This Week in the NCHA-MCHA: Feb. 18, 2010

With the NCHA playoffs ramping up this weekend and the MCHA pairings all set despite one week of regular season conference action to go, what is there to talk about this week?

How about the fact the first public edition of the NCAA Regional Rankings was released this Monday? Here they are for the West Region:

1. St. Norbert
2. St. Scholastica
3. Gustavus Adolphus
4. Hamline
5. UW-River Falls
6. Adrian
7. Augsburg

As far as the implications for the NCAA prospects of NCHA and MCHA teams, it’s fairly straightforward for a change.

To word it one way, close is only going to count in horseshoes, hand grenades, or if your name is St. Norbert or St. Scholastica.

Though there are no guarantees, the Green Knights and Saints look to be the only teams who have strong enough résumés to buffer a loss in the conference playoffs. For the rest of the NCHA and MCHA, it’s win it all or go home.

Interestingly, Adrian lands at No. 6 despite two in-region losses to Hamline. Last season the Bulldogs failed to crack the poll despite being undefeated against West Region opponents.

Who’s Next?

For many years the opening round of the NCHA playoffs was about the easiest thing in the world to predict as year after year the higher seeded teams advanced without fail.

UW-Stevens Point became the first road team in NCHA history to break through and score an opening round win as the Pointers dropped UW-Stout 8-3, 3-2 in a 2001 quarterfinal series. A road team didn’t win again until 2005 when the then host Pointers fell 4-3, 6-1 to visiting Lake Forest.

Since the Foresters win at Stevens Point at least one road team has won an opening round series every season except last.

Stout took down rival River Falls in 2006, while in 2007 St. Scholastica hit the road and knocked off Superior in the quarterfinals and River Falls in the semifinals.

Two road teams scored opening round upset wins in 2008 as St. Scholastica once again eliminated River Falls while UW-Eau Claire made the trip to Superior and came home with its first playoff series win in school history.
The increase in opening round upsets is clear evidence of the ever-increasing parity within the NCHA, though all four home teams did advance a year ago. Recent history suggests a road team is likely to pull off an upset this year, so who will it be?

Well, it won’t be St. Norbert as the Green Knights landed a spot right into the semifinals as a reward for their regular season NCHA championship.

That leaves St. Scholastica, River Falls and Stout as the home teams under fire this weekend. As a reminder, all series are “first to three points”. If the teams split the opening two games the series are settled by a 20 minute mini-game following the conclusion of the Saturday game. If the mini-game is tied after 20 minutes, it’s sudden death time.

Perhaps the most intriguing matchup might involve River Falls, as the No. 3 seed Falcons take on No. 6. Eau Claire. The 15-8-2 Falcons have slipped up at home twice in the previous four postseasons, while the Blugolds are 2-1-1 in their last four — including an impressive win over St. Scholastica just a week ago.

“Obviously in the NCHA you have to beat everybody so it should be a great series,” said Eau Claire head coach Matt Loen, who is 32-42-6 in his fourth year behind the Blugolds’ bench. “I think it’s a great opportunity for our team. The only way we are going to get a NCAA bid is to win the NCHA tournament, so to come out and beat River Falls in the first round would be a huge confidence builder for our team.”

The Blugolds are 0-2-1 against the Falcons this season, with a loss and a tie at home back in November and a 6-3 loss at River Falls two weeks ago. In the most recent loss, Eau Claire held a 2-1 lead after two periods but the Falcons erupted for five third period goals to score the win.

“Depth-wise they have one of the better lineups in our league as far as forwards,” Loen said. “They have three or four strong lines that can come at you offensively. Stopping them is the key and that will be the challenge.”

The Falcons boast the third highest scoring offense in the NCHA, but the Blugolds allowed the third fewest goals in conference play this year. According to Loen, defense remains a priority this weekend, especially as the Falcons have refused to roll over this season and have scored numerous key goals late in games.

“I think we’ve played pretty well defensively. We only gave up three goals against them in our series at home so we’re going to try to match our defensive play from that series.”

The Blugolds could go with senior Tyler Brigl or freshman Brandon Stephenson in net. Both have seen significant action this season, but Brigl garnered both starts last weekend.

“We’re comfortable with either one,” said Loen. “Tyler is a senior and was our goalie when we won that series up in Superior, and Brandon has stepped up and played well as a freshman. Whichever one of those guys plays will be a big part of our team defense.”
In the 2008 upset in Superior, Brigl allowed four goals in a Friday loss but stopped 34 shots in a 5-0 shutout on Saturday before also keeping Superior off the board in the mini-game.

As mentioned, that was the first playoff series win in Eau Claire history. It was also an experience Loen hopes his team can draw from against River Falls.

“We learned that we can win,” he said. “To go into a place like Superior who has a winning tradition and to go in and win was big. Now we have an opportunity to do that again as I think that Superior team and this River Falls team are similar.”

No. 5 Stevens Point @ No. 4 Stout

There has been plenty of buzz this week about this matchup. Not only because the 4/5 NCHA meeting is often about as much of a tossup as one can find, but also because Stout has not played well down the stretch. The preseason favorite to win the NCHA, the Blue Devils are 0-5-1 over the last three weeks of conference play and fell 4-0 to Stevens Point to wrap up the season. As such, many are rating this one high on the potential upset scale.

That said, the Blue Devils are at home and the hostile confines of the DunnCo have not been friendly to the Pointers for some years.

The Blue Devils hosted the Pointers twice this season and won both times — including a dramatic 5-4 (ot) win in which Stout tallied in the waning seconds of regulation and again in overtime.

Those contests included, Stout has won eight straight at home over the Stevens Point. Included therein are opening round playoff sweeps in 2007 and 2008 in which the Blue Devils outscored the Pointers 23-7 along the way.

The Pointers on the other hand have been up and down as of late. The opened the NCHA season 0-7 but won six of their final 11 to finish 6-12. They split three of their final four NCHA weekends but were only 2-8 against the four teams that finished above them in the standings.

All told, who knows what to expect? Stevens Point has played better down the stretch while Stout has not, but the Blue Devils have owned the Pointers at home for the better part of five years. The proverbial tossup.

No. 7 Superior @ No. 2 St. Scholastica

If five years ago someone said that in 2010 it would be the Yellowjackets and Saints squaring off in the 2/7 series it wouldn’t have surprised anyone. If that same person then specified the Saints would be the higher seed it no doubt would have raised some eyebrows.

That’s exactly the situation this weekend as St. Scholastica hosts Twin Ports rival Superior in the NCHA’s final quarterfinal series.

The Saints won all three regular season meetings between the two, scoring a 6-3, 3-0 sweep at home in December and notching a 4-1 win at Wessman just a week ago.
On paper, the Saints appear to be clear favorites as they boast the second-ranked offense and defense in the NCHA while the Yellowjackets are near the bottom of the league in both categories.

Before moving St. Scholastica straight into the semifinals, however, consider a few things:

First, it’s a rivalry series and an abundance of Superior fans will no doubt make the five mile trip to Mars-Lakeview this weekend. Secondly, Superior lost only twice in the past three weekends. Granted, they only won once, but the Yellowjackets have shown resiliency despite not being where they desired in the standings. Finally, it’s not easy to beat a team three times in a season no less five, but that’s exactly what the Saints might have to do to move on.

Despite a less than stellar season in the standings, the Yellowjackets remain a skilled and dangerous team that is always a threat. Throw in the rivalry angle and an upset here wouldn’t be too much of a stunner despite it being a 2/7 matchup.

One More Musing

It’s no secret the NCHA has become much more competitive over the past five or six years. As such the amount of playoff “upsets” have increased as the gap between top and bottom is much smaller than it used to be.

While the home teams escaped the opening round unscathed last season, has home ice really paid dividends this year in the NCHA?

The results are inconclusive: in NCHA regular season games this season the road teams are 29-24-10.

Skelly Sets Mark

The records keep piling up for Adrian, and this time it comes down on the individual side as a first period goal by Bulldogs’ junior forward Shawn Skelly last Friday made him the all-time leading scorer in MCHA history.

The goal have the Wolverine Lake, Mich. native 131 career points in MCHA play and surpassed the 130 posted by former Finlandia standout and 2008 graduate Josh Paquette.

Overall, Skelly has 18 goals and 18 assists on the season in 22 games, and posted 65 points (30-35) last season and a whopping 74 (30-44) as a freshman.

Congratulations are in order on the achievement and it might not be he last MCHA record Skelly sets as with over a full season to go he is only 11 assists shy of tying the league assist record.

MCHA Playoff Picture

Last week’s edition contained a few errors so please allow me to apologize while at the same time squaring things away properly.

Simply speaking, the MCHA playoffs are all set, despite there being a full weekend of games to go.

Adrian is in at the top seed, Marian as the second and the Milwaukee School of Engineering is No. 3 and will host a playoff series. None of that has changed from a week ago, but now to fix what I made the mistake on.

The battle for fourth in the standings between Lawrence and Lake Forest is irrelevant as far as the playoffs are concerned as the two opening round series must be played between teams from the same divisions. That means Lake Forest is locked into a road series at MSOE while Lawrence will host a series of its own even if the Vikings finish fifth in the league.

As Northland scored a win at Finlandia last weekend, the Lumberjacks indeed qualify for the postseason regardless of what happens this weekend and will travel to Lawrence in the opening round.

There, all set.

Speaking of Lawrence, the Vikings were featured here about a month ago after going through a rough stretch. Not much has changed as while Adrian, Marian and MSOE have all put together strong second halves to their respective seasons, the Vikings have continued to toil. Since a 6-1 start to the season, the Vikings are 2-13-1 and have lost nine of 10.

That run is certainly not what was expected from a team many thought could rise up and challenge Adrian this year, and is also not what was expected from head coach Mike Szkodzinski.

“We haven’t been able to put together 60 minutes at any point this year,” he said. “There have been a number of times where our forwards aren’t playing well but the defense has, or when they are playing well we give up a bunch of soft goals, or our goaltender is making great saves and no one else is playing well.

“You cannot win in the MCHA without playing consistently. I think we have the ability to play that way but we need to start doing it.”

The lone bright spot for the Vikings in the second half of the season was a home weekend a month ago in which they scored three points from Finlandia. Since then they are 0-7 against the teams (Adrian, Marian, MSOE) they trail in the standings.

“I think if you look all the way back, a turning point was that Lake Forest game (on January 9),” Szkodzinski said. “We played very well in the first period and outshot them 17-3 but didn’t score. Then they came out in the second period and were very opportunistic.”

The Foresters tallied four times in that second period en route to an eventual 6-2 win.

“From that point on we have not played 60 minutes. It’s been a struggle at times, but at the same we believe in what we are doing at it’s only a matter of time until we turn it around. Hopefully that’s sooner rather than later.”

The Vikings offense and defense are both off the paces they set a year ago and goaltender Evan Johnson has not performed in the stellar fashion he did a year ago. Last year, as a sophomore, Johnson posted a 2.11 goals against average and .918 save percentage, but those have regressed to 3.90 and .883 in his junior campaign.

“Our goaltending has certainly been a concern for us this year,” said Szkodzinski. “We have two goaltenders who have the ability to be excellent, but like the rest of the team they have not been on a consistent basis. If we are to turn it around they are going to have to lead the way in that category.”

Already knowing their playoff situation, the Vikings have one more chance to get the ship righted as they travel to Finlandia to close out the season this year. While of course Lawrence wants to come out of the weekend with two wins, simply putting forth a complete effort is essential if the Vikings have any hopes on rebounding and competing for the Harris Cup.

“Any time Lawrence and Finlandia play it’s a battle,” said Szkodzinski. “We need to just play strong for 120 minutes to prove to ourselves we are capable of it. There is no doubt in our minds we are, but we need to go out and show we can do it before heading into the [playoffs].”

And finally…

While on the topic of Lawrence, check out this quick video about the Vikings’ earlier trip to Eurpops that the University has hosted on YouTube. My how far media has come in the past ten years …

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