The pieces of the jigsaw puzzle are finally falling into place.
Last weekâ€™s action solidified playoff positions in the NCHA and MCHA, and the end result is a host of interesting first round match-ups in both leagues.
In the NCHA, nothing is more intriguing than the 4/5 tilt between the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and St. Norbert. It has been 11 years since the two rivals met in a two game playoff series.
Also of note is the 2/7 series between St. Scholastica and UW-River Falls. This is the third straight year the two will meet in the NCHA playoffs, but the first time St. Scholastica will host.
Headlining the MCHA is the 4/5 clash between Marian and Finlandia. This marks the fifth straight season the Sabres and Lions will be meeting in the league playoffs.
With the playoffs in both leagues all squared away, this week also welcomed a healthy dose of clarity when it comes to the NCAA prospects of West Region teams. The first public edition of the NCAA Regional Rankings was released on Tuesday and it looked like this:
2. St. Scholastica
4. St. Norbert
5. St. Olaf
6. Gustavus Adolphus
7. St. Thomas
Of course, the biggest story to come of this is the noticeable absence of Adrian. The Bulldogs stand at 19-0-0 in the West Region and 23-1-1 overall, so how is it possible they arenâ€™t ranked?
To steal a phrase from the D-I folks, itâ€™s â€œsimple mathâ€.
The committee interpreted the criteria as it is supposed to, and when all was said and done the Bulldogs were not worthy of a top seven ranking.
I find it unfortunate, as based on its play on the ice I believe Adrian is one of the top seven teams in the region. Where they fall in that top seven is certainly open to dispute, but if there was a way to play it off, I firmly believe they would prove themselves as one of the top Western teams.
What this situation illustrates is an important flaw in the system. I donâ€™t know how to improve upon what we have, but within the current system there is no definitive way to account for the possibility a team like Adrian might actually be pushing the boundaries of the elite.
Nonetheless, the committee should be commended for interpreting the criteria per the rules. This is actually contrary to last season as the Bulldogs were ranked fourth and fifth in the region despite not having the numbers to justify that ranking.
As I said, this is an unfortunate reality of the Division III selection process, but itâ€™s highly preferable to have the committee do it by the book, which is exactly what they did. That way, the onus for any incongruence is not on the committee itself but rather on the system they must work within.
Otherwise, subjectivity comes into play. Though in this case it might have landed Adrian closer to where I and many others suspect it really ranks, it opens the door for the committee to do whatever it pleases and that is a road no one wants or needs to go down. They tried that two years ago and it went over like a lead balloon.
Yet again, an unfortunate reality, but we must all admit the good with the bad. This time, the committee played it straight and should be commended for doing so. As disappointing as it is for Adrianâ€™s coaches, players, fans, and those of us who donâ€™t possess a genetic predisposition against the Bulldogsâ€¦the committee got it right–according to the current numerical by-laws.
Long Time No See
The last time St. Norbert and Stevens Point met in a playoff series was–believe it or not–in 1998. In fact, they met in two playoff series that year, both of which both turned out to border on epic.
The Green Knights hosted the Pointers in the Peters Cup Finals that season, and finally earned the conference crown with a goal near the end of overtime in the mini-game.
The two met back in DePere, Wis. the following weekend in the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament. That time the Pointers would enact revenge, scoring with less than a minute remaining in the mini-game to move on to the NCAA semifinals.
To put into context how long ago that was, I was a freshman at UW-Stevens Point and that NCAA series was the one that hooked me on Division III hockey. Additionally, that season marked only the fifth year behind the bench for Green Knightsâ€™ head coach Tim Coghlin, while current Pointers head coach Wil Nichol actually partook in the game as a senior defenseman.
Their only postseason meeting since then was in the 2003 Peters Cup semifinals where the Green Knights claimed a 3-1 win.
From the fanâ€™s perspective, the renewal of this rivalry in the postseason is long overdue. But from a coachâ€™s standpoint, one doesnâ€™t have to go back very far to quantify its significance.
â€œIâ€™m not sure you need to look any further than back to the last game we played in Stevens Point,â€ said Coghlin. â€œThey had a full house and a really great atmosphere and it was a 2-1 overtime game that went in their direction.â€
Meanwhile, Pointers head coach Nichol attributes Stevens Pointâ€™s lack of playoff familiarity with St. Norbert over the past decade to the success of St. Norbert more than anything else.
â€œIf you look at the road St. Norbert has been on for the past 11 years, thatâ€™s something we would have liked to do,â€ he said. â€œWe would have liked to play them more because theyâ€™ve been in the Peters Cup finals most of those years. We havenâ€™t gotten it done in the playoffs, and that probably has something to do with it as well.â€
One of the more surprising aspects to this series revolves around the fact that for a change the Green Knights do not enter as an overwhelming first round favorite. That is saying something considering the Green Knights have not dropped a quarterfinal series since 1997 and have played in every Peters Cup final since 2001.
With a track record like that, being the fourth seed is something new to the Green Knights.
â€œIâ€™m not overly surprised by it,â€ explained Coghlin. â€œThe first thing we said at the beginning of the season was that this year would be different and it has been. If you look at every one of the one goal games that went our way last year, most have gone the other direction this year for whatever reason.
â€œOur team has played very well, we really have. I am not disappointed with the guys in the locker room and I like what we have. Now, we certainly have not hit our stride yet and the question now is â€˜can we?â€™â€
At the same time, itâ€™s interesting that Stevens Point moved up a spot in the NCHA this year and its reward is a trip to face the defending national champions.
â€œThis is as good of an illustration as any as to how good our league is,â€ said Nichol. â€œThey are defending national champions and they lose all of two players and they are in fourth place. They are as good as anybody weâ€™ve played this year–thatâ€™s for sure.â€
Coghlin elaborated on the impending weekend.
â€œYou look at our two programs right now, and weâ€™ve descended down into the four spot and theyâ€™ve climbed up into the five, so we need to pay attention to where we go next or itâ€™s not going to go well.â€
â€œWe have to run the table; there is no two ways about it,â€ he concluded. â€œBut that puts us in the same boat as the majority of NCAA teams right now and we understand that.â€
As far as recent history is concerned, St. Norbert and Stevens Point split their two meetings this season, each winning at home.
In the early season meeting at St. Norbert, the Green Knights exploded late and turned a 2-1 game into a 5-2 runaway.
Nichol explained: â€œI think the first game we should have just bought tickets and sat in the stands because we were watching the whole time. The second game we were much more involved and not on our heels as much. Weâ€™re going to get their best and we know that, so I think the difference is in how we are going to play.â€
The Pointers were certainly more involved the second time around as they dropped the Green Knights in overtime last month, 2-1.
Coghlinâ€™s thoughts on the two meetings this season are right in line with Nicholâ€™s.
â€œI do think we were better in the earlier game,â€ he said. â€œLast time it was an entirely evenly game back and forth. Coming off that win, Stevens Point is a very dangerous team and we better stay focused on that.â€
Though the â€œdangerousâ€ label might be appropriate when applied to the Pointers, their track record at the Cornerstone Community Center is not a good one. Since its opening in 2000, the Pointers are a lackluster 1-7-2 at the CCC, and the win came all the way back in 2000.
That said, the Pointers have played seven of their last 10 on the road, and Nichol hopes the road experience pays off this weekend.
â€œOur guys have been on the road so much over the second half I hope they are used to it and it wonâ€™t be as big of an issue as it maybe was earlier in the year.â€
â€œI think itâ€™s been a long time since weâ€™ve been over there this late in the year and I think weâ€™ve grown a lot as a team,â€ he added. â€œI donâ€™t think being a visiting team this late in the year is going to affect our guys.â€
Compared to years past, the Pointers might justifiably be a tad more confident heading into the CCC this weekend, but it certainly doesnâ€™t mean they arenâ€™t aware of what the Green Knights are capable of.
â€œI just think they are as well coached as anybody,â€ explained Nichol. â€œThey are almost mechanical or robotic in their system. They donâ€™t lose games–you have to beat them, and that just goes along with my thoughts of Tim being one of the best coaches out there.â€
To most observers, the Green Knights should nearly always be favored at home, and that is once again the case this weekend. Nichol pointed out, however, that last weekendâ€™s 5-4 come from behind victory over UW-Eau Claire was good preparation for this weekend, as the Blugolds are a very similar team to St. Norbert.
For both teams itâ€™s likely win or go home. The Green Knights hope to be able to draw on the experience of last seasonâ€™s title run, while the Pointers look to rely on a dozen seniors whose rollercoaster four year ride could come to an end this weekend.
â€œIn our case we have to hope that our guys with experience understand that everyone starts over with zeroes and we go from there,â€ said Coghlin.
Meanwhile, the Pointer seniors have never won a playoff series and Nichol hopes their learning experiences of the past three years can pay off in their final chance.
â€œWe have 12 guys who have been through a coaching change, and have stuck with me through thick and thin. Most importantly they have stuck with each other; none of them quit.â€
Top-seeded Superior draws winless Lake Forest this weekend. The Yellowjackets swept the Foresters 5-0 and 5-2 this season. The Yellowjackets have defeated the Foresters 11 straight times since a tie late in the 2003-04 season … Second seed UW-Stout hosts Eau Claire in a rematch of last seasonâ€™s NCHA semifinal contest. In that game, the Blue Devils fell behind 2-1 after two periods before rallying for a 3-2 overtime win. Stout eventually fell 4-3 in overtime to St. Norbert in the Peters Cup Finals. They have won 11 in a row over Eau Claire … Third seed St. Scholastica hosts River Falls. Itâ€™s the third year in a row the two will meet in the playoffs, with St. Scholastica winning each of the past two years. The two split this seasonâ€™s series, each winning at home.
Nice To See You Again
Unlike the 4/5 NCHA contest between Stevens Point and St. Norbert, the 4/5 affair in the MCHA features two teams who have been no strangers to each other come playoff time, as Finlandia travels to Marian for a quarterfinal series.
The Sabres and Lions will be going at it in the postseason for the fifth consecutive year. In fact, they have met in the postseason every season since Finlandia joined the league in 2004.
â€œItâ€™s kind of funny, but we know them and they know us. They are a familiar opponent,â€ said Marian head coach Jasen Wise.
Finlandia head coach Joe Burcar had similar sentiments, joking, â€œ[i]t would be weird not to meet Marian in the playoffs. I think that would throw both of us off.â€
Marian came out on top of the first two postseason meetings, while Finlandia has claimed victory in the last two, including a 4-2 win in last seasonâ€™s semifinals.
As far as this season is concerned, the two played one series at Marian and the Sabres came out on top by way of 3-2 (ot) and 6-4 wins. They outshot Finlandia fairly convincingly in the series and jumped to a 2-0 lead on Friday and a 3-0 lead on Saturday. Both are lead items among Burcarâ€™s concerns heading into this weekend.
â€œWe have to play better team defense against them this time. We gave up way too many shots in that series and we also canâ€™t fall behind. Credit to us because we battled back but that just cannot happen; we cannot dig ourselves a hole.â€
Wise was pleased with his teamâ€™s ability to score in the earlier meetings with Finlandia, but also thinks the Sabresâ€™ recent lack of scoring could be a problem heading into this series.
â€œWe found a way to score,â€ he explained. â€œSince them weâ€™ve struggled to score goals. I think the last four series we have played the goaltender we have played against has been named goaltender of the week. Those particular nights we managed to get the puck to go in for us.â€
Struggle might be a bit of an understatement, as after scoring at a decent clip through their first 18 games, the Sabres have not tallied more than three goals in any of their last six contests. As a result, they have gone 1-5 down the stretch.
Wise thinks getting off the scoring schneid is essential to Marianâ€™s chances this weekend.
â€œWe have to score when we have our chances,â€ he explained. â€œWeâ€™ve had goaltending all year so Iâ€™m not concerned there and our defensive zone coverage has been good. Lately though we are outshooting teams and not winning. They key for us this weekend is no doubt to put the puck in when we have our chances.â€
Unlike Marian, Finlandia has not struggled down the stretch, posting a 4-1-1 record in its last six.
â€œI think we are playing our best hockey of the season and I like the direction of our team right now. We are getting a few guys back from injuries, and I think weâ€™ve played well in our last five games.â€
When it comes to this weekend, it will be the first time Finlandia has ever had to go on the road for an opening round MCHA playoff contest. Not only do they draw a tough opponent, but they also must deal with the Sabresâ€™ Olympic-sized ice sheet.
What should be a significant home ice advantage for Marian might not be the case, according to Wise.
â€œAs far as playing in our rink, to be honest with you Iâ€™m not sure how much it will help considering Finlandiaâ€™s speed. They can skate and their teams are traditionally fast. They transition well from defense to offense and can catch you napping if you arenâ€™t paying attention.â€
Nonetheless, he is pleased to be at home for opening weekend.
â€œItâ€™s big this time of year especially with the weather. Itâ€™s cold, the roads are bad and Finlandia has to travel. Itâ€™s definitely an advantage for us from a health perspective as far as getting the proper rest and eating properly.â€
Itâ€™s tough not to give Marian a slight edge in the series considering its home ice advantage, but Burcar thinks going on the road might be a blessing in disguise for the Lions–even though theyâ€™d be at home had they beaten Lawrence last Saturday.
â€œI think we are playing our best hockey of the season and I like the direction of our team right now. We are getting a few guys back from injuries, and I think weâ€™ve played well in our last five games.
â€œItâ€™s the first time weâ€™ve had to go on the road for the first round, but I think that might actually be a better situation for us right now.â€
In a few days it will be evident whether things worked out for the Lions, but with the two teams sporting a deep playoff history and separated by only a single point in the MCHA regular season standings, come Saturday at 7 p.m. the only thing likely to matter is whatâ€™s going on out on the ice.
Top seeded Adrian hosts Northland this weekend. The Lumberjacks are 0-4 all-time against the Bulldogs, and conceded 99 shots in an earlier season contest that Adrian won 4-0 … In Appleton, Wis., second seed Lawrence hosts seven seed Concordia-WI. The Falcons recently upset Marian, and actually beat Lawrence last season. The Vikings have had their best season ever under Mike Szkodzinski and are 3-1 all-time against Concordia … The final quarterfinal features third seed MSOE hosting six seed UM-Crookston. The Raiders have been hot as of late, going 9-1-1 in their last 11 games against opponents other than Adrian. They also hit the playoffs coming off an impressive sweep of Marian. The Raiders and Golden Eagles split an early season series in Crookston, but the Raiders have won 15 of the last 16 meetings between the two.