On paper, the semifinals one could imagine bring a lot of drama to the playoffs for the ECAC East. Just hold on a minute there though. Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves, because there could be some giant killers along the way to upset any purists hope for the top four convening in Vermont next weekend.
So before we go anointing the top four home-ice seeds as automatic entrants into the semifinals next weekend, here is some analysis on what could go right and wrong based, on the regular season match-ups between these playoff foes in the quarterfinal round.
No. 1 Norwich vs. No. 8 Southern Maine
For the top-ranked Norwich Cadets, a trip to the NCAA tournament and potential fourth visit to the Frozen Four begins with a home game against number eight seed Southern Maine. For an upset to take place here, the Huskies are going to have to do something they did not do in either regular season game against Norwich — score a goal. The two regular season games ended in 6-0 and 2-0 scores, so the Huskies are going to have to find a way to generate some offense, and hopefully more than 10 and 11 shots on goal for each of those games respectively.
For Norwich, the opportunity to have the ECAC East championship run go through Northfield, Vt., is again a near-term reality with a win this weekend. It won’t matter much which of the two or three goaltenders dressed for the game coach Mike McShane uses, as much as it will Southern Maine’s ability to disrupt the potent first line of Tory Allen, Travis Janke, and leading scorer Colin Mulvey, a line which notched nearly 100 points this season. In the first game, the line went 3-1-4, so stopping the top group will be key for the Huskies, who will also need a strong effort from goaltender Josh Hillegas. The bus trip is a long one for the Huskies, but especially on the way home.
No. 2 Massachusetts-Boston vs. No. 7 University of New England
They say it is difficult to beat a team three times in the same season. That is a challenge the Beacons have already achieved against the Nor’easters, having won both regular season games as well as the championship game of the PAL Cup tournament over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. So, can the Beacons make it four in a row and send UNE home for the season?
Midseason transfer Colby Drost got his first look at the high-flying Beacons less than two weeks ago and surrendered seven goals on just 22 shots before making way to Ian Edwards in the third period trailing by a 7-0 score. To the Nor’easters credit, they never quit, and ultimately outshot the Beacons for the game while scoring four unanswered goals to close out the third period and make the game a much closer 7-4 final.
Digging a hole against the offensive-minded Beacons would not be a preferred strategy for coach Brad Holt’s team. That said, their first ever playoff game against someone other than Norwich on the road doesn’t offer much relief from the caliber of play or likely pressure, and they will have to play at a high-energy pace. The PAL Cup final was decided in overtime by a 4-3 score for the Beacons, but a game of that style and shot total would serve the Nor’easters well in their quest to upset the number two seed, whose roster has never won a playoff game in a Beacons uniform.
No. 3 Babson vs. No. 6 Skidmore
A quick look at the seedings in a tournament that has no upsets would find the Beavers having to win against two teams they did not beat in the regular season to get a shot at playing Norwich, whom they did not lose to this season. Skidmore defeated Babson in both regular season games this season by scores of 4-2 and 3-0. Both games included empty-net goals for the victors, so the games were closely played, and special teams only were a factor in Tony Giacin scoring short-handed in the first meeting of the season. Babson’s sole defeat of the month of February came at the hands of the Thoroughbreds, so a chance to avenge the regular season losses and move on to the semifinals should be enough motivation on home ice for coach Jamie Rice’s squad.
Skidmore has always found a way to make a run at the end of the season, and first round upsets are not out of their realm of experience. Goaltender Ben Freiburg posted both wins against Babson this season, and he hopes to continue to baffle the Beavers offense one more time with support from senior Zach Menard and a talented group of junior forwards. There is probably another empty-net goal in sight for this game too. The question is for which team?
No. 4 Castleton vs. No. 5 New England College
The always unpredictable and fun four vs. five game has some interesting wrinkles in this match-up between the Pilgrims and the Spartans. During the regular season, the teams split the two games by identical 4-3 scores, with the visitors coming away with the two points each time. Until last Saturday’s road win against Skidmore that ensured the final home ice spot for Castleton, the Spartans were 0-for-February, having lost four games in a row after winning seven of their previous eight. Now is not the time for inconsistent play, and it is certainly time to stay out of the penalty box and not put so much pressure on the penalty kill unit in a playoff game.
A 2-0-2 finish to the regular season vaulted the Pilgrims up the standings into the fifth seed position, and goalie Shawn Sirman will need to keep up his recent success, including a 36-save performance last week in a 4-1 win over Southern Maine that guaranteed a Huskies road trip to Vermont this weekend. The Pilgrims have been much better over the final few games in not allowing power-play goals, but they haven’t scored any either, and that may be a key to this game at Castleton based on the number of penalty minutes the home team takes routinely in games this season.
The quarterfinals are here, and a win this weekend will make up for a lot of regular season missteps, especially if it’s one of those upsets that can build momentum and a magical playoff run. Are there any of those on the docket for this weekend? Time will tell, but rest assured no coach is taking any opponent lightly, and the first five minutes of every game are likely to be explosive. The playoffs are now and the regular season doesn’t matter anymore — or does it?