This Week in the NCHA/MCHA December 6, 2008

This Week in the NCHA/MCHA

Returning from a two week hiatus, it’s easy to spot a bit of a shakeup for NCHA and MCHA teams on the national scene.

The big mover has been University of Wisconsin-Superior. After defeating previous No. 1 St. Norbert two weeks ago, the Yellowjackets stand at 4-0 in the NCHA and 10-1-1 overall, good enough for three first place votes and the No. 2 spot in the Division III Division III Men’s poll.

The loss to Superior, as well as a setback against Oswego, drops the Green Knights to 9-2-0 on the year and down three spots to No. 4. 8-1-1 Adrian, still the lone MCHA team receiving votes, holds its spot at No. 8 following a road sweep of conference foe Marian.

Four NCHA teams follow Adrian as UW-Stevens Point lands at No. 9, UW-Eau Claire at No. 10 and UW-Stout at No. 12. On the strength of a victory over Oswego, St. Scholastica sneaks back in at No. 15 to give the NCHA six teams in the top 15 fifteen for the second time this season.

This week features a full slate of conference action in the NCHA and MCHA, including five games between NCHA teams both in the top 15, and an MCHA series in Milwaukee between league leading Adrian and MSOE, who is coming off an impressive tie at UW-Superior. With that much on the table this weekend no doubt there will be plenty to discuss next week, so let’s use this opportunity week to take a look back at the past two exciting weeks in the sister conferencesNCHA and MCHA.

Bulldogs Hold Course

As mentioned, a full MCHA schedule is on tap this weekend, with the premier series being Adrian heading to MSOE for a two -game set.

Two weeks ago, however, featured what might be the premier series in the MCHA as Adrian traveled to Marian. Both entered at 4-0 in MCHA play and — despite the rivalry between the two being only a bit over a year old — the Sabres have proven to be a bit of a thorn in the Bulldogs’ side.

Marian was the lone MCHA team to defeat Adrian last season, winning 7-5 in their first meeting of the season. Adrian won the final three, but barely escaped in the final meeting game as Marian held a 4-2 lead after two periods and was still leading with less than two minutes to play in the game. The Bulldogs eked out a 5-4 victory in overtime, but those meetings proved that Marian was not going to roll over for the eventual league champions.

When it comes to facing Marian on the road, Adrian head coach Ron Fogarty is aware of the challenges it presents.

“We had seen what they did against some good teams on the road this season, so we knew they were going to come out energized at home and be extremely tough,” Fogerty said..”

Marian’s aggressiveness is in large part what caused problems for Adrian last season, according to Sabres’ head coach Jasen Wise:

“I think maybe we are a little more physical than other teams in our conference so that might have something to do with it, and we also try to play everyone aggressively and apply a lot of pressure.”

The two will meet again later this season in Adrian, but when all was said and done this time around, the Bulldogs established themselves as league frontrunners as they convincingly swept the Sabres by scores of 4-2 and 5-2. The wins ran Adrian to 6-0 in the MCHA, four points clear of second place Marian and Finlandia.

In Friday’s 4-2 victory, Adrian jumped out to a 3-1 lead after the opening period on two goals by Adam Krug and one by Drew Satterly. The Bulldogs never looked back.

“I thought we came out strong on Friday in coming out and getting that 3-0 lead,” said Fogarty. “Any time you’re on the road and can get an early lead it allows you to stay with your game plan and it can force the other team to alter what they want to do; maybe pull them out of their game plan a little bit.”

Adrian’s Shawn Skelly extended the lead to 4-1 early in the second, and Marian’s Todd Collins cut it to 4-2 early in the final frame third, but that would be all the Sabres’ could muster.

Fogarty was pleased with the defensive effort.

“After we extended it to 4-1, I think we played a smart road game in the third period,” he said. “We just kept everything to the side, and they did score to make it 4-2 and outshot us that period but I think we did a good job of limiting their quality chances.”

“On Friday the scoring chances were about even and they capitalized and we didn’t, and that was the difference,” explained Wise.

On a positive note for the Sabres, they held the Adrian power play scoreless, a large feat as the Bulldogs have scored over fired at over 30% with the man advantage this season.

“I thought we did a good job of staying out of the penalty box, and when we did take a penalty we were able to kill it off which is huge against the number one power play in the nation,” said Wise.

Saturday’s contest took on a little bit different personality as junior goaltender Cullen Caldwell picked up the start for Marian in favor of senior Jason Jadczak. Jadczak has garnered a majority of the minutes in the Sabres’ net this season.

Wise explained the decision: “Cullen had a great freshman year, and though Jadczak has been our guy he had an off-night Friday,” explained Wise of the decision. “. Cullen came in and didn’t allow a goal on Friday on 13 shots so he played well and I thought he earned the start on Saturday.”

With Caldwell in net, the Sabres’ didn’t fall behind early and instead jumped out to a 1-0 lead on a Jeffrey Wills goal midway through the first period. Adrian would respond 1:53 later, however, on an unassisted tally from Mike Towns.

“They took the play to us at times and came out and got the lead,” said Fogarty. “I think it was a good character thing for us that we were able to come out and answer less than two minutes later,” said Fogarty.

Skelly put Adrian up 2-1 halfway through the second, and Mike Dahlinger extended the Bulldog lead to 3-1 early in the third.

The Sabres responded, however, cutting it to 3-2 on an Adam Freeman goal at the mid-point of the final frame, but the Bulldogs answered again less than two minutes later on another goal by Dahlinger.

“When it was 3-2 or 4-2 there I thought we had a shot,” said Wise. “Then we took a penalty and it’s just awfully tough to score when we’re in the penalty box.”

Skelly made the Sabres pay for the penalty, notching his third tally of the weekend to put the game away at 5-2.

Overall, Fogarty was pleased with the way the Bulldogs won on Saturday.

As he explained, “I think it was a very good lesson for our team in that we have to learn it’s a 60 sixty minute game,” he said. “. If we don’t get up right away we don’t have to panic. We can’t be such an ebb and flow team and score three goals in a short span and then do nothing the rest of the game. We have to stay focused on what we want to do for the full 60 sixty and I think we did a real good job of that Saturday.”

Marian will get another shot at Adrian later in the season, but for now it’s the Bulldogs who maintain possession of MCHA bragging rights.

“They are ranked in the top 10 ten for a reason and they are a very fast and skilled team,” said Wise. “I do think we’ve closed the gap from last year to this year, but they are still the favorite in our conference by far.”

Non-Conference Conundrums

It’s a topic that comes up annually, especially for those who consistently criticize the MCHA, though they never have watched a league gameas many who have of course never watched a MCHA team, always cite it in attempt to belittle the league.

The topic is, of course, is the MCHA’s non-conference record.

There is still a smattering of non-conference games remaining for some MCHA teams, but as of now the league’s overall non-conference record stands at 3-20-4 — a number certainly not good enough to sway the detractors.

Concordia-WI, Northland, Finlandia, Crookston and Lawrence are a combined 0-15 in non-conference action, but it should be noted that 10 ten of those losses were to NCHA teams. The other five were to Bethel and Hamline. For those keeping track, Bethel and Hamline were the MIAC 2007 NCAA tournament representative and 2008 MIAC regular season champion, respectively.

Having to defeat NCHA teams to earn some respect is a tough row to hoe for anyone. The MIAC has had problems doing it for years, and it ends up misrepresenting the quality of play in the league. The MCHA faces this same problem.

The two bright spots have been Adrian and MSOE.

The Bulldogs went 2-1-1 against Potsdam and Neumann, two teams considered quality opponents prior to the season. Of course, many discounted the victories after the fact, but only after deciding Potsdam and Neumann were no longer any good. Revisionist history aside, 2-1-1 is 2-1-1.

MSOE sits at 1-1-1 in non-conference play, with all three games coming against NCHA competition. The Raiders split with Lake Forest early in the season, and actually out shot the Foresters 36-26 in a 3-2 overtime loss at Lake Forest. Last weekend the Raiders skated to an extremely impressive 3-3 tie at second -ranked Superior, where the and the Raiders actually led 3-2 in the third period. They Raiders wwill get two more shots at a NCHA big dog as they have a home- and- home with St. Norbert coming up in January.

Now, one of my favorite songs of all time is “Ball and Chain” by Social Distortion. When performed live, lead singer Mike Ness often starts it by saying, “Let me tell you about a hard luck story…”

He is speaking about his youth, but he might as well be talking about the one MCHA team yet to be mentioned: Marian.

The Sabres finished their non-conference schedule 0-3-2 this season, with losses to Stout and a loss and a tie to , Bethel and River Falls, and ties against Bethel and River Falls.

All three losses were by one goal, and one was in overtime. The Sabres actually held leads in four of those contests, and held third period leads in two of them.

Pair those results with those of last season for the Sabres, which included a 4-0 win over Gustavus Adolphus, an overtime loss to Bethel, and a one-goal loss to Stout, and it’s enough to make any fan of the MCHA bang their head against the table.

A few bounces here and there and the Sabres would have already sent major shockwaves through the West on behalf of the MCHA.

Of course all that really matters in the end is the “W” column, but there is plenty of evidence out there to suggest the top half of the MCHA can play with almost anyone on any night.

It’s an easy point to acknowledge for those who have seen the MCHA teams play, but the fact remains that no one else is going to believe it until the league’s non-conference record looks a little better than 3-20-4. To that end, it’s only a matter of time… no matter what someone in New York or Vermont might think.

Doubting Stout?

Two years ago Stout finished in a three-way tie for the NCHA championship. Last year the Blue Devils fell to a deadlock for second place tie, but fashioned a nice playoff run before eventually losing in overtime at St. Norbert in the Peters Cup Finals. They also garnered their first NCAA tournament appearance in school history, but fell to St. Thomas in a first round match up.

Returning the bulk of its squad this season, it’s no surprise that Stout checked in at third in the NCHA preseason coaches’ poll, and was picked to finish second by yours truly.

Despite a Stout finish near the top looking like a fairly safe bet prior to the season, nothing is ever for certain in the tumultuous world of the NCHA. Evidence enough of this was Stout’s 0-2 start to the NCHA season. Losses to St. Scholastica and Superior are not too shocking, but Stout dropping a pair at home was indeed, especially in a season where taking points in the home barn at home will be critical for whoever winds up finishing in the top half of the league.

“We didn’t play as well as I had hoped,” said Blue Devils’ head coach Terry Watkins. “We didn’t get good goaltending; we didn’t do a good job of going to the net. We just didn’t have a good weekend. It might have been good for us, though. Maybe we needed a wakeup call. We fixed some things and worked hard in practice after that.”

Stout dropped a 3-1 decision to Superior, and despite putting 29 shots on the Yellowjackets’ Chad Beiswenger, was never able to muster more than the one goal.

“Beiswenger is one heck of a goalie. He can play,” said Watkins. “We had what I thought were some really good opportunities and he made some amazing saves. He was just awfully good.”

The Blue Devils’ attempt to rebound the next night was foiled by St. Scholastica, as the Saints came into Dunn County Ice Arena and skated away with a 5-2 win. The second period was the backbreaker as the Saints scored three times — on only four shots.

Though anything is to be expected in the NCHA, a league favorite starting 0-2 was nonetheless a surprise. Even worse is that Stout had Stevens Point and Eau Claire coming up — a much more daunting pair than it was just a few years ago.

“Point and Eau Claire are really good,” said Watkins. “I figured we had to win one of them. It’s possible somebody wins this league at 8-4 this year — it’s that close. As far as winning two goes I wasn’t even sure it was going to be possible because both those teams are exceptional teams.”

The weekend did not get off to the start the Blue Devils were looking for as the Pointers tacked up three markers on Stout’s second string number two goaltender Jesse Pischlar in the first 5:23.

“It was not the start we were hoping for,” Watkins he said. “It might be helpful to face a little adversity like that early in the year though.”

Facing adversity is one thing; overcoming it is another.

Senior Matt Koenig replaced Pischlar in net and kept the Pointers off the board long enough for Stout to cut the lead to 3-1 on a 5-on-3 five-on-three power-play goal with only five seconds left in the second period.

The power play continued into the third and Stout made it 3-2 only 1:15 into the final frame.

“It was huge. Anytime you do something late in the period or early in the period it’s huge. We actually had better scoring opportunities right before that, but we got that one and then scored right away in the third and all of a sudden it’s a ballgame,” explained Watkins.

Long story short, Koenig shut the Pointers down for the remainder of the game and the Blue Devils would strike twice more to skate away with a monster 4-3 road victory.

Things didn’t get easier the next night as Stout returned home to face red-hot Eau Claire. The game Things started off a little better this time around, as phenomenal individual efforts by Derek Hanson and Joel Gaulrapp put the Blue Devils up 2-0 at the end of one, despite a 14-8 shot advantage for the Blugolds.

After what happened on Friday, Watkins knew no lead was safe.

“I told the kids after the first period that if they thought they were going to win that thing 2-0 they were crazy. I thought we were going to need at least four goals to win it and I was very surprised Eau Claire didn’t score because they are the real deal this year.”

The Blugolds ended up throwing 37 shots on net, but Koenig turned all of them away, preserving the 2-0 shutout37 away, preserving the 2-0 win.

“They shot the puck from everywhere, and had the advantage on the power play. They didn’t mess around. I thought they outplayed us and had the advantage if you look at the whole night. I think if they had scored a goal the whole complexion of that game changes.”

On the weekend, Koenig turned in 104:37 of shutout hockey and stopped all 66 shots he faced.

“He kept things pretty simple and didn’t have a lot of rebounds,” observed Watkins. “We did a good job of letting him see the shot and he did a great job of taking away the angles.”

He continued, “He probably had the best weekend he’s ever had for us, and he made it look relatively easy.”

The weekend amounted to a huge boost for the Blue Devils as a 1-3 start would have been bad, and a 0-4 start disastrous.

“We needed those,” confessed Watkins. “Like I said one would have been great and two was awesome. We might have actually stolen both of those. We maybe got a little bit lucky, but I think it helps over the next couple of weeks as it should keep us working hard in practice.”

And work hard the Blue Devils must as this week they welcome none other than St. Norbert to town. Welcome to the NCHA.

Saints Surge

Last weekend marked the first of what will be an annual four -team Thanksgiving tournament.

This year’s field included was comprised of St. Norbert, St. Scholastica, Lawrence and Oswego, with inaugural hosting duties falling on St. Norbert. Every school except Oswego will rotate hosting duties, with St. Scholastica having the honor hosting next season. The fourth team is yet to be announced for next season, but hopes are that another Eastern team can be found to round out the field.

St. Scholastica head coach Mark Wick was pleased with the first installment.

“It was a nice event,” Wick said. “It was fun and I thought the format was nice. We got a chance to play a team we hadn’t played before in Lawrence, and then playing Oswego was something we were really looking forward to because of its reputation.”

It was not a true tournament as all four match ups were pre-determined, and the featured game matchup was the Friday night contest between then No.3 St. Norbert and No.6 Oswego, a rematch of the hotly contested 2007 NCAA semifinal Quarterfinal that the Lakers won 4-3 in overtime.

The game lived up to expectations, but unfortunately for St. Norbert the Lakers once again prevailed, 4-3, after jumping out to a 4-1 lead after two periods and holding off a furious third period rally by the Green Knights.

The Green Knights rebounded in the Saturday nightcap with a 4-0 win over Lawrence and finished 1-1 in the tournament. Somewhat surprisingly, the only team to finish the weekend 2-0 was St. Scholastica.

The Saints opened the tournament with a Friday afternoon meeting with Lawrence, and though many expected the Saints to roll, the Vikings were game and the Saints barely escaped with a 4-3 overtime win.

“Lawrence did exactly what we thought they were going to do,” said Wick. “We knew they were going to battle and compete. They play awfully hard and make you work hard for everything. [Lawrence head coach] Mike [Szkodzinski] has done a great job there and they definitely are going to be an interesting team to watch in the second half.”

Lawrence outshot St. Scholastica 32-28 on the afternoon, and though the Saints led 2-0 after the first period they were unable to put the Vikings away.

“We got up 2-0 and had the chance to maybe try putting them away in the second period and we didn’t do it. We attempted 18 shots that period and missed the net on 12 of them, so that was frustrating.”

The Saints held a 3-2 lead late in the third, but for the second time this season allowed an extra-attacker goal in the final minute. They rebounded quickly, however, and overtime lasted all of 20 seconds as Saints’ forward Jeremy Dawes ended things in a hurry.

“We were fortunate to get a turnover and make a play in overtime,” said Wick, who couldn’t help but find a little humor in another wild finish, something the Saints seem to have a penchant for.

“I told the guys after the game, ‘Hey, why not try to make it a little easier on me?’”

On Saturday, the Saints once again took the ice in the early game, but this time the opponent was the same Oswego team that had impressively dumped St. Norbert the night before.

Wick saw some similarities between Oswego and many of the NCHA teams the Saints face on a weekly basis.

“Oswego is a very strong team and a very skilled team and is very well-coached. I think if you had thrown a NCHA jersey on them this weekend both games would have looked just like an NCHA game. I expect Oswego to be a top team in the country come the end of the year.”

The game was a very evenly contended contest, and though the Lakers outshot the Saints 8-5 in the first period it ended scoreless at 0-0.

What looked like it would be a dogged defensive affair, something the Saints are used to, quickly turned into a shootout in the second period however, as the teams combined for nine goals. Each team notched two powerplay goals in the frame, and when the period was finally over the Saints were up 5-4. They actually trailed 3-2 and 4-3, but two goals in the final 2:30 of the period secured the lead.

Speaking to the Saints ability to come back in games, Wick said, “I think that this group has shown that they never quit. When they do dig a hole they are going to fight to get out of it. It’s a credit to them and to some of the leadership on this team.”

Nonetheless, he couldn’t recall ever being part of a nine-goal period before.

“It was interesting. There weren’t really any wild plays or big mistakes. I think there were some good plays but the period was pretty bizarre. I was watching the game tape the other day and I think every other faceoff that period was at center ice.”

Oswego outshot the Saints 11-6 in the third period, but was unable to beat Saints’ goaltender Steve Bounds and the 5-4 score held up. The most impressive aspect of the period was the Saints’ pressure in the final two minutes, as they kept the puck in the Oswego end and never conceded the Lakers an opportunity to pull goaltender Chris Hyk.

“Compared to Friday, I thought we played very well in the last minute and a half. We were very aggressive on the forecheck and our best defense became keeping play in the Oswego end,” explained Wick.

The Saints have now won three in a row and four out of five and stand at 7-3-1 on the season. The momentum from last weekend, particularly from a win over an Eastern giant like Oswego, could pay big dividends as the Saints face an extremely difficult weekend this week with games at Eau Claire and Stevens Point.

“Hopefully it will be a benefit for us,” said Wick. “We’ll find out this weekend whether or not we can build off it. We certainly hope it’s going to give us a lot of momentum, but I really don’t know.”

He then jokingly added, true to form, “In this league you never know. Maybe you should just call me Monday and let me know whether we were able to build off it or not.”