Augsburg reaching its peak at the right time as Division III showdown nears
The Auggies (16-9-2) will hit the road to take on Wisconsin-Stevens Point at 3 p.m. Saturday in the first round of the NCAA Division III tournament.
MINNEAPOLIS — The Augsburg men’s hockey team found the perfect time to start playing its best hockey.
After some early-season trials that saw them struggle to finish second in the MIAC standings, the Auggies went on a February run that culminated in winning the MIAC tournament championship last week against St. Scholastica.
“We’re playing really good hockey right now,” Auggies head coach Greg May said. “We’ve been playing good hockey since the start of February or end of January. We were in a bit of a lull there coming out of the holiday break, but since Hockey Day we’ve kind of been trending in the right direction from there.”
Now, the Auggies (16-9-2) will hit the road to take on Wisconsin-Stevens Point at 3 p.m. Saturday in the first round of the NCAA Division III tournament – their eighth overall tournament appearance and sixth in eight years. After last year’s season, in which the Auggies earned an at-large bid en route to the program’s third Frozen Four, the road to the tournament has had a few more roadblocks.
“Comparing last year to this year, we were higher up in the rankings and all that, but the reality is we’re not that much of a different team. We dropped a couple one-goal games this year we happened to win last year, and we had a little more magic as far as wins and losses go, but as far as our play is throughout the year, it really isn’t too different from a year ago,” May said.
The Auggies went 25-5 overall last season and 14-2 in MIAC play but lost to St. Olaf in the MIAC tournament championship game.
“Our expectations are the same, and even when we were kind of in the lull of our season in January, the expectations were the same,” May said. “The difference was we knew we were going to have to do it by way of the tournament versus getting an at-large bid like we did last year. There was little more pressure on us, and the games down the stretch in February were a bit higher stakes. We knew the games meant a little more in the tournament than they did last year.”
Since a 5-4 overtime loss to St. John’s outdoors on Jan. 27 at Hockey Day Minnesota in White Bear Lake, the Auggies went 7-1-1, with their lone loss a 4-1 defeat at the hands of league champions St. Scholastica on the final day of the regular season. The Saints had clinched the MIAC regular season title the night before with a 5-5 draw.
“We knew we had to sweep in regulation to win the regular season crown,” May said of that final weekend. “Obviously that didn’t happen, and going into Saturday’s game we both kind of knew where we were going to finish and what our seeds were going to be [for the conference tournament], so I didn’t read too much into that game. I liked how we were playing going into the tournament.”
And in the tournament, the Auggies avenged both losses to take the title, first beating St. John’s 3-1 in the conference semifinals at home before dominating the Saints in a 4-1 road victory to clinch the sixth MIAC tournament title in school history.
“It was nice because we’re familiar with St. John’s, since we had just played them for Hockey Day less than a month ago, and we felt like we matched up well against them, and going to Scholastica, same thing. We had just seen them a few weeks prior,” May said. “We had just been on the ice with them, so we knew what their strengths were and we knew how lethal their offense was.”
Against the Saints, Augsburg got an early power play goal from Nick Woodward in the first three minutes of the game, then further quieted the crowd midway through the first period on Greg Holland’s shorthanded tally made it 2-0. Scholastica got one back shortly thereafter with a power play goal of its own to make it 2-1, but the Auggies overpowered the Saints in the second period and put it out of reach.
“The thing we couldn’t prepare for necessarily was the atmosphere, in an environment we hadn’t seen, since that was Scholastica’s first conference championship game they’d hosted,” May said. “It was a great atmosphere that we walked into, and we were thankfully able to take the crowd out of it in the first period with an early power play goal. We were really able to lean on our experience. We have a number of guys, maybe 20 guys coming back from a frozen four team who won a lot of meaningful games last year against an opponent that maybe didn’t have that experience and it seemed to pay off.”
The win gives the Auggies a shot at returning to the Frozen Four after making it there in 2022. Their task is difficult, however, as they will take on Wisconsin-Stevens Point in the first round. Defending national champions Adrian awaits them in the quarterfinals should they win Saturday. The Pointers defeated the Auggies 4-0 in January.
“That game we played them there was probably the lowest of the low in our season,” May said. The Auggies were then in the midst of a stretch when they went 2-4 with losses to St. Olaf, St. Norbert and Wisconsin-River Falls before begging shut out by the Pointers. “We weren’t in a good spot as a team back then. We were learning how to handle some adversity for the first time in a year or a year and a half…. We hadn’t really had that in a while.”
May said he hopes the experience of playing on the road there once already was a good learning experience for their NCAA tournament team, but he knows just how difficult it will be to get past WSP. The Pointers (19-5-4) won both the WIAC regular-season title as well as the conference tournament championship.
“Point is one of the best teams in the country every single year, and they have been for a while now, and playing there just amplifies their team,” he said. “We’ve got our hands full this weekend for sure. They’re fast, they’re physical, they play as a five-man unit while on the ice, and then you’ve got their atmosphere. It will be a sold-out barn, with their band there and everything, but that’s what we want. That’s what these players live to play for.”