This Week in the MIAC

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Last weekend saw several series in the MIAC that could have provided some answers to the league’s muddled playoff picture. The conference’s second team, St. Thomas, was facing off against the fourth place, Hamline. A clear victory by the Tommies could have sent the Pipers flying out of the playoffs and had Bethel biting their nails in their attempt to secure home ice advantage throughout the postseason.

Gustavus Adolphus and St. John’s were nestled in the third and sixth spots heading into the weekend. The Gusties would be looking to lock up a spot outside of the play-in game, while the Johnnies were on the outside looking in, but had the comfort of knowing that fifth seeded team, St. Olaf, would be on the bye.

And Bethel had what seemed like a golden opportunity to at least stay even with St. Thomas, considering they had a weekend series against St. Mary’s. The Cardinals had just four conference wins and were looking up at the playoff chase unfolding above them.

No one could have predicted the mish-mash of results that ensued.

On Friday, the Gusties took a 7-3 victory from St. John’s. The teams traded goals until halfway through the second period, when Gustavus started on a streak of four unanswered to take a 6-2 lead. Josh Swartout got the win in net for Gustavus, while neither Vince Wheeler or Stu Van Ess could get above a .750 save percentage on the night for the Johnnies. James Leathers led the Gusties with a goal and two assists, while Nate Meinz netted a goal and an assist for the Johnnies.

The next match-up saw a reversal of fortunes, as Wheeler allowed only three goals on 32 shots and Swartout was pulled from the game in the third period. Despite 32 minutes of penalties, the Johnnies skated to a surprise 7-3 victory, led by Tom Freeman’s two goals.

Even Bethel was bitten by the upset bug. The Royals were able to secure a 6-2 victory on Friday over St. Mary’s, in large part to 26 saves from Aaron Damjanovich and three players (Jeff Balvin, Christian Fogerty, and Kent Bostrom) having at least three points each.

However, the Cardinals fought back for a 5-3 win on Saturday, in a game that saw the two teams go a combined 3-7 on the power play. Dan Smith had an outstanding game in net for the Cardinals, stopping 35 of 38 shots to secure the win. Adam Gill scored his sixth and seventh goals of the season in the win, while Bostrom once again blazed the trail for the Royals, scoring two of his team’s three goals.

Major Upset

But the biggest surprise of all last week was Hamline’s ability to take three points from No. 5 St. Thomas — and that only a late Tommies rally on Saturday avoided the clean sweep. The Pipers are a program that has not made the playoffs since the inception of the current MIAC playoff format, while the Tommies compete for the league championship year in and year out.

“Our guys were ready to play St. Thomas, and I think we showed up and were ready to play right from the start.” Pipers head coach Scott Bell said this week. “St. Thomas has been the benchmark for success in our conference… They have some kids that can really play there, so it’s nice for our kids to be able to say ‘Hey, we can play with anybody.’”

Hamline did come out to play Friday, scoring the first three goals of the series in under 10 minutes of play. Despite recording just 17 shots officially, the Pipers were able to put five pucks past St. Thomas goaltender Tyler Chestnut. But Bell believes his team’s chances weren’t the result of weak play by the sophomore netminder.

“We had a breakaway. We had a power-play goal. We had a really nice play by Dustin Fulton over to Andrew Birkholtz on the back side. I don’t think their goalie played poorly, I think we just made some really nice plays.”

The Pipers own goaltending tandem performed well on the weekend, with Matt Wanvig making 32 of 36 saves in Friday’s victory and Zachary Faust stopping 33 of 36 pucks the next night.

“During the second period Matt Wanvig was our best player. And if you’re going to beat teams like St. Thomas, you have to have good goaltending.” Bell said.

The two sophomores provide a top-notch rotation between the pipes for Hamline, with both goaltenders stopping 90% of the pucks thrown at them this season. So with the Pipers angling for a playoff position, what does Bell do with his goaltenders if his team makes the postseason?

“That’s a good question. If we come down to getting a nice seed in the playoffs, in the semifinals — one might have that game, and the other might have the finals. And just let them know ahead of time so they can both prepare for that.”

It’s certainly quite the turnaround for a program like Hamline to be realistically discussing a possible berth into the semifinal round. And given this weekend’s results against the Tommies, maybe even going farther than that. But the potential in front of the Pipers this year isn’t keeping Bell from maintaining his focus.

“I think [Augsburg] is playing their best hockey of the year right now and whoever your opponent is, you have to come in and do your best, because anybody can beat anybody on a given night.”

As this past week of play in the MIAC has shown.

Around the League

One series last week did go as planned as Augsburg beat a Concordia team with just one win on the season. Andrew Kent made 69 saves in the two games to get his fourth and fifth wins of the season. The Auggies went 3-10 on the man advantage, and got a hat trick from Dan Carlson in Friday’s win. Alec Holen and Cory Johnson each had three points for the Cobbers Saturday.

Series of the Week

A couple of interesting situations present themselves in conference play this week. St. Thomas will look to rebound from their one point weekend against St. Mary’s. But the Cardinals knocked off the current top ranked team last week. The question becomes if the Tommies will slide into the postseason on a losing skid, or come in strong. On the other side, the Cardinals will be looking to keep their playoff hopes alive with a strong effort against the No. 8 team in the country.

But the Series of the Week goes to the only match-up involving two teams in the thick of the playoff race. Bethel was upset by St. Mary’s last week, and how they come out against a St. Olaf team that was knocked from the current playoff picture on their bye last week will be telling for their chances moving forward.

The Oles are fighting for their playoff lives, a point back of St. John’s with a tough game against the Tommies looming next week. Bethel needs to avoid a slipup, and make sure they get at least three points out of the series to put pressure on St. Thomas to take the title away from the Royals when Bethel is idle next week.

Nothing Decided Yet

Only six points separate first place Bethel from sixth place St. Olaf in the standings heading into this weekend. However, the Royals have played two more games than everybody but Gustavus, which is idle this week. This logjam in the standings creates a tight playoff race worth watching as the season winds down. Bethel currently has the top seed, but just two points on St. Thomas. The Tommies can’t get too comfortable either, as they sit just a point above Gustavus and Hamline.

St. John’s and St. Olaf are battling for the fifth playoff spot, but St. Mary’s might have something to say about that, despite the fact it would take a remarkable effort against St. Thomas this weekend. Only the Auggies and Cobbers are eliminated from playoff contention, meaning that the race in the MIAC will be down to the wire. If this weekend is anything like last, the fun might only be beginning.

Next week: Final playoff scenarios and a look at where the MIAC stands in the NCAA selection process.