For senior captain Eddie Effinger, this week’s Frozen Four trip to Lake Placid, N.Y., represents a fitting end to his four-year career at Amherst College. Finally reaching the final four on the national stage is something he personally, and his team, have been striving for since their last visit to the NCAA tournament back in 2009. With eight weekend sweeps already on the books for the 24-3-1 Lord Jeffs, one more two-game sweep would put them at the top of the D-III hockey world.
“You know that winning the NESCAC when I was a freshman and playing in the NCAA Tournament was just so exciting and at the same time disappointing that we fell just that game short of the Frozen Four,” said Effinger. “Mike [Baran], Rosie [La Rose] and I thought we would definitely have a lot more chances to get back to the tournament. It was so hard to lose in overtime the next year in the NESCAC tournament, and then last year the same thing with an overtime loss. It really hurt, because this group of guys works so hard to be the best. This year, with Rosie back, it just seemed like the pieces came together for us and now we got through the NESCAC tournament and a really tough quarterfinal game with Plattsburgh to go that next level and a chance for the national championship.”
Effinger, who has fought off some nagging injury problems this season, was the key offensive player in Amherst’s 3-1 win last weekend over the SUNYAC champion Plattsburgh Cardinals. With Plattsburgh ahead 1-0 after the first period of play, Amherst came out aggressively in the second period and tied the game on Effinger’s tally just less than seven minutes into the period. Aaron Deutsch gave the Lord Jeffs the lead at the 14-minute mark, sparking a Plattsburgh timeout. Just 30 seconds later, a penalty to the Cardinals’ Matty MacLeod for delay-of-game gave Amherst a power play, and Effinger made them pay. Deutsch picked up his second point in the period along, with Mike Moher assisting on the power-play goal that gave Amherst all it would need for a 3-1 lead and eventual win after a scoreless third period.
The two goals brought Effinger’s season total to 10, and 20 points overall as part of the deep and balanced approach the team takes to scoring goals.
“We think defense first,” said Effinger. “We work hard every time on the ice, whether it is practice or a game, and focus on team defense and protecting our end. We don’t have any 20-goal scorers on this team, and that’s just not how we get it done. We have great depth and balance with our roster, and a lot of different guys that can put the puck in the net when they get the chance. We don’t rely on any one line or player to score goals, and that is what helps us against teams that can’t take any shifts off against our four lines.”
Defense first really shows for Amherst, which leads the nation in scoring defense. A solid group of defensemen, led by captain Mike Baran, supports the nation’s number one goaltender, Jonathan La Rose, who has picked up exactly where he left off his freshman year for Amherst.
“You know we love playing,” said Effinger. “We work really hard, and no one harder than Rosie every single day, but we have fun doing it. It’s been a great season, but it’s not done yet and we are excited to play more hockey this weekend. We know it was hard against Plattsburgh last Saturday, so Oswego is going to be a good challenge on Friday afternoon. They have been ranked at the top all season, so we will need to bring our best defensive game and try to work hard and take advantage of the chances we can create.”
Coach Jack Arena thinks the biggest difference between the two SUNYAC rivals he sees in a one-week span is found in the offense for the Lakers.
“It was pretty clear early on that Plattsburgh made a commitment to winning through defense this season,” noted Arena. “Oswego has always been known for their offensive talent, and this team is no different. They get it going and they are scary good upfront, so this will be a great battle of offense vs. defense on Friday.”
The Lakers have seven 20-point scorers to go with two 30-point scorers and one 40-point scorer. As deep and balanced as Amherst is, the Lakers up the ante offensively. So what are the keys to the game on Friday?
“We need to come out and play solid in our defensive end and limit their chances,” said Effinger. “We have been a good counter-attacking or transition team all season, and effective on special teams, which will be important this weekend too. It really will come down to who works the hardest and plays the full 60 minutes with a lot of intensity. We have our style, and it has served us well so far, so we just need to continue to work hard in all three zones and play our game.”
For the seniors who started the NCAA odyssey four years ago as freshmen, the trip to Lake Placid represents unfinished business. The chance to do something no other Amherst team has achieved is not lost on their captain, but is certainly kept in perspective.
“This would probably be the biggest accomplishment in my life as a hockey player,” stated Effinger. “More importantly, it would be huge for this team and for coach. I would do anything to be able to have coach Arena hold that national championship trophy, and hope that after finally getting here this season we can get just one more road sweep of two games to end the year. It’s all about Friday afternoon — we’ll worry about Saturday when it comes.”
The only team in the Frozen Four without a national title to their credit is Amherst. They are looking to change that over the weekend on a rink where dreams have been fulfilled.
Just three games left in the season — drop the puck!