This Week in MIAC: Jan. 21, 2010

Weekend Roundup

Coming off the last weekend of non-league games, every team in the MIAC was focused on one thing: conference matchups. With most non-conference action out of the way, the vast majority of games left on the schedule are league games, which will determine the five teams that have a shot to make some noise in the postseason.

Some teams came in fighting to rise in the standings while others were struggling to keep their status as one of the league’s top teams. Some were riding winning streaks while others were coming off bad losses. No matter what each team was coming into the weekend with, when it’s time for league games, you can throw most of it out the window. This is the real season for most teams in the MIAC, with non-conference games being a chance to test yourself, try new things, and get tuned up for the battle for the playoffs.

The top of the league remains mostly unchanged, with Gustavus Adolphus sitting atop the conference standings. Right behind them though is Hamline, who has played two fewer games than the Gusties. In third place is a team that may be a surprise to some people after their ninth place finish last season: the Concordia Cobbers. We’ll catch up with them and coach Howe later on.

Bethel fell from second place into a tie for fourth with surging St. Olaf. Sixth place is an unfamiliar spot for St. Thomas, as they currently sit outside the playoff picture. Following them in seventh is an Augsburg team that struggled this past weekend after running off a seven game winning streak. In a tie for the last two spots are St. John’s and St. Mary’s.

No team is separated by more than two points from the team ahead or behind it, so each weekend provides an opportunity for plenty of movement in the standings. These last five weeks of the regular season are guaranteed to be action packed as teams jostle for position and their playoff lives.

Cobbers Climbing Up the Ladder

Concordia (MN) has had one of the toughest non-conference schedules of any team in the country. Some of their more notable opponents from outside the MIAC include the two winningest teams in the NCHA (St. Norbert and St. Scholastica, ranked fourth and seventh in the USCHO.com Division III poll, respectively), the top team from the MCHA (Adrian, No. 12), and if that wasn’t enough, they’ve also played the team with the most wins in the MIAC (Hamline, ranked eighth.)

Given that the Cobbers finished last in the MIAC last season, some might have thought that they were taking on more than they can chew.
Concordia head coach Chris Howe has a different perspective on this kind of schedule.

“Every game we’ve played, we’ve taken something from it,” he said. “When we play teams like Adrian or St. Norbert, we see what it takes to be that kind of team, and how we need to elevate our play to match it.”

The Cobbers are a team that shows up to play hard for 60 minutes every night. They try to play physical, smart, and focus on their defense and special teams. After losing to UW-Stevens Point 7-1 in their last non-conference game, some teams may have been disheartened returning to league games. And when the Cobbers trailed 3-0 to St. Thomas midway through the second period on Friday, it looked like that very well may have happened.

But starting from 12:25 in the second period until 15:01 in the third, the Cobbers ripped off five straight goals to take a 5-3 lead that they would never relinquish.

“That was huge,” said Howe. “Coming off that loss to Stevens Point, and being down early, being able to go on a run like that was a big confidence builder. I’m proud of the way the team responded to that situation.”

Sophomore forward Jared Collen scored three goals during that five goal outburst, including the tally that gave the Cobbers the lead and well as the game-winning goal.

This is a team that’s primarily made up of freshmen and sophomores, with their top seven scorers being underclassmen. The leadership from the team’s three seniors is not to be overlooked, though.

“Each one of those seniors brings something to this team that will be missed when they’re gone,” Howe said. “Whether it’s leadership, pumping up the team, or keeping us focused, each one of them brings something that helps us as a team.”

After Friday’s emotional comeback win, the Cobbers faced St. Thomas a second time on Saturday. They never held a lead in the game, but were never out of it either. Concordia battled back from 2-0 and 3-1 deficits before netting the tying goal in the dying seconds of the third period.

While he didn’t score a single goal on the weekend, sophomore defenseman Erick Galt was a big key to the Cobbers’ success. On Friday he had two assists, getting a helper on Concordia’s first goal, as well as the one that gave them the lead. On Saturday he did even better, getting assists on Concordia’s first two goals, as well as the one that tied the game.

“He’s one of the most unselfish players on the team”, said Howe. “If he could give his assists to his teammates, he would. All he cares about is doing what he can to help us win.”

Another key to the Cobbers’ success so far has been goaltender Jacob Vatnsdal — also a sophomore. His overall numbers are solid — a 3.07 goals against average and .907 save percentage — but he has stepped it up a notch in conference games, posting a stat line of 2.53 and .917. After last year’s four win season, Vatnsdal has backed the Cobbers to a 3-2-3 MIAC record and four wins overall, with still around half the season left to play.

This isn’t a team that’s built around a top line that provides all the scoring; instead they are built on hard work, defense, and special teams.

Last season, the Cobbers finished dead last in league power play and seventh on the penalty kill. Those two combined to give Concordia the league’s worst overall special teams. This season, though, the Cobbers are in the top half of the league in both categories. They rank fourth in power play percentage and fifth overall on the penalty kill. Combined, they have the league’s second best special teams.

Their biggest improvement — up seven percent from last year — has been while down a man on the penalty kill. This means that if someone takes a penalty playing physically, the team knows they have a good shot to go out and kill it off. Their penalty kill could be tested this coming weekend, as they face Augsburg who is armed with the league’s second best power play.

“With Augsburg coming up this weekend, we’ve put some extra emphasis on defense and the penalty kill,” said Howe. “They’re a very talented team offensively, and if you make a mistake, they can make you pay.”
On top of returning most of last year’s potent offense, the Auggies have also improved their defense immensely this season, giving up one goal fewer per game.

With Augsburg sitting in seventh place and three points out of the final playoff spot, this is a huge weekend from them. If Concordia can take three or four points, it will be very difficult for the Auggies to climb back into the playoff picture, but if Augsburg manages at least a win and a tie, they’ll be breathing right down Concordia’s neck in the standings.

After facing Augsburg at home for two games, the schedule turns even rougher for Concordia. Their final six games are all on the road, and the last two weekends pit them against the current top two teams in the MIAC: Gustavus Adolphus and Hamline.

This is the time of the year where their difficult non-conference schedule could pay dividends, as squads have seen what it takes to be a top team. Now they have the chance to show that they can play at that level as well, as they fight to keep climbing up the standings and clinch a spot in the MIAC playoffs.

As the team’s young players mature and gain experience, the Cobbers could make themselves the surprise story of the league down the stretch. With Howe leading them and getting them to play hard every night, this is a team that is fun to watch and tough to play against.

One part of the job I enjoy the most is following teams like this, and seeing where they end up. Where they finish is entirely up to them, but if the first half of the season is any indication, it’s going to be a wild ride to the end of the season.

Hockey Weekend at the Xcel

This weekend’s games bring hockey fans around the Twin Cities a special treat. On Saturday, St. Olaf will face off against the University of Wisconsin-Stout at the Xcel Energy Center, home of the NHL’s Minnesota Wild. The game is at 1:30 p.m. and admission is free, so if you’re in the area, take advantage of this rare chance to see Division III hockey on center stage!

Not to be outdone, Sunday’s matchup between Gustavus Adolphus and St. John’s will also take place at the X. Faceoff is at 10:00 a.m. and will not be free. Tickets can be purchased through Ticketmaster beforehand or at the Xcel box office the day of the game. Minnesota Wild players will be signing autographs throughout the arena during the game and ticket purchases also include admission to the Minnesota Wild skills competition that takes place immediately after the game.

These games should be great for exposing D-III hockey to fans who might not otherwise know what they’re missing, plus they give you a chance to see some good hockey at an excellent arena. Don’t miss out on these chances to see some great teams face off at the home of the Wild.

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