This Week in MIAC

Win Or Go Home

For several MIAC teams, the playoffs begin this week. Only two of the league’s five playoff spots are spoken for, and seven of the conference’s nine teams still have a shot at earning a berth to the postseason tournament. For those teams that advance, a chance at earning the MIAC’s automatic qualifier into the NCAA tournament and an opportunity to continue their season. The other four teams will finish their season this week.

The difficulty with forecasting the MIAC playoffs is the nature of the league’s tiebreaker system. Courtesy of the MIAC Web site, the league tiebreakers are:

1. Results of head-to-head competition;
2. Results against all teams above those tied;
3. Results against all teams, beginning in rank order;
4. Order of losses, beginning with the ninth place team and moving up to those tied;
5. Total goal series, with those tied;
6. Goal differential for total conference season;
7. Number of overtime losses;
8. Random selection.

In a year such as this, where teams are clustered in the middle of the league, tied teams could have anywhere from one to four different teams ranked above them, impacting how the second tiebreaker is applied. In situations where the two game head-to-head series is tied (very likely in a league with such parity), this tiebreaker can have a huge impact on what teams make the tournament.

However, St. Olaf head coach Sean Goldsworthy notes that the league went to this tiebreaking procedure because coaches feel it often puts the best teams into the playoffs, and does so usually without requiring the use of goal differential (which decreases sportsmanlike play). While the may be true, it makes forecasting, even with just two games to go, incredibly difficult.

With that in mind, here’s look at each team and their playoff scenarios entering the weekend.

St. Olaf Oles

Current league record: 11-2-2, 24 points.
Seed: Cinched first.
Rooting for: A healthy weekend.
Notes: The Oles were the first team to clinch a playoff spot, and earned the top seed with their victory over St. Thomas last weekend. St. Olaf will have home ice throughout the playoffs and play the winner of the 4/5 match-up next Saturday. As the only team with their playoff seeding assured, the Oles will have a choice on whether or not to rest key players in this weekend’s series against Augsburg to remain healthy for the playoffs. However, coach Sean Goldsworthy has said that his team uses 22-23 skaters on a typical weekend, and will continue their standard rotation to try and keep momentum into the playoffs and avoid complacency.

Gustavus Adolphus Gusties

Current league record: 9-5-0, 18 points.
Seed: Second through fifth, have clinched a playoff spot. Hold tiebreaker with St. Thomas for second.
Rooting for: Bethel and St. Olaf.
Notes: The Gusties currently hold down the second seed as a result of their head-to-head tiebreaker advantage. They have clinched a playoff spot, but could finish in any seed with a variety of results. Gustavus controls their own destiny for the second seed: two wins and the team clinches a home playoff game, and could send Hamline spiraling from the playoff hunt.

Gustavus may hold the tiebreaker over Bethel (depending on which teams are tied above them), so Royals’ wins would weaken the other second place team, St. Thomas, and St. Olaf defeating Augsburg could help push down another team that could catch the Gusties. No matter what, Gustavus will be playing next week, though it could be in the semifinals at their own rink, or on the road for the play-in game. The latter scenario would only be the result of two losses, Augsburg picking up three points or more, and St. Thomas picking at least one point.

St. Thomas Tommies

Current league record: 8-4-2, 18 points.
Seed: Second through sixth, have not clinched a playoff spot. Lose the tiebreaker with St. Thomas for second.
Rooting for: Taking care of business; Hamline?
Notes: There might not be a team more in need of winning its weekend series than the Tommies. Despite currently sitting in a tie for second, two losses will force a difficult road ahead, potentially pushing the Thomas out of the playoff hunt, as Bethel would gain four points and a tiebreaking advantage with the head-to-head victories. That, coupled with successful weekends by both Hamline and Augsburg, could slide St. Thomas out of the playoffs entirely.

However, the Tommies clinch a playoff spot with just a single point on the weekend. Help from Hamline is a double-sided sword. Enough points from the Pipers, and St. Thomas can slide past the Gusties for the right to host a semifinal game. In a tiebreaker situation, though, Hamline would likely hold the edge over the Tommies, which means if the Pipers secure two or more points than St. Thomas, it could move Hamline into that lucrative spot. So while the Pipers can help out the Tommies, it’s still up to St. Thomas to win their games, thereby eliminating the need of assistance from last year’s regular season champions.

Augsburg Auggies

Current league record: 8-6-0, 16 points.
Seed: Second through seventh, hold tiebreaker over Hamline for fourth.
Rooting for: St. Olaf to rest their starters, St. Mary’s, St. Thomas?
Notes: An amazing second half turnaround has given the Auggies the potential to host a semifinal game. The Auggies found themselves at just 2-7-0 at Christmas break, but with the turnaround the program has been given some hope. It would take some wins and a lot of help for Augsburg to host that semifinal game, however. With a sweep of St. Olaf, and three or more points from Hamline and Bethel (against Gustavus and St. Thomas, respectively), the Auggies would potentially have second place outright.

Holding the tiebreaker with Hamline gives the Auggies a bit of a cushion. It depends how ambitious the Auggies wish to be in who they root for, however. While Bethel taking points away from St. Thomas is the route by which Augsburg can move up to second, it is also the way the Augsburg can drop out of the playoffs entirely. The Auggies do hold the tiebreaker with sixth place Bethel, but if the Royals and Pipers each earn more points than the Auggies this weekend, Augsburg will see no more hockey. Nor is it as simple as rooting against the Pipers, as St. John’s could jump ahead of Augsburg if they were able to sweep St. Mary’s and the Auggies come away from the weekend without a point. The bottom line is that things could get really good for the Auggies (second place) or really bad (seventh place), depending on this weekend’s results.

Hamline Pipers

Current league record: 8-6-0, 16 points.
Seed: Second through seventh, lose tiebreaker against Augsburg for fourth.
Rooting for: St. Mary’s, St. Olaf, St. Thomas?
Notes: The Pipers playoff scenarios look nearly identical to those of Augsburg above, with the notable exception that Hamline will be strongly rooting for the top-seeded Oles to put out a solid lineup against the Auggies and give the Pipers a chance to earn some points on the team to which they currently lose the tiebreaker. Hamline can earn second with three or more points against the Gusties, St. Thomas being swept, and Augsburg earning fewer points than the Pipers. However, just like the Auggies, a zero point weekend coupled with a St. John’s sweep could knock last year’s regular season champions right out of the playoffs. A split with Bethel earlier in the season means that tiebreaker would be decided on the basis of what position those teams tie for. Only one thing is certain: nothing is certain for the Pipers heading into the last weekend of the season.

Bethel Royals

Current league record: 7-7-0, 14 points.
Seed: Third through seventh.
Rooting for: Gustavus Adolphus, St. Olaf, St. Mary’s.
Notes: How huge might that vacated Concordia win (a forfeit due to an ineligible player) be for the Bethel Royals? This week, it moves the team from seventh place and the brink of playoff extinction to the final spot beyond the cutoff and a very realistic chance at the tournament. Gustavus has clinched a playoff spot and holds the tiebreaker over the Royals, so the best Bethel can do is the third seed and traveling for the semifinals. For that to happen, the Royals need a strong showing from the Gusties against Hamline and the Oles against Augsburg.

In a fifth place tie between the Pipers and Royals, the third tiebreaker would be needed, which Hamline would claim based on their win against St. Olaf. Combined with losing a tiebreaker to Augsburg on head-to-head results, the Royals need points this weekend–at least three of them. That will be difficult to do against a St. Thomas team that could also find itself out of the playoffs at the end of the week.

St. John’s Johnnies

Current league record: 6-7-1, 13 points.
Seed: Fourth through seventh.
Rooting for: St. Olaf, St. Thomas, Gustavus Adolphus.
Notes: It’s not surprising the team currently sitting two spots out of the playoff race is hoping for the three teams at the top to emerge victorious this weekend. It’s a long road for the Johnnies to work their way into the bottom of the field, and it starts, no matter what, with St. John’s getting no fewer than three points against St. Mary’s this weekend.

The Johnnies hold the tiebreaker over Augsburg, meaning three points, a St. Olaf sweep, and Bethel getting fewer than two points would put St. John’s in the tournament. A much better scenario, however, is to sweep St. Mary’s, then hope for Bethel to pick up no more than one win against St. Thomas and that either Augsburg or Hamline is swept. That would give the Johnnies at least a one point advantage over several teams and vault them into the playoffs. A single loss at any point this weekend eliminates the Johnnies from any postseason games.

St. Mary’s Cardinals

Current league record: 2-11-1, 5 points.
Seed: Eighth.
Rooting for: A strong finish to the season.
Notes: St. Mary’s is the wild card for the Johnnies. By taking just one game of this final weekend, the team’s few seniors could have an impact on the playoff race, despite not being in it themselves. A team playing for pride–and the much ballyhooed role of spoiler–is a dangerous thing, and St. Mary’s will be looking to leave their mark before the weekend is done.

Concordia Cobbers

Final league record: 1-13-2, 4 points.
Seed: Ninth.
Notes: The Cobbers completed their season last weekend with a split against Gustavus and are idle for the final weekend of MIAC play.

What does it all mean? MIAC teams are in for a roller coaster ride for the final weekend of the season.

They are the Champions, My Friend

For the first time in 70 years, the St. Olaf Oles are the MIAC regular season champions. Last Saturday, the Oles clinched with a 4-2 victory of St. Thomas, capping an exciting weekend of hockey. It seems only appropriate that they clinched against the Tommies, a team that has been near the top of the MIAC and western region for years.

This significance was not lost on St. Olaf coach Sean Goldsworthy:

“I didn’t think we were going to be in this situation a week earl[ier] … To be able to [clinch] against St. Thomas and feel like we were competing with one of the better teams in the league, kind of validated that we felt like we were prepared to win it.”

The clincher came after a hard fought game on Friday night in which St. Thomas took a 1-0 lead before the Oles tied it up, then took the lead again before St. Olaf knotted it back up at two. The game ended 2-2.

“St. Thomas is one of the better defensive teams in the league,” Goldsworthy said. “I felt like to be able to come back from down a goal in both situations, especially in the third period … really set the tone that we were prepared for the weekend.”

“St. Thomas came out knowing they had to win, and I think they carried the tempo in the first period. But our guys responded well in the second and third period. And to hold a team like St. Thomas to six shots in the last two periods is just a great example of a tight-checking game,” Goldsworthy recalled, elaborating that is was one of the best examples of tight-checking and controlling the tempo from his team the entire season, noting it might have been the best game he had ever coached in.

Saturday was a game in which St. Thomas outshot the Oles by the margin of 34-17, but those numbers are deceptive because the Oles jumped out to a 4-0 lead by the early part of the second period and could afford to play a more controlling game where quality shot opportunities weren’t a clear requirement.

“I think our guys had an urgency to close it out that night,” Goldsworthy remarked. “Once we got up 4-0 I think our guys realized that if you’re going to win anything significant around here, you’ve got to be able to hold a lead, and we’ve been able to do that all year. So I wouldn’t say we sat back, per se, but we certainly weren’t pressing for odd-man rushes and we certainly weren’t gambling on our forecheck.”

One of the keys to the weekend was back-to-back MIAC Player of the Week Nick Krauss, who only allowed four goals in net over the course of the weekend.

“Nick is starting to get hot,” Goldsworthy noted. “He’s seeing the puck well and I think Nick’s highest quality is that he’s really good at controlling rebounds. Rarely do you see a second or third opportunity to score on him.”

With the regular season championship locked up, Goldsworthy has the uncommon view of being able to watch the final weekend unfold without worrying about how it impacts his team. However, that doesn’t lessen his appreciation for the hockey his league plays.

“It is nice to know that we don’t have to win or sweep to get into any position like we had to last year,” he concluded. “But in the same breath, I think there are definitely four to five teams that could win the playoff championship and get the bid. All those teams have high quality players, are coached well, and on any given night, in a one game playoff, you could be going home.”

Driving to the Finish

The story of Concordia’s use of an ineligible player, as detailed in last week’s column, is an unfortunate one. The forfeiture of the team’s lone conference win of the past two seasons meant the Cobbers went into last weekend with an official conference winless streak that extended back to February, 2007. It took just one night for that streak to be snapped for good as the Cobbers upended Gustavus Adolphus, 3-1.

Despite being outshot 31-27, the Cobbers used a special teams advantage (1-for-6 to the Gusties 0—for-4 on the man advantage) to pull out to an early lead. Before Cry Johnson’s power-play goal in the second, Marc Harrie earned an unassisted shorthanded tally that opened up the scoring.

Harrie was involved on every goal, assisting on Nick Thielen’s marker eight minutes into the third that gave the Cobbers a 3-0 lead. Eric Bigham scored unassisted for the Gusties just over a minute later, but the Cobbers were able to hold on.

Despite losing 8-1 the following night, the victory gives the Cobbers a positive note to end a rebuilding season on. With just three seniors, the young core of this team will be returning next season and looking to continue the turnaround, from last year’s zero victories, to this year’s four wins and an unknown future.

A team with an unknown playoff future is the Hamline Pipers, after their split with St. John’s last weekend. After holding a 9-2-0 overall record and 4-0-0 conference mark at the semester break, the Pipers have fallen on hard times in the second semester, falling to marks of 13-9-1 and 8-6-0. The Pipers haven’t earned more than two points in a weekend since December 5 and 6, and are in danger of missing the playoffs.

On Friday, Hamline wasn’t able to overcome a tightly officiated game that saw 44 minutes of total penalties (none major infractions), falling 3-2 to St. John’s.

“They played desperate. They played well, finished all their checks and got pucks deep. They played really well,” Hamline coach Scott Bell remarked, before noting that his team was shorthanded nine times for a full 18 minutes, nearly an entire period of play.

“With two 5-on-3s it’s hard to get into any kind of rhythm,” Bell observed. “We did a good job killing, but at the same time, my offensive guys aren’t killing penalties and you’re not rolling through your lines. You’re not getting any continuity to game.”

The Pipers were able to rebound with a 4-1 victory on Saturday, going 3-fo-7 on the power play while jumping out to a 3-0 lead.

“It felt like …when our team was clicking on all cylinders last year, “ Bell said. “Our power play looked very dangerous and Jared Hummel was back to his old self during that game.”

He also singled out Dustin Fulton and Chris Berenguer, noting “[m]y All-American type players played really well.”

That combination makes the Pipers very dangerous, especially when throwing in freshman goaltender Beau Christian who started both games, making 57 saves on the weekend. Bell notes that he has cemented himself as the player the Pipers will be riding down the stretch. With the team potentially coming together and returning to form, Hamline might be destined for a playoff run.

The final series of last weekend was an Augsburg sweep of St. Mary’s, improving the Auggies’ winning streak to six games.

Everything was clicking in Friday’s victory for the Augsburg, leading to a 6-2 victory. The Auggies outshot St. Mary’s 36-27, had the special teams advantage, and got strong performances from both Jim Jensen and Nick Guran, who each netted two goals.

Jensen and Guran each tallied two more goals in Saturday’s 9-3 win. The Auggies converted three of their seven opportunities on the man advantage and Andrew Kent made 35 saves in net.

The sweep put Augsburg in position to control their own destiny as the final week approaches.

Next Week

Next week we’ll recap the final weekend and 4/5 opening playoff match-up, along with taking a look at some of the seniors who will be departing the MIAC after this season.

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