This Week in the NCHA/MCHA: Nov. 12, 2009

The first regular season installment of the Division III men’s poll was released on Monday, and at first glance it looks pretty much as expected. Five NCHA teams grace the top 15 and Adrian is hanging out roughly where it has for the better part of the past two years.

The big mover was St. Norbert, who at 4-0-1 vaults all the way to the top spot in the land, up ten positions from the inaugural poll. The Green Knights landed seven first place votes, one more than second place Oswego.

Adrian and its two first place votes slid up one spot to number five, while River Falls, St. Scholastica and Stout landed at eighth, ninth and tenth, respectively. Superior rounds out the NCHA teams by holding onto 14th, down 10 spots from its preseason ranking of fourth

Though seeming like a conventional poll — as far as the NCHA and MCHA are concerned — further examination reveals otherwise.

A look at the “others receiving votes” shows Milwaukee School of Engineering landing 10 votes and Lawrence five. That makes this poll the first in the history of USCHO in which three MCHA teams received votes.

Not something that is bound to send shockwaves through the world of Division III, but empires aren’t built overnight. And in terms of the poll (which reflects the collective perception of numerous D-III coaches) it looks like we can add a third brick to the foundation of the MCHA’s castle.

First Impressions

After discussing the magnitude of the gap between Adrian and the rest of the league a week ago, the Bulldogs went out and scored a road sweep at Marian. Considering the Sabres were expected to be one of the Bulldogs’ biggest challengers, the 13-2 combined weekend score certainly seems to indicate, for now at least, that the Bulldogs are once again the team to beat — and once again it’s by a considerable margin.

They aren’t alone at the top of the league, however, as MSOE, Lawrence and Lake Forest are all undefeated in league play.

Lake Forest? Yep, that’s right.

As first year MCHA members, the Foresters ultimate place in the conference still remains an unanswered question, but for head coach Tony Fritz, last weekend’s 7-6, 3-0 road sweep over Finlandia is about as good of a start as he could have hoped for — and for more than just the obvious reasons.

“The most prevailing thought is that it’s the first week since ’05 that we’ve swept anybody,” he said. “We swept [University of Wisconsin-]Eau Claire and [UW-Stevens] Point that fall and then swept Stevens Point that spring in the conference playoffs and that’s the last time we’ve swept anybody.

“This was the first sweep ever for our seniors. Doing it on the road was very important as that’s a tough road trip. It’s important to your players that they are successful and that’s the key.”

Beyond that, the significance of a four point road weekend is not lost on Fritz as Lake Forest is expected to be in the mix with Lawrence, MSOE, Marian and Finlandia for the 2-6 spots in the league.

“That’s huge and it’s puts us in the driver’s seat for the first time in a long time. Here we are with four points in the second week and we’re pretty excited about that.”

The Foresters scored a wild 7-6 win on Friday in a game that featured a combined 110 penalty minutes.

They held a slim 4-3 lead after the second period but blew the game open in the third as freshman defenseman Trent Brown tallied twice and rookie forward Phil Bushbacher added another in the opening five minutes of the final frame.

The Lions scored twice in the next four minutes and added another with only 14 seconds to play, but it wasn’t enough and Lake Forest’s first foray into the MCHA ended with the “W”.

“I just sort of felt we were going to be okay. We were killing penalties alright and everything, but there are still always those unknowns,” Fritz said.

Saturday featured an entirely different style of game, but Lake Forest prevailed again, nothing a 3-0 victory. Freshman netminder Brendan Sullivan turned back 19 Lions’ shots to pick up his first career shutout.

The Foresters roster has 15 freshman so while growing pains will no doubt be a fact of life for some amount of time, the shutout was especially pleasing to Fritz considering they allowed eight goals in their opener at St. Norbert and six in Friday’s win.

“(On Friday) we were too helter-skelter,” Fritz said. “We were playing too much of a run-and-gun game and in our own end we weren’t playing very solid. We were relying on our goalie to keep us in it in the wrong way.

“The second game is where the transformation really took place. We took care of business defensively and that’s key for us and that’s the way we have to play. Anybody who wants to be successful has to first shut things down in their own end.”

Lake Forest will remain an intriguing team to follow this season as it’s not every year a team switches leagues. Despite being one of the more established programs in the West, they might as well be a first year program as it relates to the MCHA. Between that and the challenges that a young team presents, ups-and-downs are a certainty, but for now the Foresters are off to about as good of a start as they could have hoped for.

“It’s the first step and that’s very important. It puts us in the right direction and just gives us some confidence,” Fritz said.

“We’re just trying to be conservative and realistic because we’ve still got some really good teams to play. We still have Adrian for four games, Lawrence is better, MSOE is a good team, Marian is a good team and so on. We also play St. Olaf non-conference so it will be tough. There are a lot of good teams out there no matter where you play.”

A Sick Obsession

Considering the NCHA is so tight it’s almost impossible to figure out where everyone stacks up as of now, let’s try something a bit different this week.
As touched on in this week’s introduction, NCHA teams are all over the place in the national rankings. With four teams cracking the top 10 and another just outside of it, allow me to put the cart four months ahead of the horse and start talking about (gasp!), the NCAA tournament.

Over the past four seasons I have stressed numerous times that come selection time, one game can make or break a season. Within the selection system currently implemented, the key component of my contention is that it often doesn’t matter if that one key game was played last week or is in late February.

The NCHA landed three teams in the NCAA tournament field last season, the first time in 10 years that was the case.

So what are the prospects for this season? Well, pretty good in the sense the NCHA has as many quality teams as it does, but there have been numerous changes this offseason that, one way or another, will possibly have a profound effect.

They all stem from the fact the NCHA has switched to an 18 game conference schedule in which each team will play every other three times. Talk has circulated that this might raise the opponent’s winning percentage (OWP) component of the selection criteria for NCHA teams. OWP has carried significant weight in recent years and it has been purported that, like what seems to be the case in a league like the ECAC West, more conference games might raise OWP league-wide.

Having nothing better to do, I tried to quantify this to see if this theory might be accurate. As always, trying to predict the future involves some assumptions, but this is how it works.

Using last season’s results, I attempted to adjust last season’s results to determine what last year would have looked like had it been played under this season’s schedule format.

The assumptions:

— The adjusted playoff formats of the MCHA and NCHA have been accounted for
— The new MCHA divisional setup was accounted for
— Lake Forest simply “replaced” Crookston in the MCHA, but the Foresters record was adjusted to a likely realistic 10-10-0 in the MCHA (Crookston was 5-15-0) and the records of other MCHA teams were adjusted accordingly
— NCHA teams lose two conference games with Lake Forest and pick up a third with every other NCHA team
— NCHA teams lose four games with MIAC teams and MIAC teams lose four games with NCHA teams. In both cases the first four NCHA-MIAC games of each team’s season last year were the ones used
— The MIAC teams needed to pick up four games, so the “extra” four opponents they each play this season were used to simulate these
— Games against Eastern opponents are not counted
— This counts games played up through the conference tournaments in all leagues

Again, and as simply speaking as possible, last season’s results established trends. Last season’s schedules were then altered to match this year’s scheduling patterns, and the established trends were reapplied to determine results.

The NCHA ended up looking like this:

GP W L T Win % OWP

Superior 27 20 4 3 0.796 0.5115
Stout 29 22 5 2 0.793 0.5155
St. Scholastica 27 18 8 1 0.685 0.4985
St. Norbert 27 17 9 1 0.648 0.5476
Stevens Point 27 11 14 2 0.444 0.5217
River Falls 27 9 17 1 0.352 0.6091
Eau Claire 27 7 19 1 0.278 0.5833

When looking at the resultant OWP’s, the first thing that jumps out are the gargantuan OWP’s of River Falls and Eau Claire. Only problem is that in this scenario, neither is in the NCAA picture. So how about the top four teams in the league?

Last season’s OWP’s for Superior, Stout, St. Scholastica and St. Norbert were .5339, .5361, .5367 and .5725, respectively.

Comparing the hypotheticals calculated above to last season’s reality, the net changes were:

Superior: -.0224
Stout: -.0206
St. Scholastica: -.0382
St. Norbert: -.0249

An across the board drop, and the question is why? A few ideas come to mind.
Namely, the reduction of games against the MIAC serves to hurt the overall records of NCHA teams. This is of course predicated on the NCHA dominating the MIAC, which is what it did last season by going 30 games over .500 in the Interlock. Only one NCHA team finished below .500 a year ago, and rest assured that will not be the case this season.

As games between NCHA will always result in a composite .500 record it means the overall win percentages of the league will drop. Combine the lower overall winning percentages with six additional games against each other and a drop relative to last season appears inevitable.

St. Norbert is an easy team to look at to demonstrate this. Last year, the Green Knights played eight games against UW-Stevens Point, UW-River Falls and UW-Eau Claire, and those three had a combined record of 38-38-5 (.500).
After adjusting the schedule, however, the same Green Knights play Stevens Point, River Falls and Eau Claire a total of 11 times, and the three offer a combined record of 27-50-4. That’s nearly half of the season coming against teams with a combined .333 winning percentage.

Simply put, that is not going to help OWP.

An interesting sidebar here is this change overpowers the removal of two games against a 5-20-2 Lake Forest, the Foresters actual record a year ago.

Numerous other things arise, but would only serve to muddle the point. The only one I will point out, because it’s simple and interesting, is that the difference between playing Gustavus Adolphus and St. Olaf versus playing Concordia (MN) and St. John’s is quite significant. The same goes for playing, for example, MSOE and Lawrence instead of Northland and Concordia (WI). The magnitude of the impact from just a couple of games can be surprisingly large.

I’ll admit, this endeavor took on a life of its own just because I was curious to see what sort of an impact the 18 game league schedule might have on OWP, but ultimately I’m left with two grand conclusions:

First, the 18 game NCHA schedule makes perfect sense from a balance standpoint and the return of the two game series are wonderful for fans. Nonetheless, I purport that the changes will invariably hurt the OWP’s of the top NCHA teams. We’ll know the validity of this soon enough.

Secondly, it is fascinating in the sense that it shows how fickle some of these things can be, which means just win and keep on winning. After all, if you’re good enough …the numbers won’t matter.

Tasty Travels

The beneficiary, perhaps, of last weekend’s travel was none other Luigi’s Pizza in River Falls, Wisconsin. Located at 103 E Locust St. in its quaint downtown, this was my second visit to Luigi’s. In the name of full disclosure, I stopped there last season and was quite disappointed with the manicotti … and I’m not easily disappointed. Following that experience, a coworker chided me for not getting the deep dish pan pizza and was insistent on the fact that when visiting Luigi’s that “you have to get it”.

So I did. Before ordering, three things jumped out at me on the menu. The first was the claim of authentic Chicago-style deep dish, which, when applied literally is a tough standard to uphold. The second was the 45 minute cook time and the third was the promotion of a homemade tomato sauce that lauded its sweetness and garlic undertones.

Those are some pretty lofty proclamations from a no-frills operation in a not-so-big town in western Wisconsin, but wait the 45 minutes I did.

Forty-one minutes later, our server slapped the cast-iron pan baking pan right on the table and it was immediately apparent Luigi’s lived up to the first promise. No question it was legitimate Chicago-style deep dish. As for the tomato sauce, it was downright excellent and was everything the menu promised: sweet with a definite garlic presence. The key to its excellence, and it was excellent, was that the garlic did not overpower the other flavors working in the sauces’ favor, but was evident enough to make it a truly different sauce.

As for the rest of the pizza, it was loaded with cheese and toppings and the homemade crust maintained its firmness despite spending over a half hour in the oven. I’ve eaten a lot of pizza — some good and some not so good — and bottom line is that this thing was great.

In addition to the pie that surpassed expectations, our server was fantastic and actually asked if we were in town for the hockey game. She even seemed impressed when we explained what USCHO was. Winner! Drinks were refilled promptly and she took the time to make plenty of friendly conversation. Top marks across the board in this department as well, and trust me, her tip indicated as much.

A deep-dish at Luigi’s will run anywhere from $8 to $25 depending on the size and amount of toppings you wish to get, but it’s cheaper than it seems. A small accounted for two legitimate meals for me and ran about $13 with four toppings.

In summation, I don’t know who Luigi is, where he is from, and why he moved to River Falls, but we should all be happy that he did … and that he brought his recipes with him. I recommend his deep dish to anyone looking for some pregame eats should they be in town for a NCHA clash at Hunt Arena.

Truly a pleasant surprise and I leave with only one small word of advice: when they say a medium can feed three to four people, they aren’t joking.

Luigi’s receives: 3.5 pucks.


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