It was the closest quarterfinal matchup of last year’s NCAA Division III playoffs, and it appears to be the closest quarterfinal matchup this year.
Of course, we’re talking about the Plattsburgh Cardinals at Middlebury Panthers showdown.
How close was it last year?
So close that nobody actually won a real game. Plattsburgh ended Middlebury’s five-year streak of national championships, but tied both games in the series, 1-1 and 4-4. The mini-game also ended in a tie, 0-0. It wasn’t until the first sudden death overtime that someone finally won.
How close will this year be?
For starters, they split their two regular-season games. Not only that, they were by the same score, 3-0. Middlebury came out on top early in the season during the Primelink Great Northern Shootout. Plattsburgh returned the favor at home in January.
Both are coming off emotionally-demanding conference championships. Plattsburgh needed all three games to knock off Potsdam, while Middlebury took overtime to overcome Amherst in a penalty-ridden game complete with Panthers coach Bill Beaney getting tossed.
The pollsters say they are close too. In the final USCHO.com poll, Middlebury is ranked third, Plattsburgh fourth.
Just how much closer do you want? How about low-scoring games? Plattsburgh may have the fifth-rated offense in the country, but they will be going against the number-one defense. Meanwhile, Middlebury’s offense is ranked 13th, but Plattsburgh’s defense is seventh. Power-play goals? Forget it. Middlebury has the top penalty kill in the nation. Plattsburgh is third.
PLATTSBURGH — Offensively, the Cardinals’ strongest asset is that everybody can score. In order to beat the top defense in the country, they will have to rely on this strength.
“We don’t have a number-one line,” says coach Bob Emery. “All our lines work hard.”
But if you have to mark somebody, Middlebury had better keep an eye on Brendon Hodge.
Not only is Hodge the team’s leading scorer with 14 goals and 25 assists for 39 points, including three shorthanded tallies, but Hodge appears to be peaking at the right time. He was red-hot in the SUNYAC finals, scoring four goals and adding three assists, including a hat trick in game one, and has a slapshot that every goalie fears.
But like we said, scoring can come from almost anywhere. Jason Kilcan (18-19–37), Mark Coletta (16-16–32), Derrick Shaw (16-13–29), Joe Dolci (13-15–28), Peter Ollari (10-18–28), Bryan Murray (6-21–27), and Rob Retter (9-9–18) will all burn you if you are paying too much attention to Hodge.
Plattsburgh also has a strong power play, converting 24% of its chances. Even more importantly, the Cardinals stop 89.7% of their opponents’ opportunities. Plattsburgh can beat you with special teams alone.
Defensively, it all starts with Niklas Sundberg, arguably one of the best goaltenders in the country. He sports a 2.31 GAA and .921 save percentage that helped him to a 23-5-0 record. But perhaps his most important asset is his ability to come up big when it counts.
Emery is fully aware of that. “It’s going to come down to goaltending, and we need Nik to be better than their goalie,” he says.
Sundberg will be helped in front by Peter Ollari, Bryan Murray, Bobby Owen, Sean Chaytors, and Andre Carriere.
Plattsburgh may score a lot, but the Cardinals don’t get into shootouts. They only let up five or more goals in a game three times this season, and four goals twice. This is one stingy defense.
Still, the key for the Cardinals will be to not allow the conference series to drain them, both emotionally and physically.
“It was a battle all weekend,” Emery said after winning the SUNYAC title. “If you go into our locker room right now, you won’t see the players with much energy left.”
Injuries to some key players could play a part. Murray (jaw and eyes) is probable; Mike Daoust (knee) is day-to-day; Tyler Keenen (concussion) is ready if needed; and Carriere (back) is day-to-day. Brian Toussaint and Guy Come are out for this weekend.
“Injuries have been such a dilemma for us that nothing surprises us now,” Emery told the Plattsburgh Press-Republican. “To get this far with as many manpower-games we have lost this season is unbelievable.”
MIDDLEBURY — Tradition is the name of the game for the Panthers. Five straight national championships saw to that. What better way to avenge the end of that streak than to have another opportunity against the team that ended it?
That alone could be enough to drive Middlebury this weekend.
Middlebury hasn’t slowed a bit as the Panthers went through another outstanding season at 23-2-1. Their only losses came to Trinity, in overtime, and to Plattsburgh. Since then, the Panthers have won 13 in a row.
However, their latest victory was a wild one, defeating Amherst 4-3 in overtime for the NESCAC championship. That game had just about everything, including the rare sight of coach Bill Beaney getting ejected. But even that couldn’t stop the Panthers from heading to the NCAAs once again.
“Against all odds the team has had a really great year,” Beaney said.
As usual, defense is the prime point of excellence for Middlebury. The Panthers have shut out their opponents 11 times and allowed just 36 goals. They have let up more than three goals just twice.
This is, in large part, due to the exploits of junior Christian Carlsson, who has continued a line of exceptional goaltenders with a national-best 1.25 GAA and a .934 save pct. His backup, freshman Marc Scheuer, is ready to follow in his footsteps. In action this year, Scheuer has a 1.64 GAA and .908 save pct. If anything happens to Carlsson, there will be no concerns when Scheuer comes in.
The defensemen get lost in the publicity over Carlsson and Middlebury’s offense, but that’s not to say they go unnoticed by the coaching staff. Juniors Ryan Constantine and Grayson Fertig “do a great job night in and night out,” says Beaney, as they simply do their job keeping pressure off of Carlsson.
Just because they rely on defense doesn’t mean they cannot score — the Panthers, as noted above, are 13th best in the nation on offense.
Senior Scott Goldman leads the way with 16 goals and 23 assists for 39 points, while the top goalscorer is freshman Adam Foote with 19; Foote also has 12 assists for a total of 31 points. Other double-digit goal scorers are Matt Dunn with 13 and Kevin Cooper with 10.
Watch out for Goldman and Foote on the power play, where they have nine and eight goals, respectively.
Lastly, one advantage Middlebury has over Plattsburgh is the venue. The Panthers have never lost to the Cardinals at home.