Setting the Table
Last seasonâ€™s MIAC champion finished the regular season comfortably in first place, with a seven point lead on second place. With four weeks left to go this season, things look like they will be considerably more muddied for the home stretch. Lets take a look at how things currently stand before diving into some of this weekendâ€™s key matchups.
The most comfortable lead for any team in a playoff spot is a slim three points. While Gustavus Adolphusâ€™ three point lead over second place Hamline may seem at least somewhat comfortable, itâ€™s closer than it appears. The Gusties have played two more games than Hamline, and do not play this coming weekend. What the Pipers do against Augsburg will determine who is in first place on Monday.
In third place is Bethel, trailing Hamline by a single point. However the Royals have also played 10 games versus Hamlineâ€™s eight. The Royals face off against St. Olaf this coming weekend, in what is a big series for both teams. More about this series later on.
In fourth place are the Cobbers of Concordia (MN), trailing Bethel by one point. Concordia heads to St. Johnâ€™s for two games this weekend, then play the top two MIAC teams for their final four games. Itâ€™s crucial that the Cobbers have a good weekend if they want to make the playoffs, as points will be hard to come by against Gustavus and Hamline.
Three points behind the Cobbers are St. Olaf and St. Thomas, tied for fifth and sixth. The Oles hold the edge here, as theyâ€™ve played eight games, two less than the Tommies. After last yearâ€™s great regular season, St. Olaf is struggling to regain the poise that brought them that success. St. Thomas is also having a bad year by their standards. The Tommies need to win five of their last six games to avoid having their first losing season in a very long time.
In seventh is Augsburg, trailing St. Olaf and St. Thomas by one point. With eight games to play, Augsburg is still very much alive in the playoff hunt. After this weekendâ€™s matchups against Hamline, they have series with St. Maryâ€™s, Bethel, and St. Olaf, all of which will be critical to their playoff hopes.
In eighth and ninth are St. Johnâ€™s and St. Maryâ€™s, with three and two points, respectively.
This is looking to be a rebuilding year for them, especially as both head coaches are only in their second season. While it would take a monster run by either to challenge for a playoff spot, these two teams can still play the role of spoiler versus teams higher up in the standings. Both coach Moore of St. Maryâ€™s and coach Schueller of St. Johnâ€™s should have their teams focused on playing hard to finish the season, and to take something positive out of the last few weeks.
While all games the rest of the season are important, these two series are of extra significance for the teams involved.
Concordia (MN) vs. St. Johnâ€™s
While every other team in the MIAC plays home-and-home series for their league games, Concordia is the exception. Because of their distance from the rest of the league, each weekend for the Cobbers is either two home games or two road games. This series against St. Johnâ€™s starts the beginning of a brutal road trip, as Concordia plays its final six games on the road.
With their last two series against the top teams in the MIAC, this is the Cobbers best chance to gain some significant points in the standings. A solid three or four point weekend would put them in good shape to make the playoffs even if they donâ€™t gain a single point against Hamline or Gustavus.
Meanwhile, St. Johnâ€™s has to make a swift climb up the standings if they want to be fighting for the playoffs. That means taking three, or preferably four points every weekend from here on out. Even if they donâ€™t make a run like that, playing well down the stretch will give the team some confidence heading in to next season, and give them something to build upon.
Every loss for the Johnnies has been close this year. Of their six league defeats, four were by two goals and two were by a single goal. Theyâ€™ve been in every game this season, and their defense has been a strong point, allowing just over three goals per game.
Their offense has been anything but strong though, as theyâ€™ve scored only one more goal in conference than the leagueâ€™s worst offense. After a natural hat trick in their first game of the season, itâ€™s been a tough time finding the back of the net for most of the team.
The Cobbers have seen both their offense and defense improve immensely from last season, both at least a goal per game better. They try to play a physical style and skate hard from when the puck drop till the horn sounds. Both these teams rely on team defense and quick breakout passes.
Itâ€™ll be interesting to see how the weekend shakes out for them both; there should be no questions about either team coming out flat or looking ahead.
St. Olaf vs. Bethel
After mostly dominating the MIAC through last yearâ€™s regular season, the Oles had struggled from the get go this year. Coming into the second half of league games, they had a record of 0-2-4 and were sitting in seventh place. I doubt anyone could have predicted that it would take until their seventh conference matchup to get their first win, but thatâ€™s what it took as the Oles finally finished on the winning side by sweeping St. Maryâ€™s.
What remains to be seen is if theyâ€™ll be able to keep that momentum going for the rest of the season. They currently sit tied for the final playoff spot, and need a strong final eight games to clinch a berth in the MIAC postseason. After having a successful weekend against St. Maryâ€™s, are the Oles going to be able to elevate their play for a full 60 minutes for the rest of the season?
On the other side of this matchup, Bethel is sitting alone in third place with a four point lead on the Oles. Last year these teams played three times, with St. Olaf winning them all. Getting swept again would be disastrous for the Royals, as it would tie the two teams in the standings. Such a result could conceivably switch the two teams in the standings, and leave Bethel on the edge of making the playoffs.
This series is the beginning of what amounts to an extended playoff push for Bethel. Their final six games are all against teams below them in the standings, all of whom would be breathing down the Royalsâ€™ necks with a three or four point weekend. With that in mind, this will be a big matchup for most teams in the MIAC as several teams are trying to catch up to both the Oles and the Royals.
This past weekend saw two Division III games take place at St. Paulâ€™s Xcel Energy Center, home of the Minnesota Wild. On Saturday, St. Olaf and the University of Wisconsin-Stout faced each other in a non-conference tilt and on Sunday, St. Johnâ€™s and Gustavus Adolphus met in a league game.
Saturdayâ€™s game was close, with Stout edging St. Olaf to win 3-2 despite a furious Ole attempt to tie the game. Sundayâ€™s match was not as close, but exciting nonetheless, as Gustavus skated out to a 6-0 lead, then withstood the Jonniesâ€™ comeback to win, 6-4.
This was some great exposure for D-III hockey and hopefully some people attended that might not have known what they were missing otherwise. It was amazing to see so many fans travel long distances to see their teams play. Even if you werenâ€™t a fan of any of the teams involved, it was a great venue to watch some good games.
Iâ€™d like to give a special thanks to the Xcel staff for being so accommodating to myself (and fellow USCHO writer Matthew Webb) in making sure we had everything we needed while covering the games.