This Week in the NCHA/MCHA: Jan 14, 2010

This week’s USCHO.com Division III men’s poll offered only minimal movement for NCHA and MCHA teams. The leagues still combine to feature five teams that are getting recognition.

St. Norbert remains the highest ranked of the bunch as the Green Knights moved up a tick to third following a pair of road wins over MIAC foes. St. Scholastica follows and holds at No. 5 after a pair of wins in their own right — including an impressive 4-0 road sweep over currently eighth ranked Hamline.

UW-River Falls checked in at No. 13 yet again while UW-Superior was two spots and 10 votes away from cracking the top 15.

Adrian’s defeat at the hands of top ranked Oswego did not hurt the Bulldogs too badly in the eyes of the voters as the Bulldogs fell a mere two spots down to No. 11. Adrian remains the lone MCHA team to be receiving votes.

Food for Thought

This week, finally, marks the complete return to conference action for both the NCHA and MCHA as a full slate of games is on tap in both leagues. Last weekend nearly marked the conclusion of NCHA-MIAC games this regular season, and the NCHA made yet another statement on its behalf over its Minnesota rivals.

NCHA teams posted a collective 10-2-2 record over MIAC teams last weekend, and when paired with the 10-3-1 mark from a weekend earlier in the year and a smattering of other meetings, the league now holds with a definitive 23-6-3 mark in inter-conference play with the MIAC.

This will serve to help the NCHA strength of schedules as, partly due to the league’s dominance over the MIAC, only a single NCHA team, Eau Claire at 5-7-3, currently holds a record below .500.

The NCHA league schedule is less than half complete, however, and by the end of the year there will certainly be more than one team below .500. The contention here remains that this will hurt the schedule strengths of the top NCHA teams (relative to past seasons) and has the potential to negatively impact the amount of conference squads in the running for at-large selection to the NCAA tournament.

Is that assumption correct? We still don’t know, but now that the numbers are starting to pile up the merits, or lack thereof, of the 18-game league schedule relative to overall schedule strength will certainly be getting some attention here in the coming weeks. Stay tuned.

Bulldogs 0-3

For over a year the past two weekends had been some of the most anticipated in Division III hockey as finally Adrian had a chance to play top-flight competition on consecutive weekends.

It worked out even better than expected from the fans’ standpoint as Adrian’s opponents, Hamline and Oswego, were both in the top 10 and the Lakers were nearly unanimously recognized as the best team in the nation.

The end result was three consecutive losses for the Bulldogs, though despite the disappointing scores the experience gained and lessons learned in their first legitimate foray into the upper-echelon of Division III might very well be positives in the long run.

Adrian looked to be in a fine spot in Friday’s opener at Hamline as they outshot the Pipers 17-6 in the opening period and continued to control the tempo in the second. A Zach Graham goal with just over two minutes left in the second period staked the Bulldogs a 4-2 lead and Adrian appeared to be in.

“They are a good, hard-working team,” said Adrian head coach Ron Fogarty, whose Bulldogs are now 10-3-0 on the season. “Their forwards are very quick and opportunistic, it was a little different look for us with Beau Christian catching with his right hand, and they have some good defensemen. It was exactly what we expected and for the first 39 minutes we played a great road game.”

The 40th minute was indeed the killer as Jay Fifield and Kyle Kurr struck for the Pipers and it was a 4-4 game with 20 minutes to play.

“That was a momentum changer for that game.” Fogarty said. “If we go into the dressing room up 4-2 going into the third we could go into maybe a little more cautious of a forecheck and it would have forced Hamline into an uncomfortable area where they would have had to try to open the game up.

“Instead of it being 4-2 going into the third it’s tied with one team on its toes and another trying to figure out what happened.”

The Bulldogs weren’t able to figure out what happened quite quickly enough as Hamline tallies at 7:10 and 13:42 proved too much to overcome. Brad Houston scored with 2:33 to go for Adrian but it was not enough and game one was in the books as a 6-5 loss. Adrian outshot Hamline 42-23 on the night.

“We knew that Hamline was a great opponent and we saw what they did in their previous games,” said Fogarty. “We prepared for that but as we go into any game we have to keep worrying about us and trying to stop their tendencies. I thought we were well prepared going into the Hamline series.”

“We’ve been in those situations before against Potsdam and Neumann and we got it to the point where we had a shot there down 6-5 but it just wasn’t meant to be,” he added.

Saturday’s rematch didn’t get off to a good start for Adrian as Hamline opened up a 3-0 lead in the first period. A late goal in the period by Eric Miller kept the Bulldogs in the game and they added two more in the second period to only trail 4-3 entering the third.

For the second night in a row the third period did not go the way the Adrian would have liked it to, however, as Hamline put up three more to pull away for the 7-3 win. The Bulldogs once again outshot the Pipers, this time by a 28-20 margin.

“The last minute of each second period was the critical point,” Fogarty said. “Sam Kuzyk comes down the ice, beats Christian and hits the side of the net. Goes onto Mike Towns stick with an open net and he misses it. That would have made it 4-4 with our momentum.

“The last 90 seconds of each second period was huge for Hamline.”

With the disappointing weekend behind them, Adrian could not afford to dwell on it as waiting a mere five days away was a date at Oswego, the No. 1 ranked team in the nation.

According to Fogarty, it was a defense-first focus when prepping for the Lakers, and he also acknowledged that starting goaltender Brad Fogal was going to have to step up his play from the Hamline series if the Bulldogs were going to give the Lakers a run.

“We knew we had to play better and we challenged Fogal to play better,” he said. “Forty three shots on goal and 13 goals going in are not going to beat any team no less one in our conference tournament. It just can’t happen.”
By all accounts, Oswego was all over Adrian early, but despite three power-play chances the Lakers were unable to crack the Bulldogs’ defense in the early stages.

“I think we came out in the first period and got caught up in the moment and Oswego took it to us pretty good. Our penalty kill did a great job and it was on Fogal’s shoulders. He was our best penalty killer of the day,” Fogarty said.

Fogal wasn’t perfect, however, and Oswego struck twice in the final two minutes of the period to hold a 2-0 lead at the first intermission. The Lakers held a 13-7 shot advantage in the period.

“It’s difficult,” he admitted. “Anytime you have the opportunity to play the number one team in the country and an opponent like Oswego you need to be ready to go. They were great with what they did and we weren’t able to respond until after the first intermission.”

“They are a great team,” Fogel added. “They are number one for a reason and there is nothing in the first period that any team could have done. There are a lot of times you talk to coaches and defend the play of your team, but that first period they dominated for a reason because they are a great team.”

Adrian responded in the second period as Mike Dahlinger got the Bulldogs on the board at 18:17, but they would concede yet another last minute goal and trail 3-1 at the end of the frame. Despite still facing a two goal deficit, Adrian’s play in the second was dramatically better than it was in the first.

“We had a pretty good heart-to-heart talk between the first and the second periods. Worry about yourselves here because we are wasting an opportunity. There was a 40 minute game to go.”

A penalty-filled third period saw no scoring until Dahlinger tallied again to make it 3-2 with 1:43 to go, but the Lakers tacked on two empty netters to score the 5-2 win.

While Adrian certainly did nothing to shame itself in terms of its play, the bigger story might have been the Bulldogs’ lack of composure in the final period. In totality, they took eight penalties in the final period, one of which was a 5:00 checking from behind and three of which were misconducts.

“Most definitely it was the emotion,” explained Fogarty. “You have to be disciplined throughout at entire game and we weren’t. When you face tough times habits are going to show through and we had some bad habits show up in that game. I certainly don’t want that to be the lasting impression of our program. It was definitely addressed this week and it will never happen again.

“Guys taking 10 minute misconducts and chirping when you still have a chance to come back is not the way championship teams perform.”

Despite finishing at 0-3, hopefully these games brought everyone to a bit of middle ground as far as Adrian is concerned. Can the Bulldogs skate with anyone in the country? Yes. Are they susceptible to the same mistakes and vulnerabilities that can plague any other talented, yet inexperienced, team in high pressure situations? Yes. Can Adrian get by without doing all the little things right? Of course not.

With a road series at the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE) this weekend kicking off the second half of a MCHA season that will ultimately end with one team representing the league in the national tournament, it’s back to the drawing board at Adrian, at least in terms of attention to detail — especially on the defensive side of things.

“We know we can score goals but we can’t give up 18 goals in three games and our guys are aware of that,” Fogarty said. “Take note of the teams that win the national tournament. St. Norbert and their defense and the great goaltending they had, Neumann going on the road and getting great goaltending last year and playing great defensive hockey. That’s how you win games and that’s something we need to focus on.”

News from the North…land

Perhaps lost in the shuffle of the NCHA battles, Adrian-Oswego, schedule strength discussion, and the soon-to-dominate-all-discussions NCAA tourney talk is the play of Northland.

The Lumberjacks are 2-11 on the season and 2-6 in MCHA play, which is good enough for a sixth place tie with Finlandia. Though they likely won’t be receiving any votes in the national poll this season, it hardly means that this isn’t the best Northland team to take the ice in some time.

“We’re deeper and I think we are more talented in previous years,” said Steve Fabiili, who is in his fifth season as head coach of the Lumberjacks. “It’s still a matter of us learning to put together a full 60 minutes. We’ll have spots of competing against teams and taking play over and then we’ll go through stretches where we kind of give up a lot.

“We’re still relatively young, but in comparison to previous teams we are moving forward. They might be baby steps for now but we aren’t moving backwards.”

Consider some of the numbers:

Northland has already scored 35 goals this season which already surpasses the 31 it posted all of last year. Discount the Adrian series in which the Lumberjacks were outscored 20-6 and they have been outscored 30-17 in league play which, while not ideal, is far from dismal.

Northland’s 2.7 goals per game is up significantly from past seasons and the Lumberjacks have yet to be shutout this year after being held scoreless 11 times last season and seven the year before.

“Those are all positives,” Fabiili said. “And our [special teams] numbers have improved, so when you look at things outside of the wins and losses there are some positives and that’s what we need to keep striving for.”

If this does indeed mark the beginning of a legitimate turnaround for the Northland program, why specifically is it occurring now? Fabiilli’s opinion is one that makes the most sense:

“I think this is the first year since I’ve been here where we have more returners than newcomers. That’s a testament to the guys that have stayed. I say the same thing to every recruit: we are rebuilding and trying to turn a program around and if you don’t want to be a part of that then don’t come here.”

As far as some of the talent Fabiilli has assembled goes, freshman Kraig Wright has paced the offense with six goals and 10 assists in 13 games. It’s the first time Northland has had a point-per-game scorer since 2005-06.

The return of junior captain Chad Moore, who missed most of last season with an injury, has also proved to be a boon as Moore has posted 12 points on the season and provided invaluable upper class leadership at the same time.

Seniors Matt Tannenberg, Brian Zwawa and Joe Belanger, along with junior Shaun Newman have provided experience on the blue line, and junior netminder Daniel McIntosh is once again the go-to guy in the pipes.

The Lumberjacks very nearly made a bit of noise a few weeks ago as they led Bethel 3-1 after two periods before eventually losing 5-4 in overtime on a goal with 2.2 seconds remaining. It would have been Northland’s first nonconference win since defeating Hamline in November 2004.

“It’s going to take more experience, not in the sense of how many [upperclassmen] we have, but more in the sense of being in close games like that,” said Fabiilli of the close loss. “We really haven’t been involved in a lot of close games, so that experience of knowing how to close out a game and not panicking when the other team might get one goal on us is what we have to learn.”

Fabiilli is hopeful that his team can continue to take meaningful strides and apply them to the remainder of the MCHA season. As only six of eight MCHA teams qualify for the playoffs this year, he says that postseason hockey is the goal.

“We definitely want to make the playoffs. We have some solid teams coming up to play and we want to come out with some solid wins and make the playoffs.”

As of now the Lumberjacks would be in the MCHA playoffs as by virtue of an earlier season sweep of Finlandia they own the sixth place tiebreaker over the Lions. They will, however, face Finlandia two more times this year.
With some winnable games down the stretch, don’t be surprised if Northland attains its goal and there ends up being some trademark orange gracing the 2010 edition of the Harris Cup playoffs.

“We’re not putting a number on how many wins we want or any of that,” Fabiilli said. “We are going out there to win every game and we’ll go from there.”

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