Battling For Position
Just one week to go before the MIAC postseason begins in earnest and teams are frantically jostling for playoff positioning. Four teams have locked up playoff spots, leaving just one opening for the two teams battling for it. Before delving into the playoff possibilities this week, letâ€™s take a look back at last weekâ€™s results, where the upper half of the league was able to establish its dominance over lower ranked squads.
Conference leader Bethel faced a tough test against a St. Olaf team fighting for its playoff life. The Oles entered last weekend three points behind Gustavus in fourth, and one point behind St. Johnâ€™s. With the Gusties on the bye, the Oles had a prime opportunity to jump into the playoffs. On Friday, St. Olaf jumped out to a two goal lead as Thor Josefson and Justin Green each notched their first goals of the season. The Royals stormed back with four unanswered, however, eventually holding on for a 4-3 win.
It took 27 minutes for Saturdayâ€™s first goal by the Royalsâ€™ Tom Menozzi. Each team tallied once after that, giving Bethel their second one goal victory of the weekend. Aaron Damjanovich made 39 saves for victory number 16 on the year.
The St. Maryâ€™s-St. Thomas match-up provided a portrait of two teams in very different positions. The Cardinals sat four points out of the final playoff spot and would likely need at least a split to keep their playoff hopes alive. St. Thomas sat in second place, but had just fallen to Hamline in a weekend where the Pipers took three of four points from the Tommies.
â€œThe Hamline series was a tough series.â€ St. Thomas coach Terry Skrypek said this week. â€œWe were kind of down after that weekend and we felt we had to take a run at St. Maryâ€™sâ€¦ .We turned some corners there and got it going. The kids seemed to be rejuvenated and played well.â€
The Tommies came out firing against the Cardinals Friday, scoring the first three goals of the game and taking a 3-1 lead into the first break. St. Maryâ€™s wouldnâ€™t get another goal as St. Thomas won, 5-1. Saturday was more of the same as the Tommies went 3-for-8 on the power play and Tyler Chestnut pitched the shutout in net as St. Thomas claimed a 5-0 shutout. It was only the second four point weekend for St. Thomas in the 2007-08 season.
The Pipers were looking to keep momentum from the St. Thomas series against eighth place Augsburg.
On Friday, Hamline needed all four of their goals, despite the Auggies putting just 17 shots on Matt Wanvig. Nick Zilka and Dustin Fulton each had a goal and two assists in the 4-3 win. Hamline continued their goaltender rotation Saturday, as Zachery Faust got the start. Once again Augsburg put under 20 shots on net, but actually led 2-1 after two periods. Then Dustin Fulton put in two goals for the Pipers, and Andrew Birkholz responded to an Auggies tally with the game winner, giving Hamline another 4-3 win and the crucial series sweep.
The final series of the weekend pitted a fifth place St. Johnâ€™s team against a team in ninth, the Concordia Cobbers. The Johnnies found themselves striving to hold down the fifth and final playoff spot, and could leapfrog an idle Gustavus team with a sweep. And sweep they did.
Josh Hand put up a valiant effort in just his second decision of the year for Concordia, stopping 32 of 36 shots. But the Johnnies held the Cobbers to just 20 shots in the 4-2 victory. On Saturday, St. Johnâ€™s put 56 shots on Jeremy Boniface to win 7-1. Thirteen Johnnies had points in the win. Vince Wheeler earned both victories for St. Johnâ€™s, allowing just three goals on the weekend.
â€œHeâ€™s been pretty solid for us all year long.â€ St. Johnâ€™s coach John Harrington said of his junior goaltender. â€œWeâ€™ve played a solid schedule all year long and heâ€™s been good. Thereâ€™s been only one or two games where heâ€™s had bad stretches and he always gives us a chance to win.â€ Wheeler improved to 12-9-2 on the season with the sweep.
The effect of the top teams coming out ahead last weekend is that the MIAC playoff field is mostly set. While what teams will be participating is all but a certainty, the X-factor is who goes where in the five team tournament.
The Bethel Royals sit atop the MIAC standings with 23 points, and they can finish no lower than third, despite having the week off. St. Thomas sits just two points back in second place. The perennial conference powerhouse holds the tiebreaker on the Royals, meaning they need only two points to take the top spot away from the Royals. But the Tommies need a sweep to guarantee home ice throughout the playoffs as Hamline, currently with 20 points, can finish anywhere from first to fifth.
A Pipers sweep of the Johnnies would leapfrog them above the Royals and St. Thomas, unless the Tommies sweep as well. Hamline holds the tiebreaker on St. Thomas as a result of their three point weekend two weeks ago. A three-way tie between the top teams awards the top spot to St. Thomas, with Bethel second.
But the Pipers donâ€™t get to focus their attention solely towards the top of the standings. Theyâ€™ll be facing a St. Johnâ€™s team that currently sits in fourth place and will be striving to climb their way out of the play-in game. Just two points behind the Pipers, the Johnnies can clinch third place with three points this weekend.
If they fall, however, they could quickly find themselves traveling to play Gustavus Adolphus in the opening round, as the Gusties face last place Concordia this weekend. Gustavus holds the tiebreaker over both Hamline and St. Johnâ€™s. But those two teams must split four points this weekend, meaning that Gustavus can finish no better than fourth, and can still find themselves out of the playoffs if they slip up.
The St. Olaf Oles can still jump above the Gusties if Gustavus somehow drops both their games to a Concordia team with just one point in league play this season and the Oles sweep St. Thomas. Itâ€™s a monumental task, especially in light of the fact that the Gusties hold the tiebreaker on the Oles, meaning the duel sweeps is the only way St. Olaf makes it into the postseason tournament.
Each of St. Maryâ€™s, Augsburg, and Concordia were swept last weekend, and have been eliminated from postseason consideration.
It all makes for an extremely tight race towards the postseason in what St. Thomas coach Terry Skrypek calls an increasingly competitive conference.
â€œOur league has really improved from top to bottom this past year. Even a St. Maryâ€™s team was a very good team, knocking off Bethel the weekend before they played us. You never know on a given night. The league overall, because of the coaching, has really taken a step up.â€
Series of the Week
St. Thomas and St. Olaf provides an interesting contrast between two teams. The Tommies can lock up first place with a sweep, or with a win and a Hamline loss. The Oles are on the opposite end of the coin. They need to pull the upset on the fifth ranked team in the nation both nights, and get an unprecedented sweep by Concordia over Gustavus. Suffice it to say the clock has all but run out on the Oles season.
â€œWeâ€™re still fighting for a title and we have a chance to have home ice advantage, which is crucial in the playoffs.â€ St. Thomas coach Terry Skrypek said of his teamâ€™s focus heading into this weekend. â€œThe thing is, with St. Thomas in the position weâ€™re in, it seems like every team plays their best against us, and it will be the same this weekendâ€¦ .
[St. Olaf is] kind of a defense-minded team. They donâ€™t score a lot of goals, but a lot of their losses this year have been close.â€
Despite the possibility of an upset from a St. Olaf team with their backs against the wall, this is only the runner up for Series of the Week.
That honor goes to a crucial match-up between the Hamline Pipers and St. Johnâ€™s Johnnies. Hamline sits at third in the conference, one spot and two points ahead of the Johnnies. The swing from third to fourth couldnâ€™t be more crucial as the fourth place team is relegated to play an extra weeknight contest before the weekend semifinal round.
Both teams are looking for a little help from St. Olaf that would allow the Pipers to finish as high as first, with St. Johnâ€™s still having a shot at second.
One of the keys to the series will be how St. Johnâ€™s deals with a Pipers power play unit that is averaging a conversion rate above 30% on the season. Johnnies coach Harrington understands the challenges his PK unit, which held Concordia to 0-for-10 last weekend, will face.
â€œWe need to stay out of the penalty box more, because the competition here is going to get tougher. Not only this weekend, but into the playoffs.â€
This series has a chance to be a goaltending showcase as St. Johnâ€™s Vince Wheeler (2.68 GAA, .891 save%) takes on Hamlineâ€™s goal line duo of Matt Wanvig (2.88, .895) and Zachery Faust (2.25, .913).
â€œTheyâ€™re a good team, a formidable team.â€ Harrington summed up. â€œWeâ€™re going to be concerned with stopping their top people and staying out of the penalty box.â€
A Change Wonâ€™t Do You Good?
Finding itself with an extra week between the end of the regular season and the start of the NCAA Tournament this year, the MIAC decided to expand the dates of the conference tournament this season. Typically the 4-5 game would take place on the Tuesday following the end of regular season play. The semifinals would be two days later, and the conference champion would be crowned on the Saturday before the NCAA Tournament field was set.
This year, the play-in will take place next Thursday, followed by the semifinals on Saturday and the league championship the following Wednesday. This would set up a scenario in which the league champion would be crowned exactly one week before a potential opening round game in the NCAA Tournament (in the event of a 7-3 eastern split in the tournament field).
The coaches I spoke to this week werenâ€™t in favor of this change, and expressed a desire to go back even further in the chronology of the MIAC Playoffs.
â€œI donâ€™t think our conference has laid that out the way a true five team playoff should be.â€ John Harrington from St. Johnâ€™s claimed. â€œOther than having to play an extra game, it doesnâ€™t really put your team at too much of a disadvantage. When we first started the five team playoff, it was three days in a row — more like the Division I WCHA playoffs — where it made it more difficult to come out of the 4-5 match-up because you had to play three games in three days.â€
â€œPersonally I liked the way we used to have it because the way we used to have it gave a little bit of an advantage to the teams at the top.â€ St. Thomasâ€™ Skrypek agreed. â€œWhen we had the 4-5 game on a Tuesday, they didnâ€™t get as much rest and that was the advantage. When you get a champion, you want to give that champion a little bit of an advantage.â€
Skrypek also alluded to how the league modeled the original playoff system after the WCHA, making it very difficult for the lower seeds to advance consistently. He did note that the extra week forced the leagueâ€™s hand this season.
MIAC Executive Director Dan McKane says the change is likely temporary and a result of the extra week between the conclusion of the regular season and the national tournament. He expects the league will return to the previous format next season, although that decision is not set in stone. It seems the leagueâ€™s coaches would be in favor of such a move, and the topic will be sure to generate some discussion in the off season.