The dog days of winter are here and that means the end of the 2009-10 campaign is already looming on the horizon. Plenty of action remains to unfold, however, as MCHA and NCHA teams get one final chance to jockey for playoff position as both leagues wrap up their conference schedules this weekend.
Aside from bringing an end to the regular season for teams of both leagues, this week once again offered a new edition of the USCHO.com Division III men’s poll.
St. Norbert is again the top ranked team in the West Region and holds at No. 3 following a pair of ties in the Twin Ports. St. Scholastica holds at No. 4 after tying the Green Knights and dropping UW-Stevens Point. The Saints have made up some ground on St. Norbert and now sit only 10 spots behind the Knights.
UW-River Falls stays at No. 14 after a pair of wins while Adrian maintains its No. 12 ranking. The Bulldogs remain the only MCHA team to have received votes. In a rare case, no other NCHA teams land in the â€˜others receiving votesâ€™ category.
Another Year, Another Nominee
For the fourth consecutive season, this column is honored to feature yet another MCHA or NCHA nominee for the Hockey Humanitarian Award. First it was MSOEâ€™s Brian Soik, then UW-Stoutâ€™s Jeff DeFrancesca, and last season it was Gregory Copeland of Marian.
This year, itâ€™s Adrian junior forward Sam Kuzyk. As stated on their website, the Hockey Humanitarian Award seeks to â€œacknowledge the accomplishments of personal character, scholarship, and the giving of oneself off the ice to the larger community as well. The Humanitarian Award is meant to be seen as a true measure of a person’s worth, not just as an athlete, but as someone who embodies those values that merit our recognition.â€
Kuzyk is enjoying a fine season on the ice as his 34 points make him the second leading scorer on the Bulldogs. Itâ€™s his off-the-ice endeavors that earned him the nomination, however.
In recent months, Kuzyk has volunteered at a local clinic for the disabled, volunteered to read to youngsters at a local school, organized a food drive, and organized sponsorship of a local needs family through the Salvation Army.
Kuzyk is one of 18 nominees in a field that will ultimately be narrowed to eight finalists. The winner will be announced in conjuction with the festivities surrounding the Division I Frozen Four in Detroit.
Like it was for Soik, DeFrancesca and Copeland ahead of him, it really doesnâ€™t matter if Kuzyk goes on to win the award as while it certainly would be a truly honoring distinction, trying to win awards isnâ€™t why these guys do what they do, and that is something we can all respect.
NCHA Playoff Picture
With a pair of ties in the Twin Ports a week ago, St. Norbert failed to wrap up the NCHA regular season title, but the Green Knights remain in sound position to claim their seventh NCHA title in the past eight seasons.
Two points ahead of St. Scholastica and in good position on tiebreakers, a win this weekend over River Falls or Stout locks up the league, and the first round playoff bye, for the Green Knights. St. Norbert must like its chances this weekend as it is 23-1 all time at the Cornerstone Community Center against the Blue Devils and Falcons.
The Green Knights also clinch the title with any St. Scholastica loss. The Saints currently sit two points back of St. Norbert and take on UW-Superior and UW-Eau Claire this weekend.
In all likelihood the Green Knights will score at least one home win and win the conference, which means St. Scholastica is locked into second as the Saints are currently six points clear, and beyond reach of, third place River Falls.
River Falls and Stout are locked into the third and fourth positions, but the Falcons currently stand two points clear of the Blue Devils. Both play at Stevens Point and St. Norbert this weekend and one win by River Falls will be enough to clinch third place for the Falcons as they are 8-6-2 in league play while Stout is 6-6-4.
The first tiebreaker is league wins so Stout is essentially forced to sweep and hope Falls gets no better than a tie on the weekend. Should most anything else happen, the Falcons finish third and the Blue Devils fourth. Both will host home playoff series regardless.
The fifth through seventh spots are a bit more convoluted. Stevens Point currently stands in fifth with 10 points, while Eau Claire and Superior sit a single point behind. The full picture is as follows:
5. Stevens Point (5-11-0), 10 pts.
6. Eau Claire (3-10-3), 9 pts.
7. Superior (3-10-3), 9 pts.
The comprehensive set of tiebreakers, which very well could come into play here are:
1. League wins
2. Goal differential among tied teams
3. Goal differential in all NCHA games
4. Coin flip
With two more league victories that Eau Claire and Superior, Stevens Point wraps up fifth with any win and single non-wins by Eau Claire and Superior, while a single tie by the Pointers forces Eau Claire or Superior to take at least three points on the weekend.
This likely wonâ€™t be settled until Saturday night when, naturally, Superior and Eau Claire close out the season with a tilt at Hobbs Ice Arena.
So howâ€™s it going to shape up? I donâ€™t think too much will change and your final NCHA standings will be:
1. St. Norbert
2. St. Scholastica
3. UW-River Falls
5. UW-Stevens Point
6/7. Winner of Superior/Eau Claire game finishes sixth, loser seventh
Regardless of how it shakes down, one thing is for sure: this broke down a bit easier than in years past!
Raiders Quietly Surge
After opening the season with four straight conference victories, the Milwaukee School of Engineering Raiders proceeded to drop five of their next six league games.
In mid-January, it looked like MSOE would be facing the fight of their lives for a home playoff series, but the last three weeks have changed things significantly. Since a 5-2 loss to Adrian on January 16, the Raiders are 5-0-1 in their last six league games and need only a single point this weekend to finish third in the MCHA.
As such, they will likely host the sixth and final MCHA playoff qualifier in an opening round series, though the identity of their opponent will not be known until Saturday night.
â€œWith a young team we feel very good about where we stand,â€ said Raidersâ€™ head coach Mark Ostapina. â€œWe knew this was going to be a work in progress and we looked at it as a journey and that journey is moving along.â€
The Raiders are one of the youngest teams in the MCHA and routinely take the ice with upwards of 15 underclassmen. Their youth on the blueline was of utmost concern this preseason as the relatively inexperienced group not only was expected to perform, but had to find a way to fill the large skates of all-everything Jason Woll.
As it has turned out, however, team defense has been a strength of MSOE as the Raiders lead all MCHA teams in overall scoring defense and rank second only to Adrian in scoring defense in league games.
â€œI never thought weâ€™d able to pick up that slack right away,â€ Ostapina said. â€œI think the fact we have done it is a tribute to all of the defensemen in the lineup. We didnâ€™t look for one guy to pick it up, we looked to multiple guys.â€
The Raiders have once again fell victim to injuries this year, the most notable coming to first line center Brock King who suffered a career-threatening injury earlier in the season.
Junior Michael Soik and sophomore Todd Krupa pace the Raiders with 21 and 18 points, respectively, but itâ€™s the trio of freshman forwards that follow that have been the big surprise as Bradley Tierney, Nick Gorup and Jordan Keizer have combined for 47 points, eight power-play goals and four game winning goals already this season.
â€œItâ€™s not easy to replace [our injured players], but some other guys have stepped up and played well and thatâ€™s something we are very happy about,â€ said Ostapina.
Though all focus is now on play within the MCHA, the Raiders had an opportunity to head East earlier this season as they were participants in the Oswego Pathfinder Classic, which is hosted by Oswego State in one of the premier Division III rinks in the nation.
â€œIt is a beautiful facility,â€ Ostapina said. â€œThere are probably 20 or 25 Division I programs that would die for that rink on campus. Itâ€™s an excellent rink and there is no question about that.â€
The Raiders failed to score a win as they fell 4-2 to Elmira in the opener before suffering a 2-1 overtime setback to Connecticut College in the consolation game. Nonetheless, Ostapina considered it a great learning experience.
â€œIt was an experience we took a lot away from. We didnâ€™t win and thatâ€™s what we were able to take away from it. We came back and watched the tape and came away with a very positive effect.â€
The effect certainly seems to be a positive one as MSOE is 6-2-1 since returning from New York. The most crucial wins in that stretch were likely 5-0 and 3-2 triumphs over Lawrence two weeks ago. At the time, the two were in a dogfight with Lake Forest for the final home playoff spot.
â€œWeâ€™re looking at every game being big and trying to set the mentality that every game is a playoff game,â€ said Ostapina of the Lawrence series. â€œWe knew they would be very good. They have a team that never quits so being able to jump out to the early lead, have the power play do well, and to keep it up for 60 minutes was very important.â€
MSOE wraps up conference action this weekend in a home and home series with Lake Forest, and a single point in their own right or any slip up by Lawrence will lock the Raiders into a third place MCHA finish.
From there, as playoffs prove time and time again, anything can happen, and if
the young Raiders get their way they will have a shot at becoming the first MCHA team to partake in the NCAA tournament.
â€œAdrian is the team to beat and everyone knew that going in,â€ Ostapina said. â€œI know itâ€™s a clichÃ© but from here our goal is to play each game, each period and each shift well and let the chips fall where they may. Weâ€™re going to be going up against a bunch of veteran teams down the stretch here, and we want to make sure we are in every game until the final seconds.â€
MCHA Playoff Picture
Like the NCHA, the MCHA has one weekend of play remaining. Also like the NCHA, the MCHA playoff picture is fairly clear. Recall, however, that under the new MCHA playoff format only six teams qualify for the postseason, with the top two receiving byes to the semifinals.
Adrian and Marian have already locked up those byes. The Bulldogs have clinched their third consecutive MCHA regular season title and have claimed the top overall seed, while the Sabres have iced the second seed by virtue of winning the MCHA North Division.
MSOE is six points up on Lawrence for third, but Lawrence has three games with Marian this weekend. However, the best Lawrence can hope for is a three-game sweep over Marian in conjunction with a Lake Forest sweep of MSOE. Should this occur, MSOE still wins the tiebreaker as they are 2-0 against the Vikings this season. The Raiders are your third place team.
The final playoff spot, and sixth seed, will be claimed by Northland or Finlandia. The Lumberjacks are currently four points ahead of the Lions and hold a 2-0 advantage in head-to-head play so far this year. However, the Lumberjacks travel to Hancock this weekend for two more. A single point by Northland wraps up the sixth spot, while Finlandia must sweep to bring the tiebreakers into play. The MCHA tiebreakers are:
1. Head-to-head results
2. Head-to-head goal differential
3. Overall league goal differential
A Finlandia sweep evens the season series, but they must outscore Northland by three or more to sneak into sixth. Itâ€™s as simple as that.
Whatâ€™s left is the 4/5 battle between Lawrence and Lake Forest. The two are currently tied but the Vikings have a game in hand on the Foresters. Lake Forest wins the tiebreaker on goal differential which means the Vikings need to attain more league points in their three weekend games than Lake Forest does in its two if they wish to host the Foresters in next weekendâ€™s quarterfinals. Anything else and itâ€™s the Foresters who will be at home.
So, what will it ultimately look like? Letâ€™s try this:
5. Lake Forest