Everything that has happened on the ice to this point has been preparation for this — the playoffs.
The Mississippi Valley Club Hockey Association (MVCHA) postseason began on Thursday after a grueling regular season starting on Nov. 2.
As teams have dissolved or merged with existing teams in the league, the MVCHA had to find a fair playground this season and the adjustment looks to have the most balanced field possible.
There are 2A and 1A divisions, but unlike in past years it doesn’t go off of school size or the previous season’s performance. It’s truly a “what have you done for me lately” league, the way it should be.
The Alton Redbirds, Bethalto Eagles and East Alton-Wood River Oilers find themselves in the 1A pool with Collinsville, Granite City and Highland. Bethalto and Alton have earned first-round byes to start the postseason.
The 2A field consists of: top seeds Edwardsville and O’Fallon, which start with byes, and Columbia, Belleville, Triad and Freeburg/Waterloo.
Last season the Redbirds were mired in the 2A division. Under the old rules, that’s where they would have stayed for the ‘16 playoffs, even though they were ravaged by graduation and are now merged with Marquette Catholic to put a team on the ice.
“It used to be 2A and 1A, large school and small school, but then teams started merging, teams started dropping out and they had to go to a different system where it’s based off the performance from the prior year,” Alton head coach Abram Henson said. “But teams like my team, where you graduate out 10 kids, the prior year’s performance doesn’t really come into play.
“After two years of that prior performance rule, it was decided to restructure the league and it’s just two divisions: a north and south. We played everybody in our division twice and the other division once and then on Jan. 7 we split into the 2A and 1A classes based on performance from this year.”
The 1A pool play was just finished last week and it’s where Bethalto began to catch fire. The Eagles breezed through the 1A field, posting a 5-0 mark. They are 12-9 overall on the season and the No. 1 seed for the playoffs, now sitting idle until Feb. 15.
“We swept the second half of the season, so the momentum you can’t ask for anything more,” Bethalto senior goalie Alec Hilliard said. “Especially from everyone in front of me. (Justin) Meyer and I played great (in goal) and everybody else played great. We didn’t have the best season we wanted, but the second season we really kicked stuff into gear. I’m really excited. I think this is the year for us.”
Derek Kahl, head coach of the Eagles, thinks the rest from being the top seed will be nice for his players. They worked hard through 1A pool play. Junior forward Konnar Loewen scored 15 goals in five 1A contests. On the season Loewen has 27 goals and 14 assists to lead Bethalto.
Kahl is not too worried about the layoff bringing a loss of focus.
“It can be a huge evil, but I’m going to try and keep them focused,” Kahl said after coaching the 1A all-star game Monday. “We’ve got practice Thursday, Monday, next Thursday so it keeps them going. A bunch of the kids on the team play on Twin Bridges teams so they stay on the ice and they’ll be fine.”
Alton will have the same period of rest with the No. 2 seed. The Birds can use it to regroup. They were 2-3 in the 1A portion of the season and 4-6 over their last 10 games. Alton is 10-11 overall on the season.
The Redbirds are led by Zack Hunter (14 goals, 13 assists), Scotty Waldrup (14 goals, 8 assists), Brandon Lang (12 goals, 12 assists), Joe Boevingloh (12 goals, 10 assists), Tanner St. Peters (11 goals, 11 assists) and sophomore goalie Caleb Currie (.890 save percentage).
As for EA-WR, it looks to get healthy for the playoffs. The Oilers got a boost by adding goalie Blake Stone for the final two games of the season.
EA-WR began its best-of-three series with Granite City on Thursday following press time. Game 2 is set for 8:40 p.m. Monday in Granite City with Game 3, if necessary, scheduled at 8:15 p.m. Tuesday in Granite City.
“We’re in good shape,” Oilers’ head coach John Helmkamp said. “We had the best stretch right at the end of the year, so it’s always good to go into the playoffs with some momentum and I think we’re doing that.
“I think the best thing for us is we’ve got (goalie) Blake Stone back. He missed 19 games and he comes back for two games and he’s got a goals against average of two. That’s a confidence boost for us.
“He single-handedly won some games for us last year in the playoffs, so it’s nice to have that quality of a goaltender back.”
EA-WR began to heat up during 1A pool play, going 3-2 and improving its season mark to 7-14. In addition to Stone, the Oilers have defenseman Cole Ford (26 goals, 22 assists) and forward Kaleb Harrop (23 goals, 14 assists) to help stir the pot.
Helmkamp feels the experience on his squad can show through in the playoffs.
“There’s something about knowing how to handle pressure situations,” Helmkamp said. “We’ve been there and this would be the third year in a row if we can pull something off. The last two years we’ve been in the championship and that always helps in those pressure situations to have guys who have been there, can be calm and play through it.”
I guess we’ll just have to wait and see who is the last team standing.
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