Back in mid-November, the New England College Pilgrims started the 2000-2001 hockey season with a road trip to Vermont to face powerhouses Middlebury and Norwich.
Middlebury 8, NEC 0.
Norwich 12, NEC 1.
Last weekend, the Pilgrims returned to Vermont as the number-three seed in the ECAC East playoffs and came away with the title, defeating Salem State 4-1 and beating defending conference and national champion Norwich 2-1. New England’s two victims last weekend had shut out the Pilgrims by a combined score of 15-0 in the regular season.
Quite a turnaround, but New England head coach Mark Ostapina has an explanation for the slow start.
“Our chiller had to be replaced right before the season started,” he said. “We had almost no ice time and that put us behind the eight-ball.
“In my heart of hearts, I knew we had a strong team, and we were in shape from our off-ice training, but there’s no substitute for skating.”
The team had a meeting on the bus on the way back from that Vermont trip, and Ostapina told his team some of the positives that he had seen.
“I saw things in both games that I liked,” he said. “At the beginning of the periods, the first five or 10 minutes, when we were fresh, I thought we played with [Norwich and Middlebury]. But we just didn’t have our legs.”
The team won a few nonconference games after that, building towards a 4-3 overtime win at Hamilton, a team the Pilgrims had never beaten.
“That was the physical turning point of the season,” said Ostapina. “The mental turning point was the next day, when we lost [12-3] to Geneseo. We knew we could play with the best teams, but learned that we had to be mentally prepared for every game.”
New England College won its next five games, including a 3-1 win over Potsdam, which was ranked at the time. Since Christmas, NEC is 16-3.
Ostapina is proud of all of his players, but one in particular.
“I can’t say enough about Ralph Aiello. I think he’s the best player in Division III. He had a hat trick for us against Salem State. That was huge. He’s been a leader on and off the ice.
Aiello, a senior from Toronto, Ont., has 25 goals and 29 assists so far this season, good for seventh in the nation. He’s been named to the All-ECAC East First Team.
“I think he’s our version of Mark Messier,” Ostapina added. “He doesn’t wear the ‘C,’ but he’s really a fourth captain and the players all look to him.”
Ostapina has platooned goaltenders Sumner Stetson and Ryan Thompson this season, but has decided to go with the hot hand down the stretch. That would be Thompson, who transferred from Potsdam after last season.
“Ryan played both games last weekend, and against UMass-Boston the week before. Our goaltending coach, Ed Walsh, has been working with him and he’s been playing really well down the stretch.”
Thompson made a combined 67 saves on 69 shots vs. Salem State and Norwich last weekend.
What can the Pilgrims expect from their hosts, the Wisconsin-River Falls Falcons?
“I haven’t seen them, since the NCHA has a no-tape policy,” said Ostapina. “But I know that they’re very good defensively. They extend their defense well and shut you down. They play a Western, clutch-and-grab style that will look different to us after the NESCAC style, which is more wide-open.”
Ostapina should be familiar with both, having played at Wisconsin and coached at UMass-Lowell and Alaska-Anchorage.
“We’re going to try to get them to play our game. Our strength is down low, and we’ll try to work it from there.”
Wisconsin-River Falls has seen its share of ups and downs this season as well. Head coach Steve Freeman says his team is ready.
“We’re excited to be here,” said Freeman, whose team received the Pool C bid, the lone at-large bid available to teams not winning the automatic bid for their conference. “I think that we’ve proved we deserve to be in this tournament.”
UWRF was given the nod over Amherst, even though the Lord Jeffs had a better winning percentage (.740 to .700). Sources on the selection committee indicated that it was the Falcons’ tough schedule that compensated for a slightly weaker record.
“Playing in the NCHA, which is a very tough conference with Superior, St. Norbert, Stevens Point and, this season, Stout, has made us earn this,” Freeman said.
The Falcons started strong, opening the season 8-0-1, but then hit a stretch where they went just 5-6, and lost their leading scorer, Shane Fukushima, who turned pro.
“We have a young team, 18 freshmen and sophomores, and ran into some tough opponents,” said Freeman. “But we got through that.”
River Falls then won its next eight in a row to finish the regular season in second place in the NCHA, and ranked fifth in the nation.
The Falcons then made it to the NCHA finals, but fell to Wisconsin-Superior. After tying the first night to snap the YellowJackets’ 19-game winning streak, UWRF dropped a 4-2 decision on Saturday.
Then the waiting began for the phone call that came on Sunday night.
“I know they’re a fast, skilled team,” said Freeman of his opponents this weekend. “We’re going to try to play our game.”
That game emphasizes defense and goaltending, and the man between the pipes has been key to the Falcons all season. Jacque Vezina, a sophomore from Hudson, Wis., has a .905 save percentage and a 2.42 GAA, ninth-best in Division III.
“We believe in ourselves, and what we can accomplish,” said Freeman. “And we’re home, which is very important to us. We’ve played really well at home this season.”