would even the score only 19 seconds later. A Sam Kuzyk goal late in the first period put Adrian up 2-1 at the end of one.
Despite trailing, Wise was much happier with his teamâ€™s efforts.
â€œFrom our perspective we worked a lot harder,â€ he noted. â€œWe competed for loose pucks, completed our checks better, we showed up and actually played on Saturday and gave us a chance to win it. It was really just a matter of us working harder.â€
The Sabresâ€™ hard work paid off with a rousing second period that included tallies from Todd Collins, Carl Bresser and Kyle Rasmussen. Goaltender Cullen Caldwell would keep Adrian off the board in the stanza and the period ended with the Sabres on top, 4-2.
The Bulldogs entered the third period trailing, which is a position they have not been in as of late.
It took over 15 minutes of the period, but Adrian forward Eric Bailen would cut the lead to one with somewhat of a fluky goal. Bailen was filling in on Adrianâ€™s top line for leading goal scorer Eric Miller, who missed the game after suffering a minor injury in Fridayâ€™s contest.
â€œWe got a lucky bounce. Give a lot of credit to Caldwell on Saturday, he was the best player on the ice,â€ said Fogarty.
â€œI was real happy with that,â€ he added. â€œWith Miller out we had a guy step up and fill his role, and to see a guy like Bailen come in and score a timely goal was something to show itâ€™s not one line doing it, but a team effort.â€
Adrian struck again to tie the game 4-4 with fewer than two minutes to play, as Krug netted his first goal of the contest to force overtime.
â€œI think they had one that went in off our defensemanâ€™s skate and one that went in off our forwardâ€™s skate,â€ said Wise. â€œAs a coach you canâ€™t really be mad at your players about that — they are out there doing everything they can.â€
With momentum on Adrianâ€™s side, a Bobby Hineman goal 1:34 into overtime would secure the Bulldog sweep and put Adrian seven points up in the MCHA race.
Though Finlandia, MSOE and Lawrence might have something to say about it, whoâ€™s up for round five?