This Week in the ECAC East and NESCAC

With the weeks counting down to the all important conference playoffs at the end of February, some teams are starting to get on the roll that many predicted would carry them to the top of the league standings at the beginning of the year. Middlebury and Norwich are prime examples.

Still others are finding their groove and looking to establish the consistency that will keep them near the top and in the hunt for end-of-year positioning. And still others are trying to put it together and make their move up the ladder with enough time to get points on the board and make the best of tie-breaker opportunities found in the conference match-ups still remaining on the schedule.

Everything continues to be tight in both leagues; while protracted winning streaks can gain separation in the standings an extended losing streak could spell disaster.

“You really want to come away with points on every weekend,” noted Wesleyan head coach Chris Potter. “Sweeps are nice but you just want points from every weekend and see what that will bring in the standings.”

With that let’s take a look at three teams in the playoff hunt who are looking for that chemistry and consistency to keep them moving towards the top in their respective conferences.

Beacons Burning Bright

You have to go back a few years to find a UMass-Boston team with a winning record at this point in the season — in fact this year’s eight win total to date is just one short of the team’s total number of wins for the past three seasons combined. Things are certainly looking up for the new look Beacons under second year coach Peter Belisle.

“It’s just a different attitude around here,” commented SID Alan Wickstrom. “There is definitely a buzz around campus with the hockey team and it is great to see some excitement around the program. Two years ago was about as tough as it gets and to see Andrew Ward and Kyle Simpson, a couple of seniors who went through the multiple coaches and not winning a game for an entire season, be excited about being part of this team with all of the new players that have come in says a lot about coach Belisle’s character and the character of his team.”

In fact, you may want to call this season 1A for coach Belisle who was named head man in the early summer in 2006 and had very little time to recruit in prospects to play for the team last season. This year the difference is notable as Belisle has added 17 new names to the roster and fully implemented an up-tempo style that is producing more offensive opportunities for the Beacons. All essentials when called on to compete in the most challenging conference in D-III hockey.

“It’s really been a lot of fun,” said Belisle whose team knocked off yet another highly reputable program in UMass-Dartmouth by a 3-2 score on Tuesday night. “We are really starting to see some guys emerging like Eric Tufman (11-11-22) and Kris Kransky (5-9-14) to give us some consistent scoring and now other lines are getting in the act.

Our goaltending with Ryan (Donovan) has been great and he keeps us in every game which with a young team is so important. Even when he hasn’t been his usual unbelievable self, like in the Codfish Bowl, it was good to see we could win a game for him and help him out by scoring some goals at the right time.”

Eighteen freshman have seen action this year for the Beacons and there aren’t many upper classmen dressing on a regular basis for this team that going into this weekend at Salem State and Southern Maine is in the hunt for not only a playoff spot but a home-ice seeding if they can continue to take points from every weekend match-up.

“You can just see the confidence growing with the guys,” observed Belisle. “We don’t feel like we are out of the game and know we can compete at this level and have some success so the effort is there every night and we just want to get better each and every game we play.”

So far the Beacons have made believers out of just about everyone they have played including Norwich (a 3-2 OT loss), Amherst (a 3-2 loss) and Babson (1-1 tie) in the game that really got them going just before the semester break.

“We put six goals on the board at Wesleyan in the first period,” noted Wickstrom. “I had to go back a lot of years to find any game where we had scored that many goals in a game never mind the first period. Coach says we need more chances and to cut down on our shots against our net but we have improved so much and now the results are showing.”

Clearly, Peter Belisle now has the building blocks for a revitalized Beacons hockey program in place and is reaping the benefits of a solid goaltender and some young guys who believe as a team they can be successful against the best the league has to offer. Six of the last 10 games are on the road so how far they can go will depend on their development into a team that can play there game in anyone’s building.

Cardinals Coming Back

You really can’t make some stuff up regarding the oddities that happen at hockey games. Case in point, the Wesleyan Cardinals who, after a slow start to the season where they were 3-5-0 coming out of the break, saw them rally to a .500 record in league play (as well as overall) and get two-thirds of the way to another two points at home last week before a weird Zamboni breakdown suspended the game after two periods with the Cardinals holding a 4-2 lead over New England College.

The third period could potentially be made up this coming Tuesday night if arrangements can be made to get NEC back down to Middletown, CT for the final 20 minutes of play, a period where Wesleyan usually plays their best.

“We seem to really get going in the third period,” noted head coach Chris Potter. “We beat Salem State in the third, beat St. Anselm with a couple of goals in the third period and tied a strong Southern Maine team with our best play in the final period. We just seem to get stronger as the game goes on and now that our goaltending is getting more consistent like last year, we are starting to see some good results and the points we need to move up.

“Hopefully we can get in the final 20 minutes against NEC and hold on for those two points that aren’t in the book yet and take something away from our trip to Vermont against St. Mike’s and Norwich this weekend before we come home to play Middlebury, Williams and Trinity — it’s five plus games in just over a week and that’s a lot of points to grab and help us move up in the conference.”

Leading the way for Wesleyan is junior goaltender Mike Palladino (5-3-1, 3.14 goals against average, and .901 save percentage) who seems to rounding into the form that made him one of the league’s best last season. Offensively, sophomores Woody Redpath (3-4-7) and Sam Robinson (1-7-8) are leading an improved group that is trying to get the power play going along with some production at even strength.

“We could use some better special team play,” said Potter. “But overall I am impressed with the way we are competing especially late in games when things are tight and in some cases where we have been down and come back to get wins — it’s a good sign when we are outshooting and out scoring teams in the third period of close hockey games.”

No doubt holding teams to just 15% power play efficiency is good but posting a 12% success rate a man-up is an area that the Cardinals will need to see some improvement in the back half of the schedule if they want a shot at grabbing a home-ice playoff berth for the second year in a row.

Youth Serving Amherst Well

Things were so bad at Amherst in terms of bodies to play goal that one season, they were dressing a back-up with only practice experience as truly the emergency goalie. How times have changed for Jack Arena’s squad. This season two freshmen have emerged as a solid tandem for coach Arena to the degree that a semester abroad by last year’s playoff star, AJ Scola, doesn’t even faze him about his team’s capabilities to stop opponents.

“AJ came in late due to his commitment to the football team and both Cole (Anderson) and Jonathan (Larose) have stepped right in with great attitudes and effort to play very well for us,” said Arena. “We are in a nice rotation right now alternating the two guys and each has played very well — they push each other being competitive and the team has confidence in either guy at this point when they play so it helps having a fresh guy with a fresh mind going in each game on the weekend.”

Both goaltenders have enjoyed the benefits of playing behind a very experienced defensive corps which Arena points to as the strength of his team.

“They have a lot of experience back there right now and can really control the pace of the game for us when they are on as a group,” he noted.

Anderson (3-3-1, 2.59, .922%) and Larose (4-1-1, 1.82, .941%) both have spectacular numbers through the first half of the season and will benefit from a talented group of offensive players that are now starting to find their stride.

Junior Joel Covelli (8-9-17) has posted five goals in his last three games including a hat trick against travel partner Hamilton last week to jump start his season while senior Kyle Schoppel (10-2-12) has been deadly on the power play where half of his goal scoring total has been produced.

“The confidence with this group is really starting to show,” observed Arena. “At the Oswego tournament, when I walked into the locker room and looked in their eyes, I just knew they were going to win — you could feel it.

“Even the next night against St. Norbert it wasn’t as strong but you knew they weren’t just there to play and go home , they want to win every time out there and think they can against anyone — this is a really fun bunch of kids and maybe the closest group we have had here at Amherst.”

The last two seasons has the seen the Lord Jeffs tail off late in the season with opportunities to compete for the top seed or home-ice. This year’s team seems to have the talent and mental toughness it will need to stay where they are and compete in some bigger games in March.