This Week in the NCHA/MCHA: Dec. 10, 2009

As these are our last columns of 2009, it’s time to take a look at the USCHO.com Division III men’s poll for the final time this calendar year. This week’s edition wasn’t overly surprising, though there was certainly some movement amongst NCHA and MCHA teams.

After going 2-2 in its last four games, St. Norbert is no longer the top team in the nation — nor the top ranked team in the NCHA or MCHA. The Green Knights are now fifth in the country while Adrian held onto fourth and is now ranked higher than anyone from the NCHA.

A split with the aforementioned Green Knights didn’t hurt St. Scholastica as the Saints remained in seventh. Despite being idle last weekend, River Falls moves up a spot to ninth and Superior rounds out the ranked teams, down five spots to No. 12 following a weekend split in Stevens Point.

That’s it for the NCHA/MCHA collectively as for a change not one team from either league is on the outside looking in.

What Have We All Learned Here?

The season is nearly half over for many teams in the NCHA and MCHA and as always there have been some surprises. Some teams have overachieved and some have possibly not yet performed to expectations, but the season has no doubt offered its share of twist and turns thus far. Dozens of story lines have developed that will no doubt be worth following during the second half of the season, so to close out the year here is a recap of some that are worthy of further discussion.

St. Norbert Back On Top

Fresh off their first national title in school history, the Green Knights were heavy preseason favorites to win the NCHA a year ago. When all was said and done, however, their 8-5-1 fourth place finish in the conference and 19-8-1 overall record were not enough to land the Green Knights a spot in the NCAA tournament for a chance to defend their title.

It was not a bad season by most standards, but a disappointing one nonetheless for St. Norbert. Some roster turnover over the summer left the Green Knights with more question marks than originally anticipated, but they have responded in highly impressive fashion.

At 7-1-0 in the NCHA the Green Knights sit atop the conference at the turn. They are six points clear of St. Scholastica, so despite being idle this weekend they will lead the league as the league hits its holiday break. A 4-3 overtime loss to St. Scholastica last Friday is the only blemish on St. Norbert’s league ledger, while their only other loss came to Eastern foe Salem State in the Western Thanksgiving Showcase.

The Green Knights are one of only two teams in the NCHA with a positive goal differential in NCHA play as they currently stand at plus-21. St. Scholastica is the other but the Saints have only scored twice more than their opponents.

After struggling with goaltending a year ago, junior netminder B.J. O’Brien claimed the starting job early this season and has performed admirably in posting a 10-1-1 record with a 1.62 goals against average and .922 save percentage.

St. Norbert is scoring just over four goals a game which, while not dominant, is actually an uptick from their nightly output over the previous two seasons.

The Green Knights rise back to the league might surprise some, while others might have been expecting it. Either way, once again they have proven that just when some start thinking they may have lost their edge, it’s foolhardy to not always consider them a legitimate NCHA contender.

Adrian Perfect, Tests To Come

While St. Norbert may be a bit of a surprise atop the NCHA, Adrian’s reign over the MCHA has come as no surprise at all. The Bulldogs are a flawless 10-0 overall and 8-0 in the conference and have outscored league opponents by an overwhelming 73-17 margin. Their league win streak now stands at 35 games and the closest a MCHA opponent has come to the Bulldogs this year is three goals.

Led by junior forward Mike Dahlinger’s 25 points, Adrian already has three players who have scored over 20 points on the season while seven others have posted more than 10.

Things won’t get easier for the Bulldogs come January, however. In fact, they’re about to get much harder. They kick off the new year with a road series at Hamline before traveling to Oswego to take on the currently top ranked Lakers the following week.

Should they manage to get by those challenges, current MCHA second place Lawrence awaits the following week and the Milwaukee School of Engineering looms the week after. That’s a straight month of challenging games and the Bulldogs’ success — or lack thereof — in January may give us our best gauge ever of how good Adrian actually is … or isn’t.

Finlandia Coaching Change

In a rare and highly unexpected bit of in-season news, it was announced by Finlandia on Nov. 23 that head coach Joe Burcar was released from his position with the university. The release cited only “institutional policy violations” as the reason for his dismissal.

Burcar was in his eighth season as head coach of the Lions and was 74-81-1 during his tenure. Included in that span was a 19-8-0 mark and MCHA Harris Cup playoff title in the 2006-07 campaign.

Finlandia athletic director Chris Salani has taken over head coaching duties on an interim basis for the remainder of the year and a national search to replace Burcar is expected to be held at the conclusion the season.

The Lions currently stand at 2-6 this season and are losers of four straight following a pair of setbacks at Northland a week ago.

Northland Sweeps

Speaking of Northland, the Lumberjacks did indeed sweep Finlandia last weekend. It was their first weekend sweep since downing Crookston on back-to-back nights in 2008, and their first sweep of a Division III opponent since sweeping MSOE in January, 2001.

The pair of wins gives the Lumberjacks more than they had all of a year ago, and despite being 2-8 this season, that’s not the only reason for a bit of optimism is their camp.

They tallied all of 31 goals a season ago but have already posted 27 this season, and are actually averaging over three goals per game over their past seven contests. The Lumberjacks were shut out 11 times last season but have yet to be this year.

Resurgent River Falls

With a roster full of first year players last season the Falcons struggled more than many anticipated. When all was said and done, a loss at St. Scholastica in the opening round of the NCHA playoffs wrapped up a disappointing 10-15-2 season that included a 4-9-1 sixth place finish in the NCHA.

Things haven’t been nearly as disappointing for the Falcons so far this season, as an opening weekend sweep at Superior in late October set the tone and the Falcons currently stand at 7-3-1, are tied for third in the NCHA and are the ninth ranked team in the country.

The Falcons have a chance to enter the break as high as second in the NCHA pending the results of this weekend’s series with rival Stout, and their rebound from a year ago is clear evidence that, like St. Norbert, when a successful program happens to have a down and out year it’s more than wise to keep an eye on them the next.

Youth Is Served, Somewhat

Numerous teams in the NCHA and MCHA are featuring rosters littered with underclassmen and the results have varied.

Despite both featuring large recruiting classes they are extremely high on, Eau Claire and Stevens Point have had a rough go of things so far, though both look to maybe have turned a corner lately.

The Blugolds suffered a nonconference losses to Marian and Lawrence to open the season and started 0-2-2 in the NCHA. After a weeknight loss at Hamline two weeks ago, however, they rebounded with a three point weekend at Stout and now sit a mere three points back of second place in the NCHA.

Things looked even bleaker for the Pointers as they got off to a 0-7 start in NCHA play, and it included a pair of losses that could best be described as heart crushing. After giving up a lead with 12 seconds to go in an eventual overtime loss at Stout, they also allowed two power-play goals in the final three minutes to let last Saturday’s context with Superior to slip through their hands. They did rebound to score a 2-1 win over the Yellowjackets on Saturday to finally get some league points, however.

If either team wants to make a move, this weekend is their chance, as in yet another convenient effort by conference schedule makers, the two square off in a two game set in Stevens Point this weekend.

Aforementioned Superior also has a roster littered with inexperienced players, but due to some offensive firepower provided by a group of upperclassmen, they have fared much better than Eau Claire and Stevens Point.

Despite the opening weekend sweep at the hands of River Falls, the Yellowjackets stand at 7-3-1 overall and are No. 12 in the nation.

Goaltending was a major concern for the ‘Jackets heading into the season, but it appears freshman Garret Tinkham may have landed the number one spot. Tinkham is 4-2-0 with a 2.83 GAA and .895 save pct. on the year.

Heading over to the MCHA, MSOE has had 12 freshman see ice time already this season and the results have been somewhat mixed.

The Raiders are 5-3 overall, but lost both contests with league rival Marian and has yet to play Lawrence or Adrian, the latter of which it will face a daunting four times in the second half of the season. The Raiders travel to St. Thomas this weekend with a prime opportunity to make another statement, or two, on behalf of the MCHA. They are coming off a split with Lake Forest in which a 3-2 Friday loss was followed up by a dominating 9-1 victory.

Lake Forest Settles In

The Foresters are also rife with inexperience, but deserve special note as they of course have the individual storyline of it being their first season in the MCHA.

Like most of the other young teams in the two leagues, it’s been a bit of up-and-down thus far. An astounding 18 freshman, including three goalies, have seen action for the Foresters already this season; they are 3-7 on the year.

Their opening weekend sweep of Finlandia looks less impressive now than it did at the time considering the Lions slow start, though five of the Foresters losses have come to strong teams in St. Norbert, Adrian and St. Olaf.
Last weekend’s results against MSOE are also indicative of the inconsistencies young teams are likely to face.

Overall, it’s probably too early to make a judgment on Lake Forest, but head coach Tony Fritz suggested prior to the season that a .500 finish was a reasonable goal for this year’s club, and despite the 3-7 mark, a look at their schedule in the second half indicates the Foresters might reach that goal.

Saturday Night Fever

Ah yes, the return of the two game series in the NCHA. As expected, the series have done their part to rekindle some old rivalries while amping up the intensity of numerous NCHA weekends.

One way this is manifesting itself, likely to the chagrin of some coaches, is in the accumulation of a healthy dose of penalty minutes.

Superior rolled up 71 minutes in the sin bin in a 7-4 loss to River Falls earlier in the season, included in which were three majors, three 10 minute misconducts and one game disqualification.

Turns out that pales to what went down in River Falls a few weeks ago as St. Norbert and River Falls both notched four game disqualifications for fighting in a game the Green Knights ultimately won. Interestingly, the first two happened in the second period while the final six all occurred during the same third period entanglement.

Finally, four more DQs were handed out, two to each team, at the end of last Saturday’s Superior-Stevens Point tilt as a donnybrook ensued at the final whistle of the Pointers 2-1 win.

As I witnessed the latter two of those incidents in person, it’s worth pointing out that they both involved fisticuffs of the helmet and gloves off variety. Simply put, none of them were cheap disqualifications. Note, these aren’t getting pointed out for the sake of condoning fighting, but rather to point out that the return of back-to-back games against the same teams in a league that is now as competitive as the NCHA might very well have something to do with the increased intensities.

After all, all three of these incidents took place on a Saturday.

Just Getting Warmed Up

Plenty of interesting things have happened in the MCHA and NCHA thus far, but the biggest developments are surely to come in the second half of the season as the date of the first ever MCHA team in the NCAA tournament is drawing nearer. And things should only heat up in the NCHA as jockeying for playoff position begins. Stay tuned.

Tasty Travels

This week brings is to Fitger’s Brewhouse in Duluth, Minnesota. Located at 600 E. Superior St. on the shore of Lake Superior, the Brewhouse is one of four restaurants located within Fitger’s Hotel. The hotel itself is on the national register of historic places and the on-site brewery is a remodeled rendition of the 1885 original.

Upon entering, I was somewhat surprised to see a wait for a table at 1:30 p.m. on a Saturday, but as I was dining alone I was fortunate enough to grab a seat at the bar. Nothing about the interior looked atypical but its original beer list most certainly did. As I had never seen the sort of thing before, I started off with a pint of their Juniper Porter, a lighter porter brewed with juniper berries. I was not disappointed.

For my meal I tried the artichoke chicken sandwich and, as I claim to be “in training” for a pond hockey tournament, I skipped on the fries and had chips and salsa with my sandwich (note: that didn’t stop me from getting a beer, of course).

The sandwich was straightforward. Grilled chicken breast served with mixed greens on a ciabatta bun and covered with an artichoke cheese dip. It was good but nothing special, though the homemade salsa that was heavy on the chipotle was a pleasant surprise. If anything the chicken may have been a little dry, but overall it was nothing to complain about. I did notice some other entrees being served — the nachos in particular — that looked excellent.

I’d call the food average to slightly above for a brew house, but let’s not forget Fitger’s Juniper Porter. Without question the star of the show and it’s brewed with water from Lake Superior, which on principle alone is a great bonus. The place had 8-10 original brews on tap and I enjoyed the first Juniper Porter so much that I had a second instead of trying another offering — and also happened to snag a 64 oz. Growler of it to tap into later that evening.

The staff was quite cordial and the two employees behind the bar gave me an education in why 64 oz. was the most I could take with me due to Minnesota law. I wish they sold six or 12 packs of it on-site because if they had, I would have bought some.

Good marks for the service, average marks for the food, and full blown top marks for the beverages. Average all that and it looks to me like Fitger’s Brewhouse in Duluth, Minnesota is worthy: 3.0 pucks.

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