It’s undeniable the MIAC is making strides.
Top-to-bottom the conference is improving. This week Hamline will play Concordia. Several years ago, this would have been a matchup between basement dwellers with little significance no matter who emerged victorious. Now, it’s a series between the conference favorite and a young upstart that would love to define itself with a win (or two) against that favorite. The days of the lower-tier teams in the MIAC being pushovers are likely gone for good.
The problem is that the NCHA is also improving, and the numbers at the top of this section are not a date, but the MIAC’s collective inter-conference record against the NCHA this season. Guatavus Adolphus was the only team from the league to escape the first go-around of the interlock with an above-.500 record (Bethel is 3-0-1, but those victories came against MCHA teams, as the Royals were the odd man out in the interlock this season).
The Gusties seem to have the number of St. Norbert, the nation’s top team according to the USCHO.com poll. After being the only team to defeat the national champion Green Knights last season, Gustavus was within one goal until the final minute when an SNC empty-netter sealed the win. After rolling over Lake Forest 6-1, the Gusties were able to secure close wins against both UW-Stout and UW-River Falls, two teams ranked at the time in the USCHO poll.
Perhaps most impressive about the Gusties’ run is their amazing 5.75 goals per game, good enough to tie them for third in the country. That mark is also good enough to put Gustavus in the same tier as UW-Superior, Adrian, and Plattsburgh. Whether Gustavus can continue their run of victories in conference play depends largely on the team improving on the penalty kill (68.4 percent through two weekends), and improving their overall team defense (over five goals a game in games against teams other than Lake Forest).
This young team will be favored in their upcoming games against St. Mary’s, but tough tests against conference foes St. Olaf and Bethel will show if this team is truly deserving of the No. 14 ranking in the country.
You Win Some, You Lose Some
As a result of the poor early performance in non-conference play, the balance of power in the west has clearly shifted in the NCHA’s direction. Eight western teams are ranked in the first regular season USCHO.com poll, and of those, six hail from the NCHA. That leaves Gustavus Adolphus as the only ranked team from the MIAC.
Perennial power St. Thomas slipped up in its early play, dropping to 1-2-1 on the season. Those losses came at the hands of now-ranked UW-Eau Claire and Stevens Point. This dropped the Tommies from sixth into the “others receiving votes” category in the most recent balloting. However, UST has a young team that will be working to find its way throughout the season and will be dangerous during league play.
Preseason conference favorite Hamline sits at 2-2 after getting the same wins over Stout and River Falls as Gustavus. But how concerned are the Pipers about the two losses that followed the next weekend?
“We’re ahead of where we were last year.” coach Scott Bell remarked.
“Only one player on our roster hasn’t played in the first four games. I believe that’s what non-conference games are for, to see what you have.”
The split in playing time applied to the goaltending position as well, as Bell gave both backups Zachery Faust and Beau Christian a game in last weekend’s series. Christian has established himself as the number two option after Faust split time with Wanvig down the stretch last season. As for Friday’s overtime loss, Bell places the blame on his team and himself.
“I still think we’re trying to find out identity. We realize we’re a nice hockey team when we work hard. We didn’t come ready to play against Superior… We’re not talented enough to not show up and work.”
If an overtime loss and a two goal game are the results with the Pipers shuffling their lines and playing backup goaltenders, the rest of the league will have to bring their A game when Hamline comes to town.
What to make of the Concordia Cobbers this season? Trying to regroup from last year’s one-win campaign, the Cobbers fell 4-3 to NCHA doormat Lake Forest in overtime, but also played the nation’s top team, St. Norbert, in a 2-1 contest. While the Cobbers are 0-4-0, they have yet to lose a game by more than two goals. This is not the same Concordia team from last season, even if they still have room for improvement.
Defending league champions St. Thomas was shut out by UW-Eau Claire 6-0. It is only the second time St. Thomas has been shut out since January 2006 (the other was a 3-0 loss to Guatavus last season). The Tommies’ 1-2-1 mark is their worst start since the 05-06 season. With the odd number of teams in the MIAC, St. Thomas will be the only team in the league not to play games this weekend.
Defense will reign supreme in the MIAC this year. St. Olaf scored 7 goals in their opener against Lake Forest. Since then, no MIAC team other than Gustavus Adolphus has scored more than four goals in a game this season. Also, Hamline is currently the only team in the country that has not allowed a power play goal (a perfect 21-for-21 on the PK).
Series Of The Week
Several intriguing choices for Series of the Week exist. Concordia took defending national champion St. Norbert down to the wire in a 2-1 game, and now face MIAC threat Hamline. Pipers’ coach Scott Bell isn’t overlooking this game as a result, and is making sure his team is doing the same.
With the Pipers’ non-conference experimenting behind them, this matchup likely won’t be close enough to merit Series of the Week consideration. The same holds true for Gustavus against St. Mary’s.
That leaves St. Olaf against St. John’s as the Series of the Week. These games will feature two teams both near the middle of the pack in the MIAC who will be looking to get an early edge on playoff positioning. Last season St. Olaf lost at home and the two teams tied, 3-3 at the Jonnies’ rink. Expect a split this weekend in two hotly contested games.
With the MIAC coming out on the low end of the NCHA interlock not only this season, but in recent years as well, are the coaches around the league satisfied with the current non-conference scheduling arrangement?
The short answer is yes. Coaches are generally pleased that they receive an early season opportunity to test their squads against formidable NCHA opponents. Bethel’s Joel Johnson, whose Royals are shut out of the interlock this season, was among those most in favor of the interlock, noting how difficult it is otherwise to find opponents to schedule.
While the Royals may be undefeated, they have not faced the level of competition their league opponent’s have heading into MIAC play. If Bethel doesn’t come out strong this weekend, being the extra team not involved in the interlock may be the reason why.
If there was one universal complaint from coaches regarding the interlock, it was the jump the NCHA gets on starting the season. However with that being the only significant concern, it looks like we’ll be seeing these two conferences square off for years to come.