“Boy is this great!”
A line made famous by Flounder during the climactic homecoming parade scene in Animal House pretty much sums up how most coaches, players and fans feel about the level of play and moves in the standings seen in the two conferences this season. Hard to believe there is only a month’s worth of games left on the schedule which means that now is the time to pick it up and to the best of your ability control your own destiny as this season has proved, you can’t necessarily count on guaranteed outcomes in other contests.
This week we’ll focus on the ECAC East contenders who find themselves in some familiar and in a couple of cases unfamiliar territory as they approach the final eight games of the regular season. Next week we’ll look at the NESCAC side of the equation and the only sure thing is that the one week difference and two games over this weekend will have an impact on several teams looking to enhance their overall standing and solidify their play at a higher level heading towards the playoffs.
Huskies are the Hunted
In the recent past Jeff Beaney’s Southern Maine team has made some noise in grabbing a home-ice playoff spot in the ECAC East and playing in the final four of the conference tournament – now the stakes are higher. Heading into this weekend, the Huskies find themselves in a different position as the number one team in the league being hunted by everyone else.
“Yeah this is a little different for us in terms of our standing right now,” said Beaney. “But in some ways it isn’t that different in that we had to treat the second half of the season like it was a playoff run or playoff games just to move up the ladder after our slow start. This year it still feels like a playoff run because we are playing all of the teams down the stretch that we are fighting for position with. It’s different but we want to control our own destiny and the games we play in are really the only thing that we can influence the outcome in.”
The Huskies are 5-0-1 in their last six games and come off a weekend sweep of UMass-Boston and Babson last weekend. During the six game stretch they have outscored opponents by a 31-11 margin and garnered nine out of ten points available in the league standings.
Leading the way for USM is senior forward Mark Carragher, who’s sixteen goals and seventeen assists top the scoring chart. “Mark has been a great leader and one of those guys who has gotten better every season,” stated Beaney. “You are right that he was one of the guys we expected big things from entering the season and he really has delivered on that so far this season – it’s great to see and I hope he can continue to produce for us in the big games coming up the rest of the way.”
Carragher isn’t the only senior who has turned it on in his final season as Chris Sparkes has also been a big part of the offense with thirteen goals and thirteen assists for twenty-six points. Sparkes’ six power-play goals trails only Carragher’s seven and their thirteen goals with the man advantage are better than 60% of the team’s total.
The goaltending from David Beckles (2.38GAA and .918SP) has been stellar in supporting the team when the offense has taken awhile to get on track. If you want to have shot at beating the Huskies these days it seems like you better jump on them early as they have a +15 goal differential in the third period against their opponents this season and seem to thrive on breaking open close games in the latter stages of play.
“It’ll be fun,” laughed Beaney as he noted his only significant health issue with his team was a runny nose he himself had this week. “The way all of the teams are playing you could see a lot of movement in the standings based on having a bad weekend or two. None of them are easy from here on out especially this weekend with Bowdoin and Colby at their rinks. We’ve had pretty good success against those teams recently and it would be nice to see that continue this week.”
No doubt the match-ups in Maine will be fun to watch and for Colby there may be an element of returning a favor based on USM’s 5-3 win in a non-conference game earlier this season. The points are on the line this weekend so expect nothing to be left on the ice in battling for the win.
Babson Coming of Age
So you have 14 or 15 freshmen and sophomores in the line-up each night. You would expect a bit of a maturation process to happen in finding the right combinations and getting the type of consistent play that you need to win in this competitive conference. For Jamie Rice’s Babson team, the process hasn’t taken so long and he has done everything in his power not to screw it up.
“As the coach you need to make sure you steer the ship but in the direction the engine is taking it — you don’t want to screw it up,” said Rice. “We have some really good team chemistry with this group where no one feels disenfranchised. We have seen different guys step up and have a good night each night out on the ice which helps to lighten the load on our “younger” players. I would say at the beginning of the season we more inexperienced than young and we started to see that collective experience grow and come together right around the semester break. Now we want to build on that and keep the momentum going down the stretch here. It goes by so fast — it’s hard to believe we are looking at the last month of the season.”
Babson has produced two four game winning streaks this season and is currently 7-1 on home ice where they will play four of the final eight regular season contests. The schedule isn’t an easy one but one that Rice likes for a couple of reasons.
“In our league you only play everybody else once so it doesn’t matter much when we get to see one team or another. The balance and rhythm of playing away then home and away then home can be a good part of the routine for the kids to deal with as opposed to the imbalance of too many home or away games in a stretch. And lastly, we have a chance to help ourselves based on the league opponents we see over the next month that are directly competing with us for position. We can only worry about what we can influence and that’s the games we are playing in.”
Two key factors for Babson in their run toward the top are freshman forwards Jason Schneider (8-8-16) and Shane Farrell (7-7-14). Both guys play on a line with sophomore Pat McLaughlin who is a good player that can bring out the best in everyone. “Both of these guys are good players with innate ability and God-given talent,” noted Rice. “The whole line has had good chemistry together and it really doesn’t matter if they are playing even strength or in a special team situation, as Pat has helped to make that line go. Jason hit the ground running from the very beginning of the season and Shane has taken off of late to the point where he has been getting point s in bunches – I don’t know if he is feeding off the offensive drive of the team or if the team is feeding off his production in certain games.”
Two of the most intriguing games on this weekend’s schedule can be found in the match-up of Babson on the road against Skidmore and Castleton — all of these teams are fighting for a spot at the top of the standings and the head-to-head match-ups this weekend could very likely provide a tie-breaker for someone ending up with a home-ice playoff spot.
Castleton Cited at #11
It has been a season of many firsts this year for the Spartans from Castleton College (please note that the school has dropped the State reference in their name). One of those firsts was a ranking in the USCHO D-III poll this week which was definitely earned by coach Alex Todd’s team.
Posting six straight wins following Tuesday’s 5-1 win over Potsdam, has the Spartans on a serious roll that doesn’t really surprise their coach. “These guys really just don’t get nervous anymore,” said Todd. “They have continued to work hard and now aren’t really surprised or tensed up by different game situations as they come up. We are still a pretty young group but now we have been in games where we have come from behind or protected a lead or played two men down – all of the situations that help you grow in experience and we are starting to show a comfort level without any panic as we play.”
Two of the guys making a difference and taking their games to a higher level are freshman forward Steve Culbertson and freshman defenseman Nick Wescott. Culbertson leads the team in goals with thirteen while Wescott has been a rock solid stay-at-home defenseman that has shut down opponent’s best offensive players. “We knew these guys had talent when they came here,” Todd noted. “Things started out slowly fro both of these guys and then in December they both just kind of took off and really elevated their games to where they are big contributors to our success each and every game. It’s really been great to see and hopefully their success will help jump-start some other guys to keep pushing their game during this final month of the regular season.”
The Spartans are home for UMass-Boston and Babson this weekend and they apparently like home cooking as the team is really building a home-ice advantage in their new rink this season as indicated by their 8-0-1 record. “We have had great support from the school as well as the local community here and the turnout at the games has been great. We want to make this a tough place to play and advantage for our team and keep that going through the remainder of the season and into the future. It’s great to hear people talking about going to the games and what a good time they had being there. That definitely helps our team feel good about what they are doing and all of the hard work they are putting in to be successful.”
Castleton may be the feel-good story of the year but they are not taking anything for granted nor are they resting on their laurels — if anything the recent success has only fueled the fire for building on the success to date. “I told the kids after the ranking came out that those things will take care of themselves, that the poll is a reward for the results. We continue to work and play hard and have success on the ice we will see more of those types of things directed at us so it’s a good motivator to keep doing what we have been doing.”
Something tells me #11 is just an entry level for where these guys would like to take their team this year.
For NEC, this weekend’s home match-up with Norwich and St. Mike’s has them facing off against one of their biggest rivals where both are fighting to move closer to the top of the league standings. Coach Carroll’s team has been buoyed of late by the return of Mike Carmody from injury, the addition of Brian Pouliot from UNH as a transfer over the semester break, the solid play of Ron Baia in goal and the experience of two freshmen who lead the team in scoring.
The Pilgrims are 5-2-1 in their last eight games that includes quality wins over Bowdoin, Colby, Wesleyan, and Middlebury. The team has begun to find the consistency that was lacking early in the year and is coming together at the right time to start making a run leading into the playoffs.
“It’s coming together,” said Carroll. “Mike (Carmody) is back healthy and that’s helped. Ron (Baia) is playing well and the team has confidence playing in front of him right now. We have confidence in all our goalies but he is going well right now and we are going with that. We still need to play these one at a time especially with the quality of play you see in our league right now. Yes there are only eight games left but it has been a very busy January schedule and now we need to pick-it up coming out of our J-term and into February.”
One of the keys for NEC has been the arrival of Brian Pouliot, a transfer over the semester break from UNH. Having played 8 of the past 10 games (sat this past weekend without any specific reason disclosed by Carroll), Pouliot has scored two goals and added eight assists for ten points in those first eight games. “He came in here with just a great attitude,” said Carroll. “Attitude has so much to do with how successful he has been as he has really looked to fit in with the team right away and contribute to the success of what we are trying to do which often times is not easy to do when you come in during the middle of the season or from a D-I program as Brian did.”
Two other positive influences have been found in two Canadian junior products from British Columbia. Freshman forward Mark Ehl (7-7-14) leads the team in scoring while freshman defenseman Trevor Turner (3-11-14) is tied in points from his blueline position. “Both of these guys have a lot of experience including long bus rides and hostile rinks so they have adapted to the college game and this league in terms of the intensity level pretty well. Mark is a really good player with a lot of skill that will continue to get better and Trevor is one of those unique defensemen that has great vision on the ice and can skate and move the puck very well. They are both playing at high level right now and we’ll need that during this last month if we want to contend in this league and the playoffs.”
A familiar rivalry with Norwich is NEC’s opponent on Friday and there is no need to worry about the Pilgrims being ready to play the Cadets. “They are very talented and have some great offensive players, stated Carroll. It will be a challenge to stop them but we have them at home and hopefully that will help us.”
New Mass League Update
Well following last week’s story, there have been a number of people willing to go on the record and talk about the plethora of rumors floating about athletic departments and hockey rinks as evidenced by my Q&A session late last week with Steve Bamford from the ECAC. The discussions have continued this week and for the first time one of the coaches has come forward with a definite position and announcement as to his school’s involvement, or in this case non-involvement with the new league.
Jeff Beaney from USM (a Little East institution) was adamant in his positioning of his program. “I want it out there that we are not moving,” said Beaney. “We are not going anywhere. We are staying in the ECAC East and are looking forward to playing in this league along with the interlocking schedule with the NESCAC schools. We are very happy with the great rivalries that have been established with our play in this league and look forward to continuing our participation in the future.”
This plot continues to thicken and there are definite indications that USM may not be alone in sticking with their current league alignment although nothing definitive has been announced by any of the other schools currently rumored to be joining the new conference. As mentioned earlier, stay tuned and we will continue to supply the latest information as it becomes available.