Welcome back for what will be this columnâ€™s final incarnation of 2008. As always, letâ€™s take a look at where NCHA and MCHA teams stand on the national scene, though not much changed this week.
Superior remains the highest ranked Western team, holding onto its No.2 position nationally and three first place votes after yet another 2-0 weekend.
St. Norbert holds on to the fourth spot despite dropping a 5-2 decision at Stout. Though the Green Knights didnâ€™t fall, the win was enough to move the Blue Devils up five spots to seventh. St. Scholastica follows the Blue Devils and checks in at No. 9 after also picking up a pair of wins. Stevens Point drops four spots following a 0-2 weekend, though both losses came to ranked teams. Eau Claire also fell to two nationally recognized squads, resulting in the pollsters dropping the Blugolds out of the top 15 as a result.
As usual, Adrian is the lone MCHA team receiving votes and once again shows up at No. 8.
As the holiday season is upon us and games are relatively sparse between now and January, letâ€™s take an abbreviated look at where the MCHA and NCHA currently stand. Additionally, Iâ€™ve finally caved in. Being a fan of the holiday season and also being in the giving sort of mood, I also figure it is finally time to dole out a few holiday presents to the MCHA and NCHA teams, something I resisted the past two seasons.
It could be argued that the season-to-date has largely been same ole-same ole for the MCHA. As discussed last week, the league has struggled in non-conference action but has certainly been competitive.
Though most of the MCHAâ€™s non-conference games have already been played, the second half will offer up a few more chances for the league to impress. Most notably, Adrian travels to St. Johnâ€™s in early January while MSOE has a home-and-home series with defending national champion St. Norbert.
In addition, Lawrence gets a crack at a Bethel club that Marian lost to by a goal before tying; Finlandia hosts two against ECACNE opponent Salve Regina; Crookston plays Stevens Point and Eau Claire; Northland travels to St. Scholastica; and Concordia-WI plays Lake Forest.
Certainly enough opportunities remain for the MCHA to stake its claim as a competitive conference.
Within the league itself, teams are just shy of the halfway mark and Adrian leads the way with a perfect 8-0. The Bulldogs are clear frontrunners as they have already picked up road sweeps at Marian and MSOE, two opponents expected to be among the Bulldogsâ€™ most difficult challengers. They also garnered a road sweep at Lawrence in the only games between the two in the regular season.
Finlandia and Marian both stand at 6-2, but have not played each other yet. The Lions two losses both came at the hands of Adrian, and they still have series with Lawrence, Marian and MSOE later in the year. The Sabres look to have a tougher remaining schedule as of now, still having to play MSOE four times, as well as Lawrence, Adrian and Finlandia twice each.
Lawrence stands alone in fourth at 5-3, and might have one of the more favorable schedules in the league. They will not see Adrian or MSOE again in the regular season, but do still have a series remaining with Marian. Aside from that, itâ€™s four against Finlandia, and two each with Concordia-WI, Northland and Crookston.
MSOE is holding down fifth at 3-4, but has a game in hand on all four teams above them. The Raiders have been playing some great hockey and are not a team to ignore. Their fate in the MCHA will likely not be decided until the final two weeks of the season when they travel to Adrian for a series and play a home-and-home with Marian.
Concordia-WI, Northland and Crookston are in a three-way tie at the bottom of the league, all having earned just two points thus far. Though anything is possible, itâ€™s unlikely the three will battle it out for anything other than the final three playoff seeds.
The most interesting thing in the second half of the season may very well be the battle for the No. 2 playoff seed.
With the league being broken into North and South divisions, the top two seeds are reserved for the champion of each. As Adrian is in control of the South, for now, all eyes fall on the North where it currently is a two horse race between Lawrence and Finlandia. Conveniently, the two still must play four times and actually end the season with a series in Lawrence. The North Division race is certainly worth keeping an eye on and just may develop into the prime MCHA storyline by the end of the season.
Changing gears . . . I hate to spill the beans, but letâ€™s just say Iâ€™m on good terms with Santa and he has tipped me off to a few of the items heâ€™ll be bringing MCHA teams this year. As I consider the jolly fellow a trustworthy source, here is what he told me:
Adrian: Love â€˜em or hate â€˜em, Santa doesnâ€™t care. What he does care about it is the Bulldogsâ€™ lack of consistency at times. He canâ€™t quite understand how they can fall down 6-2 to Potsdam only to roar back for a 6-6 tie, or how they can lose to Neumann one night and then stomp the second place ECACW team 10-1 the following day. He thinks the Bulldogs need to find a bit more consistency, and as that comes from focus and attention to detail, they get: a microscope.
Marian: After reading last weekâ€™s column, Santa saw it was clear Marian is on the brink but really needs something to get them over the hump. They are second in the league in scoring, second in goals allowed, and have been victim to some heartbreaking non-conference losses and ties. The writing is on the wall, or perhaps in the stars, for the Sabres, so to help them locate all of their stars and align them properly, they get: a sextant.
Finlandia: The Lions made a statement on behalf of the MCHA only a few short years ago. After dumping Superior in a non-conference game they went on to dethrone two-time defending champion MSOE in the Harris Cup Finals. Experience has been a strong suit for Finlandia the past few seasons, but with a host of new faces this season, things have changed.
Santa was up in Hancock recently and truly enjoyed the snow blowing down on him as he watched the game, but realized the Lions needed to capture that edge that made them a force in the past. As a result, he will be sending them: some 2006-07 Finlandia game tapes.
Lawrence: Itâ€™s been said before, but under third year coach Mike Szkodzinski the progress of the Vikings is undeniable. With a handful of upper class leaders and a boatload of younger talent, Santa realizes what the Vikings need is something to keep them focused on the direction they have already taken. Already in the top half of the MCHA and in contention for the No. 2 playoff seed, the Vikings are ahead of schedule. To keep them from deviating from this path, Santa has procured: 29 straight-jackets.
MSOE: Despite currently sitting at fifth in the MCHA, Santa has been impressed by the Raiders. He points to a recent tie with Superior and two one goal losses to Adrian to back this up. He also notes that like last season, the Raiders have fallen victim to some injuries, especially to some key players up front. They have the best defense in the MCHA, but the injuries have left them as the fifth ranked offense in the league — 12 goals back of Lawrence.
As Santa thinks MSOE will be a force if healthy, he wants to keep them held together for the time being and get them patched up for the second half. The Raiders get: a first-aid kit.
Concordia-WI: Though still in its fetal stages, the Falconsâ€™ program has made some strides, and this has not gone unnoticed. Santa pointed out the Falconsâ€™ are +15 in goal differential compared to this same time last season. He also noticed they allowed nine or more goals four times in their first 10 games last season, but have not allowed more than six in a game this year, and that only happened once. As the Falconsâ€™ clearly appear to be on the right track, they get: more train track.
Northland: Santa surprisingly admitted heâ€™s highly partial to Northland. He says he dropped by Ashland for a game last season and truly enjoyed the experience. He also admits that despite the Lumberjacks always playing solid, disciplined hockey, he wishes they could retain all of the talent they have been able to bring in. As Lake Superior is just a stoneâ€™s throw away, he wants to see talent come to Northland and stay at Northland as he thinks they deserve it. As a result, he went down to the local harbor to make sure no one is going anywhere. Northland gets: a pile of boat anchors.
Crookston: The Golden Eagles are once again mired in a battle for the bottom of the league. They have the least productive offense and the second-least effective defense in the league. Santa took a look back and thinks much of this is due to the massive roster turnover that occurs in Crookston each and every off season. As a result, he came up with a fine idea to help them out until they are able to find an identity. Hence, Crookston shall receive: a flat-bladed stick.
As the deepest league in the nation — convincingly validated by last seasonâ€™s seventh place finisher downing Oswego a few weeks ago — the NCHAâ€™s prowess this season has been expected.
Once again they have slapped the MIAC around in the Interlock and have had five or six teams in the USCHO.com top 15 nearly every week of the season. No matter how strong the league is, however, someone has to lose conference games and the league has taken on a few interesting twists thus far.
Namely, St. Norbert is not at the top. Instead, itâ€™s Superior who has been lights out. The Yellowjackets stand at 6-0, having taken down every team in the league aside from St. Scholastica, who they will meet twice later. Even more impressive is that they have largely done it on the road, winning at the University of Wisconsin quartet of Stout, River Falls, Eau Claire and Stevens Point.
The expected logjam rears its head behind Superior, however, as St. Norbert, St. Scholastica and Stout sit in a three way tie for second at 4-2.
The bottom half is shaping up to be no tiptoe through the tulips either as Eau Claire, Stevens Point and River Falls all have identical 2-4 records.
Lake Forest rounds out the league at 0-6, but it certainly isnâ€™t for lack of effort.
Like myself, Santa is astounded at the level of competition within the NCHA, and is resigned to sit back and watch things take course. However, he does plans on doling out a few items to help the league out in the second half and, as with the MCHA, was nice enough to let some information slide my way ahead of time.
Superior: Also like me, Santa is highly impressed by the Yellowjacketsâ€™ level of play this season. Itâ€™s tough to tell what they need at this point, as they are second in the league in scoring, first in defense, upperclassmen-laden and have a beast in goal.
After pondering the statistics, Santa decided they donâ€™t need anything aside from an item designed to keep them at the same pace and tempo they are already playing at. If they are able to do so, he expects them to make a deep NCHA, and perhaps NCAA, playoff run. To help the Yellowjackets to this end they get: a metronome.
St. Norbert: Santa is a bit surprised when it comes to not seeing the Green Knights on top, but he understands thatâ€™s the nature of the beast in the NCHA. He also understands some of this might be due to some trouble staying healthy. Injuries to a leading forward and two key defensemen can be tough to overcome in a league as tight as the NCHA. The Green Knights will be fine, and though they have a solid staff, a little healing magic is in order for the defending national champs so he tapped into Hogwarts and to St. Norbert will loan: Madam Pomfrey.
Stout: After a home 0-2 start to their NCHA season, the Blue Devils have rattled off four straight, beating St. Norbert 5-2 at home and sweeping nationally ranked Stevens Point and Eau Claire on the road. The last two weeks have been examples of what Santa was expecting from Stout all along. What he hopes is that the Blue Devils can put an earlier 2-4 stretch behind them and remember the way they have played on their current four game winning streak. To that end, they get: selective amnesia.
St. Scholastica: The Saints have finally put it together like many have been expecting for the last two years. They stand at 9-3-1, tied for second in the league, and have won six of seven. Included in those are victories over Stout, Oswego, Eau Claire and Stevens Point. Ironically, this experienced Saints squad has performed better on the road than at home over the past few seasons. With five conference home games in the second half, Santa decided to ignore the advice of his elves and turned to Mom. Doubting the players would complain much, he plans to deliver: some of mamaâ€™s home cookinâ€™.
Eau Claire: Like St. Scholastica and Stevens Point, the Blugolds were looking to be that team to make a jump into the top half of the league this season. They looked to be well on the way after a 7-1 start overall, but now sit at 2-4 in league after dropping three straight NCHA contests. Santa is a bit puzzled by the Blugolds as they have no discernable weaknesses and he figures they likely only need to focus a bit on the details. On top of that, he really wants to annoy me, so they get: a Canon f 2.8 70-200mm zoom lens with image stabilization.
Stevens Point: Since Wil Nichol took over the Pointers prior to last season they have certainly been on the upswing. The Pointer faithful no longer have to worry about traveling to St. Norbert only to witness a 9-2 shellacking. Instead, hard-fought defensive battles are on the agenda. The Pointers struggled with goal scoring down the stretch last season and Santa hopes last weekendâ€™s two goal output against Superior and St. Scholastica is not a sign of things to come. As Santa is a fan of comedy, he thought about giving the Pointers some fruitcake for brevityâ€™s sake, but instead decided on something with a little more firepower up front. The Pointers get: his reindeer.
River Falls: As one of the few teams with a lot of new faces in the NCHA this season, itâ€™s taken a little time for the Falcons to gel. After starting 1-6-1, they have won three of four and sit at the same place in the league as two other teams who jumped off to much quicker non-conference starts. Santa has been hanging out at Hunt Arena alot and is well-aware of the Falconsâ€™ talent, but he thinks they wonâ€™t be able to make a run unless they can put it all together, which they have been showing some signs of. To help them out, they get: a case of glue.
Lake Forest: Santa loves the Foresters, even though he finds it difficult to land the sleigh on the arched wooden roof of Alumni Memorial Rink. Insisting the logistical challenges will not deter him and also noticing that although the Foresters are 0-6 in NCHA play, four of those losses have come by a single goal, he wanted to find something to help them eke out the close ones. As goaltending isnâ€™t an issue he resorted to old faithful. The Foresters get: a rabbitâ€™s foot.
Iâ€™m assuming anyone who has made it to this point is here because they love Division III hockey. As I can truly admire a love so noble, I would like to wish all of you a great holiday season. Iâ€™ll be heading to California, but Iâ€™ll admit I hope all of you get to celebrate the season somewhere where beautifully lit spruce trees are graced with a freshly fallen snow. A palm tree with lights on it doesnâ€™t quite carry the same effect. Either way, I wish everyone the best of holiday seasons, safe travels, and swell times and good eats with family.
That being said, get it out of your system now because come January the dog days of the D-III season will be here, and it wouldnâ€™t be the same without you. See you then!