An uncharacteristic three game losing streak by Middlebury has left the NESCAC up for grabs.
The Panthers, who hadn’t dropped three contests in a row since the 1999-2000 season, were defeated twice last weekend in Maine, coming out on the short end of a 4-2 decision to Bowdoin on Friday night and getting shut out by Colby 2-0 on Saturday.
Things didn’t get any better on home ice, where Middlebury fell 6-3 to Williams on Tuesday. It was the first time since the 1993-94 season that the Ephs had been able to come away with a win against their rivals to the north.
“It was a great win for our program,” said Williams coach Bill Kangas. “We came in ready to play and executed well.”
Middlebury coach Bill Beaney had some harsh words for his team.
“I don’t mind being public about it — it’s the most embarrassed I’ve been for a team in the 19 years I’ve been here,” Beaney told the Burlington Free Press after the game. “A sad exhibition by a group of guys who acted like they just didn’t care.”
The loss dropped Middlebury into a three-way tie for fourth place, just two points out of first. Trinity and Colby are tied for the lead, with Bowdoin in third, just a point out. In all, seven of the ten teams in the NESCAC are within four points of first place.
“Anybody is capable of beating any other team,” said Colby coach Jim Tortorella. “Look at the way even the teams at the bottom of the standings are doing. Conn College is playing very well. So are Tufts and Wesleyan.”
Tortorella’s White Mules are coming off a weekend sweep of Middlebury and Williams and are 7-1-1 in their last nine games.
When asked if Colby is playing its best hockey of the season right now, Tortorella replied, “We’re competing our best. We could have lost the competitive edge a few times this season, but we didn’t. I saw the level of maturity of our players rise at those points, which is a credit to them.
“We need to play like it’s February all the time. And right now we’re going that.”
Senior Nick Bayley is having a huge season for Colby, leading the team in both goals (12) and assists (11).
“Nick has elevated his game,” said Tortorella. “Patrick Walsh is also playing very well for us. And all of our freshmen have played great.”
Colby and Trinity have a showdown scheduled for January 28, but neither team can look past their games in between.
“A lot of teams still haven’t played each other, so it’s still wide open in terms of who will come out on top, said Kangas, whose Williams team hosts new England College and St. Anselm this weekend.
“There’s still a lot of hockey left.”
It’s tough to name a dark horse in the NESCAC, because it’s so wide open. But each league has one or two teams that have done better than expected. Perhaps they’re overachieving; perhaps they’re underappreciated. Here’s a list to teams to watch out for:
ECAC East — St. Anselm has really flown under the radar this season, due to its Division II status. At 11-1-1, the Hawks would be a top 10 team if they were allowed in the poll (eighth-ranked Trinity is 11-1). Because they can’t play in the ECAC East playoffs, I’m excluding them from consideration. The dark horse label is applied here to Southern Maine. The Huskies were picked to finish sixth in the preseason poll, but are in fourth right now, just a point behind Babson for third place. Southern Maine has wins against Williams and Amherst and a tie with Hamilton. If the Huskies can hold off Salem State and New England College, they’ll have home ice in the ECAC playoffs for the first time in many seasons.
ECAC Northeast — Don’t expect a lot of surprises here come playoff time. I’ll be shocked if this doesn’t come down to Curry and Wentworth again this season. Southern New England is a real surprise at 12-2-1, but they’re Division II, so, like St. Anselm, they’re out. The nod here goes to Johnson & Wales, which has come a long way in a short time. The Wildcats won only one game last season and finished dead last in the league, but this season they’re 5-7-2 and 4-1 in conference, good enough for fifth place. The team can build on a big win over UMass-Dartmouth, but must finish the season without Dave Notartomaso, who was leading the Wildcats in scoring before suffering an injury against Elmira back in December.
ECAC West — Several coaches in the ECAC West have told me the same thing — watch out for Utica. The Pioneers made the ECAC West playoffs for the first time last season, in just their third year of existence. This season, Utica is currently tied for first place at 3-1-1, 9-4-1 overall. They’ve defeated Plattsburgh, Hamilton, and swept Elmira. Home games against RIT and Manhattanville will make or break the Pioneer’s quest for the regular season title.
MCHA — Can you call a team in first place a dark horse? The MCHA standings are almost upside down from the past few seasons. MSOE is currently in first place a 9-1, with a 12-6 record overall. The Raiders were just 10-17 last season. Even more impressive is Lawrence, which is just two points behind MSOE in the standings at 7-3, 8-8-2 overall. The Vikings were just 4-23-1 last year.
MIAC — Bethel is my dark horse here. At 10-3, the Royals have beaten Wisconsin-Stevens Point and Wisconsin-River Falls this season. The next three weekends will decide Bethel’s fate as the Royals square off with St. Thomas, Augsburg and St. John’s – the three teams ahead of them in the standings.
NCHA — Wisconsin-Stevens Point is a true dark horse — a team that has been in virtually every game it has played, and lost some close ones. That means they can win any game they’re in. Like the rest of the league, UWSP’s only played six conference games so far, with eight to go. Lots can happen in the final weeks of the season, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find the Pointers in third place when the dust settles, based on the way they’ve played in recent weeks. They face a big test this weekend, traveling to St. Norbert.
NESCAC — With so many teams in the running, it’s tough to pick a dark horse here, but I’m going with Amherst. The Lord Jeffs were 2-7-1 in their final 10 games of last season, but are an improved squad this year. They’re the only team to beat Trinity and have a tie with Norwich. That’s the making of a true dark horse – the ability to pull off the big upset. An honorable mention goes to Conn College, which is fighting for a playoff spot but has some nice showings including wins over Amherst and Williams and close games with Middlebury, Trinity, and St. Anselm.
SUNYAC — The talk of this league is how well Fredonia is doing, and I like the Blue Devils to battle Oswego and Plattsburgh for the title. The dark horse here is Geneseo, which has played some schizophrenic hockey this season. The Ice Knights have wins over Plattsburgh and Oswego, but a loss to Buffalo State and ties with Neumann and Johnson & Wales. Geneseo is capable of winning the SUNYAC, or finishing as low as fifth.
Quote of the Week
More from an upset Bill Beaney, as told to the Burlington Free Press:
“We didn’t play hockey the way Middlebury’s been playing hockey for the last umpteen years. A lot of people going through the motions, a lot of people looking for somebody else to do it. Hey, no excuses, we got outworked.”
How will the Panthers respond? Stay tuned. Middlebury has big games this weekend against St. Anselm (11-1-1) and revitalized New England (7-8).