Well, finally back from holiday break, though a week later than anticipated. My apologies for my absence last week but a couple unexpected trips to the doctor are never convenient.
All is well now, and though itâ€™s been awhile not a whole lot has changed on the national scene.
The NCHA still has five teams in the top 15 of the USCHO.com Division III menâ€™s poll and is still stalked by second ranked University of Wisconsin-Superior. The 15-1-1 Yellowjackets continue to roll along and now claim five first place votes.
St. Norbert and St. Scholastica loom right behind Superior at third and fourth, respectively, while Stout checks in at No. 7. UW-Stevens Point re-enters the poll after a brief absence and resides at No. 13.
The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire is also receiving votes but remains just out of the top 15.
As has been the case all season, Adrian remains the lone MCHA team receiving votes, and appears to be permanently cemented at No. 8.
This weekendâ€™s meetings between travel partners will mark the halfway point of the NCHA season, and though the league standings are all jammed up as expected, there is a little bit of interesting stratification.
Superior has been red-hot and stands at 6-0, but must face 4-2 St. Scholastica this weekend. St. Norbert and Stout are also 4-2; the Green Knights draw Lake Forest this weekend while the Blue Devils face a road date with their resurgent rival, 2-4 River Falls.
Wrapping up the schedule is Stevens Point traveling to Eau Claire. Both are 2-4 and Saturdayâ€™s meeting will likely prove critical if either wishes to make a run at the top half of the league.
The Superior-St. Scholastica meeting is one that could be discussed ad nausea, but itâ€™s on the back-burner for now as the two should provide plenty to talk about next week.
Instead, letâ€™s take a look at two teams in the bottom half of the league that have yet to be discussed this season: Stevens Point and River Falls.
The two got off to quite contrasting starts to the season. The Pointers opened 5-0 and 8-2 and currently stand at 11-5-1 overall, largely on the strength of an extremely impressive 9-1-1 non-conference record. Meanwhile, the Falcons surprisingly struggled early, starting 1-6-1, but have won seven of eight and five straight to earn an 8-7-1 overall mark.
Regardless of the road each took to this point, they both carry 2-4 league records into the weekend and have their eyes set on the top half of the league. As an NCAA Pool C bid is quite unlikely for either, itâ€™s NCHA crown or bust.
Perhaps the most surprising element in play was the slow start of River Falls. A permanent fixture in the top half of the league over the past 15 years, 1-6-1 is not a record anyone is used to seeing tacked up next to the Falcons, though it might not have been wholly unexpected with 11 or 12 new faces in the lineup on a nightly basis.
â€œI think obviously we had a big turnover of players, especially in losing the three All-Americans,â€ said Falconsâ€™ head coach Steve Freeman. â€œWe thought we could bring in a good freshman class and they could step in right away, but there was a little adjustment period.â€
He added, â€œIt was a tough transition for some of these guys with the way we play and the philosophy of our program, and especially when it comes to understanding the style of the NCHA.â€
As mentioned, the Pointers jumped off to a much stronger start than the Falcons, despite losing their top two scorers from a year ago. Well on pace to outscore last yearâ€™s team, the Pointers appeared to find the perfect mix this season, having only scored 10 less goals to date than they did all of last season.
â€œI think we more than replaced them with guys like [freshmen] Jon Madden, Luke Nesper and Travis Erstad,â€ said Stevens Point head coach Wil Nichol. â€œAdd in that everyone who has returned has a year playing together and playing for me and that we have a great senior class, and I think weâ€™ve been able to create some good balance in a short period of time and itâ€™s created some depth.â€
Despite the optimism in the Point camp, no one can forget the way they faded down the stretch last season, eventually succumbing to Stout in a two game opening round playoff sweep.
â€œI think that was my fault,â€ explained Nichol. â€œI was a young coach and I think I pushed the guys too hard and we got tired. I donâ€™t think we had the same jump at that time. Looking back on it I take a lot of the blame as far as not keeping the guys fresh.â€
With the Pointers looking to stay fresh this time around, the Falcons are focused on keeping the ball rolling. And why not, considering they have won seven of eight?
â€œIt was just a matter of us having to acclimate so many new players into our program at one time. We didnâ€™t have a lot of structure in our game early on,â€ said Freeman.
â€œOur young players are starting to play pretty well, and weâ€™re starting to get some secondary scoring. Weâ€™ve been getting some really good goaltending lately, too, so hopefully itâ€™s something that we can carry over.â€
As solid goaltending is a must for any late season push, both fare well in that regard. Sophomore Thomas Speer excelled as a freshman last year, but a bout with mono has opened the door for senior Marcus Paulson. Paulson is undefeated on the season, ranks among the Pointersâ€™ all-time leaders in minutes played, and is coming off an impressive shutout of Hamline.
â€œItâ€™s hard to take Marcus out right now,â€ explained Nichol. â€œWe are winning with him in net. Thomas is back 100% this week, though, so what is it, January 14 and we finally have a fully healthy roster? To have Thomas back and Marcus probably playing the best he has in his career, itâ€™s nice. Nonetheless, itâ€™s tough to change [anything] when youâ€™re winning.â€
River Falls bounced back and forth between junior Stephen Ritter and sophomore Bo Storozuk early, but seem to have settled on Ritter according to Freeman.
â€œWe felt pretty good about both these guys,â€ he said, â€œbut wanted to give one of these guys a little more playing time and the opportunity to gain a little confidence and Ritter has really stepped up to the plate right now.â€
Though the paths each team took to this point are dramatically different, all that matters now is they are tied for third (or seventh) in the league depending on the way one wishes to look at it. Perhaps the best vantage point is that both teams are currently four points back of playoff home ice. One interesting factoid is that of the eight conference games remaining, both have five on the road.
â€œI donâ€™t want to just give you a sound bite or anything, but for now we really just have to worry about going into Hobbs on Saturday. Itâ€™s been a long time since Point has gone in there and won, and they are very, very good,â€ said Nichol. â€œWe have to worry about the immediate, and not try to win eight games in a row. Just go out and win one.â€
Freeman had similar sentiments, stating, â€œâ€œWith our hockey team weâ€™re just trying to worry about ourselves and take one thing at a time, but with us we are going to have to learn to play on the road against some great hockey teams. I think our future is really bright and we can get something going here at the end, but we have to play some tough veteran hockey teams.â€
Platitudes, perhaps, but if there is a place more apropos for them than the NCHA no one has ever laid eyes on it. Attempts at analysis by many have proved fruitless, and the return of the NCHA conference schedule is a welcome sight for all of those anxious to see how this shakes out, though perhaps none are more anxious than Stevens Point and River Falls.
Prior to the season, it was mentioned that the MCHA standings should be quite interesting to follow in lieu of the way the league handles playoff seeding.
As a refresher, the league is broken into North and South divisions. Northland, Crookston, Finlandia and Lawrence are in the North; MSOE, Adrian, Marian and Concordia-WI the South. Teams play opponents within their division four times each, and teams from the opposite division only twice. The winners of each division automatically receive the top two playoff seeds.
Prior to the season, the South appeared to be the stronger league on paper, and with Adrian the clear league favorite, Lawrence and Finlandia were projected to battle it out for the North Division crown, and second playoff seed.
For once, things are shaping up as expected. Lawrence and Finlandia are atop the North, with the 7-3 Vikings holding a one game lead on the 6-4 Lions. This is the inverse from a week ago as the Vikings went on the road and swept the Lions last weekend.
In Fridayâ€™s opener, Chris Hendrickson put the Lions up 1-0 early in the second, but the Vikingsâ€™ Jameson Raymond tied the game less than five minutes later.
The Vikings went up 2-1 just past the midpoint of the period on a Matt Jacobs goal, and Jacobs would tally again in the third to make it 3-1 which it remained until the final horn, in large part due to Lawrence freshman goaltender Evan Johnson who stopped 30 of 31 shots.
Finlandia looked to draw the split on Saturday, and appeared to be well on its way after goals from Corey Blake and Hendrickson staked the Lions a 2-0 lead after two periods.
Once again, however, the Vikings came from behind as Marc Howe and Josh DeSmit tallied in the third to force overtime.
In overtime, a tie appeared inevitable until DeSmit struck at the last second — literally. The time of the game-winning goal was officially reported as 4:59.3 of overtime. Cutting it a bit close perhaps, but the goal completed the giant four point weekend for the Vikings. It was their first ever sweep of Finlandia.
It marked the second time this season Lawrence has won a game in the final 10 seconds.
For now, it also means the Vikings are in control of the MCHA North and the second playoff seed.
Looking ahead, the Vikingsâ€™ will finish the season with series against Concordia-WI, Marian, Crookston, and Northland. Meanwhile, the Lions close things out with Marian, MSOE, Northland and Crookston. And oh yeah, did I forget to mention the two will also meet in a two game set at Lawrence in the final weekend of the season?
The Vikings appear to have an easier road to the North division title. They face an identical schedule as Finlandia, except the Lions still face a series with MSOE while Lawrence draws Concordia-WI.
It is quite conceivable that the battle for the number two playoff seed will not be determined until the final weekend of the season. Itâ€™s also conceivable that the last meetings between the two will decide which one stays home and which one must hit the road for the quarterfinals.
Same Old Song and Dance
For the most part, I try to avoid editorializing on a routine basis. With two leagues and 16 teams to cover, it is hard enough to cram in everything I would like to on a weekly basis, which leaves me with little desire to start spewing forth my own opinions.
There are times, however, when I just canâ€™t take it any more.
As some of the more seasoned D-III followers are well aware, this usually happens in regards to the potential MCHA AQ, the fact the NCAA tournament is not seeded properly, or that in the past decade the NCAA tournament field has evolved from its traditional 4-4 East/West split to now routinely saunter out a 7-3 split in favor of the East.
Amazingly, none of those are on the agenda this time around. What is are some of the late-game antics in Adrianâ€™s 5-2 victory at St. Johnâ€™s two weeks ago.
With less than two minutes to play in the game, the Bulldogs were whistled for a slashing penalty. Once the play was whistled dead, a minor brew-ha-ha ensued that resulted in six double minors and one misconduct being handed out. Nothing we havenâ€™t all seen happen before.
Until, that is, the incident boiled over to the benches and St. Johnâ€™s made the reason for the temper escalation more than clear. And believe me it was clear, as all 150 fans in attendance could hear every word of it.
The Johnnies were overly displeased that Adrianâ€™s top line was still in the game with less than two minutes to play. Any thoughts to the contrary were quickly dispelled as the St. Johnâ€™s bench even requested Adrian put that line back on the ice so the Johnnies could go after their wrists. In the Johnniesâ€™ minds, it was an example of why Adrian has developed a â€œbad reputationâ€ — whatever that means.
Now, Iâ€™m not so foolish as to assume things donâ€™t get said in the heat of battle that people donâ€™t really mean, so donâ€™t view this as some sort of indictment directed at St. Johnâ€™s. After all, benches chirp each other all the time and most of the time everyoneâ€™s up for a beer afterwards. Never mind the fact nothing even resembling retaliatory action actually happened.
The fact remains, however, that it was a 5-2 game and the team leading rolled four lines all game long. Itâ€™s a situation seen in dozens of Division III games every week of the season. No news here, please move along.
What is important here has nothing to do with St. Johnâ€™s. The crux of the matter is that once again Adrian is involved and once again the issue of â€œclassâ€ managed to surface.
Canâ€™t we just give this a rest? Itâ€™s tired, itâ€™s old, and it contributes absolutely nothing. Perhaps I should also add itâ€™s horrifically ignorant.
Yes, the Bulldogs took the D-III world by storm last season, rolling up a 26-3 record in an admittedly weaker league. Yes, the Bulldogs had their share of overzealous fans and, yes, they had their share of overzealous detractors.
Canâ€™t we just step back and realize that, as always, the truth lies somewhere in-between the arguments of the two aforementioned groups?
How good are they? Weâ€™ll find out someday as Adrian settles into D-III for the long haul. Having watched the elite NCHA teams for a long time, Iâ€™ll divulge that my personal speculation is that they would be in the mix in the NCHA, which means they might be 6-0 or 2-4 right now.
In essence, that means they are a regular old good team. It took St. Norbert over a decade to prove to [i]everyone[/i] they are a [i]great[/i] team, so letâ€™s stop worrying about that angle when it comes to the Bulldogs and letâ€™s stop treating them like some sort of pariah. Someday theyâ€™ll get their chance on the big stage.
Until that day comes, how about we stop bickering over whether something like rolling four lines in a 5-2 win over a traditional power is some sort of aberration? Or perhaps we can stop acting like it is some sort of travesty that a team that goes 26-3 questions why they werenâ€™t in last seasonâ€™s NCAA tournament? Or maybe we can stop getting our collective undies in a bunch when the Bulldogs beat someone 9-0? These things occur every week and every year all over the nation, so put down the torches and pitchforks and devote more time to some of the other great things going on in the West.
Itâ€™s likely a suggestion that will die in vain, but itâ€™s high time everyone pulls Adrian out from under the microscope and treats them just like any other team, because thatâ€™s exactly what they are.