The Most Wonderful Time of the Year
In my opinion, the first weekend in March is the most exciting in the Division III college hockey season. I’d say that seven conference championships and a D-II title stack up nicely against either of the two NCAA D-III weekends.
There are 20 Division III teams playing this weekend, and 17 of them can still make the NCAA tournament.
By the time the sun sets on Sunday, all but eight will have joined the ranks of Debb, Kel, Maralyn, Mitchell, Kimmi, and Doug Flutie.
Number Ones Go Down
Before we look ahead to this weekend, let’s dwell on the recent past for a moment. Three number one seeds are already gone.
The most shocking was Salve Regina’s 6-5 overtime win over ECAC Northeast regular season champ Tufts last Sunday. Chris Pisani’s pinball-style goal, which glanced off at least two players on its way to the net, ended the Jumbos’ season 1:32 into overtime. Chris Burns made 60 saves for the Seahawks.
The clock struck midnight for Cinderella on Wednesday, however, when Wentworth beat Salve Regina 7-0 in the ECAC Northeast semifinals.
Another big upset occurred Monday night, when Bethel, making its first postseason appearance in 15 years, stunned St. Thomas with a 5-3 regulation game victory to force a minigame (St. Thomas had won 8-3 the day before), and then scored a 1-0 minigame win to advance to the MIAC championship series.
The win ended a 33 game winning streak for St. Thomas over Bethel, dating back to January of 1987.
Finally, in the MCHA tournament, Second seeded Marian dodged a bullet in the semifinals before scoring a convincing win over top-seeded and defending champion Minn.-Crookston in the championship game.
Marian needed a goal by Adam Belain with 3:21 to play and an overtime tally from Dan Odegard to put away Northland in the semifinals. The Sabres then ruined UMC’s undefeated MCHA season in the championship game by opening a 4-0 lead, leading to an eventual 5-1 win. It’s Marian’s first MCHA title after coming in second the previous two seasons.
Ranking the Teams
So who’s in? Who’s out? Who’s on the bubble? Using the main NCAA Division III selection criteria (record in regional D-III games, head-to-head, common opponents), the top teams are roughly ranked as:
5. Amherst/ Wis.-River-Falls (too close to call at this point)
In terms of seeing who is eligible for the Pool C at-large bid should they lose, we can probably stop there, because one of either Superior/River Falls or Middlebury/Amherst is going to go down this weekend.
Using the D-III selection criteria to compare Amherst to Wis.-River Falls, it’s very close. Amherst is ahead in winning percentage, and there is no head-to-head or common opponents to consider.
Looking at the lower-tier criteria, UWRF is ahead in strength of schedule, and you can’t use the final measure yet, record against teams in the tournament. Assuming the favorites win, UWRF is 0-1 vs. St. John’s and 1-1 against Superior. Amherst is 1-0 against Wentworth, but lost to Plattsburgh, Middlebury, and Norwich.
Potsdam remains a darkhorse, but some strange things have to happen to move the Bears ahead of Amherst and River Falls should they lose in Plattsburgh. Potsdam might be able to move into contention for the Pool C slot if it wins a game against Plattsburgh, while Amherst loses to Bowdoin, and UWRF is swept.
RIT is already in, and Superior will get the Pool C bid even if they falter in their NCHA championship series. The MIAC, ECAC East and ECAC Northeast winners will fill out the field.
After that, if Superior wins, the highest ranked losing team will grab the Pool C slot. If the ‘Jackets lose, then only the champs of the other conferences will get in.
Still with me?
Turning the focus to this weekend, let’s take a look at the various conference playoffs, and each team’s chances of securing an NCAA bid. The locations for almost all of the conference championships are the same as last season. Will the results be the same? Let’s look at this weekend’s action.
This four-team playoff has the least amount of drama, as RIT has already secured the lone Pool B slot, leaving Elmira, Manhattanville and Hobart out in the cold. The three non-NCAA bound squads will try to console themselves with the chance for an ECAC West title as well as the opportunity to end RIT’s season-long undefeated streak, currently at 22-0-1.
Manhattanville (13-10-2) and Elmira (16-9) will meet in the first semifinal. The teams split a pair of hard-fought games this season, and the rubber match should be a dandy. RIT plays Hobart (6-14-4) in the late game — the Tigers are 2-0 against the Statesmen so far, outscoring them 17-3.
Norwich hosts for the second straight season, but the defending national champions have more on the line this time around. Last season, the Cadets were ranked number one going into the playoffs, and knew that the at-large NCAA bid was theirs if they faltered. At 17-8-1, and farther down the food chain this season, there’s no safety net for Norwich, or the other three contenders, for that matter. The playoff winner goes on to the NCAAs, while the other three go home.
Norwich, as has been coach Mike McShane’s custom in recent years, will play in the early game. The Cadets take on a Babson team that they shut out 4-0 at home back in January. But Babson (15-7-4) is healthier now.
The other matchup is even more interesting, as Salem State and New England College do battle. Each team has had its share of ups and downs this season, but both seem to be peaking at the right time. The Pilgrims (18-8) have won six games in a row while the Vikings (16-5-4) are 5-0-1 in their last six.
Middlebury also hosts again, and actually has a little more breathing room than last season. The Panthers are in line to host an NCAA Quarterfinal series if they win, and are in the NCAAs as long as Wis.-Superior doesn’t lose in the NCHA finals.
Even if it doesn’t take the title, Amherst has a strong chance of making the NCAAs as the single at-large team, as long as the Lord Jeffs make it to the finals and there are no upsets around the country. It may come down to how Wis.-River Falls fares.
Of course, Amherst (17-4-3) has a decent chance of winning the NESCAC title outright. The Jeffs have won eight of their last nine games, the lone setback at the hands of Middlebury (21-2-1) in a nonconference tilt.
The Panthers had last week off, and will take on Hamilton, which upset Colby 4-0 last Saturday. The Continentals (12-12-1) lost 8-5 to Middlebury earlier in the season.
In the other semifinal, Bowdoin (14-9-1) is looking to avenge a 6-1 loss earlier in the season to Amherst. The Polar Bears have won three straight, including a 4-3 overtime upset win against Trinity last Saturday.
Wentworth, the second seed, will host Lebanon Valley, the fourth seed, this Saturday in the ECAC Northeast championship game at Matthews Arena on the campus of Northeastern. At stake is a trip to the NCAAs and a chance to wear the glass slipper. Wentworth (18-7-2) got that opportunity last year, and Lebanon Valley (17-7-2), in just its third year of varsity hockey, is just a win away as well.
The Flying Dutchmen, who have just one senior on their roster, have won seven in a row. LV lost to Wentworth 4-2 during the regular season. The Leopards, who were the preseason pick to repeat as league champions, have won three in a row and host the finals for the second year in a row.
There’s never a dull moment in the MIAC, where the third and fourth seeds have advanced to the championship series.
Bethel (12-14-1) which got into the playoffs on the last day of the regular season, upset top-ranked St. Thomas (3-8, 5-3, 1-0), while the surging Johnnies of St. John’s swept Concordia (4-2-4-2) to advance to the finals. St. John’s is looking for its first NCAA appearance since making the Final Four in 1997, while the Royals are after their first-ever trip to the Big Dance.
Bethel swept St. John’s this season in the first two games for both squads. The Johnnies started the season 1-4-1 and were only 5-7-1 at the holiday break. But St. John’s is 10-3-1 since then, including 7-0-1 in its last eight. Bethel endured a seven-game losing streak in the middle of the season, and was 1-4 in its last five games heading into last weekend’s series with St. Thomas. If the Royals advance against St. John’s by anything other than a sweep, they will be the first team in the NCAA D-III tournament with a losing record.
The top two seeds won last weekend, setting up a finals series between Wis.-River Falls and Wis.-Superior.
Superior advanced by sweeping Wis.-Stevens Point, 3-1 and 4-3. The Falcons had the harder time, needing a goal by Jeff Bernard in overtime of the minigame to advance past St. Norbert.
Superior (26-3) is riding a 19 game winning streak, the longest in college hockey. River Falls (21-7-1) is one of only three teams to beat the YellowJackets this season, splitting the season series.
It’s possible that both teams could make the NCAAs, since UWS is pretty much in no matter what, and UWRF is a leading candidate for the Pool C slot even if it doesn’t win this series.
It’s deja vu in the SUNYAC, with the same four teams advancing to the semifinals, and the same two teams emerging to face each other in the finals. Potsdam didn’t need the drama of last season’s explosive comeback to again vanquish Oswego, and Plattsburgh blew out Geneseo in almost identical fashion to last season’s finale for the Ice Knights.
These archrivals will again square off in Plattsburgh for the finals, with the Bears hoping that this part of history doesn’t repeat: Plattsburgh has won the previous four SUNYAC titles, including last year’s victory over Potsdam in the championship series.
Potsdam (19-6-3) split with Plattsburgh (23-4) in the regular season.
This series features a possible third game to be played in Sunday at noon in the event the teams split the first two games or tie both. In other words, a 60-minute minigame to be played the next day.
Top-seeded St. Anselm (9-14-2) and second-seed New Hampshire College (17-7-1) advanced to the finals to be held this Saturday. While St. Anselm is the “host,” both teams will feel at home, as they both play their regular games at the same rink, the Tri-Town Arena in Hooksett, N.H.
The same two teams met in the championship game last season, with St. Anselm coasting to a 7-1 win. The teams met twice this season, both in tournament play, with the Hawks defeating the Penmen both times.
Last week: 19-7
On the season: 86-33-2 (.719)
Manhattanville vs. Elmira (3/2) — The teams split during the regular season, and Elmira is banged up. I still see the Eagles gutting this one out. Elmira 5, Manhattanville 3
Hobart at RIT (3/2) — RIT hasn’t played in two weeks, and may get off slow, but I don’t expect an offense averaging seven goals a game to be quiet long. RIT 6, Hobart 2
If I’m right with those two picks: RIT over Elmira 6-4 in the finals
Babson at Norwich (3/2) — The Beavers will give Norwich a game, I think. Norwich 5, Babson 4
New England vs. Salem State (3/2) — Which Viking team will show up? I think the good one. Salem 5, NEC 3
If I’m right with those two picks: Norwich over Salem State 3-2 in the finals
Bowdoin vs. Amherst (3/2) — Expect this one to be low scoring, with Amherst coming out on top. Amherst 2, Bowdoin 1
Hamilton at Middlebury (3/2) — This one will be low-scoring as well. At least, for one team. Middlebury 3, Hamilton 0
If I’m right with those two picks: Middlebury over Amherst 3-1 in the finals.
Lebanon Valley at Wentworth (3/3) — Wentworth has been in this game before, and that might make the difference. Wentworth 5, Lebanon Valley 3
Bethel at St. John’s (3/2 and 3/4) — Will the ride end for the Royals? I think so, but hey, I picked against them the last two weekends and don’t have much to show for it. I guess I’m a masochist. St. John’s sweeps, 4-1 and 3-2
Wis.-River Falls at Wis.-Superior (3/2 and 3/3) — The winning streak comes to an end for the YellowJackets, but they’ll be raising a banner anyway. UWS 3, UWRF 1; UWRF 5, UWS 3 then UWS 1, UWRF 0 (minigame)
Potsdam at Plattsburgh (3/2 and 3/3) — Just too much Plattsburgh. Goaltending will be the difference. Plattsburgh 4, Potsdam 2; Plattsburgh 5, Potsdam 2.
NH College at St. Anselm (3/3) — NHC has the better record, but has played an easier schedule. I like St. Anselm to repeat. St. Anselm 6, NHC 3