This Week in MIAC

Concordia Setback

The race for the final playoff spot was shaken up this week with the revelation that Concordia’s lone win in MIAC play, a 4-1 victory over Bethel, was aided by the use of an ineligible player. Concordia used the non-rostered player, an enrolled Concordia student, as the result of a shortage at the goaltender position. The Cobbers’ compliance officer self-reported the infraction, leading to the forfeiture of the lone MIAC win to this point for the squad.

The ineligible player was goaltender Ole Bronbo, a Norwegian native who played in four games, three of them losses, for the Cobbers. Per NCAA rules, the Cobbers must forfeit the victory against Bethel and associated points. However, MIAC Executive Director Dan McKane confirmed the MIAC uses a stricter punishment for in-conference games that awards two points and the victory (considered to be by a 1-0 margin) to the Bethel Royals. The added two points moves the Royals from a fifth place tie with Augsburg into a fourth place tie with Hamline. The Royals are idle this week.

Statistics for all players other than Bronbo are retained, including goals scored in Concordia’s forfeited game. McKane confirmed that statistics for the other three games involving Bronbo will not be adjusted, as they all resulted in Concordia losses. The NCAA, however, requires Bronbo be removed from the statistical record.

Concordia head coach Chris Howe explained the events leading up to the infraction.

“It was a clerical error,” Howe said. “At Christmas time, playing St. John’s, my starting goalie tore up his knee and won’t play again this year. And then one of my other goalies comes in and says ‘Hey coach. I know that we just beat Stout and we’re really excited, but [as] I told you in September, my sister is getting married.’ And he had to go down to Florida. My other goalie got the flu. He was throwing up all week and could not go. And one of my other goalies ended up transferring out.”

This culmination of the perfect storm led to Howe being faced with the options of trying to find another player, or leaving one of his non-goaltenders in net.

“The goalie that I used against Bethel was a player who tried out for our team,” Howe continued. “He’d been on campus all year, [but] he didn’t make our team. Initially he had signed up and tried out and everything was fine and he didn’t make our final roster. I brought him back in and asked him if he’d like to play because we didn’t have enough goalies even to run a practice. And he said ‘Sure, I’ll come back.’ “Well, the other goalie who was planning on playing gets sick and I can’t use him. I can’t really even have him along, because he was going to get other guys sick.”

This is when the decision to play Bronbo was made. His addition to the team merely had to be noted on the active roster sent to the league office.

“The roster thing came in. I had looked at it for my three other players who I knew were here and they were on the list and I quickly signed it. It was in the middle of a busy day. We went down to the game and we played and out shot them both games.”

Howe then described the realization of the error when the compliance officer noted Bronbo’s participation in live action despite not being on the roster Howe signed during that busy day three weeks prior. The compliance officer then self-reported the violation to the NCAA. Howe expressed his regret at the mistake, for which he takes full responsibility.

“It was nothing to do with me trying to get a player in there for an advantage or anything like that,” he said. “It was just that I was using a goalie strictly for survival. I didn’t have any other way to field a team. I didn’t want to put one of my other guys in the net. I thought I was doing something that wasn’t wrong. It was my mistake on a clerical error. That’s all it was.”

Howe reflected, his tone and inflection filled with regret.

“He’s a pretty good goalie, but he certainly wouldn’t be a starter for us. He’d be a third or four goalie on the team. It wasn’t like I was bringing in a guy from the Edmonton Oilers. I was bringing in a guy just from our student body to play goal. He was a kid that was on campus that had goalie pads and could help us out when we were in a pinch. That’s all it was. It’s unfortunate because he wasn’t even probably going to play the rest of the year. He was just going to play that weekend to help us out in a jam.”

Bronbo did appear in two additional games other than the Bethel weekend, both Concordia losses.

“It was disheartening, but our guys know they won that game. And they also know what [Bethel coach Joel Johnson] said because he told me to tell the team. Joel said to tell them they aren’t proud. And [the Royals] wish it wasn’t that way because they know they didn’t earn any of those points.

“It’s unfortunate, but you learn. I’m a young coach and I made a mistake. I take full responsibility for my mistake. And I know that won’t happen again. I’m going to quadruple check rosters from now on just because of that fact. [I’m] glad it happened now and not when we were in a playoff race.”

The penalty comes as a cost for a rebuilding Concordia program that had snapped an in-conference winless streak that dated back to February 23, 2007. With the forfeiture, that streak remains in effect and drops the Cobbers to 2-19-2 on the season, just a year removed from a winless campaign. However, Howe holds his head up high at the quality of the program he is associated with.

“We’re a straight-shooting institution and we wanted to be the first ones to say that we made a mistake and what I’m hoping is that if there’s any question down the road about our program, everyone is going to know where our program stands. And that’s what our college is about. As I told my AD, I’m proud to be part of a group that is willing to do this because it’s the right thing to do.”

Playoff Push

There was plenty of exciting action on the ice last weekend as MIAC teams fought for the right to participate in the postseason tournament. All four series resulted in two game sweeps, but one series was especially surprising. Sixth place Augsburg held off fourth place Hamline in two hard-fought games.

Augsburg coach Chris Brown expressed his surprise at how difficult it is for any team to sweep in a league with as much parity as the MIAC.

“I don’t think anybody plans on going into a series and sweeping any more,” Brown said. “But we obviously felt like if we could play well Friday night at their place, it certainly would be a possibility coming home Saturday.”

Despite getting out-shot 30-16 in Friday’s match-up, Augsburg was able to come away with a commanding victory on the strength of a 4-for-6 effort on the man advantage

Coach Brown attributed that to his power-play unit relaxing and focusing on execution.

“They didn’t try and do too much. If you look at all the goals, they were guys having the pucks on their sticks and they moved it quickly. They shot off the pass on three of the four goals.”

But Brown notes that flurry of goal scoring might have still been for naught were it not for a strong defensive effort in the first period to keep the game even.

“We were fortune to get through the first period at 0-0,” he admitted. “They definitely outplayed us. [We had] a couple of big saves, guys did take care of their own end well, there were no rebound chances. Everything was kind of weathering the storm. And I think that was a huge boost to our confidence to get through that period on the road 0-0.”

Saturday’s game was much closer, resulting in a 5-4 overtime victory for the Auggies. Brown credited the increasing poise of his players for being able to withstand a late charge by the Pipers and get the win.

“Every time that they pulled close, we were able to overcome that surge that they put on,” Brown said. “Even when they scored really late in the game on Saturday at home to tie it, there was no panic on the bench, there was no panic in our play, we didn’t start throwing the puck around and running around out there, we just kept playing the game. And fortunately took advantage of our opportunity in overtime.”

That opportunity came 1:35 into overtime when Hamline’s Cory Krogen went to the box for an interference call. With time ticking down on the man advantage, Augsburg opened up with an offensive zone draw.

As Brown describes:

“We lost the face-off. We had a guy on the far side the hustled over to hold it in, and kind of won a one-on-one battle on the rail on the half wall. He passed it to our down low guy who happened to be in the right spot. It went right on his tape on the goal line. I think because of the urgency of the situation, he just went right to the net, stuffed it into the goalie’s feet and into his pads. And then got a second whack at it and put it over his pad.”

Cory Ellertson was credited with the game-winning tally on assists from Mario Mjelleli and Jim Jensen, giving Augsburg four points on the weekend. Those two wins put the Auggies on a four game winning streak. They have now doubled their win total in the past 14 days.

“Winning is going to give you confidence,” Brown said. “We felt like all year, we were playing well and we came up short for a variety of reasons on any given night. And as the season has worn on, we’ve limited those mistakes. Our goaltending has gotten much stronger and more consistent. We’ve limited the mistakes in our own end. . . . We felt all along we were a good team, but until you start winning a few games, you’re not going to believe it a hundred percent. . . . But our guys have felt all year that they have been right underneath the surface, scratching it, and they finally broke through.”

That will make this Augsburg team–who sits just two points behind Bethel and Hamline for the final playoff spot–a dangerous opponent as they play these final two weeks. The best news for Augsburg is that Bethel sits idle this weekend. Augsburg has their work cut out for them, however, as three other teams, including St. John’s directly below them in the standings, also swept their opponents last weekend.

The Johnnies were able to get the four points despite being out shot 75-54 on the weekend by the Cobbers.

Concordia’s Chris Howe expressed his disappointment that his team wasn’t able to come away with any points.

“There is some disappointment because of how well we played for both nights,” Howe admitted. “You look at the first night and we’re down 2-0 five minutes into the game. And it’s hard for guys to have goals go in on marginal plays, just kind of fluky things. But we battled back in that game and then the next night we’re down 2-0 with 10 minutes to go after completely controlling the whole game and we score one.

“Then we pull the goalie and we tie it. And then we get a 5-on-3 called against us in overtime and we kill it down to about 15 seconds left and they score on the 5-on-4 for us to lose.”

Hard-fought losses like that been the story of the year for Concordia. However, Howe expressed pride in his players for battling through the struggles this season as they head into their final weekend of play.

St. Thomas also authored a sweep last weekend, outscoring St. Mary’s by a combined total of 16-3.

This led to Tommies coach Terry Skrypek to give perhaps the understatement of the year.

“Yeah, we finally scored some goals,” he mused before quickly turning to his goaltender, freshman Cary Wood. “We got great goaltending both games. He made the saves he had to make and in fact our goalie is 7-0 in all the games he’s played in. The three games we lost in the conference are the three games he didn’t play in. So we feel good about our team right now in terms of getting good goaltending and being able to score some goals.”

Wood is making a case to be on some all-rookie lists at the end of the season with a 1.76 goals against average and .924 save percentage in addition to the undefeated record. He has usurped the starting job from junior Tyler Chestnut whose .847 save pct. this year has lowered his career percentage to .895 after an outstanding campaign last season.

“The best part of [Wood’s] game is that he’s usually square to the puck and he doesn’t give second chances,” Skrypek said. “He’ll smother the puck and won’t give rebounds. If he does give a rebound, it’s usually to the side of the net. I think the big thing is he’s just fundamentally very sound. He’s been the surprise of our team this year.”

The final series from last weekend was St. Olaf expanding their conference lead with a pair of three goal wins over Bethel. Nick Krauss made 55 saves for the Oles in the wins, while winger Nick Stalock had a three point effort on Friday. With the sweep, the Oles become the first MIAC team to clinch a playoff spot, ensuring they will be in the postseason tournament. But many other teams are still right in the thick of the playoff chase.

Looking Ahead

With just two weeks to go in the MIAC regular season, every game adds an additional layer of importance. This weekend’s tilt between St. Thomas and St. Olaf could very well determine which team walks away with the league title and home ice throughout the playoffs, a fact that isn’t lost on Tommies coach Terry Skrypek.

“Our guys know what’s at stake and I’m sure [the Oles] know what’s at stake, too,” Skrypek said. “We’ve always had good games with St. Olaf. They’ve been games where, if you make a mistake, the other team capitalized on it.”

But the Tommies will have to grapple with some dynamics of space as well.

“We have to adjust to the rink,” Skrypek said. “The rink is smaller than our rink. It’s not as long and it’s not as wide. It’s a little bit of a different game. There’s no neutral zone so you just have to get the puck in, get it across the goal line, get it in deep and don’t turn the puck over. They’re used to it, so we’re going to have to adjust to it.”

Hamline and St. John’s will be playing another hard-fought series. The Pipers sit just on the edge of current playoff contenders, while the Johnnies undoubtedly are looking to crash the dance. The Pipers have yet to sweep a weekend series in 2009, while St. John’s comes in on a three game winning streak that has put them right back in the playoff hunt. If one of these teams can take three points or more from the series, it will drastically alter the landscape around that final playoff spot.

The Long Goodbye

As the end of the season approaches, it brings with it a bittersweet time for graduating seniors. It is the end of their four years at college and, for many, the beginning of a life after competitive hockey. For Concordia’s seniors, their last games in a Cobbers’ uniform will take place Saturday afternoon.

“I wanted our seniors to have more success than they did because they were winners and they are winners,” Cobbers’ coach Chris Howe explained. “But it was just unfortunate for them we didn’t get more W’s in the win column this year.”

Every team has their traditions, and Howe set the scene as the seniors finished their final practice this week:

“We have a final handshake at the end of our practice. And our three seniors walk through. Our freshmen are first in the line all the way back to the juniors and the coaching staff. It was one of those things where the seniors went through and made sure to let the younger players know that they’re proud of them and it was an emotional walkthrough for those guys because of what they’ve been through over the past four years.”

The scene is different for St. Thomas, where coach Terry Skrypek is hoping his eight seniors treat their remaining games as if they were all playoff games, giving great effort and leading their teammates to do the same. For the Tommies, it will largely be up to those seniors to fight for how long their collegiate careers continue.

Howe sums up succinctly how nearly every player feels as the season comes to a close:

“We just want to keep playing.”

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