This Week in MIAC: Dec. 10, 2009

Conference Roundup

After all the unexpected results of the first two weeks of conference play, this past weekend seemed to finally answer some nagging questions.

At the same time though, it did nothing to put any gaps between teams in the standings. Six teams are within four points of first place, meaning a great weekend for one squad could see them vault up the standings, while a bad weekend for another could see them come crashing down.

Bethel’s split with Concordia (MN) pushed the Royals out of first place, but just barely, as they now sit in second place. Meanwhile, the Cobbers came out of the weekend in fourth place, only two points behind Bethel.

The results of the other three series may not have been particular surprising, but the manner that they occurred was definitely unexpected.

After returning most of last year’s forwards, it was somewhat assumed that Augsburg’s offense would come back as fast paced and action packed as last year. So while it may not have been surprising that the Auggies defeated St. John’s Friday and Saturday, the 3-1 and 3-2 scores may have raised a few eyebrows.

Regardless of how they occurred, the two wins vaulted the Auggies from last place into fifth, which would be good for a playoff spot if the season ended today.

Coming into the weekend, Gustavus Adolphus and St. Thomas were tied for second place in the league. With St. Thomas’s defensive orientation and Gustavus’ ability to generate fast paced attacks, this looked to be an interesting matchup between teams that might be evenly suited for one another.

Instead, the Gusties ran over the Tommies, coming out with a 4-0 shutout and 7-1 rout. When all was said and done, Gustavus was sitting alone in first place and the Tommies had dropped into a tie for fifth.

I picked this last matchup as my series of the week, as it pitted two good teams, both fighting to move up the standings. For some extra spice, they also have a history against each other.

Last season, St. Olaf won the regular season title, finishing a comfortable seven points ahead of second place. However, in their first playoff game, they were unceremoniously knocked out of the playoffs by Hamline in a 5-1 game. St. Olaf got some amount of revenge by beating the Pipers in their first game of the season, which is still Hamline’s only loss so far this year.

So coming into this weekend, I was expecting to see a big effort from St. Olaf, who came into this weekend tied for fifth place. The Oles had been in every game they played until the end, losing to Gustavus by one goal, and tying their three other games. Going into the third period on Friday, the Oles held a 2-0 lead, and it looked like they might win their first conference game of the year.

However, two power-play goals in the final period evened the score and neither team could score in overtime. Just like that, the Oles recorded their fourth tie of the season and remained winless in league play.

On the heels of such a close game, Saturday was definitely shocking.

St. Olaf was never able to generate much offense, and the Pipers swarmed in the Oles zone all night, sustaining pressure, generating power plays, and finally cashing in on their chances. When the final horn sounded, Hamline had won 6-1. St. Olaf still has only two conference losses, yet after this weekend they see themselves sitting in seventh place, while Hamline moved up to third place despite having played two less games than the teams ahead of them.

When asked about what changes the team had made compared to their 3-1 loss earlier in the season, Piper coach Scott Bell talked about the importance of being healthy.

“Even though it was early in the season, we had some guys banged up, or not 100%,” Bell said. “Right now we’ve got almost everyone healthy, and we’re really able to play the way we’ve wanted to play.”

The Pipers have received steady defense, consistent goaltending, and an ability to generate goals from virtually any line they throw out there. Eight different players have scored at least three goals for Hamline, meaning that even if you shut down one line, you still have two more to worry about.

Sophomore goaltender Beau Christian has flourished so far this season, posting an amazing 1.53 goals against average along with a stellar .941 save percentage. The defense in front of him has been great as well, with freshman Taylor Vichorek using his size to clear the crease, and junior Chris Berenguer performing as one of the best two-way defensemen in the league.

While there won’t be another conference game until Jan. 15, the first half of the season has given us a lot of unexpected results, promising starts, disappointing efforts, great stories, and above all, some great hockey from the top of the standings all the way to the bottom. If the rest of the season is anything like this, it’s going to be one wild ride all the way to the end.

One Minute Left in the Period. One Minute . . .

If you boil a season down to a single game, we’d be coming into the first intermission right now. After a break, we’d be right back to the action as the NCHA and MIAC face off again, followed by six weeks of conference games to finish up the second period, er, I mean the regular season. The third and final period would of course be the conference and NCAA playoffs.

It seems like it was only a few days ago that players were getting in game shape, coaches were still figuring out which players to line up together, and the fans were getting ready for the season to start.

Now, just a few short weeks later, we’ve reached the midway point of the season. While there are a handful of games this coming weekend and the first weekend in January, most of the league is off for the next month until the MIAC-NCHA crossover resumes Jan. 8 and 9.

What better time than now to take a quick look at each team’s first half? And since the holiday season is just around the corner, what would be better than giving each team a gift that they could use in the second half?

St. Mary’s Cardinals

There’s a saying that nothing worth doing is ever easy. When head coach Bill Moore returned to St. Mary’s after 20 years, he had a goal to bring the team back to the winning ways it used to enjoy.

It may take some painful rebuilding years, but Moore does have a vision in place, and a plan for reaching it. While currently sitting tied for eighth place, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the team hasn’t improved. With parity so prevalent in the league, improving as a team does not necessarily mean a rise in overall conference finish.

Taking the first four games of the season, if stretched out to a full 16 game league schedule, the Cardinals will score 36 goals while giving up 60. Compared to a 46-93 ratio last season, that is a marked defensive improvement. With another season to recruit the type of players needed to fit their system, teams looking for an easy win over the Cardinals may be in for a rude surprise.

My gift for St. Mary’s: a set of binoculars. While the road to success may seem long and hard, the prize at the end is worth the effort, and it’s a good idea to keep that coveted goal in sight.

St. John’s Johnnies

Last year’s team finished two points out of a playoff spot and lost several key players to graduation. Coming into this season it was unclear if they’d be able to replace all they lost and keep up with the improvements other teams made.

So far this season it’s been a frustrating time for the Johnnies. They currently sit tied for eighth place with only two points in six games. While that may seem bleak, they’ve played well in most games, losing five games by two goals or less. A few bounces here or there and a timely goal or two might have been enough to win a few of those games and turn their 4-7-1 record into a winning one.

The biggest area for improvement for St. John’s is on offense. They are currently allowing less than three goals per game, which is respectable by any league’s standards. Unfortunately, they’re scoring just under two goals a game in league, and under 2.50 overall. If they can find a way to get more offensive pressure without sacrificing defense, this is a team that can steal a tie or win in a game with virtually any opponent.

My gift for the Johnnies: some firecrackers. With some more explosiveness on offense, this team has the potential to make a run in the second half and make the playoffs. And once there, in a one game elimination, any team with this kind of defense can cause nightmares for opposing teams.

St. Olaf Oles

After winning the MIAC regular season title last season, expectations were high coming into this season. Like the Johnnies, the Oles have to be frustrated with how their first half has gone. Despite going 5-1-0 in nonconference play, the Oles have yet to record a win in a league game, posting a record of 0-2-4. While four points is good enough for seventh place (only one point behind the final playoff spot), this cannot be where the Oles imagined they’d be at the end of the first semester.

There have been drop-offs on both offense and defense so far. Last season in league games they averaged 4.13 goals per game while giving up 2.44. So far this season their offensive-to-defensive split is a far inferior 2.33-3.33. Those changes are clearly the difference between a dominant regular season and one that could end in the team missing the playoffs.

Something that might explain the offensive drop is the Oles special teams play so far. Last year they converted on the power play at an impressive rate of 20.7%. So far this season they’re converting only 12.1% of their chances. Whatever the reason, just a handful more goals could have the Oles sitting near the top of the standings instead of near the bottom.

My gift to St. Olaf: a pogo stick. Whether it’s cracking down on defense to protect late leads, getting that extra goal to stomp out late comebacks, or something else, the Oles need to find a way to get over the hump of doing enough not to lose, but not quite enough to win. Hopefully this gift gives them that extra little bounce that they need.

St. Thomas Tommies

The year started off for the Tommies like so many other years: with quite a few more wins than losses. St. Thomas went 4-1-2 in their first seven games, and things were looking good. However, they have now lost their last four games, scoring only three goals over that stretch.

On the defensive front, St. Thomas is right where they were last season.

They’re giving up exactly three goals per game on average, which is definitely respectable. However, their offense has gone way down from last season, from 4.13 goals per game to 1.50. Whether it’s losing scorers to graduation, the league getting defensively better as a whole, or just a midseason slump, the Tommies need to find a way to put the puck in the net more often.

Currently St. Thomas is 69th (out of 72 teams) in the nation on the power play, scoring on a measly 7.1% of their chances. The worst part? That works out to the Tommies scoring four power play goals on the season, while at the same time they’ve given up five shorthanded goals. That means while the Tommies are on the power play, it’s been more likely that their opponents will score than they will. That simply can’t happen if a team is going to succeed.

We’ll have to see what kind of changes the Tommies make before resuming league play next semester. Fortunately for them, they’re one of the few MIAC teams to play this coming week, as they host MSOE for two nonconference games. This is the perfect opportunity for them to try some new things out and see if they can get their offense clicking.

My gift for St. Thomas: A Tommy Gun. While I certainly am hoping they don’t literally mow down their opponents, the Tommies need to do something to increase their firepower. Their defense has been a strong point of the team for years, but they seem to always manage to not sacrifice on offense at the same time. To get back to their winning ways, they’re going to need to be able to show some offensive punch more often. Hopefully this will help.

Augsburg Auggies

When Augsburg defeated Bethel and Gustavus Adolphus in two nonconference games to start the season, it looked like it was going to be a good year for them. After all, they returned virtually all of their forwards from last season’s team that led the MIAC in scoring. But after that opening weekend Augsburg lost three straight, getting shutout in each game.

The Auggies went 0-16 on the power play over that period, including no goals in six tries in a 1-0 loss to UW River Falls. Since that stretch, though, Augsburg has scored at least three goals in every game they’ve played, and gone 8-27 on the power play, good for a 29.6% conversion rate. If they’d kept up that rate all season, that would be good for seventh in the nation.

While they haven’t won any of their last few games in a rout, the Auggies have now quietly won four in a row, and are unbeaten in their last five games.

They still have plenty of tough games in the second half of the season though, as they have yet to face Gustavus, St. Olaf, Hamline, or second place Bethel.

After that dismal three game stretch, the Auggies have to be happy with their last few weeks, even if the offense may not be clicking at the same level it was last season. While their scoring may be down, their defense has improved greatly, going from giving up 4.00 goals in league games last year to only 2.25 this season.

My gift to the Auggies: the Energizer Bunny. It usually doesn’t matter too much how you win, as long as you actually win. Whether it’s by five goals or just one, whether you got outshot or not, whether someone claims they outplayed you or not, none of that really matters as long as at the end of the game: you’re on top. Right now Augsburg has a good streak going, and hopefully they can keep it going … and going … and going.

Concordia (MN) Cobbers

Last season the Cobbers finished dead last in the league, scoring a league worst 35 goals while giving up 65. After six games this season Concordia is in fourth place, having reversed that all-important ratio to 16 goals for, only 13 against.

Despite being one of the youngest teams in the league, the Cobbers have played well for second year coach Chris Howe. His team has lost only two of their 13 games by more than two goals, meaning they’ve had a chance to win in virtually every game they’ve played. When facing the highest scoring team in the nation (the Adrian Bulldogs average 8.2 goals per game), while Concordia did end up losing, it was only by a score of 3-1.

After only three conference weekends, Concordia has more points (six) than they did all of last season (four). They have taken two points each weekend, splitting with Bethel and St. Mary’s, and tying St. Olaf twice. One of the Cobbers biggest strengths this season has been their penalty kill, stopping 89.7% of their opponents’ chances, while scoring two shorthanded goals.

With the majority of this team being underclassmen, there is a lot of potential for them to improve over the rest of the season, but also a chance for erratic play. If Howe can keep his team focused and playing hard, the Cobbers have a great chance to make the playoffs this season. The home stretch won’t be easy though, as they play their last six conference games on the road.

My gift for the Cobbers: blinders. It’s said that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it, but sometimes it’s better to let go of what’s behind you and instead focus on where you’re going. And right now the Cobbers have a great chance to make a run into the playoffs if they finish the season strong. This team does not resemble the Concordia teams of the past few years, and it’s important not to hold their past against them. Instead: give them the respect they are due.

Hamline Pipers

They may be in third place, but it’s not for lack of results. The Pipers are the only team undefeated in MIAC play, currently sporting a 3-0-1 record. Hamline also has the best overall record of any team in the MIAC, sitting at 6-1-2 going into the break.

They’re relying on shutdown defense and a steady offense in conference games so far, allowing 1.50 goals per game while scoring an even four per contest. Their power play has been clipping along at a 24.5% rate, good for 15th in the country.

Not to be outdone, their biggest asset defensively is their penalty kill. The Pipers have allowed only three goals on 52 chances, good for a 94.2% kill rate, which is easily the best in the nation.

Hamline will have possibly their biggest test of the season Jan. 1 and 2 when they host Adrian for a pair of games. The Bulldogs have lost only four games in their two and a half years of existence, putting up an eye popping record of 63-4-1. However, they have never faced any of the top Western teams over that time, instead facing mainly Eastern teams in their nonconference games.

That’s not to say they’ve never played a tough game. Last year, Adrian split a two game series with the eventual national champion Neumann Knights, defeating them 10-1 in the second game. They’ve also played the US U-18 team three times, and have yet to lose, which is not something many teams can say.

All this makes for a very intriguing series between the Pipers and Bulldogs. It’s going to be one heck of a way to kick off the second half of the season.

My present for the Pipers: a camera lens. While things are going well, it’s important to stay focused. The season is only half over and Hamline has plenty of games left, including 12 conference games. A good season can turn around very quickly if you stop working hard, so it’s important to stay focused on each and every game.

Bethel Royals

No one was really quite sure what to expect from Bethel this season. Last year their playoff hopes came down to the final weekend and final game of the season. In the end they finished one point short of their playoff goal, and Augsburg took the final playoff spot.

That team lost a lot of their scoring threats to graduation, although they did return several players on the defensive end. The team probably knew coming into the season that they would have to be able to score from all over instead of relying on a top line to carry them in games.

So far they’ve gotten exactly that, with several players showing up on the scoresheet and making plays when they need them. With everyone playing hard right to the end, their work has earned them second place in the standings after the first half. The Royals swept St. John’s to open conference play and have since split with Concordia and Gustavus Adolphus.

While Bethel’s nonconference record of 0-5-0 does not look pretty, those games are often treated as ways to get players extra ice time, especially those who haven’t seen much time in conference games. Against the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, both backup goalies saw time, each seeing about 30 minutes in net.

Using nonconference games as tune-ups for league games may seem a little strange to some fans, but it’s the best way to try new things out without risking it in a pivotal conference matchup. It shows that the Royals are clearly focused on their MIAC games, and that is not a bad thing.

My gift to Bethel: a brick. When you’re on a team with 20 or so other players, not everyone’s job is necessarily going to be flashy or stand out that much. But every person has a role and plays a part in the team winning. If everyone keeps focusing on playing as a team, and doing their part, what may seem like a small thankless job will eventually lead to something much bigger. After all, even the Great Wall of China started with just a single brick.

Gustavus Adolphus

Gustavus easily leads the MIAC in offense, and is not that far behind on defense either. Through six games, the Gusties average 4.50 goals per game while giving up only 2.50. Led by senior David Martinson’s 12 goals, Gustavus has started this season strong.

After losing in last season’s national championship game, some thought that Gustavus would fade away after graduating senior goaltender Matthew Lopes. Instead, they’ve started this season stronger than the last, currently sitting at 6-3-1 compared to 8-7-0 a year ago.

If you haven’t ever seen Gustavus play and want an example of the kind of speed and skill they bring to the ice every night, look no further: only two teams in the nation have four shorthanded goals (Oswego and Wentworth); the only team with more than four is Gustavus, and they have six.

Once the puck hits the ice, this team does not stop skating hard until the horn sounds. They skate hard in the corners to dig out pucks, they skate hard chasing after loose pucks, and they skate hard when they win the puck and turn it into a 2-on-1 break in what seems like the blink of an eye.

Anyone thinking this team would fade away clearly had not seen them play, and was not giving them the respect their offensive skill, hard work, and defense have earned.

My gift to the Gusties: a picture of their 2008-2009 MIAC championship trophy. No one handed anything to Gustavus last year; they went out and earned it. If they keep playing hard like they did the first half of this season, they have a great shot to earn it again. So I’m giving them this reminder of something that no one can give, something that has to be earned.

Just like the beginning of this season flew by, these next few weeks will go by quickly as well. Soon enough it’ll be time to drop the puck once again and see what more surprises are in store for the MIAC this season. Whether you’re celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, Festivus, or any other holiday, I hope you have a happy and safe time with your friends and family.

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