And then there were eight. The NCHA and MCHA playoff fields have both been narrowed to four teams and by the end of this weekend the NCHA will be down to two while the MCHA will have crowed its Harris Cup Champion.
Last weekend’s results produced a little bit of a shakeup in the second edition of the NCAA West Region Rankings. They are as follows:
1. St. Norbert
2. St. Thomas
5. River Falls
The big winner was Stout as the Blue Devils jumped from fifth to third following an impressive opening round sweep of Stevens Point. River Falls, on the other hand, fell two spots after dropping its series to St. Scholastica. The early playoff exit and subsequent drop in the rankings has all but removed the Falcons from NCAA contention.
I originally began this section intending to cover the possibilities for Western teams to make the NCAA tournament, but upon proceeding it quickly became evident that far too many possibilities remain in order to adequately cover them all — particularly the pool C status of St. Thomas.
What is clear, however, is that the West will land no more than three teams in the field, and an 8-2 split is a legitimate possibility. More on that next week.
For now, let’s focus on one of this week’s hottest topics: Adrian’s NCAA hopes.
From the Bulldogs’ perspective, it is not a good sign they remained in fourth this week. If ever there was a week for them to improve their position, this was it. St. Thomas and River Falls, two teams ahead of Adrian, both lost and though River Falls dropped below Adrian, Stout leapfrogged the Bulldogs and nothing was changed from an Adrian standpoint.
Much of the discussion regarding what it will take to get Adrian into the field has circulated around needing favorites to win their conference tournaments, so and so to beat so and so, etc.
None of that means anything, as an odds-defying string of preferred results will not happen. As a result there is only one way Adrian gets into the tournament. It starts with them winning the Harris Cup and it ends . . .
In attempt to clarify, let’s go through the looking glass and examine a situation from last season.
In the February 20, 2007 East Region NCAA Rankings, UMass-Dartmouth was residing comfortably in fourth behind Oswego, Manhattanville and Norwich. That week UMass-Dartmouth beat a couple of cupcakes (Nichols & Salve Regina), Manhattanville and Norwich won, and Oswego lost.
Based on those results, imagine the surprise when the February 27 rankings came out and UMass-Dartmouth had ascended to number one. So what happened? Thunder crashed, skies parted and the East Region Committee all of a sudden realized UMass-Dartmouth was actually the top team in the region?
Of course not. Rather, in a grossly transparent (yet incredibly shrewd) act of subversive regional protectionism, the East Region Committee moved UMass-Dartmouth to the head of the class to protect it in case of a loss in the ECACNE conference tournament.
Had the act not been executed, UMass-Dartmouth would have been in serious jeopardy of not making the tournament had it lost in its playoffs — and a 6-4 split would have been a very realistic possibility.
The point here is that this sort of skullduggery has happened in the past so why not try it again — this time from a Western angle?
It’s not going to happen but here it is, and it’s the only way to even give Adrian a chance to get into the field:
Make Marian or Finlandia a ranked team.
Adrian currently stands at 0-0 against in-region ranked opponents. If they do win the MCHA playoffs over Marian they would be 4-1 against the Sabres this season, while a win over Finlandia would make them a perfect 3-0 over the Lions.
In a straight numbers sense, it would swing dozens of 2-1 comparisons in the Bulldogs’ favor, including numerous comparisons with Eastern teams of consequence.
The numbers clearly don’t justify ranking Marian or Finlandia, but the numbers don’t justify Adrian being in fourth either. Regardless of the Bulldogs’ impressive record, they should be much lower from a pure numbers perspective.
I am not suggesting this is what should be done, merely that the “creative” manipulations of numbers suggested above is the only way to give the Bulldogs a shot at this year’s tournament field. Unfortunately for Bulldog faithful, without the sort of maneuvering outlined above, their team will be on the outside looking in come tournament time.
What I will suggest, and I have faith this is the case, is the committee does what it can to ensure as many Western teams as possible make the field — no matter who they are. Things are a bit shaky now as Stout and St. Thomas have games remaining and many of their comparisons with Eastern teams hang precariously in the balance pending numerous results of conference tournament games in the next two weeks.
As mentioned, more on that next week, but it becomes quite difficult to analyze when, unlike its Division I counterpart, the D-III selection criteria do not carry stated weightings.
Perhaps that’s the entire problem with the current selection process, however. By design, subjective analysis must be used and the confusion over the new SOS criteria merely adds to this.
The members of the regional committees should be given some credit as they are in unenviable positions, as the system they are supposed to work within dictates they will be criticized in some circles no matter what conclusions they come to — by itself a scathing indictment of the process itself.
What an opening round of Peters Cup playoff action it was! Two lower seeds advanced for the first time in the history of the league, and for the first time in a long time, if not ever, Superior, River Falls and Stevens Point were all eliminated in the first round.
St. Norbert, St. Scholastica, Stout and Eau Claire remain, but from here on out throw the mini-games out the window because everything is a one game affair.
Have we met?
One of this week’s semifinals features seventh-seeded St. Scholastica heading back to the Cornerstone to face top-seeded St. Norbert. The Saints also played at St. Norbert in last season’s Peters Cup playoffs, losing 3-0 in the title game.
St. Scholastica got hot for the playoffs last season, and despite a disappointing 9-12-4 regular season it appears they may be up to it again this season. They land in the semifinals after dropping highly touted River Falls 5-2 in game one last weekend and then following with a 3-3 tie on Saturday to avoid the mini-game and move on.
Amazingly, the Saints are unbeaten in their last five trips to River Falls. For comparison’s sake, that’s something not even St. Norbert can say.
“You know, if I knew why we have had so much success there we would do it everywhere,” joked Saints’ head coach Mark Wick. “It’s one of things you see in sports all the time: certain teams match up well with some teams and other teams don’t match up well with them.”
“I think that’s the situation here. For some reason we’ve been fortunate enough to kind of have their number and have success in their rink,” he added.
After winning the opener, it didn’t come easy for the Saints on Saturday as they fell behind 3-1 after two periods. Two quick tallies knotted the game early in the third and the Saints were not able to exhale until they had killed a penalty and turned back a barrage of shots in overtime.
“I didn’t know a game could have a 65 minute overtime, because that’s sure what that game felt like,” said Wick. “We came out and played really well in the third period, and then Falls really cranked it up and had control in the overtime. We were hanging on.”
Meanwhile, St. Norbert posted consecutive shutouts to down Lake Forest. In all, the Green Knights only allowed 20 shots on the weekend, and senior goaltender Kyle Jones quietly picked up his 21st and 22nd career shutouts.
The Green Knights were expected to advance and though they didn’t blow out the Foresters either night, head coach Tim Coghlin is pleased with the play of his team heading into this semifinal weekend.
“What we wanted last weekend was to stay diligent to our system last weekend,” he said. “I think we did that. I came out of there feeling good about the fact we were able to limit Lake (Forest) to what we did. I think if it had turned into a 6-4 game that’s where we question what we got out of it. From our perspective I think we did what was necessary to get ready to play this week.”
As far as this weekend is concerned, St. Norbert is 32-1-2 in its last 35 meetings with the St. Scholastica, and is 24-0-2 all-time at home against the Saints. Not exactly encouraging numbers for St. Scholastica, but as of late the Saints have played St. Norbert as tough as anyone, beating them at home last season and tying them at the Cornerstone earlier this season.
“They are the real deal, that much is certain,” said Coghlin. “I don’t know why they’ve had a little bit of a tumultuous season, but they are certainly on the upswing.”
He continued, “I think they are a very fundamentally sound team. You have to earn your ice against them. You have to earn your opportunities to score goals. They are very physical and I think they play us tough because we have very similar philosophies on the way the game is played.”
The similar styles have led to low scoring affairs over the past two seasons, as in the past five meetings neither team has scored more than three goals.
It gets old saying it but St. Norbert’s home ice edge is undeniable. Yet, the Saints have fared well from home this season going 4-2-3 against NCHA teams as well as scoring the aforementioned tie at St. Norbert earlier this season.
Wick commented, “We haven’t had success there from a win standpoint, but we’ve played well on the road this year so hopefully our guys go in there with confidence they know we can win on the road and that we have nothing to lose.”
The Saints have made strides every year under Wick and now are junior-laden and playoff experienced following last season’s tournament run. Despite a somewhat disappointing season, nothing would signify another stride quite like playoff win in the Cornerstone.
“You don’t always know how guys are going to react to that experience,” said Wick. “As a coaching staff we hope it (pays off). We’ve been here in the playoffs before and let’s use that to our advantage. Last year we did some good things, but we made some mistakes. They didn’t and that’s why they are champions. At least we do have experience there and hopefully we’re a little more prepared going over there this year.”
Seeing Things for the First Time
Aside from being the title to a great song by the Black Crowes, that phrase can also aptly describes the view for Eau Claire this week. For the first time in school history the Blugolds have advanced out of the first round of the NCHA playoffs.
The weekend started with a bang for Eau Claire as despite being swept by Superior during the regular season the Blugolds went into Wessman Arena and dumped the Yellowjackets 4-2 on Friday.
“I think Friday was one of our better games of the year,” said Blugold head coach Matt Loen. “We got a goal against (Superior goaltender Chad) Beiswenger and I think that was the key. I think we all know how that is — if he gets on fire he’s going to be tough to beat.”
Saturday didn’t develop in quite the same fashion. Superior rolled to a 5-0 win in order to force a mini-game. The Yellowjackets tallied midway through the third period to open up a 4-0 lead, and that’s when Loen employed a strategy that eventually paid off.
“We rested some of our core guys at the end of the third period in Saturday’s game,” he said. “At the 12:00 mark of the third period I shut down our guys. We were down 4-0 so I wasn’t interested in pulling our goalie and trying to get four goals against Beiswenger who was playing very well that night.”
To the mini-game they would go.
“I said OK guys let’s go. We have one period to play after this game. The slate has been wiped clean now let’s go out and play a twenty minute period,” said Loen.
He continued, “I thought the guys responded well to that. In between the second game and the mini-game they were all on board with positive thoughts and that was a huge motivating factor with us after honestly not playing well on Saturday night.”
The Blugolds were on the ropes a few times in the mini-game, especially due to some penalties, the final of which was on senior all-conference forward Sean Garrity.
After Garrity’s penalty expired, he took matters into his own hands.
“He came flying out of the box following his penalty,” Loen explained. “We had already picked the puck up out of the zone and it was basically a race between him and the defender and he went wide, took a shot, and beat Beiswenger low blocker side.”
As a result, the Blugolds will travel to third-seeded Stout as the Blue Devils rolled to an impressive sweep of Stevens Point.
Last weekend it was mentioned that Stevens Point had not allowed more than two goals in a game since early December. That didn’t impress the Blue Devils as despite falling behind in both games, Stout’s offense got rolling both nights and paved the way to 8-4 and 7-1 victories.
As Eau Claire is knows as a bit more of a defensive team, the Stout offense is something Loen is certainly aware of.
“I think they are a very offensive minded team,” said Loen. “I think they are very opportunistic and when we went there last time I don’t think we had one of our best games.”
The Blue Devils ranked second in the NCHA in offense this season with 4.33 goals per contest while the Eau Claire defense ranked fifth in allowing 2.74.
With each team’s strengths squaring off against each other, the contrast in styles should make this contest an interesting one.
“If we can get two or three goals and keep them off the board that’s the way we win games. No question we are a defensive-minded team,” said Loen.
Additionally, the Blugolds have only averaged 2.44 goals per game this season, and scoring won’t come easy this weekend as Blue Devil goaltender Mike Stone shut down a fairly potent Stevens Point offense last weekend.
“Scoring has been a concern all year,” said Loen. “Mike Stone is a great goalie. He’s an All-American and we respect that. We’re going to have to capitalize on our opportunities.”
Not too many people gave the Blugolds a great shot up in Superior last weekend, but true to form the NCHA served up a curveball for everyone. If Eau Claire is looking for another upset win on its quest for the Peters Cup, they will have to do it from minute one this week as there won’t be a mini-game to rely on this time around.
Loen concluded, “I think this one game scenario benefits us so we are going to put in the effort, hopefully some things go our way and we have some success.”
Once again the MCHA Frozen Four is being held at a pre-determined site. However, beginning this season the location awarded to the previous year’s regular season champion. As a result, MSOE will host this year’s festivities this weekend at the Kern Center in Milwaukee.
The weekend will conclude with two semifinal match-ups on Saturday and the championship game Sunday afternoon, but will also play host to the MCHA End of Season Banquet on Friday.
The banquet is scheduled to be held at Roy W. Johnson Residence Hall which sits a mere one block south of the Kern Center. A social will kick things off at 6 p.m., followed by dinner at 7 p.m, and a program with a guest speaker and the MCHA awards to follow that.
All conference awards will be awarded at the banquet, including the MCHA All-Conference Team, All-Freshman Team, Player of the Year, Coach of the Year and All-Academic Team.
As mentioned way back in the MCHA season preview, the league hopes the pre-determined site will have allowed MSOE ample time to put together a great weekend, which they assuredly have according to MSOE head coach Mark Ostapina.
“I think it’s going to shape up pretty well,” he said. “Knowing so far in advance we’ve really been able to get out and promote it big-time. Also owning our own rink helps out, too.”
The rink angle adds an interesting element, as MSOE has developed a plan aimed at boosting attendance while helping youth hockey in the area out at the same time.
“To get youth hockey teams involved we’ve put a tickets-for-ice package together,” he explained. “Not only can they see great ice hockey but if they buy 20 tickets they get an hour of free ice at the Kern Center. If they buy 21-30 tickets they get an hour and fifteen minutes; 31 or more and an hour and a half.”
“It’s a great incentive to get youth involved with the sport. They get to see some great hockey and we get some packages sold. The ice is just great and these kids just love hockey.”
Anyone down in the southeastern part of the state should head to the Kern Center this weekend for what is a showcase weekend for the MCHA. After all, this is all they have considering the NCAA is too incompetent to have awarded the league an autobid like it deserves.
As far as the hockey goes, top-seed Adrian will face fourth-seed MSOE in the first semifinal at 3 p.m. on Saturday. Second-seed Finlandia will take on third-seed Marian in the 7 p.m. nightcap.
Winners meet at 4 p.m. on Sunday.
If you do attend, be sure to grab a Kern Center hot dog while you are in town. It’s the best hot dog in the West Region.
The early semifinal pits Adrian and MSOE against each other for the fifth time this season. The Bulldogs have won all four meetings with the last two coming in the form of a 7-4, 5-0 sweep in Milwaukee three weeks ago.
Adrian finds itself in the semis following an expected 9-1, 8-0 sweep of Concordia-WI in the opening round. Things were much closer for MSOE, but they also garnered the sweep on home ice by dropping Lawrence 4-2, 3-1.
MSOE head coach Mark Ostapina readily admits the Raiders are once again underdogs, though he hopes his team is coming to the battle with a little more ammunition than they did earlier in the season.
“Bottom line is we have more people healthy,” he said. “We had some guys out for almost the entire season but right now I think we are the healthiest we have been all year. At one point this season all we had was 16 players and three goalies. That was it.”
Though the short bench caused headaches in the short run, he hopes it may pay dividends this weekend.
“I think over that time we learned a lot about ourselves and created some depth as we had some players who played a lot more than maybe they would have if everybody had stayed healthy.”
That experience surely won’t hurt heading into Saturday’s match-up with the top-seeded Bulldogs, but as Adrian was 19-1 in the MCHA this year it’s no secret to Ostapina they will not be an easy team to deal with.
“Adrian was by far the number one team in the conference,” said Ostapina. “It’s a very daunting task and it’s something, you know, we’re going to put our best foot forward. We’re very pleased last year’s team was able to win the conference championship and get us home ice, but stillâ€¦”
Though MSOE does indeed have home ice this weekend, it likely won’t be as big of a boost as it can be at times, as unfortunately for the Raiders the school operates on a quarter system. As a result, many students will not be in town this weekend and the “Red Sea” student section could end up looking more like the “Dead Sea”.
“It’s still nice to be at home as it’s always nice to have the same routine. Sleep in your own bed and pre-game meals and things like that. The Kern Center is home and we might be in our away red jerseys but that’s our barn no matter what.”
By now every one knows of the prolific offensive numbers Adrian has put up, as well as their top line of Shawn Skelly, Adam Krug and Eric Miller who currently are the three top scorers in the nation. As expected, this fact is not lost on Ostapina.
“It’s obvious they are one of the most potent lines in the country,” he said. “I don’t think we’re talking about trying to stop them but we’re going to try to contain them and the best way to do that is to stay out of the box.”
He added, “If we can keep them off the power play it should work to our benefit.”
MSOE has a rather potent top forward line of it’s own in Lee Swallow, Mike Soik and Blair Hanberg so it should be interesting to see how Adrian uses the benefit of the last change to match up. It’s highly possible fans will be treated to six of the most skilled players in the league all being on the ice at the same time.
Chris Keller is expected to start in net for the Raiders while the Bulldogs will almost certainly go with Brad Fogal. Keller has played well down the stretch and backstopped both MSOE wins last weekend, while Fogal hasn’t lost a game since October.
Adrian has not run MSOE out of the building this season, but has solidly won all four meetings. As a result, the Bulldogs enter Saturday’s contest as decided favorites, but MSOE does have a boatload of playoff experience. The big question is whether they have enough to overcome a team that has already handled them four times this season.
In what is becoming MCHA tournament tradition, once again Finlandia and Marian are facing each other in the playoffs. It is this fourth straight season in which the two have met in the postseason.
In 2004-05 the two split a series with Marian winning the mini-game to advance, and the next year the result was the same, with Marian winning a semifinal game, 3-2, in overtime. Finlandia finally came out top last season as they downed the Sabres 6-3 in a semifinal en route to eventually winning the Harris Cup.
This could turn out to be the marquee match-up on Saturday only because things look dead even on paper. Marian has a half game edge in overall record and conference record, but the two split an earlier season series in Finlandia so it’s anyone’s guess as to who will come out on top Saturday.
Finlandia enters the semifinals following a 5-1, 3-1 sweep of Northland while Marian is coming off a 3-2 (ot), 3-1 sweep of Crookston. While both series may have been a tad closer than expected, both coaches are confident with the way their teams played last week.
“I thought we played well,” said Finlandia head coach Joe Burcar. “Their goalie played incredible so give him a lot of credit, but I think we played well, got a lot of good shots and limited their quality shots.”
The take is about the same from Jasen Wise, head coach at Marian
“Last weekend I think we played well, and I think Crookston did to. They did a lot of things well and got good goaltending. I like what we did though and think we are playing well heading into this weekend.”
The similarities don’t end there as both coaches agree this contest is pretty much a crapshoot.
“I think we’re pretty even across the board. We are preparing for a one-goal game and I don’t think it’s going to be a blowout either way,” said Wise
From the Finlandia camp:
“You look at the stats they are identical in everything,” said Burcar. “I think we are looking at a one goal game. Special teams could play a big role as their penalty kill is extremely good and is aggressive, and you know, against our power play.”
The aggressive nature of the Sabre penalty kill cannot be overstated as Marian leads the nation with an astounding 17 shorthanded goals this season.
Burcar singled out the overall speed and aggressive style of Marian as something that gave the Lions fits in an earlier season meeting which the Sabres won, 5-0.
“The biggest thing that sticks out with them is that they are a quick team, they are an aggressive team and they are good along the wall,” he said. “They know their spots real well and their goaltending has been extremely good. They jumped on us up here earlier in the year and next thing you know it’s 5-0.”
Meanwhile, Wise feels depth is strength for his club but is more than willing to offer up that Finlandia presents some strengths of their own.
“They have some forwards who are very offensive. They can score in goals in bunches. They also have a group of seniors who have been here before so we know they are going to play hard. We are definitely going to have our hands full.”
Finlandia’s experience is something that certainly cannot be discounted. The Lions claimed last season’s Harris Cup and have everyone back from that squad. All told, the Lions have 16 upperclassmen on their roster.
“I hope it helps,” said Burcar. “You talk to people who have been in sports for a long time and you always hear about experience. We obviously do have the experience and with the senior class we have I hope experience is one of the X factors heading into this weekend.”
It probably sounds clichÃ©d, but this is a match-up that really is as close as it gets. Their records are nearly identical, their statistics are nearly identical, and their mindsets are nearly identical.
All that remains to be seen is which one will punch a ticket to Sunday’s Harris Cup Finals.