This Week in MIAC

The Playoff Push

Only three things are assured in life: death, taxes, and a close race among the top teams in the MIAC. Year after year, teams battle it out not just to slide into the bottom half of the playoff ladder, but for crucial positioning at the top that can be the difference between zero, one, or two home games in the playoffs.

The MIAC’s five team playoff structure means there are essentially two playoff races every year. The first is the crucial battle to finish in the top five and secure the right to keep playing after the regular season. Then is to grab one of the top two seeds, ensuring a team’s semifinal contest will be played at its home rink; finally, securing the top overall seed and home ice through the championship game is a most welcome feat.

In many seasons, even this early in the playoff chase, teams at the top are well-defined and the fight lies among those teams in the middle of the conference attempting to slide into the playoffs. This season could not be more different as the top five teams seem to be a known quantity, and the struggle lies in playoff positioning.

When asked what the difference between the second seed (and a semifinal home game) and the third seed (traveling on the road for the semifinals) is, Hamline’s Scott Bell replied with one of the more honest statements you’ll hear from a coach.

“I don’t know,” Bell laughed, “cause last year was Hamline’s first time in the playoffs in 26 years.”

But winning is the goal for every team down the stretch. Once a team is in the tournament, no matter where they are seeded or what the difference is, that team has a chance to bring home the title and the trip to the big dance. Bell’s Pipers sit in third place in the MIAC standings, two points behind Gustavus Adolphus. But with the league’s unbalanced schedule, the Gusties have skated twice more in conference play than either Hamline or St. Olaf, which currently sits atop the league with 17 points, one ahead of Gustavus.

But the battle for the second seed (and guaranteed home playoff game) will be fierce, as perennial power St. Thomas has 13 points, and like Hamline, has the advantage of playing two more games than Gustavus. The Bethel Royals hold down that final spot, but precariously. With 12 points in 12 games, the Royals could conceivably see Augsburg (eight points in 10 games) pull even while they sit idle. Even St. John’s with seven points in 10 games and a 3-1-0 record in league play since the break could make a run at that final playoff spot. Nothing is ever certain and everything can change on a dime in this league — which is precisely what makes it so fun to watch.

Catching Up To Speed

So, how did the MIAC get where it’s at today? With many similarly matched teams facing off in hotly contested weekend series. The most recent of which found the Hamline Pipers facing off against the St. Thomas Tommies last weekend — last year’s top two seeds squaring off in a battle to stay relevant in the chase for the regular season title. Senior turnover for the Tommies and a decreased effectiveness on the power play for Hamline has decreased the impact of the series, which now pitted the third and fourth ranked teams in the conference against each other. Yet, the excitement and grittiness that would be expected when two solid hockey teams take the ice was readily apparent.

“St. Thomas has been the benchmark of the league for 25 years,” Hamline coach Scott Bell declared this week. “Their whole defensive corps is back. Their second team All-American goalie is back. So they’re always going to be a handful.”

On Friday, Bell’s Hamline squad jumped out to a 2-0 lead with Chris Berenguer and Joe Long connecting at the end of the first period and beginning of the second, respectively. But St. Thomas came storming back with three goals in less than three minutes shortly thereafter, taking a 3-2 lead that would hold up for a 5-3 victory.

“They capitalized on their limited opportunities,” Bell said of the turnaround in the game. The stats back up the claim, with the Pipers holding a 27-21 shots on goal advantage and special teams superiority. Hamline converted on two of their six power plays while holding St. Thomas to 0-for-1 on the man advantage. The Pipers headed to the box just twice the entire night, but couldn’t overcome the five goals against just 16 saves from freshman netminder Beau Christian.

On Saturday, junior Zachery Faust started just his third game in net this season. Faust was part of the timeshare with Matt Wanvig last season which proved successful down the stretch. His playing time had decreased this year following the arrival of Christian. With the inconsistent play between the pipes, Faust has once again earned a spot in the rotation, potentially pushing Wanvig to the bench.

Bell cited a desire to find what works in making the switch. Despite being third in the league standings, the Pipers don’t have a qualifying goaltender in the top eight of save percentage in the MIAC. Faust will look to change that as he gets more playing time, as he did in the game Saturday.

“I think we played with a little more desperation,” Bell said. “If we didn’t beat them that second night, we wouldn’t have a chance to win the MIAC.”

That desperation fueled a second period surge that turned a 2-2 tie after the first period into a 5-2 lead for the Pipers. Scoring threats Brian Arrigoni and Andrew Birkholz sandwiched goals around Cory Krogen’s game winner. St. Thomas’ Rob Johnson put in his 16th of the year at the end of the frame, but the Pipers were able to hold on and close out the 5-3 victory to remain in third place in the league.

Hamline has struggled so for in the second half, being unable to pull off a series sweep yet in 2009. The Pipers did hand St. Olaf their only loss of MIAC play on January 16, before falling in the contest a day later. Bell notes the Pipers were skating without seven regulars in the Olaf series, including their entire second line. That was a series St. Olaf coach Sean Goldsworthy characterized as a very even weekend.

“The team that got up early kind of had the upper hand,” Goldsworthy said. “We got down 2-0 early on Friday night and then we reciprocated on that Saturday night. With a couple good teams going at it, coming back from a couple goal deficit is difficult. Clearly, they have a lot of skill. So if you can get ahead and stay out of the penalty box, you’re probably going to hold pretty good.”

Holding leads is something Goldsworthy’s team has done well in MIAC play, and they hold the top spot with just one loss and one tie in league play.

That series came a week before Hamline lost an 8-7 shootout at the hands of Bethel. Pipers coach Bell notes his team gave up eight goals on just 30 shots, suggesting once again the inconsistent goaltending that seems to have plagued his team all season.

But Bell remains optimistic:

“We haven’t hit stride yet as a team,” Bell said. “A couple of my best players aren’t playing their best hockey, so that gives me some confidence going forward.”

Bell may have confidence, but the Pipers are not the only team in the league showing improvement. After a first half showing of just 3-8-1 overall and 0-5-1 in the conference, St. John’s has started a slight run, going 3-1 in MIAC play in the second half, including a 2-1 win over second place Gustavus on Saturday.

The Johnnies were coming off the bye after a two game sweep of Augsburg and St. John’s coach Doug Schueller said he saw some rustiness in Friday’s game after the long layoff, but felt his team was able to respond well in Saturday’s game.

Saturday’s contest was still scoreless when Schueller led his squad into the locker room for the second intermission. It was there that he impressed on his team that winning close games is what defines successful teams. The Johnnies have played in a remarkable 10 one goal games so far this season, and were just 1-6 in those contests before the Augsburg series. But the three most recent wins have all been by a single goal, and that is giving the team some confidence.

Not that the Johnnies don’t have their work cut out for them. Sitting five points back of the final playoff spot, St. John’s will need a strong run to reach the postseason, and Schueller was aware of that going into the new year, telling his team they needed to win eight of their final 10 MIAC games to have a strong chance at making the postseason.

“That’s not easy to tell your team.” Schueller said, but the players have responded, setting up the squad well for such a run. If the Johnnies can come away with sweeps of the teams below them in the standings (St. Mary’s and Concordia) and split with the Pipers, the team will have reached Schuellers goal of a victory in 80% of their remaining games.

“We’re going up [to Concordia] hoping for a sweep and that’s all we can be happy with going home.” Schueller said.

That motivational balance of taking things two games at a time, but also looking at the big picture, is why fifth seeded Bethel needs to keep an eye on these Johnnies as the season unfolds.

Upcoming Slate

This week’s games don’t offer any team room to rest. Gustavus Adolphus will sit idle, giving Hamline and St. Thomas key opportunities to rise in the standings. The Pipers face off against Augsburg, which itself is fighting for playoff positioning. Hamline’s Scott Bell characterized the Auggies as a hard-working team that play a lot of close games. Chris Brown’s squad will have their hands full with a Pipers team that is looking for their first sweep of the new year.

St. Thomas will look to make their move against St. Mary’s, while St. John’s will do the same against Concordia. But the most intriguing series of the weekend may be Bethel and St. Olaf. This is the only match-up in the conference that features two teams that would be in the playoffs if they began today. St. Olaf will be looking to cement its status at the top of the league while the Gusties sit at home, but the Royals will be desperate to avoid slipping further down the playoff ladder. Which team comes out hungrier will go a long way to deciding this series.

Go East Young Man

Augsburg and Gustavus Adolphus were among those programs that traveled east for holiday tournaments, with Augsburg participating in the Pathfinder Bank Oswego Classic. Auggies coach Chris Brown said the trip gave his team an opportunity to gear up for the ”second season” while giving the players on his team a long-lasting memory with side trips to Joe Lewis Arena and to see the Stanley Cup. On the ice, the highlight was likely a victory over a well-regarded Babson team.

“They’re a good hockey team. They have speed and skill. I think traveling the distance we did might have played a factor in us getting down early,” Brown recalled. “As the game went on, we got our legs and more importantly started to handle the puck. We were making good outlet passes, and guys were supporting the puck. We were able to create situations that created quality opportunities and got them scrambling and playing in one end a bit.”

That momentum carried the team to a late lead that the Auggies were able to hold on to. Reflecting on the trip, Brown was very positive:

“It was awesome. It lived up to everything.”

Some teams were taking holiday trips even farther east than the Auggies. Hamline was one of several teams to head to Europe over winter break, a trip coach Scott Bell promised to his seniors when he recruited that class four years ago. It was a chance to both experience new cultures and new hockey, which were two very different experiences indeed.

“As far as a cultural experience, [it was] a really neat experience for our kids,” Bell said.

Though bemoaning the logistics of the trip that included long bus rides and a hectic schedule that had the team leaving early and getting back late many days, the trip still left an impression:

“Rome is where we finished, that was probably the highlight for most of the kids.”

One exception to that was All-American Dustin Fulton. In the midst of playing mostly mediocre competition in the rink, Bell created some special rules for his team. This included only scoring “pretty” goals, no dumping the puck in, and no aggressive checking.

These rules were especially enjoyable for the senior forward who “would do some crazy stuff out there one-on-one and the crowd would cheer for him. So he said the highlight of the trip was the hockey.”

Of course the extra hockey and travel took its toll on the team when it came time to return to play in the states. The opening game against University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire was especially grueling.

“It was an extremely physical game; a couple other guys got hurt,” Bell said with a chuckle. “And Fulton and a couple other guys said ‘Hey coach, this isn’t like Europe! We’re not ready for this!’”

But Bell may have overcompensated his adjustments that emphasized defense the next night, as the Pipers tied UW-Stevens Point, 0-0.

“It was a really good game,” Bell said. “I really like their team. There weren’t a lot of whistles, chippy play or penalties. Nobody scored, but it wasn’t for lack of opportunities. It was an entertaining game.”

Some would argue that a hard-fought 0-0 game is college hockey at its best. But just like the European trek the Pipers embarked on, it’s an experience not many get.

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