This Week in the NCHA/MCHA: Jan. 21, 2009

This week’s USCHO.com Division III men’s poll dials up five NCHA and MCHA teams in the same manner it did a week ago, but some interesting results have shuffled the five around a bit.

St. Norbert is still the top ranked team in the region, but the Green Knights dropped a spot into a No. 4 tie with Elmira following a split at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

St. Scholastica fell from fifth to seventh after scoring only a single point from UW-River Falls at home, while the three point weekend vaulted the Falcons up two positions to No. 11.

A UW-Stout sweep over UW-Superior was enough for the Blue Devils to score a pair of votes for themselves; it was also enough to cost the Yellowjackets the votes it had a week ago.

Adrian scored two road wins over league rival Milwaukee School of Engineering, but took it on the chin from the pollsters nonetheless as the Bulldogs dropped a spot to No. 12. They remain the only MCHA to receive votes.

Lions Trying To Roar

As previously reported, the Finlandia program experienced a bit of a shakeup earlier in the season as the university announced on Nov. 23 that popular head coach Joe Burcar had been removed from his position. The official school release simply cited violations of institutional policy as the reason for his dismissal.

Though the university is in the midst of a national search for a new head coach to take the reins beginning next season, the job coaching the Lions for the remainder of this season fell to Athletic Director Chris Salani on an interim basis.

Salani is no stranger to hockey, having played at Division I Michigan State for two and a half seasons. He has coached at the high school, junior, and collegiate levels, most recently serving as the Finlandia women’s head coach from 2004-08.

Thrust into the unenviable position of stepping in as men’s hockey coach in an awkward setting. Salani says it was certainly a difficult situation.

“I think from the timing of the sequence of the events it was not very favorable towards the mindsets of our athletes,” he said. “The challenges that were there of keeping an open channel of communication between the athletes and myself, as well as the parents and families made it pretty tough.

“They emotionally and psychologically had to go through some adjustments and I honestly think some of them are still trying to make the adjustment.

Obviously many of them had a very good relationship with coach Burcar. He was able to connect with his players so that was the initial challenge.”

The Lions lost five consecutive games following the coaching change, including a sweep at the hands of Northland in their first action since the shake up.

“The first two weekends it was really trying to gauge the environment and the sensitivities of the student-athletes at that time,” said Salani. “It was not good hockey from a Finlandia standpoint with all the variables that were in play. Without making excuses I think we were out there all trying to figure things out as we went.

“It was really a transition period in every sense of the word.”

Losses to Gustavus Adolphus, St. John’s and Augsburg followed, but the Lions finally got pointed in the right direction as they scored three points in a home series with Concordia (WI) two weeks ago.

The Lions stepped it up another notch last weekend as, despite only getting one point in the series, they went on the road and scored a tie and an overtime loss at Lawrence. The Vikings were the second place MCHA team at the time.

“Going into last weekend I think everyone was on the same page,” said Salani. “They knew where there teammates were going to be and what their teammates were supposed to do. Now it’s just a matter of executing whereas perhaps before it maybe more of a read and react thing.”

Salani hopes the weekend at Lawrence is indicative of a turning point for a team that, on top of this season’s off-ice turmoil, features 19 underclassmen.

“After last week at Lawrence there are a lot of positives,” he continued. “We need to go into the mindset in this last push to be in position to gain access to the playoffs. If we can play like we did last weekend and be motivated I anticipate we’ll be in every single game regardless of our opponent; and that’s the way we have to practice and that’s the way we have to play.”

Finlandia hits the road to take on rival MSOE this weekend, but closes the season with four straight home series with Adrian, Marian, Northland and Lawrence. Salani hopes that the recent improvements, along with the home ice advantage is enough for the Lions to turn the corner, finish in the top six in the league, and make the postseason.

“We’ve been able to get our systems down and been able to get done in practice what we have to,” said Salani. “We now feel very confident about our 5-on-5 play. The guys have improved by leaps and bounds and understand that they have play at a high level consistency.

“We should be running down the road firing on all cylinders here and we aren’t looking back.”

Fat Tuesday

While nearly all MCHA games are contested on weekends, a key MCHA tilt snuck into the fold this past Tuesday as Marian traveled to Lawrence for the first of four meetings between the two this season.

Lawrence entered the contest with a one point lead over Marian for second place in the MCHA, but by nights send it was Marian who stood alone in second place.

The Sabres jumped on the Vikings early, and notched late first period goals from Todd Collins and Chris Thompson to take a 2-1 lead into the first intermission. Lawrence was outshot 17-5 in the opening frame, which was not the start Vikings’ head coach Mike Szkodzinski was hoping for.

“Marian’s forwards were excellent and got on our defensive corps quickly,” Szkodzinski said. “They are big and strong and dominated a majority of the first period. [Lawrence goaltender] Evan Johnson made a number of key saves and luckily we were still in the game after [the period].”

Matt Hughes tied it up for the Vikings 1:15 into the second, but Marian’s Brian Pierpont put the Sabres up 3-2 a mere 23 seconds later.

Brendan Hull extended the lead to 4-2 early in the third period while a Lawrence tally by Brad Scurfiled with just over three minutes remaining in the game set the stage for a frantic ending.

Marian penalties at 18:12 and 18:27 afforded Lawrence 1:18 with a 6-on-3 advantage once Johnson was able to get off the ice, but Marian goaltender Cullen Caldwell and the Sabres’ penalty killers were up to the task and kept the puck out of the net.

Actually, the puck did find its way in once during the frenzy, but the officials ruled the net was off its moorings and the Sabres held on for the 4-3 win.

“We had been moving our feet and luckily got a couple of calls,” Szkodzinski said. “We had our chances and scored a goal that was waived off, but give the Marian guys credit. They battled their tails off right to the last buzzer and got the victory.”

The loss was Lawrence’s fifth in its last seven games. The Vikings are 1-5-1 in the stretch which includes the league tie with Finlandia and a loss to Lake Forest.

“Our league is much more competitive than maybe some of the records show. Anytime Lawrence and Finlandia play it’s going to be a war. Lake Forest is a hungry team right now,” Szkodzinski said.

The stretch has been enough to drop the Vikings into third in the MCHA, two points ahead of fourth place Lake Forest and three clear of fifth place MSOE. With hopes of a home series in the opening round of the MCHA playoffs and an eventual Harris Cup playoff championship, Szkodzinski says some things will have to change for those goals to be attained.

“We have not put together 60 minutes to this point and that’s going to be the key if we expect to contend for any sort of title in our league or to even put ourselves in position for home ice in the playoffs.”

Falcons Still Flying High

Earlier in the season, this column featured River Falls as the Falcons 5-1 start was a stark contrast from the 1-6-1 start they got off to a year ago.

It’s now two months later and very little has changed as River Falls now stands at 10-5-2 on the season and are the No.11 ranked team in the country.
At 4-4-2 and in fourth place in the NCHA, it hasn’t been all roses for the Falcons, however. Most difficult to stomach was a pair of home losses to rival Stout in their final series prior to the holiday layoff.

“It’s always pretty devastating getting beat at home, especially by the team right up the highway here, but I think we learned a lot from the series,” said Falcons’ head coach Steve Freeman.

The Falcons were routed 6-1 in the opener before coming out on the short end of a 6-5 shootout the following night.

“We didn’t play with much discipline and they really took it to us on their power play,” Freeman said. “The second game was pretty wide open game and really could have gone either way. We did play well offensively but did not play well defensively at all and our goaltending was shaky, too.”

After the layoff, River Falls righted its proverbial ship with wins over St. Thomas and St. Mary’s and made its first real legitimate noise of the season last week with a three point weekend at then No. 5 St. Scholastica.

The Falcons jumped on the Saints early in the series opener as they jumped up 3-0 after the first period before ultimately pulling away for the 5-0 win.

“We came out of the gate really, really well,” Freeman said. “We were skating and moving the puck well and played with a lot of structure. Our positioning, especially, on the defensive end was really good. They had a lot of shots but we kept them to the outside of the rink and didn’t give them many second look chances and [goaltender] Bo Storozuk was extremely sharp.”

The tact of the series finale was a bit different as the Saints came out firing and jumped up 2-0 after the first period while piling up a 17-8 shot advantage.

In what is becoming a trend this season, the Falcons would not roll over and quit and notched three second period goals, though they still trailed 4-3 at the second intermission.

The Saints tallied early in the third to go up 5-3, but the Falcons received some late second heroics, again, and scored two extra-attacker goals by Josh Calleja in the final minute of the game to force overtime, and ultimately, the 5-5 draw.

“We knew they were going to come out hard and weather the storm but they jumped on us pretty good,” Freeman said. “We’ve been able to score goals in bunches though and scored three in the middle of that game and got the two with the goalie out at the end.”

It might be safe to say that a year ago River Falls would not have pulled the tie out last Saturday, but a year older and wiser than the young team that struggled last year, late game heroics are becoming somewhat of a trademark of this year’s team.

Aside from Calleja’s goals in the waning seconds last weekend, he also scored
a shorthanded overtime goal in the St. Mary’s game and tallied man-down with under two minutes remaining to propel the Falcons to a 2-1 win over Eau Claire back in November.

“The guys that were young last year are really motivated to be successful,” Freeman explained. “Now they have a taste of it and they just keep playing hard right to the end which is terrific. Even when we were down two late last weekend with no time left in my mind I was pretty satisfied because we were playing so hard, so as long as we can keep doing that we should be in pretty good shape.”

If the postseason began this weekend, the fourth place Falcons would be hosting a playoff series. With eight league games remaining, however, and the volatility the NCHA is able to unleash on itself, Freeman is taking nothing for granted.

Case in point: A sweep over visiting UW-Stevens Point this weekend has the potential to elevate River Falls into contention for a league title, while two losses would bring the sixth place Pointers into a fourth place tie with the Falcons.

“We know [Stevens Point is] playing terrific hockey, but they have such a new team we are excited to look at them and see what they are about,” Freeman said. “We kind of went into the series last weekend the same way. [St. Scholastica] is playing so well we wanted to see how we measure up. In the NCHA it’s so tight it’s not so much that one team is better than the other team but it’s more a clash of styles, so it’ll be interesting.”

Indeed it will.

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