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College Hockey:
ECAC East/NESCAC wrap: March 5

Hail to the champions — Amherst and Norwich!

And when you can’t get to the rinks to see the conference finals, thank God for the webcasts that were truly outstanding from both Norwich and Amherst, despite some early audio difficulties. Unlike being there, the replays were great, and the camera work was outstanding. Kudos to all involved in the production and announcing!

One did it the easy way, while the other truly earned it in a hard-fought championship game. So now, with the league titles under their belts, all of the focus shifts to the national stage and the seeding and schedule from the committee that came out late on Sunday evening. Here is a quick recap of the weekend that decided the titles.

ECAC East
Friday afternoon saw Norwich struggle at times with a Southern Maine team that they handled easily both games played during the regular season. In fact, the Huskies scored first before Norwich found its game and took a 2-1 lead into the locker room following the first period of play. Norwich found the back of the net early in the second period, but this time, the Huskies answered back with a goal and some strong scoring chances following uncharacteristic turnovers by the Cadets in their defensive zone. The second period ended 3-2 for Norwich.

The third period was close checking as expected, and scoring chances were few for both teams as the final 20 minutes were played without a goal and the hosts moving on to the championship game on the basis of a close, and at times not crisp, 3-2 win.

The second semifinal game saw Castleton and Skidmore playing for the third time in three weeks, and this time the Spartans played a very efficient and dominant game in winning by a 4-0 score. Based on Castleton’s play on Friday night, as well as Norwich showing a few chinks in the armor, the final on Saturday appeared to be everything fans would want to see between the two Vermont schools.

A funny thing happened on the way to the final. In the first 2:56 of the game, Norwich scored on its first two shots past goalie Thomas Shelley, and the proverbial rout was on. Castleton used all three netminders dressed for the game, including Shelley twice, during the 11-1 drubbing administered by the Cadets. Pier Olivier-Cotnoir and Travis Janke, along with a host of Cadets, enjoyed a great night offensively, as virtually everything they threw at the net was finding a way past the Castleton goaltenders. A six-goal outburst in the second period sealed the fate of the Spartans, and the third period was merely a formality for the final score, as the celebration began early in Northfield for Norwich.

With top-ranked Oswego falling in the SUNYAC conference final to Plattsburgh, it will be interesting to see where the Cadets end up in the NCAA tournament seeding.

NESCAC
In the first semifinal, a red-hot Middlebury squad (7-1-0 in their last eight games) faced number two seed Bowdoin. This one had a lot more offense than many expected, and not from the team from Maine. The Panthers ran off to a 6-3 win and set themselves up to play in their 12th conference championship game, most among all NESCAC members.

The host Amherst team then faced a game Williams squad in the second semifinal, and brought a solid game to the ice, as they took a 2-0 lead into the third period. All-NESCAC defenseman Justin Troiani scored a power-play goal midway through the third period to close the gap to 2-1, but Jonathan La Rose and the Amherst defense made the difference stand up, setting up the title game matchup with Middlebury.

The final game of the regular season saw Amherst survive a Middlebury onslaught for two periods before a third period rally erased a 1-0 deficit and the Lord Jeffs skated off with a 2-1 win to close out a 17-1-0 regular season record. That win was coach Jack Arena’s first at Middlebury against a Middlebury team, but could they do something no Amherst team had ever done — beat Middlebury three times in the same season?

The title game started out much the same as the final regular season game in Vermont, as the Panthers came out flying. They quickly built a 2-0 lead on an even-strength goal and a power-play goal, forcing Amherst to use an early timeout to settle things down. Amherst responded with a power-play goal late in the period to cut the deficit to 2-1.

The second period was all Amherst, as they capitalized on several loose pucks and rebounds to score three times in the period and build a 4-2 lead heading into the final 20 minutes. The final period was tight and tense as expected, and Middlebury did score to close within a goal at 4-3, but could not get the equalizer, as the Lord Jeffs skated off Orr Rink with their second NESCAC title since 2009.

For Castleton and Middlebury, a win in the final was their only entry into the NCAA tournament, so with the top-seeded teams winning both the NESCAC and ECAC East tournaments, the pool bids should be interesting beyond the obvious one headed Oswego’s way.

This week will see team previews in advance of Wednesday’s first round NCAA games, and this pundit, along with the rest of our intrepid D-III correspondents, will be picking the tournament game-by-game, so you can match your predicting abilities with the rest of us in what is shaping up to be a great 2011-12 NCAA tournament.

Just a couple of weeks remaining in the D-III puck world!  Savor every moment — it is going to be great!

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