Something Old, Something New
For the third time in three years, theyâ€™re back in the finals. For the first time in school history, they have made the finals. That is the story line for the ECAC NE championship game as UMass-Dartmouth, seeking its third straight title, will host Nichols on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. in New Bedford.
UMass-Dartmouth earned the final berth with a 5-2 win over Fitchburg State on Wednesday night. The Corsairs opened a two goal lead late in the first period on tallies by junior Chris Shore and rookie standout Joseph Hill, and they never looked back.
When looking ahead, Coach John Rolli had this to say, â€œIt should be a great game. Nichols had an outstanding good year; theyâ€™re a very, very good team with exciting forwards, solid on defense, and a very good goaltender in Keith Fink.â€
Rolli knows to beat Nichols, the only team in the conference to register 20 overall wins this year, it wonâ€™t be easy.
â€œCertainly, weâ€™re going to have more than our work cut out for us. I think hopefully our playoff experience could be a factor. Jeff Green will play well in goal and Tyler Crocker and Jon Finn will lead the defense, and Jeff Grant will lead the attack up front for us.â€
That is a talented bunch that Rolli will rely on. In his last five games, Green, a junior, has given up 2.4 goals per game. That figure includes two in the recent 3-2 UMass-Dartmouth win over Nichols. Grant led the team in goals, with 17, and with points, with 37 overall, and is a definite threat on the power play.
Defensively, Crocker and Finn not only take care of business in their own end, but the seniors can also put points on the board. Crocker has also proven to be effective on the power play, and is tied for second on the team with six goals on the man advantage.
That talent was recognized beyond southeastern Massachusetts, as both Grant and Crocker were named to the ECAC NE First All-Star team by Commissioner Rudy Keeling. Rolli couldnâ€™t have been happier for his players.
â€œGrant has taken this team and thrown it on his back. Heâ€™s been a catalyst, as well as our captain, Tyler Crocker,â€ he said.
Grant will have to be contained if Nichols wants to win. The senior has an amazing 20 points in his last six games, which includes three points against the Bison last month.
Nichols advances to the title game for the first time following a 4-2 win over Suffolk on Wednesday night. The Bison jumped out early with a shorthanded goal by sophomore Eric Cremer, then added another goal later in the period by junior Jeff Beiber, and never looked back. They threw an amazing 51 shots at Suffolk goalie Jeff Rose.
The Bison have been on a roll since the beginning of February, going 7-2 in that span. The two losses included a 5-4 overtime defeat at the hands of Curry on February 2 and a 3-2 loss to UMass-Dartmouth on February 23.
Coach Lou Izzi knows what lies ahead for his young squad.
â€œItâ€™s going to be a tough game for both teams. Weâ€™ve been playing very well, but theyâ€™ve been playing very well. Obviously weâ€™re expecting a big crowd and a hostile environment. UMass has a great tradition and a storied past down there, and an excellent hockey coach whoâ€™s been in this position before.â€
Part of the storied past that Izzi alluded to also contains this item: none of the seniors on UMass-Dartmouth have ever lost to Nichols. Over the past four years, those same seniors have also grown used to playing in March, and go into Saturday nightâ€™s game with a record of 7-3 in the month over their career.
When asked what his team can do to win their biggest game of their career, Izzi knew the answer.
â€œWe have to play very disciplined hockey and stay out of the penalty box. We have to keep out emotions under control and not let whatâ€™s happening in the stands or the crowd or with the referees affect us.â€
Staying out of the penalty box against UMass-Dartmouth is a good idea, as the Corsairs have the fourth best power play in the conference. Scoring while on the power play against the Corsairs can also prove tricky, as they led the league in penalty killing, stopping 87.3% of the chances they faced.
Izzi thought back to the last meeting of these teams, and realized they need to find a way to create scoring chances.
â€œWhen we played them last time, they did a phenomenal job blocking shots against us. We have to find a way to get the puck to the net. We have to get better scoring chances on [Jeff] Green, whoâ€™s a good goaltender, and their defense is very solid in front of him.â€
Besides Anthony Monte, who is the leading scorer in conference, one player who will be counted on to create some offense for Nichols is Eric Cremer. His second goal of the night against Suffolk proved to be the game winner, and his coach is very happy with the big sophomore.
â€œHe scores great goals, but heâ€™s 6â€™2â€, he flies, his speed is just amazing. Heâ€™s got a dominant presence on the ice.â€
Cremer, although held pointless against UMass-Dartmouth, has six goals and two assists in his last six games.
Another player who will need to step up big on Saturday is junior defenseman Cole Ruwe.
â€œHeâ€™s been one of the best players in the conference all year long,â€ stated Izzi. â€œHeâ€™s a battle tested veteran, heâ€™s very much in control of the game, making great decisions with the puck, and getting the puck out of our own zone.â€
Ruwe led all defensemen in the conference in scoring, averaging nearly a point per game with nine goals and 16 assists for 25 points in just 27 games.
Between the pipes for Nichols on Saturday will be junior Keith Fink, who comes in at 17-6-1.
â€œHeâ€™s playing at the top of his game right now,â€ said his coach. â€œHeâ€™s very solid, strong, confident. As you know, when you get to this point, you need to have pretty good goaltending.â€