Another Marquee Weekend
This coming weekend won’t feature as many critical games as we had last week, but there’s still a fair share of exciting games with serious playoff implications on tap.
In the East, Norwich and Middlebury travel to Bowdoin and Colby in a clash of titans, and out West, it’s round one between Wisconsin-Superior and St. Norbert.
Around the Leagues
The RIT-Elmira game lived up to expectations as RIT pulled out a 4-3 overtime victory in front of a capacity crowd of 3,314 at the Murray Athletic Center.
The Tigers, getting a boost from the return of goaltender Tyler Euverman, who had missed the previous three games with a shoulder injury, took a 1-0 first-period lead on a Ryan Fairbarn goal. The Soaring Eagles got the crowd going with a pair of quick goals near the end of the second period to go into the locker room with a 2-1 lead. It was the first time the top-ranked Tigers had trailed after two periods all season.
“The second goal (by Dean Jackson after Eddie Caissie had scored 20 seconds earlier) really frustrated me,” said RIT head coach Wayne Wilson. “In the second period Elmira outmuscled us for those two goals, and that is what we like to do to opponents. But between the second and third period I really challenged the guys and told them that Elmira was trying to take that number-one ranking away from us, and I thought we got a strong, gritty effort by everyone in the third period.”
RIT responded with a pair of goals to regain the lead, but Elmira struck on a six-on-four with just 30 seconds left. With Mike Bournazakis in the penalty box for RIT and Elmira goaltender Rob Ligas on the bench, Mike Hulbig wristed a rebound past Euverman to tie the game.
At 2:58 of overtime, Mike Bournazakis redeemed himself by tipping a shot by Jerry Galway past Ligas.
“When Elmira tied the game, I though oh (darn), here we go,” said Wilson. “But the guys really bounced back well in the overtime.”
How important was the game? RIT is now squarely in the driver’s seat. The ECAC West tiebreakers are head-to-head results (W-L-T, not goal differential), conference wins, record against common opponents, and overall record. Elmira is idle this weekend, but the Tigers are at Hobart Friday and Manhattanville on Saturday. A sweep should lock up home ice in the ECAC West playoffs, because even if RIT loses its final games to Hamilton and Elmira, the Tigers would still have a better record versus common opponents, and a better winning percentage. But the slightest slip by the Tigers this weekend opens the door again.
The Salem State Vikings, ranked eighth in the latest USCHO.com Division III poll, played two tough games at Norwich and Middlebury, but came away oh-for-Vermont, as so many teams have done in recent years.
First Salem lost 3-2 at Middlebury, but the Panthers need overtime before putting the Vikings away. Shots were 38-13 in favor of Middlebury.
On Saturday, Norwich defeated Salem 3-1 behind a two-goal performance from freshman Chris Petracco. The win gave the Cadets sole possession of first place with six games to play.
Petracco had a great weekend, also scoring three goals against Southern Maine on Friday as the Cadets romped, 10-2. In each game, the rookie forward from Weston, Ont., scored more goals than Norwich’s opposition could muster.
Third-ranked Middlebury extended its winning streak to five with victories over Salem State and Southern Maine. The first-place Panthers’ lead over Colby is a single point, and the teams will do battle on Saturday. On Friday, Colby hosts Norwich and Middlebury will be at Bowdoin. Sounds like four great hockey games.
Trinity stumbled again last weekend, losing 2-1 on home ice to Hamilton on Saturday. The Bantams, who led the NESCAC for most of the early season, now are three points out of first with six games to play.
Watch out for the Lord Jeffs. Amherst pounded Hamilton (9-0) and Skidmore (8-2) last weekend to jump into the USCHO.com poll for the first time this season. USCHO Offensive Player of the Week Bob Miele led the way with six goals, all on the power play. Amherst, currently in fifth place in the standings, travels to Salem State and Southern Maine this weekend.
With just a little over two weeks left in the regular season, fourth-ranked Plattsburgh holds a two-point lead over Potsdam in the standings. Each team has five league games left, including a showdown at Plattsburgh in the regular-season finale for both teams on February 13.
Oswego began last weekend just two points out as well, but was upset at home by Geneseo, 4-3. The Lakers rebounded to defeat Williams 6-3 in a non-conference game on Tuesday by spotting the Ephmen a 3-0 lead before scoring the final six goals of the contest. Oswego travels to Buffalo State and Fredonia this weekend.
Cortland took three of a possible four points last weekend to solidify its hold on the final playoff spot. The Red Dragons lead Buffalo State by three points with five to play. The two teams square off on Friday in Buffalo.
Johnson & Wales and defending champ Wentworth are tied for first with identical 11-1 conference records. Each team has five games left, including what could be a showdown on February 18.
Tufts trails by four points, but has two games in hand on the leaders. Lebanon Valley and Mass.-Dartmouth, which scored a big 5-4 over longtime rival Fitchburg State last Saturday, are also in the hunt.
Only eight of the 14 Division III teams make the ECAC Northeast playoffs, and with just three weeks to go in the regular season, its time to start watching the teams on the bubble. It may turn into a battle of Massachusetts state schools, as Fitchburg, Worcester, Framingham and Plymouth are currently in positions six through 10. Stay tuned.
The big game out west this weekend will be Friday, when first place St. Norbert hosts second-place Wisconsin-Superior. Both are top-ten teams, with the Yellowjackets holding the number-two spot in the USCHO.com poll, and St. Norbert ranked sixth.
The teams will clash again on the final day of the NCHA regular season (2/10) at Superior, but if St. Norbert wins round one, and then sweeps last place St. Scholastica (just 1-9 in conference so far) then that last game will be meaningless.
Third place Wisconsin-River Falls hasn’t fared well since the departure of star forward Shane Fukushima, losing three of its last four games. The Falcons have four games left: two against Wisconsin-Eau Claire and two against Wisconsin-Stevens Point. The Pointers and Falcons are currently tied for third, along with Wisconsin-Stout. Home ice in the playoffs is on the line as one of those teams will be on the road in two weeks.
It looked for a while like Concordia was going to run away with things, but the Cobbers have been pulled back into the pack in recent weeks. Concordia is just 3-3 in its last six conference games, while Bethel has gone 5-0-1 during that span to gain a first-place tie. St. Thomas has also come on, going 5-1 in its last six games to trail the leaders by a single point.
St. John’s and Augsburg are tied for the fourth and final playoff spot, with St. Mary’s and St.Olaf’s hopes fading. The Cardinals have series remaining against Augsburg and St. John’s, so they might be able to sneak in if they can reverse a 1-7-2 skid. Ditto for the Olies, who have three series left against teams ahead of them in the standings.
Northland took control of third place with a sweep of MSOE last weekend. Lumberjacks goaltender Brian Wilmot made 64 saves in 5-4 and 5-2 victories.
That leaves MSOE and Lawrence to battle for the fourth and final playoff spot. The Raiders lead the Viking by two points in the standings, and have two games in hand. It may come down to the final weekend of the regular season, when the two teams square off in a weekend series.
In a recent column, I asked if anyone could recall a team sweeping Norwich and Middlebury, and I thought we had the answer when a reader from Colby remembered a 1996 sweep by the White Mules. But Timothy Michael Boyd recalls a November 1997 sweep by Connecticut College, which defeated Norwich 5-3 and Middlebury 4-3 on the opening week of the season.
Last week: 9-4
On the season: 42-21-2 (.662)
Norwich at Colby (3/2) and Bowdoin (3/3) — This the second-toughest road trip in the ECAC East/NESCAC, and I think Norwich will struggle a bit. Colby 3, Norwich 2; Norwich 5, Bowdoin 4
No. 3 Middlebury at Bowdoin (3/2) and Colby (3/3) — Middlebury is starting to peak and can pull away in the NESCAC with a sweep. Middlebury 2, Bowdoin 1; Middlebury 4, Colby 2.
Geneseo at No. 4 Plattsburgh (3/2) — The Ice Knights are one of the most talented teams in the SUNYAC but have underachieved all season. They’re coming off a big win at Oswego. Can they do it again? Probably not. Plattsburgh 7, Geneseo 3
Oswego at Fredonia (3/2) — The loser of this game is probably out of the running for a first-round bye in the playoffs. Can the Fredonia defense stifle one of the most potent offenses in D-III? Yes, but not enough to win the game. Oswego 3, Fredonia 1.
No. 2 Wisconsin-Superior at No. 6 St. Norbert (2/2) — It doesn’t get much better than this. The teams will do it again the following weekend, but I think round one will go to the ‘Jackets. Wisconsin-Superior 5, St. Norbert 3