Welcome back from what I hope was a happy holiday slumber, everyone. This season finally ramps back up this weekend as the NCHA squares off with the MIAC in a full set of crossover games, while a handful of MCHA teams are in action, most notably Adrian as the Bulldogs travel to Oswego to take on the top-ranked Lakers.
Before I break out the crystal ball for the first time in two years and attempt to reset the NCHA and MCHA before the second half of the season kicks off, letâ€™s take the standard look at the USCHO.com Division III men’s poll as Mondayâ€™s was the first new edition in a month.
St. Norbert reclaimed its spot as the highest ranked team in the NCHA and MCHA and the Green Knights moved up to No. 4 despite not playing a game over break. They replace Adrian, who previously were at No. 4, as the Bulldogs dropped to No. 9 following a pair of losses to Hamline.
Like St. Norbert, St. Scholastica was idle over break but it didnâ€™t stop the Saints from moving up two spots to No. 5. UW-River Falls rounds out the NCHA teams in the poll as the Falcons landed at No. 13.
UW-Superior is the first team out of the top 15 and missed by all of three votes, while UW-Stout picked up a five tallies and UW-Stevens Point notched a single vote.
A couple of familiar faces, St. Norbert and Adrian, currently stand atop their respective leagues. The Green Knights 7-1-0 start in the NCHA is currently good enough for a two point lead over 5-1-2 St. Scholastica, while Adrianâ€™s 8-0-0 start has the Bulldogs six points clear of Lawrence and MSOE. Lawrence has played three fewer games than Adrian, however, and the Vikings are a perfect 5-0-0 of their own. The two have yet to meet this season.
Both leagues have yet to get through half of their league schedules which means both remain wide open. As such, and due to the fact that the month long layoff is enough to throw anyone out of the loop a bit, we once again break out the crystal ball not only to get a better picture of where things currently stand, but also to attempt to foresee what might transpire down the stretch.
Who will win the league?
Last seasonâ€™s fourth place NCHA finish and shutout loss at Superior in the league semifinals was enough to have people asking whether St. Norbertâ€™s run of NCHA dominance might be in its twilight. Thus far, the Green Knights have done their part to prove that it likely is not. At 10-2-1 overall and 7-1 in the NCHA, St. Norbert has once again established itself as the team to beat. The Green Knights lead the offense in scoring offense (4.5 g/g) and defense (1.88 g/g) and junior goaltender B.J. Oâ€™Brien has provided a presence in net that did not exist a year ago.
St. Norbert also leads the league in net special teams and has already played St. Scholastica and Stout, its two closest challengers, twice.
The past four years have shown that the ball rarely conjures up anyone other than St. Norbert and this year is no exception. No one has yet to offer convincing evidence that St. Norbert will not win the NCHA regular season title and earn the first round bye in the NCHA playoffs.
If not St. Norbert, who?
The 8-2-2 Saints put a very impressive first half of the season together and it included a win at St. Norbert. A NCAA tournament team a year ago the Saints have not regressed a bit despite losing significant contributors in terms of scoring and leadership from a season ago.
The maturation of senior forward Jordan Chong and sophomore forward Jeremy Dawes might actually provide the Saints with more quick-strike capability that last yearâ€™s team had, and the Saints are conceding only 2.25 goals per contest thanks to a stifling team defense and the goaltending of sophomore Brennan Poderzay and senior Zach Kleiman.
Since making the trip out East and getting shellacked by Norwich and Middlebury in the Primelink Tournament, Stout has largely fallen off the radar.
Sure the 6-5-3 overall record is a bit off-pace of where many expected this yearâ€™s Blue Devils to be at this point, but letâ€™s not forget: This a team that was in Lake Placid a year ago, still possesses one of the top lines in the country and faced a healthy dose of injuries in the first half of the year.
The Blue Devils closed out the first half of the year with a gigantic road sweep over rival River Falls and if they can carry that momentum over to the second half and find a little bit of health, they are a team clearly capable of making a run.
Coach of the Year?
This is always a tough call, but Iâ€™m going to go with Mark Wick at St. Scholastica. The Saints are currently in the top five nationally and have overcome significant losses to graduation to remain as potent as threat as ever. To the leadership and scoring losses mentioned above, add in the fact they also had to replace an All-American goaltender and that through all of it they havenâ€™t missed a beat, and the pick is Wick.
Player of the Year?
A guy that absolutely no one is talking about is Justin Brossman of River Falls. The sophomore forwards currently leads all NCHA players with 21 points this season and has posted 13 of them in the eight NCHA contests he has played. His 1.62 points/game leads all NCHA skaters.
Stoutâ€™s senior forward trio of Joel Gaulrapp, Scott Motz and Derek Hanson canâ€™t be discounted, either. In ten NCHA contests they have 13, 10 and 9 points, respectively, though Gaulrapp as he seems to be the catalyst for that line. None would be poor choices, however.
Senior forwards Matt Boyd and Shane Wheeler from St. Norbert, along with junior defenseman Nick Tabisz also deserve mention. All have posted 11 points in the Green Knightsâ€™ eight NCHA contests.
All that said, time for a curveball. The ball could be malfunctioning here, but it says none of the above.
Though he only has seven points in eight NCHA games, senior forward Jordan Chong from St. Scholastica might be as dangerous as anyone in the league. Like most top players he fills a variety of rolls and he fills them well. Not only an explosive offensive threat, he has a knack for scoring big goals at big times (like at St. Norbert. Shorthanded. In overtime) and is a staple on the penalty kill.
Stylistic differences between teams often make it difficult to make comparative assessments based solely on numbers, so for a lot of reasons that go beyond numbers, the NCHA Player of the Year is the Saintsâ€™ Jordan Chong.
Who will win the league?
Not many would make a case for anyone other than Adrian and neither is the ball. The Bulldogs still have only lost once MCHA game ever and remain perfect in league play this season. Even worse, the recent losses to Hamline and potential loss at Oswego this weekend will only serve to refocus the Bulldogs.
They are scoring over nine goals per contest in league play and are allowing just over two. MSOE and Lawrence have put up equal defensive efforts but neither whiff the offensive capabilities of Adrianâ€¦yet.
Though the Bulldogs have yet to play Lawrence or MSOE this year, they have already dispatched of Marian. Though they have fourgames remaining against MSOE and two with Lawrence, no one has yet to show they will be able to hang with Adrian over a 20 game schedule.
If not Adrian, who?
The Vikings continue to make strides under Mike Skzodzinski and are a perfect 5-0 in MCHA play. Lawrenceâ€™s fundamentally sound team defense and the excellent goaltending of junior Evan Johnson make them the type of the team that has what the ball calls â€œhigh upset potentialâ€.
This was demonstrated over Thanksgiving weekend as the Vikingsâ€™ took St. Norbert into a 0-0 second intermission tie before ultimately dropping the contest 2-1. Compared to the past few years, the Vikings also have a little more horsepower up front. While it might not happen this year, if anyone is going to take down Adrian it might just be Lawrence.
This is a very difficult call between Marian and MSOE but the ball gives the nod to Marian. The Sabres stand at 4-2 in league play and their only two blemishes came at the hands of Adrian on opening weekend.
Having moved to the MCHA North Division this season, Marian does not have to face Adrian again this season and also swept MSOE in the only two regular season meetings they will have with the Raiders.
Additionally, the Sabres have a fairly light schedule the rest of the way, sans four games with Lawrence, and last weekendâ€™s close results against 11th ranked Gustavus Adolphus seem to indicate that the Sabres might not be hiding in fourth place in the league for long.
Coach of the Year
With all due respect to Ron Fogarty of likely eventual league champion Adrian, the crystal ball does not see this award in your future this year.
Rather, itâ€™s narrowed it down to Lawrenceâ€™s Mike Szkodzinski, Marianâ€™s Jasen Wise or MSOEâ€™s Mark Ostapina, though the picture remains cloudy.
Szkodzinski gets a slight advantage based on to-date results, but the eventual winner with likely be determined by whether itâ€™s MSOE, Marian or Lawrence that is able to put together the strongest second half of the season — and all three certainly have the potential.
When all is said and done, the ball says it will go to whoever finishes second behind Adrian, though at this time itâ€™s impossible to project who that might be.
Player of the Year
Well, running the risk of looking at scoresheets alone, Adrian has the top seven scorers in the league, six of whom are scoring at least two points per game in league play.
Interestingly, the ball still thinks Bulldogsâ€™ junior forward Shawn Skelly is the best player on the best team on the league, and the best choice from Adrian despite having posted the fewest points of the seven.
Adrian junior defenseman Jeremy Klaver is included in that group but the ball doesnâ€™t foresee him getting the award, either.
Sophomore forward Ben DiMarco from Lawrence has hung 13 points in only five league games, while Vikingsâ€™ senior forward Marc Howe has posted 11.
Other contenders might include MSOE forward Michael Soik (8gp, 6-6-12), Finlandia defenseman Quinn McIntosh (8gp, 4-5-9) and Northlandâ€™s Kraig Wright (8gp, 4-7-11).
Goaltenders Evan Johnson of Lawrence and Connor Toomey of MSOE deserve a look as well, but when all is said and done, the MCHA Player of the Year is:
Shawn Skelly, Adrian