ECAC Northeast Championship
#1 UMass Dartmouth vs. #3 Wentworth
Saturday, March 3rd, 4:30 p.m., Hetland Memorial Arena, New Bedford, Mass.
At the beginning of the season, Curry College and UMass Dartmouth were the two favorites to vie for the ECAC Northeast title this weekend, and for good reason. Both teams made it to the finals last year, with UMass Dartmouth winning it all, and both teams came into the season with very solid teams.
Well, enter into the mix a new coach, RJ Tolan, and a solid team, Wentworth, and now you have a different picture for this year’s ECAC NE finals. Wentworth defeated Curry in the Semifinals by a score of 4-3 on Wednesday night to earn a trip to the title game. Late in a 3-3 game, with overtime appearing to be a real possibility, freshman forward Michael O’Brien fired home a loose puck with 73 seconds remaining, and Wentworth held on to win, 4-3.
UMass Dartmouth had a bit of an easier time putting away Fitchburg State, 7-3. The Corsairs erupted for three goals in just over three minutes midway through the game, with leading scorer Jeff Grant scoring on an unassisted, shorthanded breakaway, and then scoring on a wrist shot from the right face-off circle roughly two and a half minutes later.
For UMass Dartmouth coach John Rolli, don’t expect him to be complacent about returning to the finals for the third straight year. “We’ve got a huge task in front of us. Arguably the two hottest teams in the league are coming into a championship game. They’re playing every bit as good as any team in the league, including us, right now. They’ve won nine out of ten, and they just pulled off a huge upset at Curry last night, so they’ve got to brimming with confidence.”
One other reason Wentworth may have confidence is because of the 5-2 win they enjoyed over UMass Dartmouth in early February. Wentworth never trailed in the game, and while they took ten penalties, they held the Corsair power play to just 1 for 10. Rolli has not forgotten that game. “They out a pretty good whipping on us three weeks ago, so we’ve got our work cut out for us. Hopefully our championship game experience, and home ice, hopefully that will help to make up for the 5-2 deficit.”
That loss to Wentworth was the only loss following the semester break, with Rolli’s team going 14-1 overall, including winning every game in January. He still thinks about the only blemish in the calendar year, though.
When asked how avenge that loss, and to prevail in the title game, Rolli had an answer. “I think we just have to play better. I give all the credit to Wentworth in that game. They beat us to every loose puck, they finished checks, they were opportunistic with the puck, [Justin] Marriott in goal played very well. We just somehow have to elevate our intensity and play our best game”
For Tolan, he knows he has quite a task in front of him. “UMass Dartmouth, right?! We’ve got to go down there, and got to get after those guys. They’re a great team, and there’s a reason why they only lost, what, two games all year. There’s definitely a reason for that and we’ll give it our best shot down there.”
When asked if he envisioned his first year ending with his team playing for the league championship, Tolan responded. “All I wanted was for my guys to work hard and try to get a little better each day and hope that we’d get this opportunity. That’s all we were looking to do.”
Despite the fact that he’s already beaten UMass Dartmouth, Tolan stated, “Obviously the most important thing for any coach is for his goalie to play pretty well. It’s pretty important. They have a very good goalie, and I think we have a very good goalie. That
plays a huge role into who comes out on top.”
Both goalies have had tremendous years. Sophomore Jeff Green of UMass Dartmouth posted a record of 24-2-1, with a goals-against-average of 1.81. Besides being the premier goalie in the conference, he is also considered one of the top goalies in the nation. His counterpart Saturday night, freshmen Justin Marriott, had a great campaign in his own right. Marriott posted a record of 14-6-2, and had a goals-against-average of 3.42. One key stat, though, that is very similar with both goalies is their save percentage. Marriott’s is .902 this season, and Green comes into the finals with a .924 percentage.
Saturday’s winner will earn the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Division III Championships. An All-Tournament Team and the Most Outstanding Player of the Tournament will also be chosen after the game.
#1 St. Anselm vs. #2 Stonehill
Game 1, Saturday, March 3/ Game 2, Sunday, March 4
Sullivan Ice Arena, Manchester, N.H.
Stonehill coach Scott Harlow is feeling good about his team’s chances this weekend, as he prepares them for their first ever appearance in the championship series against St. Anselm. Fresh off a 6-2 win over Assumption in the semifinals, in which junior forward Matt Curran scored four times, and also established a school record with his 29th goal of the year, Harlow feels the troops are ready. “I think that we have a lot of confidence, and I think it really stems from our game against them last week. They beat us five to two, but if you analyze the four goals they scored against us [the fifth was an empty-net goal], they didn’t beat us – we beat ourselves, and the kids are feeding off of that.”
Harlow was referring to the 5-2 loss his squad suffered to the hand of St. Anselm on February 22nd, a game in which he feels his squad made too many mistakes, and that to win this weekend, those mistakes must not reoccur. “We’re going up there with the attitude that we’re trying to win a championship. We’re not satisfied being here, and I think that was the mood last night [after winning the semifinals] that we’re happy to be here, but not satisfied.”
The Northeast-10 finals are set up as a two-game series, and if the series ends in a tie, there is a twenty-minute ‘mini-game’ played immediately after the conclusion of the second game. Harlow wants to see his squad start off with a win right off the bat. “I don’t think we’re going up there for the sake of going up there. I think we want to take the first game, and then handle the second game as it comes. Obviously it’s going to take our best effort to beat them. Overall they might be a little faster than us and more talented, but I think our kids work harder, and I think we have something to prove.”
One thing Stonehill has going for it is that everyone seems to be healthy, and Harlow is very happy about that. “For the first time all year, I’d say about a week ago, we had everyone healthy. We’re tired, but probably they are. Like I said to them this morning, ‘physically we’re probably tired, but you wake up and you’re in the finals, and mentally you’re not really that tired.’ Hopefully they can’t wait for the game to start.”
Stonehill will need Curran to stay hot, and will also need Brendan O’Brien, who scored once against Assumption and assisted on two of Curran’s goals, to maintain his two points per game pace.
LeClerc Bows Out
In the Northeast 10 playoffs, St. Anselm needed nearly an extra period to advance on, with a thrilling 4-3 overtime win against Southern New Hampshire University. For SNHU, though, the loss also meant the end of Rene LeClerc’s eight years behind the bench, as the likable coach had announced his retirement prior to the season.
Just hours after walking away from behind the SNHU bench for the last time, LeClerc was asked by a reporter how he felt. “Well, I’m kind of ambivalent. I’m torn with the fact that it was my last game, so I’m feeling a little empty. Yet, I’m feeling fulfilled that I had a pretty good run for all the years that I did it. It’s one of those things where you get caught between the two. I think as times goes by I’ll be able to accept it more…hopefully.”
LeClerc’s association with the school goes back to the 60’s when he enrolled as a hockey playing freshman, and he remained extremely active in alumni affairs before taking on the role as head coach. SNHU Athletic Director Chip Polak is one of many at the university who will miss him. “I hate to lose him. He’s an alum, and when he came on, I really needed a hockey guy, and Rene is very professional, and he has an air about him. If you look up the word professional in the dictionary, they should have his picture next to it.”
Polak, who has been the AD for twenty years, recognizes that for LeClerc, there’s more to life than hockey. “He’s a grandfather now, and he loves to be a grandfather. It’s not a loss, because we’ve gained so much from him.”
LeClerc was asked to reflect on the eight years he coached at SNHU, and what they meant to him. “I think about the different players in the program, and how we impacted them, either with their ability and becoming better athletes, or good citizens. That’s what I think of first. That when wins and losses are secondary when you’re helping to shape young men.”
It’s a safe bet that you’ll find LeClerc coaching again in the near future, but it will be behind the bench of one of his grandchildren’s teams. The former Division 1 college official has also heard inquiries about donning the stripes again, but he’s not sure about that. “I’ve been toying with the idea. I’m in good shape, and I can still skate pretty well. I’m certainly not going away from the game. You can’t go cold turkey like that, and I figured I can’t ski every day of the year!”
LeClerc, who will retire from SNHU with a record of 111-82-17, will receive a very nice honor next month when he is inducted into the New Hampshire Legends of Hockey Hall of Fame on April 1. LeClerc is one of nine inductees who will be honored at the Event Center at C.R. Sparks in Bedford, N.H.