Jockeying For Position
Looking back on the first half of the MIAC season, one thing has become clear: reports of the conferenceâ€™s immense depth have not been exaggerated.
Last Saturday, all four conference match-ups went into overtime, and St. Maryâ€™s was the only team in the conference to not come away with at least one point from the weekend. Halfway through league play, three teams sit atop the MIAC standings with undefeated conference records.
All three, last yearâ€™s regular season champion Hamline, perennial power and 07-08 tournament champion St. Thomas, and the surprising St. Olaf Oles control their own destiny as teams head into the break. These three squads have yet to engage on the ice, meaning the battle for the top two playoff spots and home ice in the playoffs will be fierce.
Currently sitting in a tie for fourth place are the Bethel Royals and Gustavus Adolphus Gusties. Both are just two points back of the second place Pipers and a single point back of the Tommies, but those margins are deceiving as the Royals and Gusties have played two more MIAC games due to the unbalanced league schedule.
Even Augsburg finds themselves unlikely contenders to sneak into the playoffs, matching the fourth place teamsâ€™ winning percentage with two fewer games played. All of the Auggiesâ€™ wins came in the second half last season, and they already have a sweep over the Royals on their rÃ©sumÃ© this season. With just seven games under their belts thus far, the Auggies will take to the road over break to try and gain the experience to help the team pick up games in the standings — in January and beyond.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment after the first half of league play has been the St. Johnâ€™s Johnnies. After winning the first round MIAC playoff game last year, the Johnnies have fallen off the radar, winning just once in their first 10 games against NCHA basement-dweller Lake Forest.
A tie on the road at St. Thomas Saturday followed by a non-conference series against Concordia may be what this team needs to jump start their season. However, it is apparent the January contest against Adrian will not be the showcase many in the Division III community were hoping for.
The aforementioned Concordia Cobbers have yet to notch a victory in league play, but the teamâ€™s two ties have ensured the team exceeds its solitary point in league play from last season. And while the Cobbers have the same number of wins overall (one) as they did all of last year, two of this yearâ€™s losses have come in overtime on the road. The program is taking steps forward, no matter how small.
St. Maryâ€™s also has just one victory on the season — against the Cobbers. As expected, the Cardinals have struggled early on this year, but an overtime loss to Hamline may bring cause for hope. However, the Cardinals will spend over a month off the ice after that loss, and will likely find they will be attempting to retool in the second half.
In a typical week, 480 minutes of hockey will be played in MIAC games.
But last weekend saw almost a full extra period played as five of the eight MIAC games couldnâ€™t be decided in the regulation 60 minutes. One series, Gustavus Adolphus and Bethel — the teams currently tied for fourth in the MIAC standings — went to overtime twice, with each team netting an overtime winner for the victory.
On Friday, it was a goaltender battle as two top netminders went head-to-head. Josh Swartout picked up the victory, allowing just one goal on 18 shots, while Aaron Damjanovich for Bethel picked up the loss despite making 37 saves. David Martinson scored the game winner, his 11th of the year, 3:16 into the extra frame.
Matthew Lopes got the call for the Gusties on Saturday, however, and this time it was Damjanovich getting the victory as Brad Peterson put it past the Gustavus senior just 24 seconds into overtime. The split, combined with the teamsâ€™ equal standing, could make for an interesting ride when itâ€™s time to seed the playoffs.
Elliot Okland made 55 saves against the number one team in the MIAC to earn the Cobbers one point against the Oles. Okland averaged two goals against on the weekend.
Hamline was able to sweep St. Maryâ€™s, although it took two goaltenders and an extra 1:21 to earn the win on Saturday. Matt Wanvig was pulled after allowing five goals on 18 shots through two periods, and freshman Beau Christian earned the victory after allowing just one goal in the third when Brian Arrigoni put his seventh goal of the season in net.
St. Maryâ€™s starting goaltender Greg Moore was relieved after allowing four goals on 16 shots in the first period. Scott Pederson allowed three goals on 27 shots for the remainder of the game.
After winning 7-3 on the road Friday night, St. Thomas was unable to secure a second straight win against St. Johnâ€™s at home on Saturday, settling for a 2-2 tie.
â€œIâ€™ve got to give St. Johnâ€™s some credit,â€ Tommies coach Terry Skrypek said. â€œThey made some adjustments and they played smarter and better on Saturday than they did on Friday night.â€
Jake Hippâ€™s power-play goal at 15:08 of the second period — just seconds after the first of two St. Thomas penalties had expired — pulled the Johnnies even and St. Johnâ€™s never trailed again.
â€œWe missed some opportunities to score on some chances that we had also,â€ Skrypek added, noting that his team has struggled all year to replace the production lost with the teamâ€™s three top scorers graduating.
Rob Johnson, who tied the game up at 11:33 of the third with his eighth goal of the season, was one player Skrypek singled out as an effective offensive force.
Sophomore goaltender Sean Deichert, from Fargo, North Dakota, was tapped to start both games of the weekend. Deichert did not play all last season as Tyler Chestnut carried the Tommies to the MIAC title.
However, Skrypek noted several concerns regarding Chestnut this season, most prominently lingering injury concerns, that has led the coach to ride the hot hand of Deichert.
The sophomore has eclipsed Chestnut in both goals against average (3.10 to 3.35) and save percentage (.868 to .853), while securing just as many wins in two fewer games. The break appears to be coming at just the right time for the players between the pipes at St. Thomas.
One of the marquee events of the entire Division III calendar is the Primelink Shootout, a Thanksgiving tournament that features perennial powerhouses Plattsburgh from the SUNYAC, Norwich from the ECAC East, and Middlebury from the NESCAC.
In recent years, the Primelink had rotated a fourth team in the tournament from the Western region. This year, St. Thomas made the trek to Middlebury, Vermont to take on these top tier teams.
â€œI think that of the four teams out there, any one of them could have won that tournament,â€ Tommiesâ€™ coach Terry Skrypek said.
In the first game, St. Thomas faced off against the host Panthers. The Tommies had taken a 3-1 lead with just under a minute and a half left in the second period when Parker Burgess was whistled for contact to the head and sent to the box. It took Middlebury just 11 seconds to score on the ensuing power play.
â€œ[It was] a dumb penalty, a stupid penalty that just killed us,â€ Skrypek said. â€œThey score on a power play and all of a sudden they take all the momentum. Even with that, we had some great opportunities, we hit a cross bar, [and] we out-shot both teams, Middlebury and Plattsburgh.â€
The Panthers scored on Chestnut three times in the third period to take the victory Friday, despite being out shot 26 to 19.
Skrypek would later admit it was a game Chestnut probably should not have started, and the sophomore Sean Deichert would get the nod the next afternoon against the top-ranked Plattsburgh Cardinals.
â€œIf I had to single out one thing, it was that we didnâ€™t get great goaltending. It wasnâ€™t up to par to what they had. I think that was the difference in the two games,â€ Skrypek said.
Bryan Hince made 32 saves in the Cardinals 5-3 win (with an empty netter) on Saturday, leading to a tough weekend for the Tommies.
â€œIt was a disappointment,â€ admitted Skrypek. â€œBut yet, it also let us know that we can compete on the national level, that weâ€™re just as good as the teams that are at the top.â€
Itâ€™s the type of confidence that St. Thomas will carry into the second half of the season. If they can add a top-notch goaltender back into the mix, they will be a dangerous squad in the second half.