You might wonder why this week’s column is looking at the Skidmore Thoroughbreds, who enter the final weekend of the regular season with a 10-11-2 record overall, 9-7-0 in the conference. The fact is that coach Neil Sinclair’s team may be the best example of getting it done right at the right time of the year, and sometimes that is more than enough to get the job done in the playoffs.
Over the past nine games, Skidmore is 6-2-1 overall and has posted wins over New England College, Massachusetts-Boston, and most importantly, Norwich last weekend by a 3-2 score. The win over Norwich cost the Cadets their season-long position at number one in the USCHO D-III poll, but is more indicative of the level of play Skidmore has brought to the rink since the middle of January. In fact, last Saturday’s game with St. Michael’s appeared to be the perfect “trap game,” following the big upset on Friday night. Not the case for this group of Thoroughbreds, who put a 9-1 win on the board for the weekend sweep and two important points that now has them sitting in the fourth and final home playoff berth with just two games remaining in the regular season.
Last Friday’s win against Norwich was not a thing of beauty, as they were outshot by a wide margin in all three periods. That stated, Skidmore was opportunistic and did answer back quickly when the Cadets tied the score midway through the third period at 1-1. Junior Julian Malakorn scored just his third goal of the season with assists from Tony Giacin and Zach Menard a little over one minute after Norwich tied the game. That goal gave Skidmore a lead it never surrendered, and 38 saves by senior goaltender Colin Bessey stood up for the win, despite surrendering an extra-attacker goal with just seven seconds remaining in regulation.
Some might argue that Norwich may have looked past Skidmore with Castleton on the radar screen for Saturday night. After all, starting goalie Parker Carroll had the night off against Skidmore. This pundit says it really doesn’t matter who the Cadets put out there in goal. Their talent out front is among the best in the nation, and Skidmore took everything they had, played disciplined, and cashed in when they could for the two points. Sometimes the hot goalie can make a big difference, as was the case Friday night. If Bessey is back to his all-league form, the Thoroughbreds may be playing well enough to truly make a run at the ECAC East title.
Bessey (9-9-0, .895 SP, 3.13 GAA) does not have numbers that make the average fan say “Wow!” In the conference, Bessey has his save percentage above .900 and his goals-against average below three goals per game — those are numbers that can carry you in a one-and-done tournament, but first things first.
The final weekend for Skidmore pits them against its travel partner, the second place Castleton Spartans. Castleton has locked up second place overall and can’t move up to the top spot, so is playing to get ready for the playoffs. Skidmore is in the middle of a five-team scramble for positions three through seven and frankly, anyone, including the Thoroughbreds could end up in any of those spots based on outcomes of two games this weekend. While currently in fourth, Skidmore is just one point ahead of fifth-place Massachusetts-Boston, two points ahead of sixth-place Southern Maine, and three points ahead of seventh-place New England College. So, any and all points this weekend are critical if the Thoroughbreds prefer to stay at home in the friendly confines of their Olympic-size ice sheet for the quarterfinal round of the conference playoffs. The matchup with the Spartans should be easy motivation, particularly after last weekend’s big win over Norwich and convincing runaway win over St. Michael’s.
Offensively, last week’s nine goals against St. Mike’s represented the high watermark of the season for Skidmore, topping an eight-goal night back in November 2011 in a win over Nichols. Sophomore Tony Giacin (13-9-22) has emerged as the team’s leading scorer while averaging better than a point a game for the Thoroughbreds this season. Eight other players on the roster have scored five or more goals for Skidmore, so there is balance among the lines rolled out by Sinclair every night, which can only help come playoff style hockey. While Giacin has emerged as a key offensive threat for Skidmore, two defensemen have been key contributors in all aspects of the game, and have provided great leadership for the Thoroughbreds at this, the most important time of the season.
Senior Nick Dupuis (7-13-20) and junior Zach Menard (4-13-17) are second and third respectively in scoring on the team this season, and have been invaluable in the offensive and defensive zones, as well as on the power play, where they have combined for seven of the team’s 19 goals with the man advantage this season. In fact, combined with Giacin, the three players have 50 percent of the team’s game-winning goals this season.
While the Skidmore power play has been potent at 22 percent behind the play of Dupuis, Menard and Giacin, the Thoroughbreds are going to have to tighten up their penalty kill, which currently has opponents scoring at the same 22 percent rate against them for the season overall. Over the course of the last nine games, Skidmore has surrendered seven goals on 36 chances for a kill rate of 80.6 percent, which is a slight improvement over its season total, yet still has room to improve in the final weekend and into the playoffs.
For all intent, this weekend starts the playoffs, and Skidmore would surely like to keep its current position or pass Babson for third over facing the possibility of a third game in a week against Castleton, should it somehow end up in seventh place after this weekend. The fact is there are a ton of possibilities in play, with the schedule and tiebreakers all factoring in to where teams will end up in the standings. The one thing that teams can influence and try to control is the outcome of the game they are playing, so win and no one will be passing you in the standings. Right now, Skidmore has a nice three-game win streak and has won five of its last six games overall. It’s just the right time to “go to the whip” and chase the most important wins down the home stretch.