Time flies when youâ€™re having fun apparently, because itâ€™s hard to believe the NCHA and MCHA are down to their final weekends of the regular season. NCHA travel partners will square off for the last time while the MCHA has a full eight game weekend on tap.
Checking in once again on the national scene, I had anticipated our first look at the NCAA Regional Polls this week. As Chris Lerch explained in his D-III hockey blog, however, though the regional committees did meet this week and conducted an internal poll, the first public poll will not be released until next week. Hence, back to the USCHO.com Division III poll we go.
An impressive three point weekend at River Falls and Stout by St. Norbert has the Green Knights once again tightening the vice on the No. 1 position in the land, claiming 17 of 20 first place votes in the process.
Interestingly, the next team to check in isnâ€™t from the NCHA, but rather the MCHA. At No. 9, Adrian moves to its highest point of the season — in the process becoming the first ever MCHA team to claim a first place vote.
One position behind the Bulldogs sits River Falls at No. 10, and Stout checks in at No. 11.
Once again, Superior and Stevens Point are on the outside looking, with the Yellowjackets only one spot out of the top 15.
For the first time in four seasons, the MCHA has a new regular season champion.
Breaking MSOEâ€™s string of three consecutive titles is newcomer Adrian, who wrapped up the title with a 7-4 win, fittingly, at MSOE last Friday. The Bulldogs currently sit at 17-1 in MCHA action. Also of note is that by winning the league regular season title, the Bulldogs will host next seasonâ€™s Harris Cup Frozen Four.
The second overall playoff seed was also locked up last week as Finlandia swept Crookston 5-2, 3-1. The Lions are a point behind Marian in the overall league race, but as they have won the MCHA North Division the second playoff seed is theirs.
Speaking of Marian, the Sabres will be the third seed as they sit seven points clear of fourth place MSOE.
Checking in at the bottom, it looks like Concordia-WI will be the eighth seed as they are two points back of seventh but must travel to red-hot Adrian this weekend.
Northland, meanwhile, only trails Crookston by two points for sixth place but gets a crack at the Golden Eagles this weekend, so those spots are still up for grabs — especially considering the Lumberjacks swept a series with Crookston earlier this season.
With almost everything else settled, the most intriguing situation of the weekend by far is the battle for fourth place and home ice in the opening round of the playoffs.
MSOE was five points in front of Lawrence for the final position a week ago, but after the Raiders dropped a pair to Adrian while Lawrence swept Northland, the lead is down to a precarious one.
Both received tough draws to close out the season as MSOE meets Marian in a home-and-home while Lawrence must make a trip to Finlandia. MSOE dropped a pair of close games to Marian in their first series of the year, while Lawrence managed a home split against the Lions.
In the Lawrence camp, home ice is priority number one, though it knows it may be out of their control.
â€œOne of our goals from the beginning of the season was to finish in the top four in the entire conference and gain home ice,â€ said Vikingsâ€™ head coach Mike Szkodzinski.
â€œUnfortunately we stubbed our toe a couple of times this year which has put us in a position where we need a little help to gain home ice, however, and all that we can focus on is the business we can take care of,â€ he added.
The Vikings could be in a much different position right now had they not dropped three games along the way where they were considered favorites.
Had it not been for a pair of one goal losses at Crookston in early December and then a 3-0 setback to Concordia-WI in mid-January, we could very well be talking about Lawrence having already sewn up the fourth seed.
â€œThereâ€™s no doubt in all three of those games the opposing goaltenders played extremely well,â€ Szkodzinski said. â€œAt the same time, we werenâ€™t very tenacious on loose pucks in front of the net, and those games were tough lessons for our young team to learn.â€
â€œFortunately for us, in the past eight games we have really focused on bearing down in front of the net and burying chances when we had them.â€
Backing up his assertion, since the loss to Concordia-WI the Vikings are 5-1-2. The lone loss came in the form of a 4-3 setback at Marian. The stretch also includes a 6-6 tie with Bethel — last seasonâ€™s MIAC NCAA tournament representative.
Over the eight game span the Vikings have averaged 5.9 goals per contest, which lies in stark contrast to the 3.5 per game they have averaged over the rest of the season.
Though they are playing well, this weekendâ€™s match-up with Finlandia will be a tough row to hoe as the Lions are always formidable at home. Lawrence did defeat Finlandia at home both this season and last, but was swept the last time they made a trip to Hancock.
â€œObviously they are a very talented team and they have a ton of experience,â€ said Szkodzinski. â€œAlso, with this being their last home weekend, you have to expect their seniors to be coming out with a lot of fire and thatâ€™s something we are going to have to contain — especially Friday night.â€
He added, â€œI think weâ€™ve started to develop a good rivalry with Finlandia and they are exciting games each time we play them. Hopefully we can bring some of that intensity and focus weâ€™ve had over the past eight games with us. If we can do that I think this will be a very competitive series.â€
Between the MSOE-Marian and the Lawrence-Finlandia series, the MCHA is going to see a minimum of two fantastic sets of games this weekend. Even better is that when all is said and done it will be MSOE and Lawrence meeting in the opening round of the playoffs — and that is a series that should be the best opening round match-up of all.
But the seminal question still remains: where will it be played?
Ah yes, the NCHA.
With only one game to go, I see our resident savants over in the Fan Forum have covered the NCHA playoff possibilities fairly extensively, but for those of you who donâ€™t venture over that way, here they are in all their glory.
1. St. Norbert (9-0-4, 22 points)
The Green Knights have won the NCHA for the eighth time in 10 seasons and have secured home ice throughout the playoffs.
2. Stout (7-4-2, 16 points)
The Blue Devils can finish anywhere from second to fourth.
Second: A win or a tie and a Superior tie or loss.
Third: A tie and a Superior win; or a loss and a Superior loss.
Fourth: A loss and a Superior win or tie.
3. River Falls (7-5-1, 15 points)
The Falcons can finish anywhere from second to fourth.
(Note: River Falls wins the tiebreaker with Stevens Point and also wins a three-way tiebreaker with Stevens Point and Superior. In short, the Stevens Point result is irrelevant to River Falls)
Second: A win.
Third: A tie and a Superior tie or loss; or a loss and a Superior loss.
Fourth: A loss and a Superior tie or win.
4. Superior (6-4-3, 15 points)
The Yellowjackets can finish anywhere from second to fifth.
Second: A win and a Stout-Falls tie.
Third: A win and Stout-Falls non-tie.
Fourth: A loss and a Stevens Point tie or loss; or a tie and a Stout-River Falls tie.
Fifth: A loss and a Stevens Point win
5. Stevens Point (5-5-3, 13 points)
The Pointers can finish fourth or fifth.
Fourth: A win and a Superior loss.
Fifth: A loss.
6. Eau Claire (5-7-1, 11 points)
The Blugolds can finish anywhere from fifth to seventh.
Fifth: A win.
Sixth: A tie; or a loss and a St. Scholastica loss.
Seventh: A loss and a St. Scholastica tie or loss.
7. St. Scholastica (4-7-2, 10 points)
The Saints can finish sixth or seventh.
Sixth: A win and an Eau Claire loss.
Seventh: Anything else.
8. Lake Forest (1-12-0)
The Foresters will be the eighth seed in the playoffs.
And there you have itâ€¦I hope.
Having spent enough time staring at the NCHA standings this week, I began to see â€œinside the numbers,â€ as it were. Perhaps I even saw so far, I might have come away with things that werenâ€™t even there. You be the judge.
This much is true: NCHA scoring is down this season. Through 13 league games there have been a total of 274 goals scored. Letâ€™s assume the final total is somewhere near 300.
Even at 300, itâ€™s fewer than were scored in any of the past five seasons, the totals in which were 339, 319, 376, 355, and 399.
I figured the best bet might be to ask St. Norbert head coach Tim Coghlin, who knows a thing or two about not allowing many goals. Through 13 league games his Green Knights have allowed a paltry 16 goals.
â€œHmm, thatâ€™s a good question,â€ he said. â€œI think scoring is a relative number. Period. You donâ€™t get any less for the â€˜Wâ€™ if you win 1-0 than if you win 8-7.â€
One potential reason that can probably be discounted is the possibility of a league wide stylistic change over the past few seasons.
â€œI donâ€™t see anybody trapping more,â€ said Coghlin. â€œYou donâ€™t see more conservative forechecks, you donâ€™t see five guys in the neutral zone, you donâ€™t see those kinds of things, I donâ€™t think.â€
He did follow with a point that makes things even more perplexing, however.
â€œI think if you look across our league there have been some high scoring games but they havenâ€™t been intra-league — theyâ€™ve been outside the league. A number of high scoring games have occurred in non-conference games.â€
The numbers back up his statement as every single team in the league has generated less offense in league play than they have overall. This could be because most conference games are more tightly contested defensively, given the higher stakes. Familiarity, too, tends to hold down scoring.
Another possibility is that it is a result of there being so much parity in the league — a fact clearly illustrated by the playoff scenarios listed above.
The problem with that latter theory is that it would explain the multitude of close games and ties the league has experienced this season, but still does little to explain why they have been lower scoring than in the past.
Could it be that the league merely suffers from a lack of offensive firepower compared to years past?
While itâ€™s certainly possible there just isnâ€™t as much talent as there has been in years past, Coghlin raises another good point on the evolution of the league.
â€œI think all the teams here who have experienced any sort of success at the NCAA level have said â€˜we need better skating groupsâ€™. Whether itâ€™s forward or defensive groups everyone is looking for a little more balance, but if anything that should lead to even more offense, so it really isnâ€™t adding up.â€
Perhaps there is a lack of depth in the league compared to past seasons.
â€œIs there a lack of high end forwards right now?â€ Coghlin asked. â€œMost teams have one prolific line of scoring right now. I know thatâ€™s the case for us. We arenâ€™t getting the production from our third and fourth (lines) like we have in the past.â€
Finally, however, Coghlin came across a point that was too good to ignore:
â€œ(Chad) Beiswenger in Superior has been pretty darn good — look at his numbers. (Thomas) Speer in Point has played remarkably well, just look at his numbers. Kyle Jones has been rock solid, just look at his numbers. Even look at the eighth place team and (Scott) Campbell has stolen games for Lake Forest. (Mike) Stone is back for Stout and (Matt) Koenig played well earlier in the season, and I think (Tyler) Brigl at Eau Claire has played every minute of every game for them.â€
For those who arenâ€™t aware, those are all NCHA goalies and the numbers argue strongly that they are the most salient reason for this seasonâ€™s decline in NCHA conference scoring.
Unbeknownst to me until this came up, in Jones, Speer, Beiswenger and Stone the NCHA has four of the top seven goaltenders nationally in goals-against-average. Throw in St. Scholasticaâ€™s Steve Bounds and itâ€™s five of the top 13.
Within those numbers, Jones, Speer and Beiswenger are three of the top four.
The same goes for save percentage as the league boasts four of the top nine nationally, and if you replace Bounds with River Fallsâ€™ Stephen Ritter it becomes five of the top 11.
Case closed? Probably not as the leagueâ€™s superior goaltending likely isnâ€™t the only reason scoring is down, but those numbers certainly donâ€™t lie — especially in a league than can be categorized as anything but creampuff.
With so many low scoring close games this season, it only makes sense that much of it could be due to the fact no one can get way ahead when none of the goaltenders are letting in anything in at all. Perhaps.