There is less than one week left in the season and that is the only clear point one can define in terms of looking at a very cloudy playoff picture coming into the final games of the regular season. For each of the three D-III conferences the final games on the schedule have a lot riding on them for not only who gets in but who is seeded where — it is that tight for positions in all of the conferences. Guaranteed excitement and playoff atmospheres during the regular season and heartburn for coaches worried about keeping their teams focused on their own games while scoreboard watching to see who else can help or hurt their team’s efforts. In an effort to sort out the madness, here is a preview of what we know now (which may be dramatically different by Tuesday of next week) as match-ups and tiebreakers come into clearer view.
All eight teams are in the playoffs, so no surprises there. With just two games left in the regular season schedule, Norwich and Babson are solidly positioned as the first and second seeds — no real surprises there either. In fact, both teams are nationally ranked and are in streaks where they are playing their best hockey of the season at the right time of the year. The two teams played to a 3-3 tie at Norwich back on Jan. 14 in a game that both coaches felt their team played well enough to win. If unsettled business is any consideration for the final match-up come the first weekend in March, don’t be surprised if one and two end up playing in the final in Northfield again this year.
Going all the way to the bottom of the standings, only the eighth seed is pretty well set as well. Winless Castleton State is going to finish at the bottom of the league standings and have punched their ticket to a first round match-up with [nl]Vermont state rival Norwich. Salem State is currently in fifth with 13 points, four points ahead of Skidmore in sixth, and the Vikings close the season with Skidmore. Should Skidmore win out and Salem State lose its remaining two games, Skidmore could tie in points but take the higher seed based on winning the tie-breaker. For Salem State, just a single point this weekend would lock-up the fifth seed and with Castleton coming to town on Friday night, look for the Vikings to lock up the higher seed. With Skidmore likely to remain in sixth, the Thoroughbreds will be preparing for either a trip to New England College or Southern Maine. The UMass-Boston Beacons are in the seventh spot and even with two wins the final weekend would lose out to Skidmore based on the head-to-head tiebreaker. Skidmore defeated UMB 4-1 earlier in the season so look for the first round match-up for UMass to involve its travel partner in the league, Babson.
That leaves us with the intriguing battle for the third and fourth seeds between New England College, which has rallied to have a great second half of the season, and Southern Maine, which has surprised a few people this season with consistent play and some big upsets, including last week’s win over Bowdoin by a 5-2 score. The teams are separated by just one point with two games remaining. USM finishes the regular season at home, while NEC travels for its final two games. Southern Maine will host Skidmore and Castleton this weekend while New England travels to UMass-Boston and finishes with Babson in what could be a semifinal playoff preview. This chase will come down to Saturday’s result — look for Southern Maine to eke out the third seed and a first round home game re-match with this week’s opponent, Skidmore. That would leave NEC to host Salem State in the four vs. five match-up. Stay tuned, because it’s all likely to change.
At the time this piece has gone to press, there are still a number of key games being played on Thursday night that could have an impact on what appears below. So based on the here and now and current version of the world for the ECAC Northeast, it is fair to say that this final six days of the regular season is going to be wild in terms of who even makes the playoffs.
What do we know for sure? Well, in this conference, not a lot right now. We do know who the top three seeds in the conference are, but even now the order is not set. Curry and its 40-game regular-season unbeaten streak is in first with just one game remaining against a very hot Assumption team on Saturday night. A win or a tie for the Colonels locks up home ice for the entire playoffs as the league has reverted to the Saturday (quarterfinals), Wednesday (semifinals) and Saturday (final) format meaning the conference title will be played to the “Max” — as in Max Ulin Arena, Curry’s home rink.
UMass-Dartmouth right now is the second seed and holds the tie breaker over third seed, and defending league champion, Wentworth by virtue of their 5-3 win against the Leopards on Feb. 9. Both teams are tied in the standings with 22 points, but UMD has a game in hand and three games in the next five days against teams that have a lot riding on the outcomes of these match-ups in their own playoff picture. The Corsairs still have road games with Johnson & Wales, a team they lost to 6-5 in an early non-conference game, and Suffolk, before closing at home next Tuesday with Assumption. The Leopards have two games remaining: at Framingham State on Saturday and closing out the season at home against Johnson & Wales. By the end of the weekend, this one could be decided with the likely winner being UMass-Dartmouth — who would ultimately host a second round match-up at home against Wentworth, and that is a big motivation for the push to finish second.
Now for the real fun, as four teams are within two points of the final home-ice berth and most just have two games left to play. Plymouth State is currently in fourth and holds the tie breakers over contenders, Johnson & Wales (14 points), Fitchburg State (13 points) and Salve Regina (13 points) who are in the hunt for moving anywhere from seventh to fourth. What is intriguing are the match-ups in the final games in trying to determine who will finish where. PSC has a home game with Worcester State and finishes at Western New England College. Before anyone says they have the easier finish in this tightly bunched group of teams, let me point out that no team has been eliminated from the playoffs yet — it’s down to the last week and everyone has a shot. ECAC commissioner Phil Buttafucco must be loving the end of season drama, as the parity here is truly amazing. Current fifth place team J & W hosts UMD before finishing on the road at Wentworth and Salve Regina, who sits just a point behind in the race for position. Fitchburg State hosted Suffolk Thursday night in a late contest and finishes with a road game against Salve Regina and final home game with WNEC. The battle for the final home-ice berth will come down to the very last games, especially as the key contenders are playing against each other in the next week. Look for PSC to stake its claim to the four spot, Fitchburg grab the fifth spot, J & W keep the six spot and Salve Regina lock-up the seven spot. Of course, this is really playoff hockey in the regular season, so nothing would surprise me if the order ended up differently — either way the end of season games are all possible playoff match-ups which add a bit more motivation to the outcomes.
Finally, what about the final spot, the eighth seed? Right now Framingham State has a tenuous grip on the last spot with eight points. Suffolk is next with seven points followed by Nichols and WNEC with six and Worcester State with four. Nobody is out of the hunt just yet, and with just a couple of games left, every single point is crucial to getting into the post-season. Look for Framingham State to hold off challenges from Suffolk, WNEC and Nichols to get into a first round match-up with Curry.
Well, at least the top and bottom here are set — Trinity is the top seed in the NESCAC conference championship and Tufts has clinched its position as the eighth seed in the tournament. Ironically, the teams play each other in the final weekend of the season at Trinity, which will host the conference championship for the first time.
“We are excited about hosting,” said Trinity associate head coach Dave Cataruzolo. “The kids have worked very hard to earn the number one seed and we are not treating the final weekend any differently as we want to continue to play well moving into the playoffs.” Unlike the top and bottom, seeds two through seven are likely to move a bit as a result of games played this final weekend of the regular season.
Colby and Middlebury are currently tied for second with 24 points and Colby is holding the head-to-head tiebreaker having defeated the Panthers back in mid-January. Bowdoin is currently in the final home-ice spot with 23 points in fourth place. Fifth place Amherst is just two points ahead of seventh place Hamilton with Williams holding sixth just a point behind the Lord Jeffs. The most intriguing match-up this weekend finds the Maine schools traveling to Amherst and Hamilton for the final games of the regular season — games that could potentially change the pecking order and first round match-ups in the conference tournament.
“Every year we always say it’s going to come down to the last games in determining final position and first round opponents,” commented Amherst coach Jack Arena. “Absolutely, it is exciting and this year it just seems to be challenging from top to bottom, so there have been lots of surprises and there will probably be a few more.” With a sweep of its two games this weekend and two losses by Bowdoin, Amherst could sneak into the final home-ice playoff spot — the head-to-head game on Friday will go a long way in determining the final placement order. Don’t be surprised if the first round match-ups are set on their ear by this weekend’s play — it has been a wild ride in the NESCAC conference this season. Why should it change now?
Yes, there is one more league that actually already has its post-season match-ups determined, even though the final regular season game will not be played until next Tuesday. For the six New England D-II schools, the Northeast 10 Conference championship playoffs will begin next weekend and culminate with the final on March 5 hosted by the remaining highest seed.
With a six-team format, the top two teams receive first round byes. St. Anselm has earned the top seed and fellow ECAC school St. Michael’s is seeded second giving it a first round bye as well. The two first round match-ups will see third seed Southern New Hampshire University play sixth seed Stonehill and fourth seed Assumption will host Franklin Pierce in first round games. St. Anselm will face the winner of the Assumption/Franklin Pierce game while St. Michael’s plays the SNHU/Stonehill winner.
For the winner awaits bragging rights as the D-II champion, which has to serve as consolation for the fact that none of the teams are eligible for competing for their league champions as part of the D-III competition. While this issue is frustrating for players and coaches alike, there is yet unfinished business in the pursuit of a championship for D-II schools. The fun begins on Feb. 26 with the first round games in the playoffs.