Preview: Hobart vs. Norwich

Re-Match Part Deux

Two years ago, almost to the day, Norwich hosted Hobart in the 2004 NCAA quarterfinals. The teams experienced the most wild momentum swings perhaps every seen in Division III tournament play during that contest.

Norwich rolled out to a quick 4-0 lead, before Hobart chipped in five unanswered goals to hold a slim 5-4 lead with only 15 minutes remaining in the third period. Norwich tied the game at five just 28 seconds after Hobart took the lead and then ripped in four more goals to eventually win 9-5. What a wild game it was.

“In 2004, our team stormed into the end and won our regular season and then the league championship,” said Hobart coach Mark Taylor. “It was achieving to their maximum. The Norwich game was an emotional game, to be down four goals and then come back. You end up going ahead with fifteen minutes left in the game. It was an emotional back-and-forth game.”

Even though this weekend’s rematch is only the second time that Hobart has made the NCAA tournament-and only the second time these two teams have met-the Statesmen are approaching the game like veterans instead of rookies.

“We are a different team and they are a different team,” said Taylor. “This time around, we aren’t all caught up in being in the tournament any more because if you don’t stay in the tournament, all that excitement disappears pretty quick. There are a lot less distractions going on right now. We are focused on going up and trying to beat a very good team in their barn. And that is really it. This is the second season and we want to do good in it.”

Norwich, on the other hand, has played in the NCAA tournament six of the last eight seasons, and has hosted many of those games, so the quarterfinals are old hat for the Cadets.

“Playing at home will be great but sometimes it helps the other team to come into a fully packed house that is loud and excited about good hockey,” said Norwich coach Mike McShane. “We like playing in our building and we will have great fan support, no doubt.”

And like most veteran teams, the Cadets are focusing on playing to their strengths this weekend. After a pair of early season stumbles against Middlebury and Potsdam in the Primelink Tournament, Norwich strung together 16 straight wins to position itself at the top of the ECAC East.

“At this point in the season you really just focus on what you do well,” said McShane. “We will need to stay focused on our systems and control the puck. That limits the other team’s opportunities to score goals.”

Norwich has the complete package, going for it with strong leadership, solid play in its own zone and has outscored its opponents 150-53 so far this season.

“We’re going pretty good right now,” said McShane. “We are getting really strong goaltending and the forwards have been great about coming back to help in the defensive end. [Senior] Brian Mullally has had a fabulous year. He’s been a big factor for us on both ends of the ice. He has cut his penalty minutes way down and has provided terrific leadership for this team.”

After a loss at Bowdoin and tie at Colby to close out the regular season, Norwich held court through all three rounds of the ECAC East playoffs and captured the championship last weekend by defeating New England College 5-2.

Hobart, on the other hand, lost to eventual ECAC West champion Elmira 4-3 in the semifinal round of the league playoffs after sweeping Neumann in the final week of the regular season. But that loss hasn’t put a damper on the focus of the Statesmen.

“If anything, it just jacks you up a little more,” said Taylor. “You have to dig down deeper and play harder. I think there are more positives out of it. It just motivates you to bear down.”

Even with limited crossover play between the ECAC East and ECAC West leagues, Babson’s coach Jamie Rice played against Norwich in the ECAC East regular season and saw Hobart play during the Babson Invitational tournament.

“This is a great matchup and probably the best of the quarterfinal games,” said Rice. “Norwich has a veteran line-up with a lot of guys who can make a difference. Mullally is as good a defenseman as there is in Division III and he kind of sets the tone for that team. When he plays well the whole team seems to get a lift. You see a guy like Mike Serba who has had a great year and yet he’s overshadowed by guys like [Garett] Winder, [Nikita] Kashirsky and [Rick] Cleaver. They have great skill up front and strong goaltending. Chance [Gieni] was great last weekend in the conference tournament and has really been solid all season.”

“Hobart is a team I saw at our tournament over Thanksgiving,” said Rice. “They are very strong. They skate very well and transition the puck well. I think they have great balance. I don’t think they have any real superstar but they are big, strong and very well-coached. They had good goaltending when they played here and played a different kind of game than we usually see here in the East. I really liked what I saw of them during the tournament and think this is a very competitive matchup.”

Norwich’s Kreitzberg Arena should be rocking for this rare meeting against Hobart, but I doubt this year’s game will unfold quite as dramatically as the contest just two years ago.