This Week in the NCHA/MCHA

As we are already two weeks into the season, here’s a brief rundown of the big picture as it currently stands.

The preseason poll was dotted with teams from the NCHA and MCHA. To no one’s surprise, defending national champion St. Norbert checks in as the nation’s top team. Three NCHA teams in Wisconsin — Stout, River Falls and Superior — are stacked up in the 11-13 positions, respectively, just behind No. 10 Adrian. The Bulldogs’ presence in the top 15 marks the first time a MCHA team has ever been ranked in a season’s inaugural poll.

Prior to the season, many were eagerly awaiting the MCHA’s non-conference results. So far, they have been a mixed bag. Adrian scored wins over Potsdam and Neumann, but also picked up a loss and tie along the way. MSOE split with Lake Forest, and Marian had an impressive weekend but failed to garner a win in a tie at River Falls and a one goal loss at Stout. Additionally, Crookston gave Bethel two tough games but also failed to pick up a win. More on this as the season transpires…

With one weekend of NCHA-MIAC Interlock play in the books, the NCHA once again reigns supreme. Playing all games on the road last week, the NCHA went a collective 9-5-1 against its MIAC foes. With one more week of Interlock games on the slate before the NCHA regular season kicks off, it will prove interesting to see how well the NCHA does as it will host every game but one.

Only three undefeated teams remain in the NCHA or MCHA and they all hail from the former conference: St. Norbert, Stevens Point and Eau Claire are all off to 3-0 starts.

Are You Kidding Me?

As this is my 12th season following Division III hockey on a “full-time” basis, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that I have seen it all.

Every once in a while I’m rudely reminded I haven’t seen much of anything.

Such was the case last Saturday at St. Thomas as I witnessed perhaps the best ending to a D-III game I have ever seen — and I’ve seen some dandies.

The Tommies’ battle with St. Scholastica was an excellent game to begin with. Each team rang about three pipes, there were abundant scoring chances for both squads all night long, and with the Tommies clinging to a 2-1 lead the third period was played at a playoff-like tempo. Those alone were worth the price of admission.

Little did we spectators know, however, that with under two minutes remaining in the contest and the Tommies still up 2-1 that the game had hardly begun.

With 1:30 remaining in the game and St. Scholastica on the power play, Saints head coach Mark Wick called a timeout in order to pull the goalie and set up the 6-on-4. After winning a faceoff in the Tommies’ zone, it took the Saints Trevor Geiger all of 17 seconds to score the extra-attacker-goal and knot the game at two. One minutes and 13 seconds were left on the clock.

Exciting in itself, but nothing, yet, compared to what happened 12 seconds later. With Steve Bounds back in the St. Scholastica net, the Saints won the ensuing faceoff and immediately turned it into an odd-man rush, on which Jordan Chong put one past Tommies’ netminder Tyler Chesnut. 3-2 Saints; 1:01 to play.

With 46 seconds to play and a faceoff in the Saints’ end, St. Thomas head coach Terry Skrypek called a timeout in order to scheme up something of his own with the extra-attacker. St. Thomas wins the draw and 19 seconds later Andrew Kappers buries one for the Tommies and we’re tied at three. Twenty seven second remaining in regulation.

The condensed version: In a 46 second span the game had two comebacks, two ties, a lead change, two timeouts, three total goals, and an extra-attacker goal by each team.

After all that, overtime would play itself out in exciting fashion and the 3-3 score would hold up.

Wick couldn’t help but find a little humor in the situation, joking, “my ten-year old son has always hollered at me for pulling the goaltender. Tells me that it’s the dumbest thing, it never works, and I should never do it. I was kind of glad to be able to tell him we pulled the goaltender and finally had some success with it.”

“Then I also had to tell him the other team pulled its goalie and scored one on us, too,” he added. “So now he’s not so down on the idea but I can’t really say I’ve seen a last minute and half of play that ever went quite like that one.

“Anybody that left early missed just a little bit of excitement.”

And to think that was only in the second week of the season. We could all be in for quite a ride…

Out of Sight, But Not Out of Mind

Perhaps lost in the smoke still settling from the fireworks at St. Thomas, Eau Claire is quietly off to a 3-0 start and is one of only three remaining unbeatens in the NCHA.

The Blugolds opened their season two weeks ago with an impressive 4-1 victory over St. Scholastica, and last week followed up with a pair of road wins over St. John’s and Concordia-MN.

The Blugolds haven’t seem to missed a beat since nearly advancing to the Peters Cup finals a year ago, and that has head coach Matt Loen fairly.

“That was a great start for us,” said Loen in reference to the St. Scholastica game. “I think in the past four years we’ve opened with River Falls twice and Scholastica twice, and that’s the way we want to do it here in Eau Claire. We try to put the toughest schedule possible together, and that first game really sets the stage for what we’re doing.”

He also acknowledged the risk, stating, “[i]f we had gone into that game and gotten blown out it would have been like ‘Whoa, we have to go back to the basics here.’ I think starting out against a good team like Scholastica is a good test for us and I’m happy we played well.”

After opening with a quality win, things weren’t much easier as the Blugolds had to hit the road.

“It’s difficult to hit the road right away,” explained Loen. “Especially going to St. John’s and Concordia as that’s a long trip for us and it’s a lot of hours on the bus.”

Despite its length, the ride home was likely a bit more enjoyable than the ride there as the Blugolds returned with their perfect season intact. A road win at St. John’s is always a confidence booster, but Loen made special note of the win at Concordia.

“It’s a good start for us,” said Loen. “You know, Concordia is the new St. John’s. They have coach Howe there now who runs the St. John’s system, so they work hard and I was proud of our team because we fell down 2-0 after the first period and were able to come back.

“A little adversity early in the year always helps.”

With at least two quality wins and a long road trip already under their belt, there is no rest for the weary as fifth ranked St. Thomas rolls into Eau Claire this Friday.

“We’re excited to play another quality team,” said Loen, who has dropped four straight to the Tommies. “We really haven’t had a lot of success against St. Thomas so I think that’s going to be our motivating factor. Last year we had them on the ropes but we had a few letdowns and we lost.”

By now many have taken note of the Blugolds solid start, but if they are able to find a way to beat the Tommies this time around, suffice to say everyone just might be forced to start paying attention.

Out of the Fire, Into the Frying Pan

Heading over to the MCHA, the series of the week looks to be in Appleton, Wisconsin as Adrian makes its first ever trip to Lawrence. The Bulldogs established themselves as the elite team in the MCHA last season, but an improved Lawrence club could very well benefit from already facing the most elite team in the nation from a year ago, St. Norbert.

“Obviously the experience learned in that game on opening night was extremely important for us,” said Vikings’ head coach Mike Szkodzinski. “From a coaches perspective we certainly got a lot out of that game. We certainly showed the ability to compete with some of the elite teams in the region. However, we also showed our inexperience in not being able to compete mentally and physically for the full sixty minutes.”

“When you play a team as talented as St. Norbert or Adrian that’s not going to bode well for you as far as the end result,” he added.

The Vikings ended up losing 8-1 to the Green Knights, but the final score may have been a little deceiving. Lawrence actually led 1-0 after one, and the game was tied 1-1 at the halfway point.

If Lawrence wishes to not see a repeat performance against Adrian this week, it must find a way to keep it going for the full 60 minutes.

Lawrence and Adrian have met only twice last year, both at Adrian. The Bulldogs rolled 9-2 on Friday, but the Vikings rebounded on Saturday but eventually landed on the short end of a 4-3 decision.

“We made a couple of adjustments after that Friday game,” said Szkodzinski. “We also just reminded our team that details matter. The first night we weren’t finishing our checks; there were a lot of stick checks. The first night we weren’t stopping and starting but we were doing a lot of circling.”

He added, “We did some things better on Saturday, but I think some of it might have been because both teams expended a lot of energy in that Friday game. If you can slow down some of their guys it makes it a little bit easier.”

One thing that might work to the Viking’s advantage is that unlike last season, it will be Adrian making the long road trip this time around.

“I think the only advantage to that is that we haven’t been on the road yet this year. Having an inexperienced team, having some familiar surroundings might benefit us more than having to go to Adrian. However, I certainly don’t think it’s going to be a deciding factor this weekend,” said Szkodzinski.

As expected, Adrian enters the weekend as a favorite, but Lawrence is a team many are projecting to slide into the top half of the MCHA this season. With Adrian playing somewhat inconsistently so far the door may be open for the Vikings to notch some league points this weekend. Doing so would go a long way towards that desired top half league finish.