And then there were two. Adrian claimed the MCHA playoff championship, and the Harris Cup, for the first time ever last weekend with two hard-fought wins over MSOE and Finlandia, which leaves St. Norbert and Stout as the only teams with games remaining as the Green Knights defeated St. Scholastica 1-0 and Stout dropped Eau Claire 3-2 in overtime in the NCHA Peters Cup semifinals.
The two will meet at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Cornerstone Community Center in Green Bay to decide who earns the NCHAâ€™s Peters Cup — and an automatic birth in the NCAA tournament.
As NCAA tournament time is drawing ever nearer, we must once again check in on the national scene and this weekâ€™s West Region NCAA Poll. It is:
1. St. Norbert
2. St. Thomas
4. Wis.-River Falls
The rankings only presented one change this week, and it was River Falls moving ahead of Adrian even though the Bulldogs won the MCHA tournament and the Falcons were idle.
For a full discussion of what this means, as well as how NCAA tournament dreams are shaping up for other Western teams, please check out USCHOâ€™s West Region NCAA analysis as I teamed up with MIAC Correspondent Josh Carey to look at the big picture.
Simply speaking, it was a fantastic weekend of hockey at the Kern Center in Milwaukee.
Before getting to the hockey itself permit me to once again editorialize. First, MSOE put on a fantastic event and I was fortunate enough to attend both semifinal contests on Saturday.
Second, anyone who wants to degrade this league, particularly those who have never bothered to watch a MCHA game, should have been there to witness the semifinals — especially the nightcap between Finlandia and Marian.
After watching those two terrific contests. I defy anyone to attempt to contend that the league is some sort of a joke.
Save your breath as if you think that is the case, youâ€™re wrong. Period.
To reiterate, letâ€™s give the league credit for continuing to evolve and improve. They are doing a wonderful job. All of them.
Moving on . . . by now it is no secret Adrian captured the Harris Cup in its inaugural season, but it didnâ€™t come easy.
The first period of Adrianâ€™s semifinal contest was evidence enough of that as MSOE kept pace. Adrian did hold a 13-10 shot advantage in the frame, but some solid play from Raider netminder Chris Keller kept the Bulldogs off the board and the period would end scoreless.
In fact, the game could have taken on a completely different slant had MSOE been able to convert one or more of a handful of quality chances in the opening frame.
Adrian did pull away in the second and staked itself a 2-0 lead on goals from Joel Workman and Adam Krug.
A Mike Soik power-play goal would make it 2-1 at the 16:25 mark, but Adrianâ€™s Eric Miller would put the Bulldogs back up two with under a minute to play in the period.
Adrian finally scored the game winner 1:01 into the third as Sam Kuzyk lit the lamp to put the Bulldogs up 4-1.
Soik scored again to pull the Raiders within two, and forward Matt Fastelin would tally late for MSOE, but it wasnâ€™t enough as Adrian recorded the 5-3 victory to advance to Sundayâ€™s final.
The second semifinal between Marian and Finlandia turned out to be as entertaining, and even, on the ice as it was on paper.
In perhaps one of the greatest games anyone has seen all season, it had everything. Both teams hit a post in the opening 45 seconds, and the entire game was rife with physical play, scoring chances, quality goaltending and special teams opportunities.
Finlandia would jump out to a 1-0 lead midway through the first on a goal Mike Parks, but Marianâ€™s James Goodfellow would tally a power-play marker late in the frame and, not surprisingly, the period would end 1-1.
The second period would see no scoring, but it may have been the turning point in the contest.
Towards the latter stages of the period, Finlandia took three consecutive penalties. Despite including a 1:48 of 5-on-3 advantage, Marian was unable to capitalize, and would end up taking a penalty of its own after the period had ended.
Finlandia took advantage. Ross Rouleau scored just 15 seconds in to the third period on the power play to put Finlandia up, 2-1.
Travis Hanson scored 11 minutes into the period to put Finlandia up 3-1, but Nick Cinquegrani would tally just over a minute later to cut the lead to 3-2.
Though Marian would threaten in the final seven minutes, a Tiger Marcotte empty netter would seal the 4-2 win for Finlandia and send the Lions to their second consecutive Harris Cup final.
As far as Sundayâ€™s final was concerned, there was no doubt Adrian was the favorite, but Finlandia was defending Harris Cup champions and the Bulldogs would have to earn the title.
Despite outshooting the Lions 36-18, Adrian had plenty of trouble scoring, thanks in large part to Finlandia goaltender Ryan Donovan.
â€œDonovan played great,â€ said Adrian head coach Ron Fogarty. â€œHe stopped a breakaway in the first period and really played well for them the entire game.â€
Despite the shot totals, Finlandia did have their opportunities.
â€œThey had a great look in the first period,â€ said Fogarty. â€œThen I think in the second Rob Hodnicki made a great block of a shot for us in front of an open net.â€
â€œThey had some great chances,â€ he added. â€œIt was just a great college game. I think there were more opportunities late in the game than early.â€
Despite opportunities for both teams, the game would end regulation at 0-0, and bonus time would be required to crown the league champion.
For the third time this season, however, Adrian would waste little time in netting an overtime goal as Eric Miller tallied just 2:29 into the extra session.
Fogarty described the goal:
â€œEric Bailen found (Adam) Krug, and he found Miller streaking through the middle. Miller ended up coming in all alone and made a quick move to his backhand and went back to his forehand and went above Donovanâ€™s blocker.â€
Considering Adrian is the highest scoring team in the nation, itâ€™s somewhat ironic the Bulldogs only needed one goal to win the Harris Cup. Not surprisingly, Fogarty doesnâ€™t really care.
â€œAny time you win 1-0 in a championship game thereâ€™s obviously elation that comes from the entire team. To have an opportunity to win a regular season and playoff championship in any year, especially our first year, is pretty incredible.â€
Congratulations to Adrian for winning the Harris Cup and to the entire league for the most exciting year in MCHA history.
Now, does Adrian have a shot at the NCAAâ€™s? Iâ€™m not even going thereâ€¦
The Peters Cup Final is finally upon the NCHA, and to no oneâ€™s surprise at all, the road once again goes through St. Norbert. In fact, 32 of the Green Knightsâ€™ last 33 Peters Cup series have been played at home.
The Green Knights will once again be hosting the contest, but for the first time ever University of Wisconsin-Stout will be the opponent.
The Blue Devils snuck out of the semifinals as they rallied to down Eau Claire 3-2 in overtime last Saturday.
Stout trailed 2-1 late in the game, but a Paul Henderson goal with under five minutes to play would force overtime.
â€œThey are a good hockey team,â€ said Blue Devil head coach Terry Watkins of Eau Claire. â€œThey went up to Superior and won and they were playing well. Matt Loen is doing a heck of a job there.â€
Stout would gain the upper hand in overtime, however, and a Scott Motz goal 14:47 into the extra session would propel the Blue Devils to this weekendâ€™s championship.
â€œIt was kind of a see-saw game,â€ said Watkins. â€œI thought we had the better of the play in the overtime, and you know, we finally got the goal.â€
Meanwhile, St. Scholastica gave St. Norbert all they could handle, but in the end the Green Knights would win the dogfight 1-0 to also advance.
â€œIt was a very hard fought battle and we knew that it would be,â€ said Green Knight head coach Tim Coghlin. â€œJust because of the way they play, and they way theyâ€™ve played us in the past.â€
He continued, â€œI thought both goaltenders played extremely well. I do think that if you ask (St. Scholastica head coach) Mark Wick, as he and I talked on Monday, we both thought that for the intensity and magnitude of the game it was actually a little bit sloppy.â€
All sloppiness aside, the Green Knights did advance and draw Stout as a reward.
All told, St. Norbert is currently riding a 25 game undefeated streak and is 9-0 all-time against the Blue Devils at the Cornerstone.
Stoutâ€™s struggles at St. Norbert recently are best exemplified by their last two trips there, as they dropped a NCHA semifinal contest last season, and were defeated 7-1 in DePere by the Green Knights earlier this year.
It should be noted that Stout did beat St. Norbert at St. Norbert last season, but the game was played at the Resch Center in Green Bay.
â€œThey have a great hockey team and are No. 1 in the country for a reason,â€ said Watkins. â€œBut we went over there and didnâ€™t play well at all. We got down by a couple, goaltending wasnâ€™t very good, offensively we werenâ€™t very good and consequently we got beat up pretty good.â€
Stout is a battle-tested and experienced club, however, and Watkins hopes that experience pays off; perhaps as it did in Stoutâ€™s more recent 3-3 tie with the Green Knights.
Itâ€™s this experience in particular that has Coghlin a little worried headed into the weekend.
â€œThey are a determined team that is a veteran group that sat home last year at this timeâ€, Coghlin. â€œThey obviously want something to say about it this year. Thatâ€™s the difference between a young team and a veteran team. Veteran guys who have been through this once or twice understand that. This Stout team has those guys.â€
Additionally, Stoutâ€™s high octane attack is cause for concern.
â€œThey play a pretty aggressive pursuit kind of game,â€ Coghlin explained. â€œWhen I saw they scored seven and eight on Stevens Point I thought thatâ€™s exactly the type of game Stout wanted. I think if it goes their way over here this weekend it will be a five to six goal game, and if it goes our way it could be a two to three goal game.â€
From the Stout angle, Watkins singled out the necessity to get shots on net.
â€œWe have to get shots on Jones,â€ he said. â€œAnd when we do we have to finish. It should be a fun night.â€
Speaking of Kyle Jones, goaltending will no doubt play a major role in Saturdayâ€™s contest as Stout will counter with Mike Stone, a reigning first team All-American.
Interestingly, both coaches singled out two facets to this game that they thought would make the difference: goaltending and special teams.
With the nets in good hands, Stoutâ€™s power play on fire as of late, and St. Norbertâ€™s plays with an extra attacker also formidable, the coaches just might be onto something.
Either way, it should be a packed house Saturday night as word is Stout is bringing a couple busloads of students. If they are able to come close to the performance of the Bethel students when they ventured into the Cornerstone last season, this is a game no one is going to want to miss.
Itâ€™s simply playoff hockey at itâ€™s best.