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Lack of goals hurts UWRF men's hockey team

February 5, 2009

Bringing back one of the school’s best goal scorers and being picked to contend for the conference title looked good on paper for the once No. 7 ranked UW-River Falls men’s hockey team.

What has not is the 4-7-0 NCHA record (10-11-1 overall) the Falcons have with the regular season coming to a close, the first time since the 2000-01 season it they have had double digit losses in the year and only the second time since Steve Freeman took over as head coach in 1996.

The record could have been worse last weekend when No. 12 UW-Stevens Point and No. 14 UW-Eau Claire visited the Falcons, but UWRF was able to win consecutive conference games for the first time this season.

The Falcons defeated Stevens Point 4-3 last Friday and followed with a 2-1 victory against Eau Claire.

Junior goalie Stephan Ritter made 41 saves last Saturday against Eau Claire and 70 for the weekend.

UWRF was picked to finish second in the NCHA men’s division behind defending Div. III national champions St. Norbert College (SNC), but a tough conference and a lack of goal scoring has put it in seventh place, ahead of Lake Forest College (Ill.), which is winless in the NCHA.

Scoring has been the biggest problem for the Falcons.

Derek Hansberry has 14 goals on the season, 72 for his career and seven shy of breaking the all-time school record; Tyler Czuba has 12 goals, who are the only two Falcons who have more than five goals, and those two can not do it alone for them.

“I don’t know if we have the firepower,” Freeman said. “We lost a lot of seniors from last year and we have a lot of young players. We will have to address scoring in recruiting for next season and add some skill.”

Through 20 games this season, UWRF is averaging 2.86 goals a game, a drop from 4.4 last year.

Seven seniors, most notably T.J. Dahl, the team leader in points last year, are gone after graduation, but Freeman said the 16 recruits UWRF brought in this season was one of the best classes he has ever had.

The Falcons goals per game average this season is seventh, ahead of Lake Forest. They are the only two teams in the NCHA that does not average more than three goals a game, but the magic number seems to be four goals a game, Freeman said.

“It seems that the first team to four [goals] usually wins,” he said.

When UWRF scores four or more goals a game, it is 6-1-1. Its only loss came in a 6-4 defeat against Gustavus Adolphus College (Minn.) from the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC), who took advantage of many Falcon penalties, going 3-9 on the power play, a problem UWRF had early in the season on the road.

Senior co-captain Josh Meyers said goals have been scored in practice, which means goals can be scored by the Falcons, but it has not fallen into place during games.

“We bury goals all the time at practice,” he said. “It’s just a matter of bringing it to the game. We have had the opportunities to score, but we have not taken advantage of them.”

Another part of the scoring problem has been the defense not adding to the offense.

On Jan. 3, Tyler Pederson became the last Falcon defensemen to score a goal, which pushed the defensemen’s goalless streak to six games. Bill Pinel leads the defense with two goals on the year.

Meyers leads the blue liner’s with six points (1 goal, 5 assists), down from Jim Henkemeyer’s season, when he scored four goals and 24 assists last season.

“That’s been a major problem for us all year,” Freeman said. “Everything starts from the back end. Puck movement and breakouts begin from there. We have solid defensive defensemen, but don’t really have an offensive defenseman. Losing Henkemeyer might have been the biggest loss from last season.”

The Falcons started their seasons’ first eight games 1-6-1, but quickly turned the season around, at least for a moment, going 7-1-0 in its next eight, losing only to SNC 4-3 at home.

However, the eight games the Falcons won have to be put in perspective.

Their 6-3 win against the College of St. Scholastica (Minn.) will look good in the end, because the Saints turned their season around and are ranked No. 2 in the nation.

The other teams combined record is 28-55-6, only two of them have records of .500 or better (St. Thomas University (Minn.) and Bethel University (Minn.).

Freeman used the term “puck luck,” or lack thereof for UWRF this season.

The Falcons have had some bad breaks, which have hurt them in crucial game times.

They allowed a goal by St. Olaf College (Minn.) on Nov. 7 with less than a minute to play after the net appeared to be knocked loose. It ended up being the game winning goal as St. Olaf won 3-1.

The game prior, Czuba scored on a wraparound against Hamline University (Minn.), but the referees waived it off, stating the net was knocked loose, nullifying the goal. The Pipers beat UWRF 2-0.

Most recently, CSS forward A.J. Tucker saved a clearing attempt by UWRF goalie Ritter, passed the puck to a teammate crashing the net, only to have it deflect off a Falcon player to go into the net, giving the No. 2 ranked Saints a 3-2 lead, a lead they held onto for the win.

“Last year we got a few good bounces,” Meyers said. “We haven’t gotten them this year.

With three regular season games to go before the NCHA playoffs begin, four of the eight conference teams are nationally ranked.

No. 2 CSS, No. 3 UW-Superior, No. 5 UW-Stout and No. 8 SNC are all experienced and have made it tough for the Falcons to make up ground.

Stevens Point and Eau Claire dropped out of the national polls with losses to UWRF and Stout last week.

Meyers said he thought UWRF would have been in the mix at the start of the season.

“Did not expect to have the season we are having,” he said. “You take it for granted [last season’s success].”

UWRF will close out the regular season on the road when it travels to SNC on Friday. It will play at Lake Forest on Saturday and the regular season finale will be at Stout on Feb. 13.