Well, it wouldn’t be the NCAA selection process without some controversy, and there was plenty this time around, albeit the same complaints that have surfaced the past few seasons.
Once again the events of last weekend produced a 6-3 East-West split, forcing the three Western teams, St. Norbert, Wisconsin-River Falls and St. Thomas, to play down to just one, virtually assuring that the Division III semifinals and finals will be held in the East. This would be the eighth time in the past 10 seasons that an Eastern school has hosted.
Through the final weeks of the season, and even going into Sunday, it looked like it was going to be a 5-4 split, with both Pool C bids going to western teams. This looked like even more of a certainty when St. Thomas upset St. John’s in the MIAC final. Only a Curry loss to Wentworth would change things, and, sure enough, the Leopards spoiled the party by upsetting the Colonels 5-4 in the ECAC Northeast title game, with Wentworth’s Vince Guiducci scoring the winning goal with just 1:11 to play.
Ed Trefzger explains it all in CSI:NCAA, while I had some fun playing NCAA selection committee in D-III Bracketology. I did my analysis while the Curry-Wentworth game was going on, coming up with two scenarios based on the outcome of that game. The fact that the NCAA and I arrived at the identical pairings means that the criteria laid out at the beginning of the season was followed to the letter. I simply plugged in all the numbers. It looks like the NCAA did the same thing.
“It went by the numbers,” said Plattsburgh head coach Bob Emery, former chair of the committee, who was not on the conference call this time, his tenure having expired at the end of last season. “Maybe some folks would like to go back to the good-old-boy network we used to have, but I don’t think so.”
Still, it’s a bitter pill to swallow for Western schools, especially St. John’s, which was highly ranked all season and was riding an NCAA-best 16 game winning streak coming into the MIAC championship game, which the Johnnies lost to St. Thomas 4-3 in overtime.
It’s also hard to accept that St. Norbert, the consensus No. 1 team in Division III, has to play the winner of a game between two very good teams: St. Thomas and Wisconsin-River Falls, to make the D-III Frozen Four, arguably the toughest path to the semifinals. Also, the Green Knights were the favorites to host the finals, provided that they got past the quarterfinals. Now, it’s almost certain that they will wind up playing at Plattsburgh, Middlebury or Norwich.
One Western coach on the USCHO.com Division III poll was so incensed that he sent in a bogus ballot on Monday, listing mostly ECAC Northeast teams as well as several other last-place teams in the East. “If the NCAA can do it, so can I,” was his explanation.
The NCAA followed the process, but what can be done about the process itself? Nothing, at this point. The same process is used for all Division III sports, which, for better or for worse, strongly favors conference champions as well as requiring regional matchups in the early rounds.
Things should be better with changes on the horizon. Next year, the tournament will expand to 10 teams, allowing for another at-large bid. In two years, the NCAA will begin to hold the semifinals and finals at neutral, predetermined sites, promising to rotate locations as much as possible.
The Elite Eight
The quarterfinals are this weekend, and by Sunday we’ll know the field and the location for the Division III Frozen Four. Here’s a quick breakdown of the four quarterfinal games.
Curry at Plattsburgh
The Colonels must recover from their upset loss to Wentworth in the ECAC Northeast title game, while the Cards are riding high, coming off two overtime wins against archrival Oswego in the SUNYAC championships.
It was touch-and-go on Sunday night for Curry, which had to sweat it out to see if it would get one of the two at-large bids available. As it turned out, Curry was high enough in the criteria that it was never in doubt. But according to coach Rob Davies, his team felt like it was do-or-die in the ECAC Northeast championship game.
“You think that every game like that you play, you have to win (to move on),” he said. “As a coach, you have to think that if you can’t win your tournament, you don’t deserve to go. But there are a couple of second chances, and we were happy to get the reprieve.”
Davies says that his team must play better than they did on Sunday if they want to advance.
“Most teams who make the tournament are playing well at this time of the year,” he said. “And we’re not right now.”
Plattsburgh coach Bob Emery says the Colonels are playing well enough.
“They’re a strong team,” he said. “They’ve beaten some good teams, teams that could beat us.”
Both squads feature a talented group of forwards. The Colonels are lead up front by freshman Brett Adams (50 points) was well as juniors Brian Doherty (47) and Michael O’Sullivan (45).
“I saw some of their forwards in action before they were in college and they’re a good group,” said Emery.
Plattsburgh’s top gun is David Friel, whose 24 goals are twice as many the Cardinals’ next leading scorer. Friel has five game-winners. Craig Nelson has been the main man in goal this season, posting a 14-4-3 record and a .913 save percentage.
This one might come down to intangibles. Plattsburgh is healthier at the moment than Curry, and will enjoy the home ice advantage. “I’m glad we’re at home,” Emery said. “We’ve played pretty well here this season.”
Wentworth at Middlebury
It’s been a rollercoaster ride for the Wentworth Leopards, who were in Curry’s shadow all year and had to overcome the midseason dismissal of coach Bill Bowes, the architect of Wentworth’s success in recent years. Injuries also plagued the Leopards, most notably the loss of all-star goaltender Raj Bhangoo for several games at a critical point.
The Leopards’ 5-4 win early Sunday evening sent shockwaves through Division III, affecting literally every other team in contention for the tournament.
“It certainly had a ripple effect,” said interim coach Jonathan Deptula. His team never gave up even when the consensus was that Curry, which beat Wentworth 7-2 in the regular season and was undefeated in conference, would roll through the ECAC Northeast playoffs.
“When I took over, I told the guys, ‘This is our goal, to win a championship’. We’ve got a strong enough team to do that, even if we haven’t played particularly well this season.
“It was a great emotional win for us. The guys played with a lot of heart.”
Next up for Wentworth is Middlebury, which has looked unstoppable recently. The Panthers have won 15 of their last 16 games and coasted through the NESCAC tournament, outscoring the opposition 16-5 in three games.
Led by Player-of-the-Year candidate Kevin Cooper (30 goals, 20 assists) and goaltender Marc Scheuer (1.46 GAA, .921 save %), Middlebury presents a formidable challenge to Deptula’s team.
“I haven’t seen them this season, but I was the assistant the past few times we’ve played them,” he said. “They are a very skilled skating team, and they like to spread the ice out.”
Still, Wentworth has shown it can come up big against top-ranked teams.
“We’re going to have to continue to be aggressive,” Deptula said. “We can’t sit back.”
Hobart at Norwich
Is it midnight yet, or will Cinderella stick around? Hobart has proved that it can play with anyone, including a Norwich team that has struggled in recent weeks. Coming off a 6-2 loss to Middlebury on February 21, Norwich was strongly challenged in the ECAC East playoffs by Salem State and Babson, which took the Cadets into overtime in the title game.
“I hope we can open up a little bit more and get things going offensively so that we do not have to rely so much on our defense and goaltending,” said coach Mike McShane.
“We have to get better, and worry about our game, and how good we have to be if we are going to have success in the national tournament.”
Hobart comes in as one of the hottest teams in Division III, winning 10 of its last 11 games. The Statesmen are led by junior forward Craig Levey (33 points) and goaltender Adam Levelle, who was almost untouchable last weekend (1.50 GAA, .949 save %).
A challenge for the Statesmen is to get over the thrill of winning their first-ever ECAC West title and concentrate on the next game.
“I’m not really worried about us feeling like we’re just happy to be here (in the NCAA tournament),” said Hobart coach Mark Taylor. “Really, we’re not anywhere yet. To me, ‘being there’ means playing in the Final Four or the championship game.”
“Hobart is very well coached,” said McShane. “They are turning around their program, and I have had teams in that position before. Hobart has built up momentum and has lot of confidence, and that’s a dangerous team.”
Norwich will counter with Player of the Year candidate Curtis McLean (32 goals, 20 assists), as well as Paul Mattucci (37 points) and the goaltending duo of Mike Boudreau (2.15 GAA, .927 save %) and Kevin Schieve (1.84 GAA, .924 save %). The two netminders have been alternating starts through most of the season.
Wisconsin-River Falls at St. Norbert
While disappointed that just three Western teams got bids to the NCAAs, St. Norbert head coach Tim Coghlin wasn’t surprised.
“We’ve laid it out this way for our players from the beginning,” he said. “It’s not ideal, but we expected it to happen.”
With Wisconsin-River Falls defeating St. Thomas 3-2 in overtime on Wednesday, it sets up a rematch of the NCHA final played last Saturday.
“We talked about it before the Peters Cup final, how we should plan on playing on Wednesday if we lost or Saturday of we win, and how we could be seeing (Wisconsin-River Falls) again, depending on what happened in the Wednesday game.”
Even though St. Norbert is the No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, the selection and pairings process gives the Green Knights arguably the toughest road to the semifinals, as Wisconsin-River Falls has been considered to be in the top five teams in Division III all season.
“You can’t call (Wednesday’s game) a play-in game, not when you have the second and third ranked teams in the West playing in it,” Coghlin said. “River is a great team. They’ve beaten us once this year already.”
That win came at River Falls, 6-4 back on February 6. The Falcons are 0-7 all-time at the Cornerstone Community Center against St. Norbert and 1-10 there overall.
The Green Knights currently lead all of college hockey in power-play percentage at 33.3 percent (53-for-159). St. Norbert has five skaters with at least 30 points this season. Junior forward Jason Deitsch leads the team with 51 points (18-33-51). Sophomore forward Spencer Carbery (18-20-38) and freshman Andy Cote (21-17-38) are tied for second.
Senior goaltender Chancy Colquhoun has seen the majority of action in net, going 14-1-2 with six shutouts. Sophomore Eric Van Den Bosch has also played well, posting a 1.75 goals against average in 13 games
The Falcons are led up front by a trio of seniors: Jim Murphy (32 points) Matt Elsen (26) and Jess Johnson (26).
Andy Scanlon has seen the majority of action this season between the pipes, posting a 13-3-3 record with an impressive 1.73 goals against average and .937 save percentage.
Expect a low-scoring, hard-fought affair.
I had the pleasure to see all of the ECAC West playoffs last weekend, and all four games were excellent, hard-fought affairs. The Statesmen proved they deserved their top seed and home ice advantage, defeating Utica 4-2 and then RIT 4-3 to win the school’s first-ever hockey championship.
Head coach Mark Taylor has built a national contender in just four seasons, turning the Statesmen from also-rans to champions in the ECAC West. After losing at least two and usually more times each season to RIT over the past 12 years, Hobart turned the tables, defeating the Tigers in their final regular-season game to gain home ice in the ECAC West tournament and then again for the title.
The Statesmen’s reaction when the final buzzer sounded was the release of years of frustration for players and fans, and was pure joy, as intense as any title celebration I’ve seen. It was a great moment.
Unfortunately, the moment and many others were spoiled by the behavior of several fans, who were openly consuming alcohol and visibly drunk. Three times the championship game had to be halted due to beer cans being thrown on the ice, and several spectators from visiting schools were also pelted with cans, bottles and obscenities. In 20 years of watching college hockey, I’ve never seen anything like it.
The open air, semi-enclosed rink presents unique crowd-control problems, and the security force, comprised mainly of students, was unwilling or unable to enforce the typical rules for NCAA contests (no alcohol, no beverage containers, no banging or hanging on the glass, etc.). Many fans were Hobart students attending their first hockey game.
“Most of the students that attended the games this weekend probably had never been to the rink before,” wrote a Hobart student on USCHO’s message board. “What we are is a bunch of kids … who work hard and party harder. While we do enjoy drinking our fair share, we stand behind our school.”
“So there were 1,500 drunk Hobart fans,” said another. “If you schedule a game for 7:30 on a Friday or Saturday night the chances are that a great number of the students will be drunk.”
I’m sure that the next time Hobart hosts a postseason or “big” game — and there will be a next time, as this is an up-and-coming team that will challenge for titles for the foreseeable future — things will be different.
Good luck to all teams this weekend.