Things are really getting tight now in the East. When you look at both leagues, the separation from first to sixth is only three points in the East and just six points in the NESCAC conference. That means with just four games remaining in the regular season that everything is up for grabs in terms of regular season titles, home-ice playoff berths and even securing a spot in the post season as the race at the lower end of the NESCAC standings has heated up over the past couple of weeks. Nobody is taking anything for granted and every single coach is polished in their “coach-speak” this week about focus, playing them one at a time and having the ability to only take care of their own business while doing a little scoreboard watching along the way. So let’s take a look at what’s in store this weekend and next in terms of races and scenarios for the ECAC East (NESCAC next week) after we recap a great game that did D-III hockey proud on national television this past Super Bowl Sunday.
Cadets Keep Marching Up the Standings
Just about everyone’s worst nightmare in the East was that the Cadets would find the consistency that had been lacking this season right around … now! Just a few weeks ago they were sitting in sixth place in the league and their coach was not too happy about the level of play and consistent hockey he was seeing from his squad. What a difference a month makes! They have started to play pretty well and at the right time of the season and this past weekend showcased a couple of solid wins that has them right back in the thick of the race with a shot at their customary position as the top seed come playoff time.
We could start with Sunday’s 3-0 shutout of in-state rival Middlebury that was televised on ESPNU but according to Head Coach Mike McShane, Friday’s game with Williams is what really got the Cadets jump started for the weekend. A 7-0 victory keyed by freshman Matt Johnson’s hat trick and the team’s three goals in the first three minutes of the second period had the Cadets offense firing on all cylinders. “The Friday game really helped us for Sunday,” remarked McShane. “We hadn’t really scored much recently and that game really got us going offensively. It was definitely a help to the team and we carried that into Sunday being well rested having a Saturday off before the game with Middlebury.”
There aren’t many better rivalries in college hockey than when the Cadets and Panthers hook-up anywhere during the season. No doubt the TV cameras brought a little more excitement to what is already a fierce rivalry and the game did not disappoint the capacity crowd in Northfield nor the national television audience who watched on ESPNU.
“I thought it was a great game,” stated McShane. “It was a great crowd; great atmosphere and I really thought both teams played well — the game had really good flow. The officiating was good and we had a couple of guys play very well that made a difference.”
One of the key difference makers was sophomore forward Nikita Kashirsky who scored two goals for the Cadets in the 3-0 victory. Kashirsky is one of four Norwich players in double figures in goals and eight of his 14 tallies have come on the power play for the Cadets. “I thought the goal at the end of the first period was a real big goal for us,” said McShane. “Scoring in the final minute of the period like that was a big lift and Nikita came right back to start the second and scored on the power play just over one minute into the second period. Those were big goals that gave us some momentum.”
Momentum that the Cadets needed as starting goalie Chance Gieni, who has fought the injury bug all season was forced to leave the game in the first period after injuring his knee. “The day before we thought that Gieni had broken his finger in practice but he said it was OK. I went to David (Thompson) and said you may need to be ready to play if chance can’t go and he said I’ll be ready. It was tough to see him go down with the knee but Thompson came in and played well – he has been very consistent this year.”
Gieni is definitely out of action for the Cadets this week but McShane has not ruled out a return in the final week of the season for his sophomore netminder who has been limited to seeing action on just five games this season.
With regard to the stretch run, McShane knows he has a tough road with some challenging competition starting this Friday at Castleton. “The game is sold-out from what I understand,” he said. “Our kids know the importance of the games so I think we will be ready. It’s really exciting for Vermont hockey having had the game on television and already we have the local television station lining up interviews for Friday before the game. That’s something Castleton hasn’t had before and it’s great for the school and the league.”
The Cadets face of two of their main competitors at the top of the standings this weekend in Castleton and Skidmore before closing out the season at home against Bowdoin and Colby. The last four certainly aren’t easy but they do have tiebreakers in their favor against the other top teams in the East including NEC, Babson and Southern Maine and would like to add two more to that list to help solidify their position for the post-season.
“There are six teams right now fighting for home-ice,” noted McShane. “That means two really good teams are going to have to travel to start the playoffs so it says a lot about the quality of the league and the level of competition. Hopefully we will do what we need to do but I will be scoreboard watching on the computer to see what else is going on and if we might get some help from somewhere else.”
There’s eight points on the line over the next two weekends and they are truly very valuable this time of the year. The Cadets have been here before so everyone is going to have to raise their game to stay in the top four.
New Hockey League — Done?
During the conversation, McShane also stated that the rumored change for the ECAC East was over and done with and that the league was expected to continue on in its current configuration and interlocking schedule with the NESCAC conference.
Last week, Southern Maine coach Jeff Beaney went on the record as saying that his team would not be involved so while there is very little coming from the athletic directors at the schools directly involved or affected by the discussion of a new league, it seems as though the coaches are now voicing their approval of maintaining the status quo and keeping the number of teams currently involved in the league right now.
It appears that at least a couple of the member institutions are very pleased with the configuration of the league today and do not want to move away from the current scheduling and rivalries. That being said, just having a couple of dissenters made it impossible for the new Mass league to proceed with enough teams to produce a bid for an automatic qualifier to the NCAAs and that probably sealed the deal for some of the other programs still considering the move.
This reporter hopes that some definitive statement will come out soon, as the rumors have caused a lot of interesting — and in some cases non-committed — responses while creating confusion around programs that are competing for their fair share of student-athletes to support their programs. That said — it looks like the proposed change has died yet again as it has over the past several years when proposed.
ECAC East — Down the Stretch
So what are the match-ups during the last two weekends — there are some direct head-to-head games which are key and some interesting games with some potential spoilers. With only three points separating first from sixth, here’s the schedule and match-ups to watch.
2/09 @ Conn College
2/10 @ Tufts
2/16 vs. NEC
2/17 vs. St. Anselm’s
Conn is still fighting for their playoff lives, Tufts has been relegated to a spoiler and the last weekend is at home against two big rivals. 3-1 would be great but will it be enough to stay at the top?
2/09 vs. Norwich
2/10 vs. St. Michael’s
2/16 @ Trinity
2/17 @ Wesleyan
Big game on Friday could set tone for the rest of the run and team will need to continue to play well on the road against two tough NESCAC teams next week who have a lot to fight for in their own standings. 2-2 keeps them in the top four.
2/09 @ Castleton
2/10 @ Skidmore
2/16 vs. Bowdoin
2/17 vs. Colby
Cadets hope to ride momentum of big weekend over Williams and Middlebury into Castleton who sits right in their sites a point ahead. Final weekend will be challenge with the Maine schools fighting for home ice in the NESCAC. 4-0 is what will be needed and away games this weekend will set the tempo for next week.
2/09 vs. St. Michael’s
2/10 vs. Norwich
2/16 @ Wesleyan
2/17 @ Trinity
Travel partner Castleton could have as much to do with Skidmore’s success as the Thoroughbreds in terms of making the back-end of the weekend tougher based on the Friday contest. Easier contest this week on Friday but not the case next weekend. 2-1-1 might be good enough to keep home ice but they may need some help elsewhere.
New England College
2/09 vs. Amherst
2/10 vs. Hamilton
2/16 @ Salem State
2/17 @ Southern Maine
Amherst is looking to right the ship after dropping two last weekend while Hamilton puts on a late season run to steal a playoff spot from Conn College. Final game at USM likely to be the decider in final standings. Need to grab three wins if possible but the Pilgrims are likely to be looking for some help to sneak into a home ice slot.
2/09 @ Williams
2/10 @ Middlebury
2/16 vs. Tufts
2/17 vs. Conn College
Babson has had two three game losing streaks this season and is not looking to add another one to close things out. Tough weekend coming up at Williams and Middlebury – two teams trying to find themselves before the playoffs. Have a 10-2 mark at home and Tufts and Conn to close to wrap-up the regular season. 3-1 might move them into the top four but they will definitely be watching the scoreboard and figuring out who else to root for down the stretch.
Even the coaches know the value of the points in the games coming up. This is what they play the games for and for some coaches, the playoff games have started already in terms of positioning their teams for the run to the league title and a shot at the national tournament in March.
Does it get any better than this – check back next week – it’s hard to imagine but it just might!