This Week in the NCHA/MCHA

The opening round of the playoffs is in the books in both the MCHA and NCHA and surprisingly there was nothing … too surprising.

The higher seeds advanced in all eight quarterfinal series, and MCHA three seed MSOE was the only favorite who needed the mini-game to advance. In other MCHA action Adrian swept Northland, Lawrence swept Concordia-WI and Marian swept Finlandia.

The MCHA frozen four takes place this weekend at Arrington Arena in Adrian, Mich., with the semifinals being played on Saturday and the championship game on Sunday.

Top seeded Adrian will face fourth seed Marian in Saturday’s first semifinal, while second seed Lawrence and third seed MSOE will meet in the nightcap.

Over in the NCHA, both semifinals will be played Saturday night, as top seed Superior host fourth seed St. Norbert and second seed Stout hosts third seed St. Scholastica.

With an abundance of playoff activity on the ice last weekend, it’s worth another look at the West Region NCAA Rankings as a new edition came out this Tuesday.

It looks like this:

1. Superior
2. St. Scholastica
3. Stout
4. St. Norbert
5. St. Olaf
6. Gustavus Adolphus
7. Stevens Point

The only change this week was Stevens Point replacing St. Thomas at No. 7, though the important part of the poll to keep an eye on the next two weeks will be the top four. Each one of the top four teams plays another this week, and two are destined to meet next week for the Peters Cup.

A Stout win over St. Scholastica this Saturday will significantly tighten the race for second, while a St. Norbert win over Superior might work to tighten everything at the top.

Though no one knows what will happen on the ice this weekend, we do know that come this time next week the Western race for the NCAA’s will almost be completely in focus.

MCHA

The MCHA Frozen Four kicks off Saturday afternoon at Arrington Ice Arena in Adrian, Mich. The top-seeded Bulldogs will face fourth-seeded Marian in Saturday’s first semifinal.

The Bulldogs earned the right to host by claiming last season’s MCHA regular season title. As they also won this season’s regular season crowd, they will host the event again next season.

Adrian head coach Ron Fogarty is excited at the opportunity this presents for the college to showcase itself.

“I think it’s great for our college and the community,” he said. “The community has rallied around it and we’re ready to go. To be able to host a conference final like this is great for our school.”

Aside from the games themselves, the weekend will also include a banquet Friday evening at which MCHA all-conference and all-academic honors will be announced. The banquet will feature long-time NHL player Pat Verbeek as keynote speaker.

As far as the Adrian match-up with Marian is concerned, it might benefit Marian that Finlandia gave the Sabres all they could handle a week ago. Nonetheless, the Sabres scored a 5-3, 4-3 sweep over the Lions.

“We were forced to play good hockey,” explained Sabres’ head coach Jasen Wise. “Even though it’s a little more nerve racking I would rather have played a series like that than one that maybe would have been a little easier.

“We found a way to put the puck in the net which is something we had been struggling to do.”

In fact, the nine goals the Sabres tallied against Finlandia was their highest weekend output since mid-January.

The Sabres remain the only MCHA to ever beat Adrian, having done so last season. As far as this season goes, Adrian won all four contests between the two by a combined score of 22-6. Adrian won the final meeting of the season, 10-1.

Despite the Bulldogs’ success against the Sabres this season, Fogarty knows there are plenty of reasons to be wary of the Sabres.

“Going back and watching the tapes of our earlier games, they are a threat on the penalty kill,” he said. “We have to make sure we move the puck quickly and move to open spaces. We can’t hold on to the puck too long or telegraph things. They are aggressive and do a great job in the neutral zone by standing things up.

“They also have some forwards who had done a great job for them and their goaltending has been very good all season.”

Fogarty pointed to the Bulldogs’ top line of Shawn Skelly, Adam Krug and Eric Miller as being essential to any success this weekend. Simply put, he said that if they don’t produce, Adrian won’t win.

Led by Skelly’s 67, that line has accounted for 155 points this season. Despite the prolific nature of Adrian’s top line, Wise thinks Marian must key on Adrian’s offense in general if they want to come out on top of Saturday’s contest.

“Their overall offense and their power play. It seems like they can score goals whenever they want to. Hopefully if we can play in their end a little more we can slow some of that down.”

From an Adrian standpoint, Marian’s ability to adapt throughout the course of a game is cause for concern.

“They are very well coached,” Fogerty said. “Jasen Wise has them in a position where they can adapt to situations.

“You can see them changing things throughout the course of a game to counter what their opponents are doing. Special teams and strength in coaching are two areas in which they really excel.”

The one other aspect of the matchup that both coaches paid particular attention to was the battle of special teams.

Adrian’s power play has fired at 35.5% this season and accounted for an overwhelming 65 goals. Meanwhile, Marian is known for having an extremely aggressive penalty kill as rightfully so as the Sabres have notched 27 shorthanded goals in the past two seasons.

In Marian’s 7-5 win over Adrian last season, the Sabres scored two shorthanded goals and both were huge momentum changers in the game.

Overall, through its ability to adapt and prowess on special teams, Marian possesses the ability to give teams fits. Though unable to do so in any of this season’s meetings with the Bulldogs, don’t sleep on the Sabres this weekend. After all, they’ve beaten Adrian once before.

The second semifinal pits MSOE and Lawrence against one another. Granted, the phrase is probably overused but this one really is “as close at it gets on paper.”

The two only met twice this season, and it was all the way back in November during the second week of MCHA play. MSOE won the series opener, 2-1, but it did it the hard way. The Raiders tied the game with five seconds left in regulation and won it nearly four minutes into overtime.

The Vikings enacted payback the next night, scoring a 1-0 win with eight seconds left in regulation.

Lawrence advanced to the semifinals with a sweep of Concordia-WI, while MSOE needed a win on Saturday to force a mini-game. The Raiders scored the win, and then won the mini-game, 2-1.

As far as whether the early season series might be an indicator of how Saturday’s meeting will go, Lawrence head coach Mike Szkodzinski says a lot has changed since then.

“It was definitely a very even series and both teams were very evenly matched,” he said. “I do think both teams are different today. Those were so early in the year and I think both teams have improved drastically from that point.”

One of the major differences between now and then is that MSOE appears to finally be fully healthy and firing on all cylinders, which should serve to increase the offensive prowess of the Raiders, a lack of which has plagued them at times this season.

Most important to the Raiders’ offense is that sophomore forward Mike Soik is finally healthy.

“I think they have some of their injured guys back and that’s important for them. When you’re missing a guy like Mike Soik it makes a big difference,” said Szkodzinski.

Soik, along with freshman Brock King and junior Steve Smiddy make up the Raiders most potent offensive line, despite Soik missing nearly half the season with injury.

“We definitely have to play physical against MSOE,” explained Szkodzinski. “They’ve had injuries in the past and if we can stay physical hopefully we can slow down their offense a bit. We also have to pay attention to where Smiddy, King and Soik are because they are great players and can easily turn a game around in an instant.”

Though the Raiders needed a mini-game to get by Crookston last week, their last loss prior to that to someone not named Adrian came all the way back on January 9. Lawrence enters the weekend on a roll of its own and has won seven of it’s last eight. Additionally, the Vikings have lost only three games since Thanksgiving.

Szkodzinski explained: “Whenever you get on a little bit of a run it certainly starts building confidence within the team. We especially feel like our defense has been our biggest strength as to why we were able to get a little bit of a streak going.”

It’s only logical that the 2/3 matchup is going to be a competitive one, but this one should be especially so.

With both teams on relative hot streaks, both healthy and both gunning for a spot in the Harris Cup final, the fans in Adrian would have to be fools to check out of this one early.

NCHA

Though Stout and St. Scholastica have both made it to at least the conference semifinals the previous two seasons, they had managed to avoid each other in the postseason.

That changes Saturday evening as three seed St. Scholastica travels to second seed Stout for a NCHA semifinal contest.

The Saints advanced out of the quarterfinal with a two 2-0 wins over River Falls.

Saints’ head coach Mark Wick was pleased with his team’s effort a week ago.

“To be able to beat a team like that twice, I’m proud of the way our guys played,” he said. “It’s one thing to win two games in a weekend, but it’s a lot tougher to beat the same team two nights in a row.”

Meanwhile, the Blue Devils also scored a sweep and it came by way of 2-1, 5-3 victories over Eau Claire.

Looking back on the series, Stout head coach Terry Watkins said, “I thought it was a great series. We’ve played some great teams in the past couple weeks and Eau Claire is an awfully good team. Fortunately we were able to come out of that.”

The Blue Devils have been the comeback kids of the NCHA recently, and that was once again the case in the Eau Claire series as Stout rallied from behind both nights. Last weekend was no exception for the Blue Devils, as they are 10-0-2 in their last twelve games and have come from behind to win or tie in seven of those.

“We are in good shape right now. We work on our conditioning a lot and maybe we rely on it too much, but our kids are working hard but we don’t quit and I think that’s the key,” said Watkins.

St. Scholastica hasn’t had quite the flair for the dramatic, but has been nearly as successful down the stretch as Stout has been. The Saints are 16-2-1 in their last 19 games.

As far as this weekend’s match-up is concerned, the Saints have gotten the best of the Blue Devils this year, posting a 5-2 win at Stout early in the year and settling for a 2-2 tie at home a little over a month ago. Despite the relative success, Wick doesn’t think it means much heading into this weekend.

“I think early in the year they were going through some growing pain type stuff and maybe looking at some different guys. When we played them later in the year up here it was a great game. They are a great team, and even though we beat them 5-2 down there early I’m not sure it means we are any better than they are.”

One of Wick’s main concerns is the up-tempo nature of Stout. Like many coaches around the NCHA, the idea of getting into a shootout with the Blue Devils is not something he looks fondly on.

“The thing we don’t want to do is get into a horse race with them because that’s where they are very dangerous. If we let this game get too wide open I don’t think that plays into our hands.”

The Blue Devils ability to score a lot in a hurry is largely fueled by its top line of Joel Gaulrapp, Derek Hanson and Scott Motz. On the season, the three have accounted for 109 and are the top three scorers on the Blue Devils.

With Stout’s offensive prowess being one half of what makes this such an intriguing matchup, St. Scholastica’s reputation for being of the top defensive lockdown teams in the league is the other half.

Led by senior goaltender Steve Bounds, the Saints have an uncanny ability for stifling the opposition’s offense.

Describing St. Scholastica, Watkins said, “[t]hey are pretty physical and their goaltending has been great. Bounds has had a wonderful year and we have to get some shots and get some rebounds. They do a great job of not letting teams get to the net and clearing you out so you can’t get rebounds.”

Simply put, though these teams both do a lot of things well, Saturday will feature the classic case of the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object. As to which will crack first, who knows, but as Watkins states, it should be a heck of a game.

“I think it’s a great match-up. We’re looking forward to it. Last time we played it was a well played, physical, clean hockey game and I think it will be the same this time.”

The other NCHA semifinal features a couple of familiar foes in a not so familiar setting as fourth seed St. Norbert hits the road to take on top seed Superior.

The Green Knights and Yellowjackets are no strangers to each other when it comes to the Peters Cup playoffs, but this is the first time the Green Knights will travel to Superior for conference playoff action since, well, never.

The only time St. Norbert has ever traveled to Superior for the postseason was for a 1997 NCAA quarterfinal series that Superior won in a mini-game.

In more recent history, the Green Knights and Yellowjackets have met in the NCHA finals four out of the previous seven years, with each hoisting the Peters Cup twice.

Superior advanced to the semifinals with a 4-3, 5-0 sweep over Lake Forest, and it’s a series that head coach Dan Stauber says served as an important learning experience for his club.

“I think it reminded us we have to be ready to play every night. [On Friday] they came out and got a lead on us and quite frankly we were lucky to come back and win that game.”

“On Saturday,” he continued, “when we stuck to our systems and played with a little more heart we were more successful.”

St. Norbert advanced with a 8-3, 4-3 (ot) sweep of Stevens Point. Like Stauber, Green Knights head coach Tim Coghlin thinks last weekend offers some positives to build upon.

“I thought it was a big character weekend for us,” he said. “I thought it was the most adversity we’ve had to face in some time and we came out on the positive side. We haven’t had a lot of those this year and hopefully it’s a big momentum builder for us.”

“We got some timely goal scoring, we scored in bunches, we scored a couple powerplay goals and we scored a shorty. There was a little bit of everything there.”

This season, Superior won the season series with St. Norbert by scoring a 4-3 home victory early in the year and skating to a 2-2 tie at St. Norbert in late January.

Though Superior has held the upper hand this year, neither coach is taking much of anything to the bank based on the previous two meetings.

“The game here I thought we played very well. The game up there looked like two boxers just exchanging punches,” said Coghlin.

Stauber meanwhile, had similar sentiments, stating, “[b]oth were hard fought battles. They still have great offense and defense, but the one thing they are missing is Kyle Jones. Both their goaltenders have played very well though, so in my eyes it comes down to a battle of goaltenders.”

Stauber is likely right on the money with that statement as though both teams are strong on offense and defense, Superior will hit the ice with NCHA Player of the Year Chad Beiswenger in net, while St. Norbert will counter with either Blake Bashor or B.J. O’Brien. The entirety of Bashor’s and O’Brien’s NCHA playoff experience is that which they gained last weekend against Stevens Point.

That said, Coghlin is aware the Yellowjackets present many more challenges than just figuring out a way to solve Beiswenger.

“Their production is excellent,” he said. “Their second line accounts for 87 points; their third accounts for 85. We don’t have any lines that account for that many. Their production is just very, very good.”

He added, “[t]hey move the puck well, they are four lines deep, they’ve been getting it done a lot of ways and they have the POTY in the pipes.”

One intangible that might work in the Yellowjackets favor is that Wessman Arena should be a madhouse on Saturday. It’s no secret there is no love lost between the fans of these two programs and the Superior fans have waited a long time to get a crack at the Green Knights at Wessman in the playoffs.

For good reason, perhaps, as over the past three seasons St. Norbert has struggled at Superior, only winning once at Wessman since the 2002-03 season.

“For as good as our record is against Superior over the years, we have not done well up there over the past few years,” said Coghlin.

In the Yellowjacket camp, Stauber is hoping the home ice might pay some dividends this weekend.

“Hopefully playing at home is big for us and maybe it can get them out of their element a bit. The last couple years they have been at home quite a bit. It’s not a big deal because it’s one game but hopefully it does throw them off a bit.”

One more interesting aspect to this matchup is that Superior all but has a NCAA tournament bid locked up, even if it should not win the NCHA playoffs. Despite that being the case, Stauber insists that’s not even on the minds of the Yellowjackets.

“We’re telling our guys we need to win to win to get in,” he said. “We aren’t even looking at the other option and we’re staying focused on trying to win because that’s the only guarantee there is.”

Stauber’s statements are only logical, as after all this is Superior and St. Norbert in the Peters Cup playoffs. Like either cares about anything other than winning.

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