It comes down to this. Twenty-two Division III teams left; there will be just nine standing on Sunday. Seven conference championships to be decided.
Does it get any better than this? Let’s take a look at each of the weekend’s tournaments.
Where: Northfield, VT
When: Semifinals are Saturday, March 6, 1 p.m. and 3:30 p.m.; Finals are Sunday at 3 p.m..
Pairings: Babson (16-9-1) and New England (19-5-2) square off in the first game, followed by Salem State (12-10-3) and the host Cadets (21-3) in the second semifinal.
Past as Prologue: Norwich did not lose to an ECAC East team all season. New England defeated every ECAC East team except for Norwich, dropping a 3-1 decision on Feb. 14.
The Rest of the Story: The Cadets are heavy favorites to win what has been come to be known to some as the “Norwich Invitational.” They’re 12-0 at home this season.
NCAA Implications: Norwich is in unless the Cadets, Middlebury and St. Norbert all lose. New England, ranked fifth in the NCAA Eastern Rankings, is behind the four top seeds in leagues eligible for the Pool C at-large berth (Middlebury, Norwich, Curry, Plattsburgh). That means the Pilgrims have a good chance, assuming they can make the championship game and no upsets occur elsewhere. Salem State and Babson must each claim the title and rely on the automatic bid that comes with it.
Where: Boston, MA
When: Semifinals are Saturday, March 6, 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.; Finals are Sunday at 3 p.m..
Pairings: Mass-Dartmouth (18-7-1) and top seeded Curry (23-2-1) square off in the first game, followed by Wentworth (14-8-4) and Lebanon Valley (18-7) in the second semifinal.
Past as Prologue: Curry was undefeated in conference play (16-0). Lebanon Valley has won 10 games in a row. Wentworth and Mass-Dartmouth are both 0-2-1 against the rest of field this season.
The Rest of the Story: This is the first time that the ECAC Northeast has gone to a “Final Four” format, holding it on neutral ice at Matthews Arena on the campus of Northeastern University. Wentworth plays its home games there, but the Leopards are not considered the home team for the tournament. Wentworth is 8-5-1 at Matthews this season.
NCAA Implications: Curry is ranked third in the NCAA East Regional Rankings and stands a good chance of getting a Pool C bid should the Colonels lose. Curry is probably the strongest favorite among the top-seeded teams this weekend. Wentworth, Mass-Dartmouth and Lebanon Valley will have to win their way in.
Where: Geneva, NY
When: Semifinals are Friday, March 5, 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.; Finals are Saturday at 7:30 p.m..
Pairings: RIT (12-6-5) and Manhattanville (15-4-2) square off in the first game, followed by Utica (15-9-1) and host Hobart (13-7-5) in the second semifinal.
Past as Prologue: The ECAC West was a close race this year, with a single point separating the top three teams. Utica gained the fourth and final berth, its first ever, by a single point over defending champion Elmira.
The Rest of the Story: On paper this is the closest of any of the tournaments. Each team defeated or tied the others at least once this season. Adjustments had to be made to allow Hobart, which plays in a semi-enclosed rink and has only three locker rooms, to host the tournament.
NCAA Implications: The lone NCAA Pool B slot is up for grabs, as RIT, Manhattanville and Hobart are ranked eighth, ninth and tenth in the East by the NCAA respectively, while Utica is 15th. It’s too close to call for the Pioneers, who may not be able to leap over the RIT/Manhattanville winner should Utica win the tournament — there is no automatic bid. If Hobart defeats Utica on Friday, then it’s almost certain that the winner of the title game Saturday will get the Pool B slot.
When: Semifinals are Thursday, March 4, 7 p.m. at St. John’s and 8 p.m. at St. Thomas; Finals are either Sunday at St. John’s if the Johnnies win their semi, or Saturday at the winner of the Gustavus/St. Thomas game should St. John’s lose.
Pairings: St. Thomas (15-7-3) hosts Gustavus Adolphus (12-10-3) in one semifinal, while St. Olaf (11-11-4), winner of the play-in game against St. Mary’s on Tuesday, travels to St. John’s (21-3-1).
Past as Prologue: The Johnnies lost their first league game of the season against Gustavus, but have won their last 15 straight, the longest active streak in Division III.
The Rest of the Story: Even with that school-record winning streak, St. John’s has flown under the radar this season, steadily moving up in the polls. The reason for an initial lack of respect? St. John’s was the odd team out in this season’s MIAC-NCHA scheduling arrangement, meaning lots of games against weaker MCHA teams.
“I think it hurt our credibility, not banging heads with a pretty strong league,” said St. John’s coach John Harrington. “It’s a fine line. You learn more by playing tough teams, even if you lose. But you also gain confidence by winning games.”
The two turning points for the Johnnies, according Harrington, were a second-place finish at the Time Argus tournament at Norwich and a sweep of archrival St. Thomas. In the Times-Argus, St. John’s defeated Oswego 5-3 before bowing 4-1 to Norwich in the championship game after being tied 1-1 going into the third period.
“I told my players that this was a great opportunity, to play both teams that were in the national championship game last season.” said Harrington. “Doing well there gave us some confidence and more respect nationally.”
The late-season sweep of St. Thomas virtually locked up the regular-season title for the Johnnies.
“That was huge,” said Harrington. “St. Thomas is the measuring stick in our league. We’re big rivals. If St. Thomas and St. John’s played a game of tiddlywinks people would show up.”
It’ll be more than tiddlywinks if the two teams win on Thursday.
NCAA Implications: St. John’s is in good shape, third in the NCAA Western Region ranking. If the Johnnies don’t win the tournament, it will come down to how many other upsets occur, and how they stack up against the top at-large teams from the East. St. Thomas, Gustavus Adolphus and St. Olaf have to win the MIAC title to make the NCAAs.
Where: Ashwaubenon, WI
When: Semifinals are Friday, March 5, 3 p.m. and 7 p.m.; Finals are Saturday at 7 p.m..
Pairings: Wisconsin-Stevens Point (13-11-3) takes on Wisconsin-River Falls (19-4-4) in the first semifinal, while Lake Forest (18-5-4), takes on host St. Norbert (23-2-2) in the late game.
Past as Prologue: Wisconsin-River Falls is one of only two teams to defeat St. Norbert this season, but the Falcons first have to get by Wisconsin-Stevens Point, which upset Wisconsin-Superior in the quarterfinals two weeks ago. St. Norbert was 5-1 against the rest of the field; Lake Forest was 1-5; Stevens Point was 2-4; River Falls was 4-2.
The Rest of the Story: The major change for this season is the elimination of the NCHA consolation game, which was the only one played in Division III for the past few seasons.
“I was in favor of getting rid of it,” said St. Norbert coach Tim Coghlin. “It was always tough on the team that lost on Friday to have to come back early on Saturday and play a pretty important game in terms of NCAA selection.”
While eliminating the consolation game puts the NCHA in line with the other leagues, there are still two differences: no reseeding after the quarterfinals and, along with the ECAC West, staying with the Friday-Saturday format instead of moving to Saturday-Sunday.
Both, according to Coghlin, may come up in off-season league meetings. “Frankly, we haven’t had to deal with (no reseeding) because the top seeds almost always have won the quarterfinals,” he said. “In this case, we probably match up better against Stevens Point (9-0, 5-1 wins) than Lake Forest (a pair of 5-3 wins). But what are you going to do? That’s the way it is.”
With the ECAC East and NESCAC moving their championship games to Saturday, a possible third SUNYAC game on Sunday, and the MIAC and ECAC NE often playing on Sundays due to rink availability, should the ECAC West and NCHA follow suit?
“We will probably talk about it,” said Coghlin. “There’s more speculation now with some leagues finishing up and then others knowing a little more about what’s at stake in their games on Sunday. I’d like to see everybody finish up at the same time.”
NCAA Implications: St. Norbert, number one in the NCAA West rankings, is a virtual lock. Wisconsin-River Falls, ranked second, is also in good shape. Lake Forest, ranked fourth, could grab an at-large depending on what happens in the East. Wisconsin-Stevens Point has to win the tournament to get to the Big Dance.
Where: Middlebury, VT
When: Semifinals are Saturday, March 5, 1 p.m. and 400 p.m.; Finals are Sunday at 1 p.m..
Pairings: Hamilton (15-8-2) takes on host Middlebury (22-3) in the first semifinal, while Colby (14-6-4) plays Trinity (15-8-1) in the late game.
Past as Prologue: Middlebury has lost just three NCAA games this season, but two were against teams in this tournament. Colby and Trinity both bested the Panthers this season. They are both 2-0-1 against the other teams, while Hamilton is 0-3.
The Rest of the Story: Middlebury is looking for revenge against Trinity, which upset the Panthers in last season’s NESCAC championship game. But first, both teams have a tough game ahead of them. Hamilton has pulled off an upset or two this season, and Colby tied Trinity on the road.
NCAA Implications: The Panthers’ win over Norwich two weeks ago puts them in the driver’s seat for an at-large bid should they not win the NESCAC title. The other three teams need to win their way in.
Where: Plattsburgh, NY
When: Game One is Friday, March 5 at 7 p.m.; Game Two is Saturday at 7 p.m.; a possible third game is scheduled for Sunday at 2 p.m.
Pairings: This is a modified best-of-three series. If either team takes three points in the first two games (they can end as ties), the series is over. If the teams split their games or tie both, then a third game will follow on Sunday. That one will have a winner. Oswego (19-7-3) takes on host Plattsburgh (20-4-3).
Past as Prologue: Plattsburgh swept Oswego in the regular season, but both were one-goal games. Plattsburgh lost just twice on home ice this season and was 6-0-1 against SUNYAC teams at Stafford Arena.
The Rest of the Story: These two teams needed three games to settle things last season, and don’t be surprised if they’re playing on Sunday again. “It’s an exciting time of the year,” said Plattsburgh coach Bob Emery, whose team was picked to finish behind Oswego in the SUNYAC preseason poll. “We need to work hard and get good goaltending. If we do those two things, we’ll be OK.”
NCAA Implications: Plattsburgh is ranked fourth in the East, Oswego is sixth. Neither team is guaranteed a spot if they lose. Oswego would need a lot of help — no upsets anywhere else and a favorable comparison against at-large teams from the West.
Division II and the MCHA
The Northeast-10 holds its title game on Saturday, and the MCHA crowned its champion last weekend. In both cases, goaltending has been the story.
In the MCHA, Minnesota-Crookston defeated Marian in the title game for the second year in a row. Again the hero was Golden Eagles goaltender Erik Kraska, who made 31 saves in a 3-1 shutout. He repeated as tournament MVP.
The Northeast-10 title game is Saturday, with St. Anselm hosting St. Michael’s. In the semifinals, Southern New Hampshire goaltender Tim Fewster kept things close against St. Anselm by making a whopping 65 saves in a 4-1 loss. That’s tops in men’s hockey this season in Division I, II or III.
St. Mike’s, which defeated Stonehill 6-5 in overtime in the other semifinal, has quite a challenge. The Purple Knights lost 12-2 to the Hawks three weeks ago. My advice to St. Michael’s coach Lou DiMasi: take your team to see “Miracle.”