NCAA D-III First Round: Gustavus Adolphus vs. St. Thomas

Typically when a team is knocked out of the playoffs, there is some disappointment, shock, and disbelief. Oftentimes a team says they’re using those emotions to dig deeper and come back even stronger in the next season. Typically the fans and players have to wait until the next season to have a shot at revenge.

Not this time.

Last Wednesday, St. Thomas traveled down to St. Peter to take on Gustavus Adolphus for the MIAC championship, with the Tommies emerging victorious 2-1 in overtime. Just seven days later, St. Thomas will again make the trip to St. Peter, this time for the opening round of the NCAA tournament.

Gustavus Adolphus (19-6-2 overall, 12-2-2 in MIAC)

After winning last season’s MIAC playoffs and making a run to the national title game, hopes in St. Peter were high for the Gusties. However, the team struggled out of the gate, going 3-3-1 in their first seven games, and it looked like it might be a rough season despite returning the lion’s share of players from the previous year.

Since then, though, the Gusties have picked up their play and never looked back. After that opening stretch, Gustavus has gone 16-3-1, and saw them rise up the MIAC standings until they clinched the regular season championship.

The biggest change has been defensively, as the Gusties gave up 26 goals in those first seven games, and have given up only 40 in the 20 games since then, cutting their goals against average nearly in half. Over that period, Gustavus has averaged four goals per game while giving up only two.

That scoring margin, if carried out for the entire season, would have been good for sixth in the nation, showing that for roughly three-quarters of the season, the Gusties have been playing some of the best hockey in the nation.

Their style is characterized by a high flying end-to-end pace, but they don’t rely solely on transition chances to score. Their forecheck can be an absolute nightmare for opposing teams, and the Gusties also have the size and strength to cycle the puck and keep it in the offensive zone for long stretches of time.

Gustavus’ style of play can dominate teams, and leave their opponents chasing the puck for most of the game. Throughout the season, Gustavus has averaged 38.7 shots on goal compared to 25.5 for their opponents. Even in their six losses, the Gusties outshot their opponents by an average of 4.3 shots per game.

Since November, the Gusties have not lost a game in which they’ve scored at least two goals, and in their three losses, they haven’t given up more than three goals. The key for the Gusties then, is to bury their chances. They play solid defense, giving up four or more goals only three times in their last 20 games. If a game turns into a shootout, this favors Gustavus over virtually every other team in the country.

One problem with Gustavus’s style is that if a team plays passively against them, making sure they always have enough defenders back, the Gusties may get plenty of shots, but they’ll be more likely to be from the outside instead of a 2-on-1 flying down the ice.

Against St. Thomas, Gustavus was coming off a D-III record four overtime game in the semifinals just four days previous. By the time the third period came around, the Gusties were looking a lot slower than they had at the start of the game.

Every time they brought the puck up ice, the Tommies had defenders back, and every time St. Thomas responded with a rush of their own, Gustavus looked sluggish forcing the puck carrier into the corner. Whether this was an effect of the mammoth overtime game, or in St. Thomas’ defensive plan tiring out their opponents is tough to gauge.

Gustavus will have to score on their chances to win this game. They had several chances in the first period of the MIAC Championship to expand their lead and pull away, but could not finish, and ended the period with a 1-0 lead despite a 17-7 advantage in shots.

If the Tommie defense can weather the early storm, they will have a good shot to control the pace later on, giving them their best chance to win. If the Gusties bury their chances and keep going full speed until the game, it will be hard for St. Thomas to catch up. If both teams come out playing at the top of their game, this could easily be headed for overtime, a common occurrence when MIAC teams meet in the playoffs this season.

St. Thomas (13-10-4 overall, 8-6-2 in MIAC)

I’ll say it right off the bat: St Thomas had a disappointing year. By their standards, finishing in third place with a record barely above .500 is not something they’re commonly accustomed to, what with their 28 winning seasons in a row, and 27 MIAC titles overall.

That said, this time of year is called the second season for a good reason. It doesn’t matter how good of a regular season you had or what your record is up to this point; all that matters is how you’re playing right now, in this particular game. RIT was undefeated going into the national championship game in 2001, but it didn’t do them any favors as they were unceremoniously defeated to ruin their season.

What matters now is who has gotten better over the course of the year, is playing the best hockey, and elevating their game to the necessary level. The sign of a well coached team, St. Thomas has steadily improved their play over the course of the year, and really turned it on towards the end of the regular season.

After coming out of Concordia with only one point, St. Thomas’ season was on life support, and they were staring at eight upcoming conference games knowing they would need to win most of them if they wanted to make the playoffs.

After splitting with Hamline, the Tommies went on a tear, winning five of their final six games. The team knew what it needed to do to continue playing, and played at a level capable of achieving their goals. Counting the playoffs, they have now won seven of their last eight games.

Over that stretch, the Tommies have scored at least four goals in all but two of those games. Those two games: a 5-2 loss against St. Olaf and the 2-1 victory over Gustavus Adolphus in the MIAC title game. In order to keep their season alive, St. Thomas is going to have to find a way to keep their offense dangerous without sacrificing on defense.

St. Thomas runs a style that is effective, yet not flashy. They do an incredible job disrupting their opponents’ flow, as well as falling back to play on defense. As soon as a Tommie gets a stick on the puck in their defensive zone, odds are good that it will be brought out and up ice quickly. They do a great job playing defense as a team, keeping shots to the outside, tying up sticks, and clearing rebounds quickly.

When senior goaltender Joe Schraeder is able to clearly see shots coming his way, he can be very tough to beat. He made several key saves against Gustavus last week, and will surely be relied upon again this week.

“This is possibly the proudest I’ve been of any group of guys,” said head coach Terry Skrypek after the MIAC title game. “The way they battled back, came together at the end of the season, and ended up with the championship here.”

If the Tommies play the same way again this time, they very may well see themselves advancing to the quarterfinals. It may sound cliché, but whichever team executes most effectively, buries their chances, and finishes on special teams, that team will likely to be the one coming out on top.

Nothing would really surprise me in this game. This will be the fourth time these two have met, with the Gusties winning the first two games by a combined score of 11-1, before losing the MIAC title game 2-1 in overtime. The Gusties had the best season overall while St. Thomas is playing their best hockey at the right time. It’s somewhat fitting that the rematch comes so soon, with Gustavus burned by their title game loss and St. Thomas confident in their ability to compete with anyone.

The only thing certain about this game is that whoever loses will have a long time to wait for another chance like this.


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