Down to the Wire in the NCHA and SUNYAC
The regular season comes to an end this weekend in the NCHA, and the following Tuesday in the SUNYAC. Playoffs for both leagues start on February 16.
We’ll preview those conferences, and the final stretch for the other leagues, as well as look at a few teams given up for dead that made a resurgence last weekend.
Around the Leagues
Wis.-Superior is in the driver’s seat, passing St. Norbert, which could manage just a single point last weekend as opposed to Superior’s four. The main event was Friday night’s contest between the YellowJackets and the Green Knights, and that one went to Superior, which despite giving St. Norbert nine power-play opportunities and being outshot 41-22, defeated the Green Knights 7-3. Nate Ziemski made 38 saves for the ‘Jackets, who also defeated Lake Forest 3-1 on Saturday for their 13th win in a row.
St. Norbert stumbled the next night as well, needing a third period goal from Shane Dickson to earn a 2-2 tie with last place St. Scholastica. The Saints also won the night before, 6-4 at Lake Forest. That had to be a confidence boost for St. Scholastica heading into the final weekend of the regular season.
“I’ve been associated with the program since ’89 as a player, then an assistant coach and coach,” said Saints head coach Mark Workman. “And since that time we’ve never taken more than two points on the road in a weekend.”
First place and home ice throughout the playoffs may come down to Saturday might in Superior, when the YellowJackets take on St. Norbert again. Both teams have crucial games on Friday when Superior hosts Lake Forest and St. Norbert travels to St. Scholastica.
If both teams win on Friday, it sets up a winner-take all game on Saturday. Superior would get the first seed with a win or tie.
Tiebreakers, if needed, are applied by the NCHA accordingly: 1. Head-to-head results (use goal differential if the teams split) 2. Goal Differential in all conference games.
Superior beat St. Norbert by four goals in their first meeting.
Wis.River-Falls is back from the brink, picking up four points last weekend to remain in the hunt for first place. The Falcons had dropped five of their last six conference games going into last weekend, but are now just two points out of first. River Falls holds the tiebreaker over Superior, but not over St. Norbert.
Wis.-Stevens Point and Wis.-Stout are tied for the fourth and final home ice position, with the Pointers holding a big advantage in the tiebreaker due to their 9-1 won over the Blue Devils last Friday. The two teams meet again on Saturday, and could also meet in the first round of the playoffs.
Bringing up the rear are Wis.-Eau Claire, Lake Forest and St. Scholastica, which will all be on the road for the playoffs. But since the three are only separated by a point in the standings, it won’t be until the final game of the regular season until the playoff pairings are decided.
Only six of the eight teams in the SUNYAC will make the playoffs, so there’s usually drama at both the top and bottom of the standings.
This season, however. Plattsburgh, Potsdam, Oswego, and Cortland are already in, and, barring a miracle, so are Geneseo and Fredonia. Brockport is already mathematically eliminated from the postseason, while Buffalo State needs to win its final three conference games and have either Fredonia lose its final three games, or beat Geneseo by more than two goals and also have the Ice Knights lose their remaining games. As little as a tie by both Geneseo and Fredonia in their final three games eliminates the Bengals.
The schedule makers did a fine job this season, as most teams are playing their final three games (Friday, Saturday and the following Tuesday) against teams near them in the standings. First-place Plattsburgh will play second-place Potsdam and third-place Oswego, while the Lakers and Bears will also square off against each other. Those three teams are fighting for the two first-round byes and the right to host semifinal playoff series.
In the middle of the pack are Cortland, Fredonia, and Geneseo. All are tied for fourth, and Fredonia plays Geneseo this weekend.
There’s still two weekend left in the regular season, and just three points separate the top three teams. St. Thomas took over sole possession of first place last week with its seventh and eighth victories in a row, a pair of 5-2 wins over St. Olaf.
The real story, however, is the rise of the Bethel Royals, who are just three points out of first with a pair of games in hand. Since joining the MIAC in the late ’70′s, the Royals have never won a regular season title. They’ve never even qualified for the MIAC playoffs, which began in 1986.
The Royals play the Tommies this weekend in what might be the biggest series in the history of their program. That will finish up the regular season for St. Thomas, while Bethel still has to play Augsburg the following weekend. As close as they are to making the postseason, Bethel could still wind up in fifth place and out of the playoff picture.
That’s because St. John’s and Augsburg are both lurking in fourth place, just two points behind Bethel. Concordia is currently in second, two points ahead of the Royals, but have just one conference series left, against last-place Hamline.
Gustavus, St. Olaf and St. Mary’s are mathematically alive, but a single point by either St. John’s or Augsburg in their last four conference games will eliminate them. Hamline knows its season will end in two weeks.
With two weeks left in the regular season, Norwich is starting to open some distance. The Cadets are ahead by four points over Salem State and Babson. Salem has gone into free-fall, going 0-4-1 in its last five games. Babson has done the opposite, coming off the critical list to go 4-0-1 in its last five contests.
Norwich has already clinched home ice for at least the first round of the playoffs, and its remaining four opponents have a combined record of 27-48-4. Expect the road to the ECAC Championship to go through Northfield, Vermont, again this season. The Cadets can clinch the regular-season title with a sweep this weekend of Williams and MCLA.
Middlebury leads Colby and Trinity by three points with four league games left, but watch out for Amherst. The Lord Jeffs, currently in fourth place, had been unbeaten in their last eight games before dropping a 6-3 non-league contest to Middlebury on Tuesday. That one was tied 3-3 going into the third period before the Panthers put the game away with two goals in the first seven minutes of the final stanza.
The NESCAC uses a unique playoff format where only the top seven teams make the playoffs. The regular season champ gets a bye in the first round, and then hosts a “final four” the first weekend in March. Teams two through four host teams five through seven in the first round.
Currently, Conn. College and Wesleyan find themselves out of the running, tied for last place and six points out of a playoff spot with four games left to play. The fat lady is warming up for the Camels and Cardinals, especially considering that both have to play Norwich and Middlebury the final weekend of the regular season.
RIT clinched a tie for the regular-season title with a road sweep of Hobart and Manhattanville last weekend. RIT has won five of the last six regular season titles; the only blemish was Niagara’s last season in the ECAC West (1997-98) when the Purple Eagles were regular season champs.
Elmira can capture a share of the regular season crown if it wins its final four games, including one at RIT. But the Tigers hold the tiebreakers for home ice in the playoffs, so even if Elmira goes 4-0, expect the ECAC West finals to be at RIT for the third consecutive season.
Manhattanville has three conference games left, including two against Elmira. As it stands now, Hobart will probably finish fourth, so the Soaring Eagles and Valiants are most likely playing to see who gets to wear the home jerseys in the early game at Ritter Arena on March 2. Round one between the two teams is Friday.
Wentworth defeated Mass.-Dartmouth, 12-1, on Wednesday to move into a first-place tie with Johnson & Wales. Junior Tim Yakimowsky netted a amazing seven goals in that game to set new school records for goals and points (also seven). Sevens were indeed wild as Wentworth notched its seventh straight win, also a school record.
J&W and Wentworth square off the final weekend of the regular season in a game that could determine the regular season champion.
Just the top eight teams make the playoff in the D-III Division (all the D-II teams plus St. Anselm from the ECAC East will participate in a special ECAC Division II playoff), and time has run out for several squads. Curry, Nichols and WNEC are already eliminated from playoff contention.
As it stands now, J&W, Wentworth, Tufts, Lebanon Valley and Mass.-Dartmouth have all clinched playoff berths, leaving Worcester State, Fitchburg State, Suffolk, Framingham State, Plymouth State and Salve Regina to battle for the final three slots.
Minn.-Crookston completed a near-perfect conference season, going 11-0-1 to take 30 of a possible 32 points. Marian has also clinched a playoff berth. The three remaining squads: Northland, MSOE and Lawrence each have four conference games left, and are battling for the final two playoff spots.
Marian plays MSOE this week in a home-and-away series, while Lawrence hosts Northland for a pair. A point for Northland clinches a playoff spot for the Lumberjacks.
Last week: 7-0
On the season: 49-21-2 (.694)
Bowdoin (2/9) and Colby (2/10) at No. 7 Amherst – This will be a good test for the Lord Jeffs, as these may be a preview of NESCAC playoff games. Look for Amherst to split. Amherst 4, Bowdoin 2; Colby 5, Amherst 4.
Salem State at Babson (2/9) – Two teams going in opposite directions. Babson 4, Salem State 2.
No. 5 Elmira at Manhattanville (2/9) – Manhattanville put a scare into RIT last Saturday (4-3 loss). Can they do it again? Unfortunately, the Valiants are 0-4 against ranked teams this season, and I don’t see that changing. Elmira 6, Manhattanville 2
St. Thomas vs. Bethel (2/9 and 2/10) – This is a classic series pitting the new kid on the block against the perennial power. Experience wins out. St. Thomas 4, Bethel 1; St. Thomas 3, Bethel 2.
No. 6 Wis.-River Falls at No. 9 Wis.-Stevens Point (2/9) – The Falcons are hot and the Pointers are not, but look for the Dogs to come out on top on home ice. UWSP 5, UWRF 3.
No. 8 St. Norbert at No. 2 Wis.-Superior (2/10) – If anyone can stop the ‘Jackets right now, it might be the Green Knights. But I don’t think it will happen. UWS 5, St. Norbert 4.
Potsdam (2/9) and No. 4 Plattsburgh (2/10) at No. 10 Oswego – SUNYAC hockey at its best with first place on the line. Can Oswego derail a final showdown between Plattsburgh and Potsdam? Or will they end up making it easier for Plattsburgh to claim the crown? Oswego 4, Potsdam 3; Plattsburgh 5, Oswego 3.