With the ECAC NE regular season behind us, and the quarterfinal playoff picture set in stone, it’s time to take a look at the match-ups:
#1 UMass Dartmouth (22-2-1 overall/14-1-0 conf.) vs. #8 Salve Regina (10-13-1/8-7-0)
Saturday, Feb. 24, 4:30 p.m., Hetland Ice Arena, New Bedford, Mass.
For coach John Rolli and his upperclassmen at UMass Dartmouth, forgive them if they’re thinking “here we go again.” For the third straight year, they’ll end up 14-1 in conference play and open the playoffs against Salve Regina. UMass comes into the game with an overall record of 22-2-1, and the Corsairs are 13-1 overall since the semester break, with the one loss coming to Wentworth earlier this month. Salve Regina has been hot lately, winners of their last three, and ended the season with a record of 10-13-1, and a conference record of 8-7.
When asked for his thoughts on the upcoming playoff opener, Rolli told it like it is. “Well, I’m not too crazy about it. We’ve played them twice previously, in January and two weeks ago. In the league game, they had us down two to nothing, we came back and scored three goals. Their goalie, Chase Goodrich, played very good, and I expect nothing less from him on Saturday.”
Rolli knows his opponent can perform well in the face of adversity. “If you look back a week and a half ago, they were five and seven, and about to miss the playoffs. They run the tables, win three in a row, finish eight and seven, and get into the playoffs.”
Rolli feels his goaltending and special teams will be a key to advancing beyond the quarterfinals. His goalie, Jeff Green, is a legitimate contender for player of the year, and enters the game with a GAA of 1.76 which is second best in the nation. Green also boasts a gaudy 22-2-1 record, and a save percentage of .928.
Needless to say, Salve Regina coach Chris McPherson knows a formidable task lies ahead. Despite going 0-2 against UMass this year, the second loss probably gave his team the confidence knowing they can play with the number one seed. When asked what his squad would have to do to beat a team also ranked eighth in the nation, McPherson had an idea what would need to be done. “We’re going to need some excellent goaltending, we’re probably going to have to catch a break or two, a power-play goal would be good.”
McPherson also knows of the offensive prowess that will be coming at his squad this weekend. “We’re going to try to neutralize that first line, which is a very difficult task obviously, with three of the better players in the league playing together; and their second line, on top of that, would be able to be a first line in a lot of places.”
#2 Curry (15-8-2/13-1-1) vs. #7 Nichols (13-10-2/8-6-2)
Saturday, Feb. 24, 7:30 p.m.. Ulin Arena, Milton, Mass.
Curry comes into this game with a 7-1-1 mark in the last nine games, and in their last five games have scored five shorthanded goals. Over the last month, Nichols appeared to be free-falling out of the playoff picture, losing five straight before finishing their last four games with a 2-1-1 mark.
The teams met once before this season, with Curry prevailing, 5-3. The game was a 3-3 tie late into the third period, before Curry scored two power play goals to win. Nichols coach Lou Izzi knows how lethal Curry’s special teams can be. “We have to stay out of the penalty box. We can’t give them too many opportunities. We were [tied] three-three with them with about five minutes to go, and we took two careless penalties and they ate us up.”
While Izzi will try to keep his team out of the penalty box, he’ll also have to be mindful of when his squad has the man advantage, for Curry can be equally deadly when shorthanded, as they scored a dozen goals while on the PK this year. Ironically, the nation’s leader in shorthanded goals plays for Izzi, and that’s sophomore forward Anthony Monte, who had five shorthanded goals amongst his team leading 26.
Despite winning seven out of their last nine games, Curry coach Rob Davies is not exactly enamored with his teams’ play in that stretch. “Nichols College is a good hockey club, and we haven’t been particularly pleased with how we’ve been playing lately. We’re awfully concerned about our game on Saturday against them, but we’re working awfully hard this week to prepare for them, so there won’t be any surprises. We’ll be prepared. We have to have a sense of urgency that I don’t think we’ve had the last three or four games. We have to play with a greater sense of urgency and overall respect for the situation at hand.”
#3 Wentworth (14-8-3/11-2-2) vs. #6 Johnson and Wales (12-11-1/9-6-0)
Sunday, Feb. 25, 7:30 p.m. Matthews Arena, Boston Mass.
For the past month, RJ Tolan had Wentworth on a very hot streak, going 6-0. Included in those wins were a 6-0 whitewashing on Plymouth State, and then a convincing 5-2 win over UMass Dartmouth. The streak came to a crashing halt, though, last Sunday when Johnson and Wales beat Wentworth 5-3.
For the rookie coach, it’s his first trip to the post-season, but he is thinking more about avenging Sunday’s loss. “It’s not often that you get second chances, but we’re lucky enough that we have a second chance to try to do something about it.”
Even though it’s his first trip to the playoffs, Tolan’s been around the game long enough to know things will be different, and he is not taking anything for granted. “Everything is intensified in the playoffs, and everybody goes that much harder. Those guys [Johnson and Wales] are just as good as anybody. We’re not good enough to underestimate or overpower anybody.”
Johnson and Wales coach Erik Noack is not making that big of a deal over Sunday’s win.
“Obviously, going back to Wentworth is going to be tough. They’ve got a good team, and they’ve only seen us play once, so I don’t know if that’s going to be an advantage or disadvantage.”
Noack feels one key to playing a team seeded higher than you is to keep it simple. “Any time you start to get fancy in the neutral zone as far as trying to make tape to tape passes in between the blue lines, trying to make break out passes that really aren’t appropriate at the time rather carry the puck up or try to go cross ice. You want to limit that stuff, because if it doesn’t work, it looks bad. I think when you’re playing Wentworth or UMass, or Curry, and you’re trying to do things that you’re not able to really do, that’s where you get caught. When you play within yourself, and keep within your system, you have a better shot at being successful.”
#4 Plymouth State (11-12-2/10-4-1) vs. #5 Fitchburg State (13-9-3/9-4-2)
Saturday, Feb. 24, 6pm Waterville Valley Ice Arena, Waterville, N.H.
Plymouth State comes into the contest unbeaten in the last four games, with their last three games victories, and with a tie against none other than Fitchburg State. The teams met one other time during the year, with Fitchburg State prevailing, 7-2. While Plymouth comes in riding a modest win streak, Fitchburg State has only one win in their last four games.
Brett Tryder, now finishing up his fourth year behind the Plymouth State bench, foresees a battle this weekend. “It’s going to a physical game I think. We’re going to try to win the physical battles and shut them down in the first ten minutes of the game and not let them get any confidence in our rink.”
Tryder also feels his special teams will have to pick up the pace in order for the Panthers to continue playing this season. The PP is 4 for 20 in the last three games. “Our power play has to come alive. We haven’t done much with it lately, so we’re hoping it can come alive a little bit.”
Tryder has great respect for the opponent that lies ahead. “It’s a classic team, they’ve got some guys who can really score. [Ryan] Moore and [Mike] Dryer are two of the best there are in the league in my opinion. That’s another reason the game has to stay physical, to try and get those guys off their game a little bit.”
Although Fitchburg State coach Dean Fuller had his team try mightily to get home ice, they will open the playoffs up in New Hampshire. To win the road game, Fuller has an idea of what it will take, “I think we have to capitalize on our power play. When you get into these tournaments, specials teams are huge. Against a good team, we created some opportunities up there the last time we played, and their goaltender played really well.
I think we’ve just got to do the same thing and see if we can put a couple in and see if we can get our usual strong goaltending from Devan McConnell and hopefully get a nice road win.”
Next week we’ll look ahead to the ECAC NE finals, and to the Northeast-10 finals. (The Northeast-10 was finishing up their regular season as this preview was being written.)