This Week in the NCHA/MCHA

A famous man named James Angleton once said something along the lines of, “Reality is not handed to us on a silver platter. Rather, we have to tease it with excruciating attention to minutiae. It takes the patience of a saint.”

Though he was talking about counterintelligence operations, he might as well have been describing efforts at ranking Division III hockey teams.

The impossibility of sorting out who is superior to who is no better evidenced than by this week’s USCHO.com Division III men’s poll. For the first time since early this season, six NCHA teams made their way into the top 15. Talk about a tough league to peg.

St. Scholastica held on to the second spot following a three point weekend, and the same goes for Superior who still rests at No. 3.

St. Norbert’s 1-1 weekend at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and UW-Stevens Point cost the Green Knights their first-place votes, but they remain firmly entrenched in the top 15 at No. 5.

UW-Stout held steady with two ties at UW-Superior and St. Scholastica, so it’s no surprise the Blue Devils fittingly held their spot at No. 7. University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point’s victory over St. Norbert moved the Pointers up a spot to No. 12, while Eau Claire finally climbed back into the realm of the ranked and sits at No. 14.

As usual, Adrian remained the lone MCHA team to be ranked, and once again found itself sitting in its customary eighth position.

99 Bottles of…Rubber on Net?

It’s not very often that an all-time NCAA Division III record gets broken. It’s even rarer that one gets completely obliterated, but that’s exactly what happened last Friday night at Northland.

Though the Lumberjacks came out on the short end of a 4-0 score against Adrian, sophomore goaltender Daniel McIntosh destroyed the NCAA Division III single game saves record by turning back an astounding 95 of 99 shots.

McIntosh’s performance easily bested the old record of 77, previously set by John Herud of Nichols in a meeting with Maine in the 1972-73 season. It also tops the Division I record which currently stands at 78.

While most saves in a game is perhaps not the record any player or team aims at setting, a congratulations is no doubt in order for McIntosh for turning away more shots in a single game than any men’s collegiate goaltender ever has. Well done.

Buzzer Beaters (Redux)

How foolish of me to think I got this out of the system in the previous column. Last week’s suggestion that all of the amazing finishes this season meant we might be set for quite a ride seems to have been accurate.

I also pointed out a seeming lack of ties this season, but the MCHA and NCHA were hard at work making up for that as the two leagues combined for four deadlocks last weekend.

In yet another thrilling finish, Stout forged a 2-2 tie at Superior on a Scott Motz goal with (shocker!) 27 seconds left in regulation.

Finlandia and MSOE tied, as did Lawrence and Marian.

Though all those ended even, the NCHA was privy to another dramatic finish as Stevens Point knocked off St. Norbert 2-1 in overtime.

An abundance of close games is something expected in both leagues this season, and not only have they delivered on that expectation, but the manner in which many have played out remains downright enthralling.

Perhaps one of these weeks I’ll run the numbers on margin of victory and see if these leagues really are tighter than ever, but for now I’m just going to sit back and enjoy the show. At this rate, there is plenty there to keep me busy.

Raiding and Pillaging

One team I haven’t checked in with this season is MSOE. Until now. The Raiders currently stand at 8-5-1 in MCHA play, four points ahead of Finlandia in the race for fourth place and right to host a home playoff series.

With MSOE mired in a battle for playoff home ice, head coach Mark Ostapina feels that having at least five teams in the league that can test each other on a routine basis is a boon for the MCHA.

“I think college hockey and the MCHA are coming to a very nice closure in terms of the way teams are capable of playing,” Ostapina said. “I think we’re close to the fact that on any given night anything that happen.”

Ostapina singled out one position that he firmly believes contributes to this competitiveness.

“If you have a hot goaltender, you can steal a game and I think there is excellent goaltending in this league which means anyone is capable of winning.”

The Raiders were plagued by injury last season, even suffering through one stretch where they only had 16 skaters available. Unfortunately, the injury bug struck again this season, most notably to a pair of forwards in sophomore Michael Soik and freshman Brock King.

“When you lose a guy like Michael Soik to injury, on top of [graduation] losses like Lee Swallow and Blair Hanberg, it really hurt us,” he said. “We weren’t struggling on our execution but we just weren’t finishing our chances.”

Soik paced MSOE with 20 goals a year ago, but his injury caused him to miss 10 games in the middle portion of the season. With Soik and King back healthy the Raiders look to improve on an offense that struggled early in the season.

“We’re very pleased we’re getting some people back from injury,” explained Ostapina. “Getting everyone back and into game shape is a big plus for us, and we’re hoping to piggyback that with some of the momentum we’ve established and can hopefully carry it into the playoffs.”

MSOE has only tallied 59 goals on the season, just a touch over three per game. Thankfully for the Raiders, however, their defense has conceded only 46.

One of the main defensive strengths for the Raiders is the presence of senior captain Jason Woll on the blue line. Woll ranks second in total points for the Raiders this season with 16, but scoring is hardly the extent of his responsibilities.

“He’s having a great year,” observed Ostapina. “There is no doubt Jason is a horse. He’s logs tons of ice time 5-on5, power play, and on the penalty kill and his numbers show what a great year he’s having.”

The play of freshman netminder Connor Toomey has also played a major role in the Raiders stingy defense. Toomey has seen action in 17 games this season and has put up a 2.54 goals against average and a .908 save percentage. For the stretch run, sophomore goaltender Chris Keller has returned to the lineup and notched a couple of wins in his own right. If the Raiders have any concerns at this point, who is protecting the goal is not one of them.

“Toomey is the number one guy, but we’re in a situation where we are trying to get both guys prepared for the playoffs,” Ostapina said. “We feel very comfortable with both in net though so now it’s about gearing the goalies and the team for the playoffs.”

If the playoffs started today, the Raiders would be hosting Finlandia in the quarterfinals. Before solidifying home ice, however, they must face a tough stretch to close as after a series with Concordia-WI this weekend, they face off against Adrian and Marian, with three of four those four games coming on the road.

“We love the challenge that’s going to be upon us and I think as a team we relish it,” Ostapina said. “Whether home or on the road it’s a road warrior mentality and we go forth and try to answer the challenge.”

One of the teams MSOE is chasing when it comes to playoff positioning is Lawrence. The Vikings went 10-9-1 in the MCHA last season, but should no doubt improve that mark as they currently sit at 9-4-1, just two points back of Marian for second.

Much like Ostapina, Szkodzinski is impressed with the overall competitiveness of the league.

“Marian, MSOE, Finlandia and Adrian have all shown great improvements from last year,” Szkodzinski said. “Even Concordia has shown a lot of improvement in just a year. I think that bodes well for the future of our league. It’s exciting to be on the bench and watch how the level of play has risen.”

The Vikings are a mix of young and old, and are paced in scoring by two upperclassmen: Senior Nick Jennette (eight goals, 10 assists, 18 points) and junior Marc Howe (10-6-16). Right behind those two is a pair of freshman in Matt Hughes (5-6-11) and Jameson Raymond (2-9-11).

“Honestly it’s been a little bit of a surprise to be in the position we are in at this time,” said Vikings’ head coach Mike Szkodzinski. “I think whenever you try to infuse so many new faces into a group there is a bit of an adjustment period and for us I think adjustment has happened more quickly than we expected.”

With a six point lead on Finlandia in the MCHA North Division, Lawrence looks to be in fine shape to land the second seed for the MCHA playoffs, though Szkodzinski insists that is not something the Vikings are overly concerned with.

“Our sole focus has been game-to-game,” he said. “At the beginning of the year we did not set numerical goals for ourselves. I can honestly say that from the beginning of the year our guys have bought into that and routinely demonstrated to me how they have been getting better each and every day.”

The Vikings have been a bit up-and-down as of late. After rolling off six straight conference wins, they suffered a disappointing non-conference loss at Bethel before only managing a tie in a key series with Marian last weekend.

Things don’t much get any easier this week as the Vikings hit the road and travel to Crookston. Despite the Golden Eagles fashioning a 3-11 record in league play, it is not a road trip the Vikings have had much success on recently.

“We have not won there in two years and we expect them to be a much more physical and aggressive team than they were when we played them earlier in the season…and we might not match up as well against that type of hockey,” explained Szkodzinski.

Lawrence did sweep Crookston at home by a combined score of 13-0 earlier in the season, but has not defeated Crookston on the road since January 2006.

“Coach Warren does a great job preparing their guys,” Szkodzinski said, “and with an 11 hour bus ride, the whole not sleeping in your own bed thing, and the fact it’s just a tough barn to play in they just have a great home ice advantage.”

If Lawrence wishes to continue its pattern of MCHA success this weekend, sophomore goaltender Evan Johnson will once again be relied upon.

“To be successful at any level of hockey you need a quality goaltender and there is no question Evan has upped the level of his play this season,” said Szkodzinski. “He wants to be the man in the net.”

Johnson is 9-7-1 on the season with 2.27 GAA and .917 save pct. He also has four shutouts. According to Szkodzinski, Johnson has been instrumental to the Vikings’ success this season.

“He’s not just doing it in the game. He’s doing it every single day in practice, he’s doing extra goalie work after practice, and he’s really working hard off the ice as well. His leading by example has been a great thing for our team to witness.”

“He’s kept a very calm demeanor as well and that impacts the other guys,” he added. “We’ve been in a lot of close games this year and unlike past years there has been no panic on our bench.”

As discussed here last week, the Vikings have been in their share of close finishes this year. With even more likely to come in the closing weeks, it should be interesting to see how well the Vikings can close it out.

Twin Ports, Twin Powers

There’s a little bit of the old and a little bit of the new going on in the NCHA.

The old: Superior’s very impressive season has continued into the second half as the Yellowjackets find themselves atop the NCHA at 7-1-1 in league, 16-2-2 overall. They are ranked third nationally. Stay tuned as next week I will profile a Yellowjackets team that has put together a phenomenal season thus far.

The new: St. Scholastica has continued its four year upswing and finally has made a major breakthrough this season. The Saints are second in the NCHA, two points back of Superior, and are 15-3-2 overall. Included in their wins is an impressive 7-2 victory over Superior in a recent meeting between the cross-harbor rivals.

St. Scholastica has largely the same players as last year but has managed to avoid the inconsistencies that plagued it all of last season. According to head coach Mark Wick, patience has finally paid off.

“I just think it’s the experience,” he said. “As a coach you push as much as you want to push but the one thing you can’t teach is experience. This year we have more juniors and seniors than we do freshman and sophomores and this is the first time we’ve had that since I’ve been here.”

He added: “It really does take time in this league, and if you look at the teams in this league that have been successful they are predominately junior and senior teams and that’s what we have now so I really think that’s a big part of it.”

With five scorers over 20 points but none over 24, a balanced offensive attack has paced the Saints thus far. Their overall goal production is up from a year ago as their 78 goals this season are only four shy of what they scored all of last year.

“I think some the guys we needed to get off to quick starts did and that kind of got the ball rolling,” said Wick. “Our depth is probably a strength there as well, as without having to rely on one line I think guys play a little looser and with more confidence.”

Prior to the season, I was talking to another NCHA coach and he commented on how if St. Scholastica found a goaltending solution early this season, they would be a force to be reckoned with. Quite prophetic words as senior netminder Steve Bounds has been lights out. His 1.98 GAA and .935 save pct. both are among tops in the nation.

“It’s obviously been a team effort, but [Bounds] has been as key of an ingredient as anybody,” explained Wick. “There are games in which he’s made a lot of saves and kept the other team from getting momentum. Some of them that ended up looking like fairly comfortable wins were not.”

Wick pointed to the win over Superior in which Bounds stopped 38 of 40 shots, a 3-0 victory over Hamline where he had 41 saves, and a 3-2 win at Augsburg that featured Bounds shutting down numerous breakaway opportunities.

With wins over Stevens Point, Eau Claire, Superior, Hamline, Gustavus Adolphus, St. Olaf, Stout and Oswego, the Saints résumé speaks for itself. Since beating Oswego on Thanksgiving weekend, the Saints are undefeated and — though that was about as quality of win as a team can have — Wick points to the weekend following the win over as Oswego as being especially critical to the Saints’ success.

“The Oswego game was big, but I actually think the next weekend was even more important. A lot of people thought that Oswego game was a huge win, but if we had gone out and gotten swept the next week at Eau Claire and Stevens Point, all of a sudden that win isn’t very important.”

The Saints did not get swept that following weekend. In fact, they were the ones who did the sweeping.

“By following that win up the next weekend on the road gave us a lot of confidence heading into the break,” Wick explained further, “To beat Oswego is of course a big win with their history and tradition, but I think that next weekend is what really completed it.”

Up next on the agenda for the Saints is a trip to Lake Forest on Friday, and although the Foresters are 0-9-0 in the NCHA this season, they present plenty of reasons to be wary — the most notable of which is their own goaltender: senior Scott Campbell.

“Lake Forest has frustrated us,” said Wick. “I think in the last three games against us Campbell’s save percentage is around 98%. We’re as concerned as much about that match-up as any other. They play us extremely tough.”

The Saints eked out a 1-0 home victory over the Foresters early in the season, but it was a game in which Campbell stopped 48 shots and kept the Saints off the board for over 56 minutes. Campbell turned in another stellar performance against the Saints late last season as he turned back 50 shots in a game Lake Forest won, 2-0.

Add in the 45 he stopped in the Saints 2-1 early season victory last year and Campbell has saved 143 of the last 146 shots the Saints have thrown at him — certainly enough to justify the Saints’ concerns.

If the Saints can get by the Foresters, they close out the season with four ranked opponents: St. Norbert, Eau Claire and Stevens Point, before ending the regular season with a much-anticipated rematch with Superior. Wick figures there is no reason to change course.

“The biggest thing in any of those games is to keep doing the things that have made us successful. Everyone we play has a little bit of a different game, so being able to play our game is ultimately what will get us to have the most success.”

Aside from the success on the ice, one other upshot in Duluth is the fan support the Saints have been receiving. They miraculously crammed 1,689 into Mars-Lakeview for the Superior game, many of whom were no doubt Yellowjacket fans, but also reeled in over 1,000 for last weekend’s Stout game. Those numbers are a far cry from what the Saints drew at the beginning of Wick’s tenure.

“Our fan support has been great. In fact, that night [against Superior] people were all over the place. I guess that one fan thought he found an open spot so he took it, but the problem was that it was in the goal judge’s booth. Our staff had to ask him to move but it was a great environment for the guys to play in.”

Back in February of 2006, when the Saints current crop of seniors were freshman, USCHO ran a feature feature on the Saints. In his second season at the time, Wick said the following regarding his desire for success at St. Scholastica:

â€ŔA lot of times, you take a job and people figure it’ll take three or four years. [We] aren’t that patient.”

It’s ironic that although it was not the original desire, patience is exactly what has led to the Saints being where they are today. It took a long four years, but with a very solid group of experienced upperclassmen and a senior goaltender that have seen it all by this point, maybe it’s no wonder they have finally put it all together and presently find themselves near the top of the national heap.

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