You want to talk playoffs?
If you can picture the opening lines with the voice from the NFLs ex-Indianapolis Colts coach Jim Mora you can kind of imagine that sense of incredulousness that accompanies the rapid end to the regular season once we hit February and the dramatic win or go home aspect that the playoffs bring to conference tournament play.
Playoff time has finally arrived: this weekend starts the ultimate process for conference championships and potential NCAA qualifying bids. Nobody wants to go home but half of the participants this weekend are done for the season and will be waiting until next year–which sounds like pretty good motivation to me to leave it all out on the ice and truly focus on one game, because on Saturday, thats all there is!
So whats likely to happen this week in the quarterfinal match-ups in both the ECAC East and NESCAC? Its probably anybodys guess as both leagues are deep and playing a six, seven or eight seed doesnt guarantee any trip to the conference final four. In fact, we have already seen six seeds win each conference over the past tow years with Babson accomplishing the feat in 2007 and Trinity doing the same in the NESCAC last season.
The picks are hard and nary a single coach is going on record with their picks beyond the toss-up or too-tough-to call prediction. Im happy to take a shot because right or wrong, the hockey is going to be great and the opportunity to cheer on your school in the chase for postseason glory is only going to make the atmosphere at all of the rinks more exciting!
No. 1 Norwich v. No. 8 UMass-Boston
The Cadets are on very familiar ground heading into the postseason as the number one seed in the conference. They seemingly do this every year and while this season came down to the last game to decide, Norwich is not going to lose focus on the prize at hand.
Norwich is just 3-2-1 in the month of February, but swept last weekends must-have games against Colby and Bowdoin to capture the top seed. Nikita Kashirsky (17 goals, 17 assists, 34 points) leads the team in scoring and will be looked upon to lead this retooled version of the Cadets to hosting another ECAC East final four next weekend.
For the Beacons, February was not kind. With just one win in their final six games, UMass-Boston is in desperate need of some offense from last years big guns Kris Kransky and Eric Tufman. Freshman defenseman Wayne Sands leads the team in goals with nine, including five on the power play. Goaltending has also been inconsistent and the Beacons will need either junior Ryan Donovan to regain his form from last year as the leagues best goalie or freshman Kevin Bendel to step it up in the playoffs.
Prediction: Norwich 7, UMB 2 — Too much firepower for the Cadets and not enough for the Beacons, who lost in overtime at Northfield in mid-January. Head coach Mike McShanes team wont be taking anyone lightly and cruise to the quarterfinal win.
No. 2 Castleton v. No. 7 Babson
The Spartans are disappointed that they only managed to grab the two seed, finishing just one point behind Norwich in the final regular season standings. Castleton enters the playoffs unbeaten in February and riding a seven game win streak. Career scoring leader Brandon Heck and teammate Steve Culbertson have 11 and 10 goals respectively to lead the offense for a team that can win with strong defense and any one of three goaltenders to back them. Seniors Jay Seals and Jeff Swanson along with freshman Seth McNary have all played well and coach Alex Todd has the luxury of choosing among three hot goaltenders for the match-up on Saturday.
The last team to defeat Castleton was Babson in late January on the road, 7-2–the most goals surrendered in a game by the Spartans this season. Babson brings playoff experience to the match-up with several key players having played key roles in the ECAC title from two seasons ago. Jason Schneider and Brad Baldelli lead a talented and explosive offense that will not look to rely on the power play where the Beavers picked up four of their seven goals at Castleton last month.
Prediction: Babson 5, Castleton 4 — Despite the goaltending, this contest will come down to special teams and big game experience. The beavers won in 2007 from the six spot and look to up the ante by going to the final four as a seven seed this time around.
No. 3 Salem State v. No. 6 Skidmore
Salem State proved last weekend that even without leading scorer Justin Fox, they can compete with anyone as they swept both games last weekend to move into third place. This is head coach Bill ONeills final season in the ECAC East–the only league he has ever coached in his almost three decades with the Vikings. Next year they move to the new Massachusetts State College Athletic Conference (MASCA), so going out with a big win and a final shot at the league title will be a strong motivation for this team. Netminder Ryan Hatch has proven to be a big game goalie and has the Vikings on a three game win streak to end the regular season. Salem State wont beat themselves so look for an entertaining match-up with a Skidmore team that likes to create pressure and play offensively.
The Thoroughbreds come into the game going 2-1-3 in their final six games and having scored 17 goals in their final three contests, earning a record of 2-0-1. Sophomore Alex Mykolenko leads the team with 10 goals and has showcased his great offensive skills at the right time this season to be a factor for Skidmore. Look for more shots than the twenty they got off in a regular season 2-2 tie at Salem State in January. Goalie Colin Bessey made 40 saves in that game and has played well down the stretch for Skidmore.
Prediction: Skidmore 4, Salem State 3 — This one is really tough to call but Skidmore has it going at the right time and will prosper from the prior game experience at Salem where they took the Vikings best and didnt go down. The Thoroughbreds have matured and Bessey will be the difference in another close game.
No. 4 New England College v. No. 5 Southern Maine
Just to give an idea of how close all of the teams are, NEC and USM played last Friday and–like the prior regular season match-up noted between Salem and Skidmore–the game ended in a 2-2 tie at Southern Maine. This week the venue switches to NECs home rink where the Pilgrims are looking to take advantage of being in their own barn. Junior Mark Ehl (9-14-23) leads NEC in scoring and provides key leadership for a young team looking to play more consistently than their 2-3-1 record of February has shown. Goalie Aaron Harvey brings great numbers into the playoffs and will need to be sharp against a Huskie squad that boasts three players with fourteen goals or more this season.
Forward Dan Gordon (15-20-35) and defenseman Paul Conter (8-18-26) will lead the offense in front of goalie Jamie Gilbert who has returned from injury to lead USM to a 2-2-2 record in February. The special teams may hold the key here as Southern Maine has struggled on the penalty kill but did hold the Pilgrims to a 0-for-7 last week in the tie game.
Prediction: Southern Maine 3, NEC 2 — Yes, I really am going with three upsets (at least by seeding) but believe that the home ice doesnt mean a lot in match-ups where teams are just that close. They played it tight last week and expect