This Week in MIAC: Feb. 25, 2010

And Then There Were Five

It took until the final day of games, but the MIAC finally has its five teams set for the playoffs.

Coming into that last day, though, four teams were fighting for the last two spots.

Gustavus Adolphus, Hamline, and St. Thomas had clinched their berths entering the final weekend, but Augsburg, Bethel, St. Olaf, and Concordia (MN) all remained alive. Concordia needed to win their final game and get help from other teams to make the playoffs, but the other three teams all held their destiny in their own hands.

The key games on Saturday were Bethel vs. Augsburg and St. John’s vs. St. Olaf.

If the Oles won, either Bethel or Augsburg would be eliminated. With the score tied late in the second period of the Augsburg-Bethel game, word came in that St. Olaf was leading St. John’s, 5-2. With it looking like the Oles were going to win, both the Royals and the Auggies knew they would need a result in this game. Augsburg would need a win to advance, while Bethel would clinch a spot with a tie or a win.

After giving up three goals to Augsburg’s top line on Friday, Bethel did a tremendous job bottling them up on Saturday, holding them scoreless. However, despite shutting down their top line, the Royals could not stop the Auggies. Early in the third period, Trevor Doden scored his second goal of the game, putting the Auggies up 3-2. Despite a late flurry of pressure, Bethel would be unable to answer to tie the game, and Augsburg clinched fourth place in the standings.

Bethel’s remaining playoff hopes rested solely in the hands of St. John’s, as a Johnnie win or tie against St. Olaf would see Bethel claim the fifth and final playoff spot. However, the Oles were able to extend their earlier lead into an 8-3 win, putting them into a tie with Bethel, and into the playoffs due to the tiebreaking system.

With the teams and seedings set, so are the matchups.

Augsburg hosts St. Olaf on Friday, with the winner playing at first place Gustavus Adolphus Saturday. Also on Saturday, second place Hamline hosts third ranked St. Thomas. The winners of Saturday’s games meet on Wednesday for the MIAC Championship.

St. Olaf at Augsburg: Friday, February 26, 2010, 8:05 p.m.

St. Olaf Oles

MIAC Standings: Fifth
Overall Record: 12-9-2
MIAC Record: 6-6-4
MIAC Goals Scored: 53
MIAC Goals Allowed: 51

Augsburg Auggies

MIAC Standings: Fourth
MIAC Record: 8-7-1
Overall Record: 19-5-1
MIAC Goals Scored: 46
MIAC Goals Allowed 48

Last season saw Augsburg finish in the same position with an identical league record. Their overall record, though, was 9-15-1. While they may have finished in the same position with many of the same players, this is not the same Augsburg team from a year ago. Their defense has improved by leaps and bounds, giving up 36 fewer goals compared to last season.

Much of the improvement comes from returning much of last year’s team, and playing better within head coach Chris Brown’s system. Another large part of the defensive improvement can be laid on the shoulders of Justin Lochner. The standout freshman goalie posted a 2.42 goals against average and .915 save percentage in conference play this year, numbers which would improve the defensive statistics of most teams in the nation.

After winning the MIAC regular season title last season, some teams might be disappointed finishing in fifth place and barely making the playoffs.

For St. Olaf, however, it’s all about peaking at the right time of the season. Having to fight tooth-and-nail to make the playoffs could be a boon to this young team, as the players know what will be demanded of them in the playoffs. Last season the Oles fell in their first playoff game, losing to fourth seeded Hamline, 5-1, to unceremoniously end their season. This time they’ll be looking to flip things around and send a higher seeded team home.

Statistically, the Auggies and Oles are very similar. Both have solid goaltending, with St. Olaf’s Ben Leis putting up a 2.56 GAA and .917 save pct., compared to Augsburg’s Justin Lochner’s 2.38 and .919. Augsburg’s penalty kill is 15th in the nation at 85.5%, while St. Olaf sits at 22nd with a success rate of 84.3%. On the power play, Augsburg is 25th in the nation, converting on 21.6% of their chances, while St. Olaf is 42nd with an 18.7% rate.

While these numbers are pretty much all a tossup between the two teams, there is one significant difference between them. Augsburg averages only 13 penalty minutes a game while the Oles are busted for 18.5 per game. Spending an average of five extra minutes in the penalty box can have a big impact on a game, especially when two teams are otherwise evenly matched.

Both teams rely heavily on their top lines to lead the way offensively. Augsburg’s top three of Sauer, Grogan, and Johnson combined to score 43 of their team’s 76 goals this season, and no other player has scored more than six for the Auggies. For St. Olaf, Tranvik, Smith, and Britton have combined for 41 of the Oles’ 84 goals.

Prediction: This is essentially a coin flip. It sounds cliché, but whichever team can capitalize on their chances, be effective on special teams, and stay out of the box should end up winning this game.

This will be the fourth time these two meet this season, and the third time they play at Augsburg’s arena. Both previous games here saw Augsburg outshoot the Oles rather handily, although both games were close until the end. Because of that, I’m predicting Augsburg will win to advance to the semifinals. That said, about the only thing that would surprise me in this game would be a lopsided affair; this is anyone’s game to win.

St. Thomas at Hamline: Saturday, February 27, 2010

Hamline Pipers

MIAC Standings: Second
Overall Record: 16-5-4
MIAC Record: 11-3-2
MIAC Goals Scored: 65
MIAC Goals Allowed 38

St. Thomas Tommies

MIAC Standings: Third
Overall Record: 11-10-4
MIAC Record: 8-6-2
MIAC Goals Scored: 51
MIAC Goals Allowed 58

When a team scores 13 goals in a two game series, it’s usually a safe bet that they had a successful weekend. For Hamline, however, their 13 goals against St. Thomas earlier in the year only resulted in a split. The Pipers got behind early in the first game and could never recover en route to a 7-4 loss. Hamline responded the next night, posting a 9-2 victory and limiting St. Thomas’s scoring to only two power-play goals.

The Pipers have had a great season, and were fighting for the regular season title until the final weekend. After losing their first game of the season, Hamline went on a tremendous run, going 8-0-2 through the first half of the season. The second half of the season brought some problems, however. After not having given up more than three goals in any of their first 11 games, the Pipers gave up four or more goals six times in their final 14.

Part of the reason for their struggles had been lights out goaltending turning into ‘just’ solid goaltending, while a more difficult second half schedule also made the going tougher. Regardless of how they ended the season, this is the time that teams need to be playing their best hockey. The playoffs are often referred to as the second season for a reason — all records should be thrown out the window as this is the chance teams have played all season for. No one’s going to lay down for an opponent, and with a single elimination format, upsets are bound to happen.

Hamline’s last series against Concordia (MN) could have been the best thing for them going into the playoffs.

The Cobbers played hard for 60 minutes both nights, flying up and down the ice, playing the body, and doing their best to break up any flow for the Pipers. This is exactly the type of game that you can expect in the playoffs, and if Hamline can elevate their intensity to match what they faced from the Cobbers, they could be playing for the league championship next week.

Statistically, it’s no surprise that Hamline is among the best in the league. Beau Christian finished out the season with stellar numbers: a 2.33 GAA and .911 save pct. The Pipers power play is the best in the MIAC, clipping along at a 22.6% rate. While that’s certainly good, their penalty kill is the second best in the nation, stopping 90.0% of their opponents’ chances.

Hamline gave up 13 power-play goals this season, but scored five shorthanded tallies of their own, meaning in 25 games, they gave up a net of five goals while shorthanded.

St. Thomas has had an up-and-down season, to say the least. After starting 4-1-2, the Tommies had a four game losing streak, and have never really got things going since. Finishing around .500 is not something they’re accustomed to, as historically they’re one of the MIAC’s top teams.

Offensively, the Tommies have struggled this year, with only two players scoring 10 goals. As a team they tend to focus on a face paced back-and-forth game, but without any pure goal scorers, they can struggle to finish on their chances. Goaltender Joe Schraeder has played very well at times, but his 3.37 GAA and .875 save pct. are the lowest of any starting netminder in the playoffs.

On special teams, St. Thomas has failed to consistently produce. Their power-play rate of 15.0% is among the worst in the nation and second worst in the MIAC. To make matters worse, they’ve also given up seven shorthanded goals on the year. Their 80.0% success rate on the penalty kill is respectable, and is boosted by the fact that the Tommies are one of the most disciplined teams in the nation, taking an average of only 12.9 penalty minutes per game.

Prediction: When St. Thomas is on their game, they do a great job disrupting their opponent’s offense, and create odd man rushes for themselves. When they are not playing well, they tend to be hemmed into their defensive end, and don’t generate much offense at all.

Hamline is at their best when they can apply steady pressure in the offensive zone, set up their power play, and keep their opponents from getting odd man rushes. The Pipers may be quick, but their offense isn’t geared towards getting chances in transition, so if they end up in their own zone for much of the game, it will be difficult for them to score. That said, they do have several dangerous snipers who can score when given the time to set up, as Adrian found out.

I don’t see Hamline having another defensive breakdown like they did in their 7-4 loss to St. Thomas. Even when the Pipers were struggling, they were still scoring 3-4 goals a game. In their past seven games, they’ve held their opponents to two or fewer goals five times. If they can keep their defense rolling, they should be able to advance past St. Thomas and into the MIAC championship game.

Gustavus Adolphus vs. Augsburg/St. Olaf: Saturday February 27, 2010

Coming into this season, Gustavus Adolphus was voted the preseason favorite to win the league. The Gusties didn’t disappoint, and followed up last year’s playoff championship with a regular season title. In conference games they scored the most goals, allowed the fewest, finished with the league’s best overall record, and are currently ranked seventh nationally in the USCHO.com Division III poll.

While Gustavus may not have the league’s best penalty kill (82.1%), they’re tied for the national lead in shorthanded goals with nine. That statistic alone shows the Gusties style of play. This team plays hard for 60 minutes with plenty of speed and skill. Defensively they are very solid, allowing only 2.36 goals per game. Junior Josh Swartout has been amazing in net, finishing the regular season with a 2.12 goals against average and .909 save percentage.

Offensively, Gustavus is led by David Martinson, who leads the nation in goals with 27. He’s not their only weapon, though, as Ross Ring-Jarvi, Eric Bigham, and Brad Wieck are all scoring threats. Combined, these four players make up almost two-thirds of Gustavus’s offense.

Against Augsburg and St. Olaf, Gustavus went 3-0-1 in conference games. However, the Gusties also played both teams in non-conference games, and lost both. In a one game playoff, anything can happen. Gustavus will be facing a team who won a playoff game the night before and knows they can beat the Gusties as well. No matter who they face, this should be a hard fought close game.

I’m giving the edge to Gustavus no matter who they play though. I have to. After starting off 3-3-1, they’ve gone 15-2-1 since then and they’ve only given up five combined goals in those two losses. They’ve been a great team all year, and one of the best in the country for the second half of the season. On average they outshoot their opponents by 15 shots, they don’t allow many good scoring chances, and they are dangerous even strength, on the power play, or even a man down.

They may be good, but they’re not invincible. They do have the advantage no matter who they play, and the MIAC changed the playoff system slightly before this season to help reward the top seed.

Due to the nature of the MIAC playoff format, sometimes finishing first isn’t as good as it may seem. The fourth and fifth place teams generally have been playing must-win games for a few weeks by the time the playoffs start, and whoever wins the play-in game has essentially been forced to play playoff caliber hockey for weeks just to earn the right to play the top seed.

Last season, the play-in game was on Thursday, with the semifinals on Saturday. This season though, there has been a slight change. The play-in game has been moved to Friday and the semifinals kept on Saturday.

This takes away a day of rest for the winner before traveling to face the regular season champion. It was felt that this gave the top seed more of a reward, instead of facing a potentially hot team after they’d had a chance to rest. To win the championship from the play-in game now requires a team to win three games in six days, a daunting task against any team, let alone against the top teams in the conference.

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