Playoff campaign

Suddenly, coaches have started speaking in code, player body parts are now only referred to as upper and lower hemispheres, and if someone is clutching so much as a rabbit’s foot for a measure of good luck, not even Wikileaks is going to find out about it.

Yes, the playoffs are here.

This weekend, the Northern Collegiate Hockey Association’s Peters Cup playoffs commence with all seven teams vying for an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. First-place and No. 2 St. Norbert gets a first-round bye, leaving the remaining six schools to slog it out this weekend.

In the first round, teams play each other twice at the higher seed’s home with a 20-minute mini-game immediately following Saturday’s game if there is a split.

“I think all of the series this weekend (it’s) flip a coin,” said Wisconsin-Stevens Point coach Wil Nichol, whose No. 4-seeded team hosts No. 5-seed Wisconsin-Eau Claire Friday and Saturday. “They are very tough match-ups.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if the visiting teams win and it wouldn’t surprise me if the home teams win.

In other series, No. 7 St. Scholastica travels to No. 2 Wisconsin-Superior while No. 6 Wisconsin-River Falls is at No. 3 Wisconsin-Stout. Winners advance to the semifinals, with the lowest remaining seed facing St. Norbert and the second-highest seeds meeting in the other semi the weekend of Feb. 25-27.

Peaks and valleys earmaked all six quarterfinals entries’ regular seasons. UW-Stevens Point (12-12-1, 8-9-1) enters post-season as one of the hotter squads.

The Pointers were 8-2-1 after the new year, reversing a horrendous early-season spell when  the team lost nine of 10 games.

A pair of home losses to No. 2 St. Norbert Nov. 12-13 commenced the downward spiral, which hit its nadir in a 6-1 drubbing at Oswego in the Pathfinder-Bank Oswego Hockey Classic Dec. 31. Senior defenseman Garrett Suter leads the team with 20 points on six goals and 14 assists.

“Looking back at it now, (the St. Norbert losses) created a hangover that took us quite awhile  to come out of,” said Nichol, who announced in January he is leaving at season’s end for an unspecified job with an NHL team. “We also believe everything happens for a reason.

“This team, I think is dangerous because they really have seen everything this season: The highs, the lows. They’ve come from behind and they’ve blown teams out.

“There’s not a lot of situations that will rattle them. That’s going to make us a dangerous team in the playoffs.”

UW-Stevens Point’s playoff opponent also encountered a few “hiccups” during the regular campaign, Blugolds Coach Matt Loen said.

UW-Eau Claire (14-10-1, 8-9-1) was struggling during a 0-3-1 stretch before sophomore goalie Brandon Stephenson backstopped his team to consecutive 3-0 shutout victories over St. Scholastica and UW-Superior Feb. 11-12. Sophomore Jordan Singer (13 goals, 16 assists, 29 points) posted a career upfront.
The Pointers blasted the Blugolds, 6-1, in their last encounter Jan. 28.

“That was one of our worst games this year,” said Loen, who was selected as NCHA Coach of the Year this week. “Hopefully our guys remember that and respond.”

Like UW-Eau Claire, UW-River Falls is banking on a hot netminder in its series with host UW-Stout (15-10, 10-8). Freshman Scott Lewan stopped 32 shots in a 1-0 shutout victory over UW-Superior Jan. 28, which kick-started a four-game winning streak.

Lewan (6-7-1, 2.49 goals-against, .918 save-percentage) was named to All-NCHA Honorable Mention this week. The Falcons lost 3-1 to St. Norbert and drew 1-1 UW-Stevens Point to close out the regular season Feb. 11-12.

UW-River Falls will need some freshmen magic, as goals have been hard to come by. Junior Justin Brossman (12-11-23) and senior Josh Calleja (8-12-20) lead the Falcons offensively.

“Both of those guys would tell you they’ve had slow starts, but they are starting to come on now in the second half, which has really helped us,” UW-River Falls coach Steve Freeman said. “They’ve provided most of the offense we’ve had.

“That’s a problem when you only have a couple of guys because other teams can watch and check them pretty closely.”

UW-River Falls’ hosts boast one of the NCHA’s top pointmen in Brendan Gay (16-16-32) whose offensive pyrotechnics are complemented by freshman standout Kevin O’Donnell (8-14-22).

Starting goalie Tom Lescovich posted back-to-back shutouts against UW-Superior, 1-0, on Jan. 29 and UW-Eau Claire, 2-0, on Feb. 3. The goose eggs highlighted a 4-1 run by the Blue Devils entering the post-season.

Lescovich (12-6, 2.74 GAA, .924 save-pct.) is fully recovered from an injury that prevented coach Terry Watkins from using him in consecutive games.

“Let’s just call it an upper body injury,” Watkins said.

No. 2-seed UW-Superior and No. 7 St. Scholastica both enter the playoffs on a troubling note. The Yellowjackets (13-11-1, 10-8-1) were shutout in four of the last regular-season contests during a bleak 1-6 stretch.

In its lone win, UW-Superior defeated its playoff foe, St. Scholastica, 4-1, on the road Feb. 10.
Freshman goalie Drew Strandberg (7-8-1, 2.30 GAA, .913 save-pct.), who was named to the NCHA’s All-Rookie team this week, continues to be UW-Superior’s beacon. The team is led offensively by Justin Faryna (11-10-21) and Talon Berlando (8-13-21).

St. Scholastica (9-15-1, 4-14) has lost eight of its nine games.

NCHA awards
St. Norbert’s senior netminder B.J. O’Brien was selected by coaches as the NCHA’s Player of the Year. O’Brien led the conference in goals-against (1.60), save percentage (.931) and wins (14) while amassing a 17-2-1 overall record. The Lakeville, Minn., native’s superlative campaign included three shutouts.

O’Brien’s player of the year selection highlighted an award-winning season for the Green Knights, who had five players selected to the All-NCHA first team. Along with O’Brien, other St. Norbert all-conference players included forwards Brandon Longley and Johan Ryd and defensemen Mike Bernady and Nick Tabisz.

For Tabiz, it was his fourth-consecutive all-conference team selection. Bernardy and O’Brien were also named all-conference in 2009-10.

Others named to this year’s all-conference team included Talon Berlando, senior forward at UW-Superior, Justin Faryna, a sophomore forward at UW-Superior, Jordan Singer, a sophomore forward at UW-Eau Claire, Jeff Forsythe, a freshman defenseman at UW-Superior, Bryce Wilcox, a sophomore defenseman at UW-Eau Claire, and Tom Lescovich, a sophomore goaltender at UW-Stout.

UW-Eau Claire’s Matt Loen was selected by his peers as NCHA Coach of the Year. On his watch, the Blugolds finished 14-10-1 and posted a commendable 6-3-1 mark against ranked opponents.