This Week in the NCHA/MCHA

With finally a full slate of NCHA and MCHA conference games once again on tap, there is little to do other than to cut to the chase and get on with the show.

The current version of the NCHA-MIAC Interlock has come to an end for the season, with the NCHA dominating the meetings. Overall, NCHA teams held a record of 42-15-2.

For the first time in over a month, the Western teams have shuffled around the USCHO.com Division IIImen’s national poll.

St. Scholastica’s 7-2 victory over then second ranked University of Wisconsin-Superior vaults the Saints up two spots to No. 2. The Saints also lay claim to four first place votes. The loss didn’t hurt the Yellowjackets much as despite losing its first place tallies, Superior only falls one spot to No. 3.

With 14 wins against only four losses, St. Norbert slides a spot down to No.4, but oddly picked up three first place votes in the process. Stout and Adrian follow at No.7 and No.8 respectively, and though the Bulldogs land in eighth yet again, they have slowly been closing in on the seven spot.

Stevens Point rounds out the field and holds at No. 13 after a tie with Eau Claire, while the Blugolds remain the first team out of the top 15.

Buzzer Beaters

When tallying up my predictions every week, I count a tie on the ice as a tie in my standings. This week I noticed I had all of six ties this year, a total that seemed inordinately low.

In fact, it piqued my curiosity enough that I took a look at last season’s January 18 column. Much to my surprise . . . all of eight ties at this point last season.

So much for thinking there hadn’t been as many ties this season, but along the way I noticed some wild finishes.

Lawrence seems to have a particular affinity for making the coach age a bit more rapidly than he should. In an early season series with MSOE, the Raiders claimed the opener 2-1 in overtime, but not until after being shutout for 59:55. Simon Labrosse-Gelinas netted an extra-attacker goal at 19:55 of the third period, and Steve Smiddy tallied the game winner with only 1:06 remaining in overtime.

Lawrence scored some payback the following night, winning 1-0 in equally dramatic fashion. The only scoring that night was a Ben DiMarco goal with all of eight seconds left in the game.

The Vikings also dropped a thriller to St. Scholastica in the St. Norbert Tournament. Lawrence evened things up as senior Nick Jennette buried an extra-attacker goal with 21 seconds to play, only to have the Saints’ Jeremy Dawes end the game 20 seconds into overtime.

How about Adrian’s season opening 6-6 tie with Potsdam? Down 6-2 after two periods the Bulldogs tallied four third period goals, the final of which came with 10 seconds to play to forge the draw.

Lake Forest got in on the act in a 3-2 overtime win over MSOE in which the Foresters scored with only 53 seconds remaining. They then repeated the effort in a 4-3 win at Concordia-MN by netting the winner with only 32 seconds left in overtime.

Not to be outdone is Superior in a 5-4 overtime win at Gustavus Adolphus. The script reads the same (with different actors): Talon Berlando scores in the final two minutes to tie it, Chris Wilson wins it in the final minute of OT. It was a similar story too in River Falls in a match-up with Marian. Marian tallied the extra-attacker goal in the final minute of regulation, only to watch the Falcons skate away with the win in, yup, the final minute of overtime. The Falcons also have an overtime win at St. John’s to their credit.

Of course, who can forget the early season match-up between St. Scholastica and St. Thomas? Though it ended in a seemingly mundane 3-3 tie, the short version goes as follows: late in the third period, a 46 second span encompassed two comebacks, two ties, a lead change, two timeouts, three total goals, and an extra-attacker goal by each team.

Finally, checking in from the ridiculous category, two games have been won in the final second. On January 10, Lawrence was at it again as the Vikings defeated Finlandia 3-2 in overtime. Time of the goal? 4:59.30. Not to be outdone, just last weekend St. Mary’s defeated River Falls 2-1, notching the game-winning goal at 4:59 of the extra frame. That happening once a season is remarkable, twice in a week is indescribable.

What does this all mean? The quest for deeper meaning unearthed nothing, but it certainly shows that MCHA and NCHA teams have been involved in some real barnburners this season. Not that this was necessarily unexpected, but some of these endings have been over the top. Either way, this pattern of dramatic endings bodes well for the fans that will be heading out to the rinks over the course of the next two months. The rest of the season might be hard on the nerves, but if these dramatic finishes are any indication it should be plenty high on drama.

MCHA Musings

The original intention this week was a blowout on the MCHA playoff race, but I have elected to hold off a week. Here’s why:

It was only a few years ago that the MCHA was incredibly top heavy. And by top heavy I mean only one, or maybe two, teams that were expected to compete for the league championship.

Crookston reigned for a few years, and then MSOE rattled off a three-peat that was not completely unexpected. The Raiders were finally dethroned by Finlandia in the conference playoffs and then along came Adrian last year.

The Bulldogs, coming off MCHA regular season and playoff championships, entered this season as clear favorites and why not, considering they returned everyone from a year ago?

At 12-0 in conference play, Adrian is six points clear of the league and look to be in fine shape to repeat as regular season champions, especially as its remaining series with Marian and MSOE will be played in Adrian.

While the fact there is a clear conference favorite is nothing new, what is new is the intensity of the race from positions two through five.

Lawrence and Marian are currently tied for second place with identical 9-3 records and 18 points. Naturally, the two square off this weekend in a home-and-home series in which a sweep for either would give them the clear inside track on second place. A sweep by Marian would be especially significant as after this weekend the Sabres still face MSOE and Adrian twice, while the Vikings toughest remaining series is a home set with Finlandia.

Speaking of the Lions, up until last weekend Finlandia had been clinging to fourth place in the conference, but a sweep at the hands of Lawrence and a MSOE sweep of Northland moved the Raiders into fourth place for the time being — albeit only two points ahead of the Lions.

The two also conveniently meet this weekend, and as is the case for Marian, a MSOE sweep might prove critical if the Raiders wish to land home ice for the conference quarterfinals because also like Marian, the Raiders wrap up with a more challenging schedule than Finlandia does.

With two teams locked in a battle for second and two more for fourth and both pairs squaring off this weekend it’s probably a wise move to sit back and see what happens.

Both should be fantastic series, the potential results of which offer up a myriad of potential possibilities for the MCHA standings come Monday. The league could become even more stratified or even tighter than it already is.

It’s up to the teams to settle it out on the ice, so stay tuned for an in-depth look at the MCHA race next week.

Back Seat, Sort Of

It’s somewhat difficult to imagine that a team that is 14-4 overall and 5-2 in the NCHA can have some people wondering what is “wrong” with the team this year. That’s what happens, however, when you are the St. Norbert Green Knights, are coming off a one loss national championship season, and have lost only 16 games combined in the previous five seasons.

As opposed to last season when the Green Knights clawed their way to an unprecedented 13-0-1 NCHA record, they currently find themselves deadlocked in a three way tie for second place with Stout and St. Scholastica, two points back of Superior.

Though St. Norbert has set its own bar ludicrously high, its current position is somewhat expected according to head coach Tim Coghlin.

“To be honest we’re not surprised,” he said. “We thought coming into this season that it would be very different and it has been different. We’re finding ourselves in one goal games and sometimes we are coming out on the losing end, so that is a bit different.”

The Green Knights excelled in one goal contests last season, posting a remarkable 8-0 record in single tally affairs. So far this season, they are only 3-3 in games decided by a single goal.

Two years ago, the Green Knights received numerous clutch goals from Troy Boisjoli, and last year Marc Belanger routinely came through in crunch time. Junior forward A.J. Gale has been a goal scoring machine and leads the team with 19 markers, but the Green Knights have yet to find someone with a similar knack for finding the score sheet late in close games.

“We’re not a team that’s going to score six a night, but that’s ok because you don’t see anyone else in our league lighting the lamp at that rate this year,” explained Coghlin. “Our league is a very hard-nosed, tough-minded, defensive league and we’re going to see a lot of 4-3 and 3-2 games down the stretch. However it turns out hopefully we have some guys step up offensively and get us on the positive side of the ledger.”

Perhaps the biggest question for the Green Knights prior to this season was in net, where time was expected to be split between sophomores Blake Bashor and B.J. O’Brien.

The two have indeed split time evenly all season, and though some are of the impression goaltending has been a weak spot, the numbers don’t back that up. Bashor is 7-2 on the season with a 1.81 goals against average and .921 save percentage; O’Brien is also 7-2 with a 2.31 GAA and .912.

Not Kyle Jones-like numbers, but quite solid. Nonetheless, Coghlin suggests both have had their ups and downs.

“I think both their numbers are looking good but I also think both have given up soft goals at critical times that have gone on to cost us points in games. I don’t think we are a good enough team to spot someone two or three goals and then expect to come back.”

As of now, St. Norbert is expected to continue the two goalie rotation.

“If someone had solidified the job I would go in that direction, but I don’t know if that has been the case.”

The Green Knights did hit a bit of a rough patch in late November and early January, losing three out of four for the first time since the 2000-01 season, but some of the early season struggles can be attributed to injuries — especially on the blue line.

Senior Jon Skoog missed a majority of the first half of the season while sophomore Mike Bernardy saw ice time in one game before aggravating an injury and will be out the remainder of the season. Bernardy’s loss is significant as he was a key player on the St. Norbert second power-play unit.

Coghlin stated prior to the season he expected nine defensemen to get ice time early, but with Skoog back from injury and the homestretch looming, he feels the Green Knight’s defense is much closer to becoming the cohesive unit most expect from St. Norbert.

“Bottom line is that now I think we are in a situation where we are as healthy as we can be and are starting to gel a little bit,” said Coghlin. “The combination of our defensemen and goaltending tandem is very important as we need continuity and consistency. Everyone needs to understand where that shot is going to come from. For example, which one are we going to give up and which one are we going to take away.”

Like most NCHA teams, the Green Knights face a proverbial murderer’s row to close out the season. One thing that might work in their favor, however, is that after traveling to Eau Claire and Stevens Point this weekend they get Superior, St. Scholastica, River Falls and Stout at home.

“Last year we had our final five games on the road and knew that how we did in those was going to be a determining factor in our season. Though we are at home this season, I think that final stretch is once again going to be very important, especially since it’s taken us a little longer to solidify things this season.”

As if the NCHA didn’t have enough good storylines, St. Norbert — unlike in many other campaigns — is not fully in control of its own destiny. Will it win the league? Maybe, maybe not. But be assured that a bet against the Green Knights remains an awfully tough one to take.

Up Next Week

A trip to the Twin Ports and a MCHA Extravaganza….

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