This Week in MIAC: Dec. 3, 2009

Around the League

While most students were home for Thanksgiving break, four MIAC schools saw action over the holiday weekend. St. John’s and Concordia (MN) traveled to Adrian, Michigan to face off against Buffalo State and Adrian College, St. Thomas hosted the University of Wisconsin-Superior for one game, and St. Olaf traveled to Illinois to take on Lake Forest.

The Oles had the most success of any of the MIAC teams, coming back with two wins over the Foresters. Neither was easy though, as St. Olaf clung to a one goal lead through most of the third period in Friday’s 6-4 win, and eked out a 1-0 victory on Saturday. St. Thomas played Superior tightly, but came out on the on the short end as the Yellowjackets went home with a 3-2 win.

In Adrian, St. John’s fell to the hosts 6-2 on Friday, but rebounded to take a 5-4 decision over Buffalo State on Saturday. Concordia came away with two losses on the weekend, but played hard in both of them, losing 3-1 to Adrian and falling 3-2 to Buffalo State despite outshooting them.

This weekend sees all nine MIAC schools in action as conference play resumes. With only five points separating first place from ninth, every matchup is a big one.

Augsburg and St. John’s are both teams looking for consistency. They both find themselves near the bottom of the standings despite having higher expectations coming into the season.

The Auggies have only played two conference games so far, losing and tying against St. Thomas. Meanwhile St. John’s has played four, splitting with St. Thomas and losing two against Bethel.

Neither team can afford to stay near the bottom of the league much longer if they hope to be able to make a push into the playoffs, so this series will be critical for both of them.

The keys here will be if St. John’s will be able to control possession in the Augsburg end and if they’ll be able to stop the Auggies’ dangerous transition attacks. If the Johnnies can, then they have a shot to win both games, but if they can’t Augsburg’s potentially explosive offense may be too much to overcome.

Bethel hits the road for two games at Concordia this weekend, in a matchup between two teams that would be in the playoffs if the season ended today.

Concordia is a tough team to figure out. Their record may be 2-7-2, but they’ve only lost two games by more than two goals. They play hard every game, meaning they almost always have a shot to win no matter who their opponent is. After splitting with St. Mary’s, the Cobbers visited last year’s league champion St. Olaf for two tilts, both ending in ties.

Bethel comes into this weekend in first place after sweeping St. John’s and splitting with Gustavus Adolphus in their previous MIAC games. There’s no breathing room behind the Royals, though, as they are only two points up on the fifth and final playoff position, and three points from being out of playoff contention. Another big weekend by Bethel would go a long way towards their goal of making the playoffs.

The final two matchups are arguably the biggest of the weekend, and I’d be hard pressed to pick either for the series of the week.

Fourth place Hamline takes on sixth place St. Olaf in one of these series. St. Olaf has not had an easy game so far this season. Last year’s regular season champions, the Oles, came into this season looking to make the playoffs again. While their overall record is 5-2-3, they are still winless (0-1-3) in conference play.

Maybe its other teams playing harder against last year’s champion, maybe it’s the league getting better overall. Whatever the reason, the Oles are going to need to find a way to win these tight games if they want to finish near the top of the standings.

Like the others, this weekend will not be an easy weekend for St. Olaf.
Hamline is in fourth despite having only played two conference games so far and is also enjoying the best overall season of any MIAC team, currently sitting at 5-1-1 on the season.

The Pipers are also the only conference team that is undefeated against the NCHA, going 2-0-1 defeating UW-Stevens Point and UW-Eau Claire, and tying third ranked St. Norbert.

However, their only loss of the season was against St. Olaf, in a non-conference game at the beginning of the season. With these games counting in the conference standings, this is a big series for both teams. Can St. Olaf get back to their winning ways and move up the standings? Can Hamline improve on their hot start and stake a claim as one of the MIAC’s best? We’ll find out this weekend.

In the final matchup, Gustavus Adolphus and St. Thomas face off. They are currently tied for second place with identical 2-1-1 records. Both teams are currently one point out of first place, and only one point ahead of fourth, so a good weekend could see a team move into first, while a poor showing could see them slide out of the top five.

Despite their similar records, these two teams could not have more disparate styles.

The Gusties tend to play a wide open game, looking to create odd man rushes, wreak havoc in transition, and relying on their speed and passing to create chances. The Tommies are much more defensive oriented, and do a great job cutting down the number of chances their opponents get. When St. Thomas gains the zone, they tend to move the puck quickly, with a crisp passing game generating chances of their own.

With nine teams, obviously one school is left out of each weekend of league games. This weekend that happens to be St. Mary’s, who will travel to River Falls on Friday for a non-conference game. After this game, the Cardinals will be off until January 2, when they head to Rhode Island for the Nichols New Year’s Tournament.

Royal Flush

Last season it all came down to the last weekend, with Bethel two points behind Augsburg for the final playoff spot. Bethel played hard, but lost by one goal on Friday, while Augsburg lost to St. Olaf. On Saturday, in a must win game, Bethel came through, skating to a 6-3 win.

However, in the other game, Augsburg epically scored three times with their goaltender pulled to force overtime, overcoming a 6-2 St. Olaf lead in the third period. The game finally ended in a 7-7 tie, and the one point the Auggies received from the game was enough to push them into the fifth and final playoff spot, and finish Bethel’s season.

After their season ended, the Royals lost six players to graduation, including four of their top six scorers. Coming into this season coach Joel Johnson knew that the team would be full of underclassmen, and that he did not have a go to player to score.

“Coming into the season, it was hard to know what to expect” said Johnson. “It may sound cliché, but it’s true. When a team has this many freshmen and sophomores, it can be very difficult to know how they’ll react out on the ice, and how they’ll play together as a team.

“Honestly, I’m pleased. The way these guys have bought into the system, and played as a team has been great.”

While upperclassmen such as Damjanovich, Kyle Dynan, and Tom Menozzi have provided leadership for the team, they aren’t the only ones stepping up when needed.

“We’ve gotten leadership from all over the team when needed, different guys are stepping up at different times when we need it. Jon Crause and Mason Swenson on defense, Jake Kogler and Christian Fogerty on offense, Damjanovich in net, among other players” said Johnson.

While some teams look to one or two players to provide leadership when needed, if those players have an off-night, it can lead to the whole team not stepping up. When several players are willing to be held accountable and push the rest of the team when needed, you can have the whole team buying into it, and playing hard for each other.

While the conference season is only one quarter of the way through, this young team sees itself atop the standings. Paced by the scoring of Menozzi, Chris Fiala, Jake Calleja, Dynan, and Jack Paul, the Royals are the only MIAC team with three conference wins. Damjanovich has been solid in net, posting a .917 save percentage in his four conference games.

While there are still plenty of games left to be played, the Royals have to be happy with what they’ve done so far, while still playing hard to stay on top.

While everyone knew the MIAC was going to be close from top to bottom, I don’t think anyone really expected it to be this close.

“The parity in the league this season surprised me,” admitted Johnson. “There are no games that you can pick as one you should win, but on the other hand, there aren’t any games where you’d expect to lose, either.

“It’s really one of my favorite things as a coach, getting to see these guys come together as a team and grow. This team is a lot of fun both on and off the ice, and it’s just great to see them buy into the team values the way they have.”

If the Royals can keep getting contributions from across the team, they have as good a chance as any other team to be in the playoff mix at the end of this season. Until that point though, they’re going to keep playing hard, having fun, and growing together.

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