This Week in MIAC: Jan. 14, 2010

Picking Up the Pieces

This past weekend saw the second half of the MIAC-NCHA crossover. Coming into the weekend the NCHA held the upper hand in the series, posting a 12-4-1 record. With the MIAC teams holding home ice for this weekend’s 14 matchups, it looked like a good chance to close the gap and perhaps even things up.

Instead, it ended up being a rough weekend all around for the MIAC, as the league as a whole went 2-10-2 against NCHA teams. With conference play dominating the rest of the season for the nine MIAC teams, this was not how anyone wanted to resume league play.

While it may look like it was complete domination, the majority of the games were closer than the overall record would indicate. St. Mary’s put a scare into both the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and UW-River Falls. Both teams outshot the Cardinals, but barely managed to eke out wins. Eau Claire needing a shorthanded empty-net goal to seal their win on Friday was dramatic enough, but what happened on Saturday blew that out of the proverbial water.

Going into the third period, St. Mary’s held a 3-1 lead over River Falls, but that lead was erased in less than 90 seconds as the Falcons scored twice in 1:26 to tie the game. After a back-and-forth period, the game headed to overtime with the Cardinals on a power play.

Under one minute into the extra frame, another River Falls player took a penalty, ensuring that the Cardinals would be on the power play for all of overtime, and giving them over a minute of a 5-on-3 advantage. However, things would end in heartbreaking fashion for St. Mary’s.

As the first penalty expired with Josh Calleja exiting the penalty box, he set up a breakout pass that set Sean Roadhouse free. He buried his chance and ended St. Mary’s weekend with a second shorthanded goal sealing their loss.
Hamline had a 2-0-1 record against the NCHA coming into this weekend, and was the only MIAC team without a loss against their rival conference.

That changed after Friday’s game against St. Scholastica. The Saints played one of the best games of hockey I’ve seen this season en route to a 4-0 victory over the Pipers. The vast majority of the game was played evenly, with both teams matching each other on speed and skill. The Saints’ system cut down on Hamline’s time and space and did an excellent job of clogging up passing lanes.

The Pipers were still able to maintain offensive possession and apply some pressure, but Scholastica goaltender Brennan Poderzay was able to shut the door on every scoring chance. On the other side, the Saints were able to cycle the puck offensively themselves, although none of their goals would come from that pressure.

All four goals were scored on odd man rushes, and that was the difference in the game: Scholastica was able to bury their chances while Hamline was not. That one facet was enough to give an even game a 4-0 score that might lead some to believe wasn’t that close.

Saturday’s matchup against UW-Superior started off better for Hamline, as they broke out to a 4-1 lead over the Yellowjackets. However, Superior was able to score three unanswered goals en route to a 4-4 tie, ending a disappointing weekend for Hamline.

The biggest bright spot for the MIAC was the play of Augsburg. The Auggies won both their games this weekend, with impressive overtime victories over UW-Stout and St. Olaf. Against the Blue Devils, Augsburg pulled their goaltender in the dying seconds of the game. Nick Guran scored his third goal of the game with 14 seconds left to tie the contest at 4-4. The Auggies didn’t waste any time in the extra stanza, as they scored on the first shot of overtime to win in dramatic fashion.

On Saturday, Augsburg held a one goal lead in third period over St. Olaf, but wasn’t able to hold on as the Oles scored midway through the period to knot the score. Neither team was able to score in the rest of regulation, and the Auggies were once again headed to overtime. Augsburg was given a golden opportunity halfway through the period when St. Olaf took a penalty, and then took another one less than a minute later. Kris Reinthaler scored his second goal of the season shortly afterwards, and the Auggies celebrated another sudden death victory.

Second Half Stretch

With the MIAC-NCHA crossover finished for the season, the majority of games left for the nine MIAC teams are of the conference variety. Most teams have 10 conference games left, although some have 12. These are the most important games of the season for the league as they jostle to secure a spot in the league playoffs. Unlike some leagues where every team makes the conference tournament, only the top five teams from the MIAC get a chance to extend their season.

This is an incredibly close league, with any team able to beat any other team on a given night. While this makes it difficult to foresee the future, I’m going to take this week to predict how I see the final standings shaping up.

(Editor’s note: Predictions made in reverse order of current standings.)

St. John’s Johnnies

Preseason Prediction: Eighth
Midseason Prediction: Eighth

The Johnnies are currently 1-5-0 in the conference and in last place. By all accounts it’s been a disappointing season so far. If the Johnnies want to move up the standings, they’re going to have to play some of the top teams in the league, as they have yet to face Gustavus Adolphus and Hamline. However they also play the two teams directly above them, which would allow the Johnnies to move up to at least seventh place, if not higher.

The Johnnies haven’t been badly outplayed in conference, with no losses by more than two goals. If they can do just a little bit more offensively or defensively, they might be able to turn the corner and win some games in the second half. This is a young team with a second year coach, and the second half of the year can be when young teams buy into a new system and start to improve. We’ll see how the team reacts in the coming weeks.

Right now, I see them finishing eighth. Their series against St. Mary’s might determine which team finishes last in the conference. The Johnnies certainly have skill and play hard, but with their remaining schedule, I don’t see them being able to climb as high as sixth place.

St. Mary’s Cardinals

Preseason Prediction: Ninth
Midseason Prediction: Ninth

The Cardinals have shown some definite improvement this season under second year head coach Bill Moore. Last season saw the Cardinals surrendered 93 goals, by far the worst in the league. Right now they’re on pace to give up only 60. Their scoring has dipped slightly this season, but the defensive improvement far outweighs that lack of productivity.

Young teams are often prone to erratic play early in the season, as they have problems staying disciplined, playing within their system, and getting a feel for their teammates. The question facing the Cardinals is whether they can come together as a team and improve, or be overcome by this season. Given how the Cardinals have played hard through the end of their games all season, this is not a team that’s going to simply give up.

St. Mary’s schedule has some winnable games down the stretch, so if they improve their play, they could very well finish in sixth place. Like I said earlier, their series against St. John’s likely will be to determine which of the two finishes in last place. They have eight conference games before that series though, so anything can happen. Improvement as a team doesn’t always show up in a win-loss record; this team is on a pace to be better than last year’s version, and even if it doesn’t show up in the win column, if they can continue to play hard and improve, they’ll have nothing to be ashamed of when the season comes to a close.

St. Olaf Oles

Preseason Prediction: Third
Midseason Prediction: Fourth

St. Olaf’s aim for the rest of the season could be as simple as this: win some games. Last year’s regular season champion comes into the second semester with the dubious distinction of being the only team in the MIAC who has not won a conference game. Their 0-2-4 record may be enough for them to sit in seventh place, but it has to be a far cry from where the team hoped to be at this point.

To get back into the playoff picture, the Oles will have to have successful weekends (three or four points) from here on out. If they can only garner splits (two points) against teams such as Bethel, St. Thomas, or Augsburg, they’ll have a tough hill to climb to make the conference playoffs.

While they did lose some key offensive players from last season’s team, they returned a lot of skill and speed, along with solid goaltending. Their struggles so far this season can be somewhat attributed to playing two of the top three MIAC teams so far, but at some point they’re going to win to prove they belong among the conference’s top teams. They’ve played hard and they’ve played well so far, but a few mental lapses have cost them some key points.

Some wins against Bethel, St. Thomas, and St. John’s would go a long way to helping turn things around for St. Olaf. They’ll have to put in a full 60 minutes of play to win, though, as all of those teams will be fighting for victories of their own. St. Olaf never had to face a test like this last season, as they finished in first place by a comfortable seven point margin, so it will be interesting to see how the team handles adversity. Will they be unsure of how to respond? Or will they buckle down and focus on the task at hand?

St. Thomas Tommies

Preseason Prediction: Fourth
Midseason Prediction: Seventh

The Tommies have had a rough go of things so far. They’ve given up twice as many goals as they’ve scored, and currently are sitting in sixth place in the standings. After a four game losing streak, St. Thomas got back on track by beating and tying the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE) in a nonconference matchup.

Offense has been a problem so far, with St. Thomas getting shut out three times this season. The Tommies are tied for last in the MIAC in goals scored, and to make matters worse, the two teams they are tied with have both played two fewer games.

While the Tommies are currently right in the playoff picture, pretty much every series the rest of the season is make-or-break. Losses to Bethel, St. Olaf, or Concordia (MN) could be enough to spoil the Tommies’ season. This is one team in particular that’s hard to gauge. They play hard, skate fast, and can play lights out defense. But it seems that sometimes there is something missing, whether it’s someone to finish scoring chances, focus on the power play, or something else. If the Tommies can figure it out, they might be able to push their way into the playoffs.

Augsburg Auggies

Preseason Prediction: Fifth
Midseason Prediction: Third

The Auggies have had an up-and-down season so far. They won both of their games to open the season, then proceeded to get shut out in their next three. Since then, however, they are unbeaten in eight straight games, including seven wins in a row. Somehow they have done this relatively quietly, with none of these games being blowouts or coming in dominating fashion.

Regardless of how they occurred, all that matters at the end of the game is who has more goals, and Augsburg’s been finding a way to make sure it’s them.
The Auggies have 12 games remaining, and face all four teams head of them in the standings. It’s pretty obvious that those series will determine if
Augsburg can move up in the conference.

This team has received solid goaltending for most of the season, and if their offense can return to last year’s form, they could be challenging for one of the top spots in the standings. Right now the team has handled some adversity and is on a hot streak and finding ways to win. We’ll see if that continues as league play resumes next week.

Concordia (MN) Cobbers

Preseason Prediction: Sixth
Midseason Prediction: Fifth

Last year, the Cobbers finished dead last in the MIAC, scoring a league worst 35 goals while giving up 65. Through only six games this season, they’ve scored 16 while giving up 13, making them one of the most improved teams in the league. So far they have taken two points every conference weekend, which puts them in fourth place, and if the season ended today, they would be in the playoffs.

One of their head coach’s goals for the season was to have the team play hard all game, every game. They’ve done just that this season, and if they continue this promising trend, it will be hard for teams chasing them to catch up. Concordia has one of the league’s toughest schedules the rest of the way, with series against Gustavus, Hamline, and Augsburg. However, if they can continue to take points when they can, they should be able to claim one of the five playoff spots.

Next weekend’s series against St. Thomas will be the first test for the Cobbers. Three or four points would be a big first step to securing that playoff spot, while the Tommies will be fighting for their own playoff hopes.

Hamline Pipers

Preseason Prediction: Second
Midseason Prediction: First

The Pipers have had a great start to their season, despite this past weekend’s struggles. Their schedule so far has not been easy, as instead of scheduling one of the weaker MCHA teams, they faced off against the Adrian Bulldogs. In their first two and a half years of existence, the Bulldogs had amassed a record of 63-4-1, an incredible record no matter what league a team is in. The Pipers won both games of that series in a weekend that brought them plenty of national attention.

While the first half has been a good one for Hamline, the second half will make-or-break their season. They currently sit in third place in the conference despite playing two fewer games than those ahead of them. With so many conference games left on their schedule, though, a rough second half could render their good start meaningless.

This coming weekend has the Pipers playing second place Bethel twice. A sweep by Hamline would push them up the standings and put some space between them and the lower end of the conference. Key series against Augsburg, St. Thomas, and Gustavus Adolphus also await the Pipers, all of which will be important. If Hamline can continue their hot first half, look for them to fighting for the top seed at season’s end.

Bethel Royals

Preseason Prediction: Seventh
Midseason Prediction: Sixth

The Royals have had an interesting start to the season. They lost their first four games of the year, all nonconference tilts. In conference, though, they have a 4-2-0 record, which is good enough for second place. Outside the league, the Royals have a 2-7-0 record, giving them something of a Jekyll and Hyde appearance.

Bethel might not have a top line they can expect to score every night, but they are a hard working team that plays to the whistle — as their overtime win over Northland with 2.2 seconds left proved. However, their schedule the rest of the way is not easy. They still have to face Hamline, St. Olaf, Augsburg, and St. Thomas, all of whom will be fighting for their playoff lives. Bethel will have their hands full each and every weekend.

If they can stay near the top of the standings, it will show that they are the real deal. However, I think they may have over-achieved slightly so far this season, and if their conference record starts to look like their out-of-conference mark, they will start to slide down the standings.

Gustavus Adolphus Gusties

Preseason Prediction: First
Midseason Prediction: Second

Lost in the attention the Adrian-Hamline series received was how Gustavus Adolphus’s season has been progressing. After starting off 2-2-1, the Gusties have gone 8-2-0. They’ve already faced Bethel, St. Olaf, and St. Thomas, and mainly have lower ranked teams the rest of the season on their docket. Their two key series are this weekend against Augsburg and near the end of the season against Hamline.

If Gustavus can hold serve against the teams they’re expected to beat, that series against the Pipers could determine the regular season championship. This team is no stranger to the pressure of a stretch run, as last season they swept through the conference playoffs and into the national title game. Although they lost to Neumann in the season’s final game, this team has to have gained confidence in themselves and their teammates by that successful run. They have plenty of speed and skill, and have the ability to score on quick transitions as well as the ability to cycle the puck and create chances through constant pressure.

This weekend’s series against Augsburg will be a big test for both teams, as they’re both on hot streaks. Augsburg will be looking to climb up the standings while the Gusties will be looking to strengthen their grip as the league’s top team.

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