This Week in the NCHA/MCHA

Welcome back for what should no doubt be another chaotic season. Though many things changed from a season ago, the preseason USCHO.com Division III men’s poll is not one of them: it remains littered with NCHA teams, six in all.

Defending Peters Cup champion Stout was the highest of the bunch and checked in at No. 3 while Superior landed on their heels in fourth. The Blue Devils and Yellowjackets each garnered one first place vote.

St. Norbert and St. Scholastica showed up at Nos. 11 and 13, respectively. Both Stevens Point and River Falls also received votes but failed to crack the top 15.

As usual, Adrian is the lone MCHA team to receive votes and popped up in sixth. It’s the highest preseason ranking ever for the Bulldogs.
The MCHA kicks off its regular season in earnest this weekend while the NCHA hosts a slew of MIAC opponents.
And now, without further ado…

Go Figure

While the relative strength of the NCHA on the national level remains to be determined this season, the parity within the league itself has elevated itself to levels not seen in a very long time — if ever.

Last weekend marked the return to two game conference series and in somewhat shocking fashion it was the three road teams that skated away with all six wins. St. Scholastica, a NCAA tournament team a year ago, garnered a 4-2, 2-1 sweep in Stevens Point but surprisingly the other two NCAA representatives from a year ago are both off to 0-2 league starts.

St. Norbert traveled to Menomonie and dismantled preseason NCHA favorite Stout 2-0 and 4-1, while upstart River Falls traveled to Superior and took down the Yellowjackets 2-1, 7-4. Throw in the fact that Eau Claire dropped games to Marian and Lawrence, and what a way it was to kick the season off.

“I was surprised by the sweeps across the board by the road teams and that’s a real statement on the strength of the conference,” said St. Norbert head coach Tim Coghlin, whose Green Knights moved to 3-0 on the year. “If you look around the league you probably expected Stout, Superior and Stevens Point to really come out and have good series at home. I understand the series were all very, very close, but for the road team to win twice really is a strong statement.”

Coghlins’ statements were very nearly echoed by River Falls head coach Steve Freeman.

“I think this just shows how balanced the league is. The other thing to notice is how they were all real tight games. Our series up in Superior was two great games and if you look at the other series it was the same across the league.”

Balance aside, the biggest waves of the weekend were almost certainly made by St. Norbert. Sweeping a weekend is nothing new for the Green Knights, but considering some of their struggles a year ago, going into Stout and serving up two dominant performances was an outcome few expected.

To put it in perspective, in the process of scoring the four conference points, the Green Knights outshot Stout 40-21 on Friday and 44-17 on Saturday, margins that are dumbfounding considering Stout’s offensive prowess.

“I think [Stout’s Joel] Gaulrapp line is as good as any there is out there, so to do what we did really speaks to the quality of our defensive play and our goaltending,” said Coghlin.

The prolific line of Gaulrapp, Scott Motz and Derek Hanson did connect for the
Blue Devils’ goal on Saturday, but that was it for the weekend.

“It’s hard to play a critical series this early in the year so special teams didn’t look great, but 5-on-5 I thought we were the better team and to me that says a lot,” he said.

The results are especially encouraging for the Green Knights as Stout manhandled St. Norbert in Menomonie a year ago. Considering the game was scoreless after two on Friday, Coghlin is especially pleased with the way they were able to win.

“It was a little bit of reverse to what happened to us last year,” Coghlin said. “We couldn’t find a way to get a ‘W’ and we were getting outworked and outscored in the third period. Our conditioning looked extremely good this weekend and I thought we were the better team both nights.

“That’s the kind of game that can help you become a better team quickly. I certainly hope that’s something that happens for us, but with an 18 game schedule there are certainly going to be ups and downs. Nonetheless, when you put yourself in positions to win games you are going to win more than you lose and that’s what we did.”

River Falls’ victories in Superior move the Falcons to 3-0 overall and the four points land it atop the NCHA after one week, which for Freeman is a refreshing change of pace from the sluggish 1-6-1 overall and 1-3 league starts the Falcons limped out to a year ago.

“Obviously we hope to win every game we play, but that was huge for us early on. Wessman is a tough to play and to go in there against a very good, big and physical team and get four points early on is real big for us,” Freeman said.

The Falcons wins couldn’t have been any more different from a stylistic standpoint. A third period goal by freshman defenseman Brady Horn capped off a 2-1 dogfight on Friday, while the Falcons’ offense, paced by a four point night by freshman Justin Brossman, exploded for a 7-4 win on Saturday.

Interestingly, River Falls was outshot 43-25 in Saturday’s contest.

“The first game was real tight and the second one opened up a bit, but there was a lot of physical play. This just goes to show that there are no sure things in this league even with home ice,” Freeman said.

The Falcons are off to a much better start than a year ago. Much of this can be attributed to the fact their very young roster of a year ago has a year of NCHA experience under their belts, but Freeman also keyed on the contributions of this year’s newcomers.

“I think some of the players we’ve added through our recruiting class have helped out a bit,” he said. “We’re a little more skilled and a little quicker, especially in the back. Our special teams also held up well, and those things can come and go, but we scored four power-play goals and didn’t allow one so that was the difference in the series.”

This weekend the NCHA teams all square off against MIAC foes, and River Falls draws a pair of tough opponents in Gustavus Adolphus and Augsburg. The Golden Gusties return nearly everyone from last year’s NCAA finalist squad, while Augsburg is coming off a 2-0 weekend at the MIAC Showcase. Included in the Auggies two wins is a victory over the Gusties.

“Both teams are playing well and it should be a great test playing Gustavus right away on Friday,” Freeman said. “Obviously they went to the Frozen Four last year and they are tremendously talented up front so it should be a real challenge for us. At the same time Augsburg is off to a good start so we certainly need to be ready to go this weekend.”

The superb opening weekends of St. Norbert and River Falls are evidence the NCHA plans on remaining as quirky as always. With St. Scholastica also 2-0 in conference play it means the NCHA coaches’ preseason second, fifth and sixth picks are atop the standings while the first, third and fourth place selections all reside at 0-2.

Sixteen games to go. Welcome to the jungle.

The “Adrian Gap”

During the Cold War, the “missile gap” was a phrase coined in reference to the disparity in nuclear weapons between the United States and the Soviet Union. Numerous estimates contended that the Soviets possessed far more firepower than we did and that the “gap” needed to be addressed by our government most urgently.

History has shown that the concept’s advocates knew all along that the purported gap was exaggerated, but perpetuated it anyway so as to achieve its own ends.

In that same vein, I now present . . . the “Adrian Gap”.

Most people know the numbers, but here they are again. Since joining the MCHA two years ago, Adrian has posted a 39-1 league record. The Bulldogs have won 37 straight MCHA regular season games and claimed the Harris Cup playoff championship each of the past two years.

As no MCHA team has yet had a chance to prove itself on the national stage, this phenomenon has led to endless discussions on the relative on-ice merits of the Adrian program.

The stakes have now been raised: as the MCHA finally has a NCAA automatic qualification bid, it means that beginning this season someone from the league will get that long-awaited shot on the national level.

Adrian is the overwhelming preseason favorite to be this team. 39-1 is impossible to argue with and the Bulldogs landed every possible first place vote in the preseason coaches’ poll. The lone vote they didn’t claim was that of Adrian head coach Ron Fogarty as coaches (should he have even wanted to) are not allowed to vote for their own team.

Division III hockey often reminds us that past performance is often no certain indicator of future results, so before anyone starts punching the Bulldogs’ ticket to the NCAAs, I can think of two far better things to worry about.

First, how big is the gap between Adrian and the host of teams trying to real them in? And second, like the missile gap, is this all merely perception due to “policy by press release” (meaning: if it gets said enough times it becomes truth)?

“There is no doubt right now that Adrian is the class of our league and we need to do what we can to catch up with them. I think the gap is probably closing but we have a long way to go to catch those guys,” said Lawrence head coach Mike Szkodzinski, whose Vikings finished second in the MCHA a year ago.

Similar sentiments were shared by Milwaukee School of Engineering head coach Mark Ostapina. The Raiders have fallen to the Bulldogs in the MCHA playoffs each of the past two seasons, including a 7-1 loss in last season’s title game.

“They are very good and there is no question about it,” he said. “They have a high level of execution and they’ve got some players with superior skill levels.

“Right now everyone is chasing them, and until they are caught that gap is as big as the Grand Canyon.”

Marian and head coach Jasen Wise, aside from being the lone MCHA team to ever defeat Adrian, is the third team many are looking at to be the one that can step up and give the Bulldogs a legitimate run.

“Look at the scores last year. I don’t think the gap closed at all because they are flat out good,” Wise said. “Has it closed this year? I think it’s still too early to tell. Until one of the other schools steps up and beats them on a regular basis there is still going to be a big gap.”

The fairly high praise is warranted based on Adrian’s success, but it’s also to be expected from a trio of coaches who have just as much desire as Adrian to win the league, the Harris Cup, and to be the first MCHA team in history to participate in the NCAA tournament.

Let’s see what some more numbers say:

As mentioned, Adrian is 39-1 all-time in the NCAA, but let’s not count games against Northland, Crookston and Concordia for the time being. That leaves MSOE, Marian, Lawrence and Finlandia.

Adrian has played those teams a total of 26 times in two plus years and holds a 25-1 record. The Bulldogs’ average margin of victory has been 5.42-1.85.
For comparison’s sake, those same four teams have played teams from the NCHA a total of 24 times over that same span. The NCHA’s 19-2-3 record is dominant, and its average margin of victory is 4.63-1.88.

In those 24 contests, St. Norbert was the opponent seven times, Superior six, River Falls three, Eau Claire three, Stevens Point twice, Stout twice and St. Scholastica once.

Considering we have little else to go on, those 50 games sure seem to put Adrian on par with numerous teams who are routinely ranked in the top 10 nationally.

Unfortunately, that’s not a case that can be made (yet) for any other team in the league. That raises the question as to whether Adrian’s mere presence has served to help improve the overall quality of the league by providing even more impetus to improve as rapidly as possible.

While other coaches acknowledge that it certainly is a factor in the sense Adrian has set a standard they know they have to exceed in order to win the league, two other factors appear to be much more driving factors in this respect.

The first is that it’s the natural progression of the league. Finlandia has already put some excellent teams on the ice, while coaches like Wise and Szkodzinski played for top programs and were well aware of what constitutes an elite program before Adrian ever existed. Additionally, let’s not forget that Ostapina has already coached a team to the NCAA tournament when he led New England College to the NCAAs in 2001.

“I think it’s a combination of a lot of things, but there is no doubt that coach Fogarty and that program have forced us to step up our efforts when it comes to recruitment and ultimately our on ice product,” Szkodzinski said.

“I think it’s just general circumstances as far as programs go across the board,” added Ostapina. “A lot of things are just based on the natural progression of how schools do business.”

The second is most likely the most significant. For the first time ever, MCHA coaches are able to sell their team, as well as any potential recruits, the fact that it is no longer a foregone conclusion that their season will end before the NCAA tournament even begins.

“Obviously the AQ [automatic qualifier] has heightened everyone’s awareness about our league,” Ostapina said. “Everyone now understands what the carrot is that all teams are chasing. It’s great for the MCHA to be on an equal footing with all these other leagues. It helped the ECAC Northeast when they got it, and it will definitely help the MCHA now that we have it.”

Indeed it will, but as far as this season goes will it be enough to help anyone push the threshold Adrian has established?

Maybe we’ll find out this weekend as Adrian hits the road to take on Marian. It was almost two years ago that the Sabres scored the win over the Bulldogs, but Adrian has won the last two meetings by a combined score of 18-4. One way or another, this weekend will no doubt set the tone for whether this season’s “Adrian Gap” is a matter of perception or reality.

Signed and Sealed

I’ve been meaning to do this for three years, but this year I finally did it.

Just to be on record, prior to the start of this season I recorded numerous predictions. In the name of honesty, they have been signed and sealed by new our MIAC writer Scott Bridges and he has safely stowed them away — well out of my reach. Some are a bit off the wall, some will no doubt seem obvious in retrospect, and some I just don’t have the guts to currently utter publicly. When all is said and done, I’m going to look like a prophet or an idiot, and my money is on the latter, but either should no doubt prove amusing.

However things unfold, stay tuned as full disclosure and analysis will be unveiled at the end of the season and we can all see how the future as I foresaw it compared to the reality all of us will have witnessed.

Tasty Travels

This final bit of early season housekeeping concerns a new feature to the column. As some may recall, I spent an entire section in one of last season’s columns lamenting the closing of an excellent sandwich shop near St. Norbert. At the same time I expressed my contempt for chain restaurants and extolled the virtues of finding great dining establishments when I travel for Division III games.

It’s time to take this to the next level. This season, this section will feature a legitimate weekly review of a restaurant located in a D-III city. As I’m always up for learning new things, I have some places already planned but I’m always open to suggestions on this matter. Do you know a great local place that I should hit up while traveling? If so, please feel free to send your suggestions to [email protected] and should my travels bring me to your town, I could very well take you up on your recommendation. One word of warning: no matter how I try to combat it, I do not like seafood.

Naturally, all establishments will be rated on a 1-5 puck scale. Take that, pretzel.

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