Its here and by most coaches accounts there should be a heavy presence of local and state law enforcement officials around hosting arenas and nearby towns looking out for those who have outstanding warrants for grand larceny.
Its been happening in college towns and ice arenas all over New England all winter.
The suspects are heavily padded and wear distinctive masks in an effort to keep their identities hidden. They make no bones about robbing opposing offensive players of sure goals and stealing wins for their teams. At this the most critical time of the season, they are bold enough to do it in full sight of thousands of fans both at home and on the road.
Yes, right now its all about the goaltenders and which team has the hottest netminder coming into the final four pairings for each conference this weekend in Northfield and Waterville.
Its really all about goaltending and special teams at this time of the year, noted Middlebury head coach Bill Beaney. Everyone left needs to continue to have that position play well if they want to keep playing. We are lucky in having two guys with big game experience who really havent lost other than last years NCAA championship game. The experience is great but they still have to go out and play well.
Its amazing how much goaltending controls the game now, said Norwich head coach Mike McShane. Everyone left in the playoffs has had great goaltending and [Ryan] Donovan from UMass-Boston has been a big reason for their success this year. He stood on his head when we beat them in overtime in the regular season so the kids know we cant take anything for granted in getting something on the scoreboard this weekend.
We have already seen surprises in the quarterfinal round and wonder: are there more to be seen this weekend? The ECAC East has the number 1, 4, 6 and 7 seeds remaining in the tournament and NESCAC has the number 1, 2, 4 and 6 seeds remaining. The match-ups are set so lets see if I can improve on my 50% pick rate from last weekend and define the 2007-08 conference champs.
#7 UMass-Boston @ #1 Norwich
The Cadets are hosting again this year — not much of a surprise there as it has become an end of winter ritual for the conference championships to be held in Northfield. When the Cadets have it going in all phases they are as good as anyone in the country so look for Norwich to play aggressive attacking hockey and try to play the game with an early lead.
We had a close game the first time around even though we outshot them by a 3-1 margin, commented McShane. Right now we have to play smart and take care of the puck and stay out of the box. They have some very talented players and Peter [Belisle] has got them going good right now. They have nothing to lose so you know they will be loose and we need to step up and play our game. The crowd will be a big help for us and being at home is a factor.
For the upstart Beacons, the trip to the final four is a step this team couldnt have thought possible just a season ago. New blood, a new coach and a hot goaltender has changed all of that and they are not afraid of anyone now having knocked off the defending conference champion last week at Babson.
Having Ryan [Donovan] back there has covered up some of our issues up front but we know we cant get outshot again like we did the last time — their skill players are too good to give opportunities to without seeing it on the scoreboard, stated head coach Peter Belisle.
We watched the film of the first game yesterday and know we need to try and pressure the puck in their end of the ice and keep it deep — make it more of a puck possession game. We are excited for sure– not just to be there but to play in a big game which means so much to this program. We had a bus full of kids attend the game at Babson last week and it looks like we will have another bus this weekend to support us. We would like to make the trip worth their while, too.
Prediction: Donovan has established himself as one of the best in the league at stopping the puck — he is going to get a chance to prove it again against one of the best offensive teams in the country. Dont see OT this time around but no blowout either. Cadets win it, 5-2, and move to Sundays championship game.
#6 Salem State vs. #4 New England College
The Pilgrims are no strangers to playing at Norwich in early March either and should the Cadets win the early game, NEC best not get caught looking ahead to playing Sunday or Bill ONeills Salem State team will take the opportunity away based on a well tested formula of good goaltending and good special teams.
New England may have the most talented group up front, commented Norwich coach Mike McShane. They have an awesome group of Swedes and real skill players like [Mike] Carmody and [Brian] Pouliot.
Add in the goaltender that Southern Maines coach Jeff Beaney feels is the best in the conference and New England can make things tough on the opposition with their tight team defense.
[Ron] Baia went into a little slump for a few games towards the end, noted Beaney. But he was solid against us in the regular season and made two huge saves at 1-0 and 1-1 in the playoff game last week that made a big difference in the game. Hes as good as anyone when he is on and he was on last week.
For the Vikings, who come into the semifinals having upset the third seeded Castleton club, there shouldnt be any worries about playing on the road. That said, they lost 5-2 at New England on the final weekend of the regular season and gave up an empty-net goal as the games final tally. The Vikings have relied heavily on Ryan Hatch in goal, who has played all but one game for Salem State, and freshman forward Justin Fox (16 goals, 21 assists, 37 points) who has five power-play goals to go with four game-winning goals this season.
Prediction: The first game saw the overall shots pretty even for both teams but with big momentum swings during the three periods of play. Many of the NEC seniors remember the run to the NCAA tournament just a couple of years ago so experience will be the difference here. The Pilgrims advance to face the Cadets by a 4-1 score.
Championship Game: NEC vs. Norwich
These two teams are more than familiar with each other and their lone regular season contest saw a typical one goal game swing the Cadets way by a 5-4 score. Baia did not play in that game but he may suffer the same fate as his teammate Aaron Harvey this time around. Norwich is at home and playing for something they lost last year so look for the Cadets to skate with the hardware and a trip to the NCAAs. Cadets win, 4-3.
#6 Trinity @ #1 Colby
It is all about being hot at the right time. When — not for how long — you are playing well.
Trinity has been riding solid defense and great goaltending by Wes Vesprini down the stretch to join the party at Colby, the fourth different school t