This Week in the ECAC East and NESCAC

Staying Loose

Last week was all about the NESCAC conference, so this week we focus on the ECAC East. The league is extremely tight. In fact, just three points separate third from 10th place, so each of the five remaining weekends are important. Also, it seems like every match-up down the stretch has potential post-season implications relative to seeding and/or tiebreakers that will determine seeding.

One such set of match-ups this weekend finds Salem State, Southern Maine, UMass-Boston and Babson facing off where three of the four teams are tied in the standings with eight points and all are looking to create some positive momentum for the last month of the season.

“It’s already like playoff hockey,” said Southern Maine head coach Jeff Beaney. “The way you are playing down the stretch and in those last few critical games are probably a pretty good indicator of how you are going to play in the playoffs. We need to start playing some more consistent hockey and tighten up some areas if we are going to be in position to get a home ice spot.”

Consistency and effort are two pervading themes from coaches this week as everyone understands the need for points and desire to start playing their best hockey at the end of the season. The standings may be tight but no coach wants their team to be. So it’s time to find out who wants it more.

Vikings Have One Sly Fox

“He’s really a special player,” observed Salem State head coach Bill O’Neill. “He certainly has been a big part of our offense this year and for sure gets a lot of attention from the other teams and somehow still finds a way to be productive.”

That special player is sophomore forward Justin Fox (13 goals, 16 points, 29 points) who leads the ECAC East in scoring and is third in the country averaging more than two points per game. Fox is also averaging nearly a goal per contest, while excelling in any situation on the ice.

“He makes everyone out there with him better,” said O’Neill. “He’s been dangerous in any situation whether it is 5-on 5, power play or even short handed — he is a threat to score a goal and that gives our team a lot of excitement. Last season, Justin was the Rookie of the Year in our conference and this season he has been even better and has put up some great numbers so far this season.”

On the back-end of the equation, number one goaltender Ryan Hatch has battled injury and the sickness bug the past few weeks, before playing back-to-back games last weekend for the first time since December. Hatch’s .923 save percentage has been outstanding and last year he carried his team far into the playoffs.

“Ryan is our number one guy so when he was out, other guys have gotten a chance to play and have done pretty well,” noted O’Neill. “Hopefully he stays healthy the rest of the way and can help us get better at the end of the season.”

This is the final season in the ECAC East for Salem State as they will move to the new MASCAC league for the 2009-10 season. Despite coaching for over 25 years and amassing over 400 wins as an East member, coach O’Neill hasn’t looked at this season’s results as being any more significant in the team’s final season.

“I really haven’t thought about,” O’Neill said. “Yes, we make the move to the new league next season but there is no pressure on winning this thing in our last season in this conference. We just want to play good hockey every night and get better right through the end of the season and we’ll see what happens.”

Sounds like the coach is one sly fox too.

Can Huskies Take Bite Out of Opponent’s Power Play?

It becomes pretty obvious to a coach that the penalty killing unit needs to step it up a bit when exactly half of the total goals against have come when shorthanded. With 24 of 48 goals against surrendered on the power play, Southern Maine is looking to change that statistic in the last month of the season and help their chances to stay near the top of the standings.

“It’s really about two choices,” said head coach Jeff Beaney. “We can stay out of the box or kill off penalties better — either way we need to cut down the goals against in these situations.”

Senior forward Dan Gordon (9-15-24) leads the Huskies in scoring and is second in the league in that category. He will need to keep the offense going along with sophomore defenseman Paul Conter, who leads the team in power play goals with four on the season.

Goalie Jamie Gilbert has been out with an injury and looks to return in the next couple of weeks. During his absence, freshman Koray Celik has filled in nicely and has really played well to keep the huskies in the middle of the ECAC East logjam.

“Koray has done a nice job,” stated Beaney. “We brought him here knowing that Gillie (Bilbert) was our number one guy and hoped he would play seven or eight games to get some experience. He has already played in eight games and has adjusted very well to the level of play in the league.”

Historically, the Huskies have been a second half team so look for them to start playing their best hockey in February.

Babson Looking for Consistency

For Jamie Rice’s squad, the rest of the season will be about playing a full 60 minutes consistently every night. Babson is one of the five teams tied for third place with eight points in the standings and looking to make a move in the final five weeks of the season.

“We have not played poorly,” Rice said. “ I am not disappointed in our effort or the way we have played but that said I don’t think anyone is happy with our overall results. We think there are a couple of games in the schedule that maybe we should have won and for sure there are some games our opponents feel they should have come away with the win. It is just that tight in the league and with everyone having pretty comparable players, this is the level of competition and closeness you are going to see.”

Junior Jason Schneider (2-10-12) and senior Brad Baldelli (6-5-11) have picked up the offense over the past three weeks since coming off the break and they will need some support from a strong supporting cast that includes two-thirds of line named after a Beaver’s favorite food.

Junior Chris Wood (5-5-10) and sophomore Terry Woods (3-7-10) have been paired up together this season and have produced some nice results for coach Rice.

“Those two guys have really played well together this season,” noted Rice. “It’s really great to see the chemistry on the ice but more importantly see what the college hockey experience and experience at the school can mean to a player.

“Terry has really embraced the complete experience here at Babson and as much as he is getting from the educational opportunity and hockey experience here, he has given back and contributed to his teammates, fellow students and even his coach. That’s what D-III hockey is all about and it is great to see the impact a player can have with the tam and in the school.”

The run to the playoffs starts this week and the Beavers will look to tighten up all three parts of the game including offense, defense and goaltending.

“It’s going to be over in a blink of an eye,” noted Rice. “There aren’t that many weeks left and just so many times I can use some of the emotional speeches about playing particular opponents. We are going to have a little run here and get some points and get that confidence going so we have a chance to do something in March.”

Beacons Bouncing Back?

Call it puck luck or just plain misfortune but UMass-Boston has had some of either since hosting their own Codfish Tournament over the Christmas break and their results since a shootout loss to Westfield State have been disappointing.

“It’s frustrating,” said head coach Peter Belisle. “ We are definitely not where we want to be but aren’t out of it at all. We had a nice win this week over a good UMass-Dartmouth team and hopefully can build off that success and get a little momentum going into the league games this weekend. I thought that e played pretty well last weekend especially against Norwich but unfortunately didn’t come away with any points which was disappointing.”

One of the keys to the recent good play has been freshman goaltender Kevin Bendel, who got his first collegiate win on Tuesday against UMD.

According to Belisle, “Ryan (Donovan) has been our guy for the past two seasons and into this one. I just felt we needed to change it up a bit and see if we could get things going in a positive way and Kevin has stepped in and played really well. I still have a lot of confidence in Ryan and sometimes you need to make some changes just to get things going in the right direction.”

“Overall,” he continued, “we need to see all of our players start to put out that consistent effort and really work for results if we are going to get out of current position in the standings.”

One guy that would help in the offensive category would be sophomore Eric Tufman (5-7-12), last year’s leading scorer, who missed the last couple games.

“We need Eric to get it going,” Belisle said. “He’s is a talented offensive player and needs to work hard to get his chances. Hopefully, he is ready to go this weekend as we could use the offense for sure.”

This weekend the Beacons play teams right in front of them in the standings. For all intents and purposes, then, the playoffs really begin now.

Purple Knights Making End of Season Push

Although a D-II team is not eligible for the conference playoffs at the end of the season, St. Michael’s is focused on playing its best hockey to reach its best finish possible in the league and prepare for defense of its Northeast-10 title from last season.

“We have definitely played better since the break,” stated second year head coach Chris Davidson. “Our seniors have really stepped it up in the second half and have carried us to some nice wins since the break. We certainly don’t like where we are right now and know we are a better team than the point total indicates but we will have to really work through the injury bug that has bitten us lately and find a way to get some points and finish as high as we can in the league standings.”

Three seniors have been key for the Knights, starting up front with forwards Ryan Mero (4-13-17) and Chris Healey (10-5-15) who are the top two scorers on the team. Mero is just seven points shy of the century mark for his career at St. Mike’s and Healey has been a power-play opportunist posting six goals with the man advantage.

In goal, senior Tyler Bilton (3.64 goals against average, .908 save percentage) has been outstanding for the Knights as they have looked for the consistent game needed to be successful in the ECAC East.

“Tyler has really worked hard all year,” noted Davidson. “Without question he has been our most consistent player every night and every game even on nights we didn’t bring our best as a team. He is very focused and would certainly like to take his game to the next level, so he continues to work hard and will be a key for us in the rest of the league games as well as the D-II tournament.”

Former Cadet Hits NHL Milestone

Thanks to Norwich head coach Mike McShane who passed along the news that 2005 graduate and Player of the Year winner Kurtis McLean scored his first NHL goal as a member of the New York Islanders in just his second game with the club. The goal against Anaheim proved to be the game winner, earning the ex-Cadet “second star” of the game honors.

“He was called up against the Capitals on Monday and got some good ice time,” said McShane. “I got the chance to see both games and Kurtis looked great out there. He certainly looked like he belonged on the ice and played very well.”

Fellow Norwich alum Keith Aucoin has spent time in the NHL with both Carolina and Washington this season. While not a common occurrence to see many D-III guys playing in the NHL, look for McLean to get a chance to play more for an Islander squad looking to move up in the Atlantic Division.

Congrats to Kurtis on the first of what will hopefully be many in his career. We’ll be watching.

Just five weeks left in the regular season and the playoff intensity is ramping up with points and potential head-to-head tiebreaker games abounding in the league. The teams are all bundled together and the scoreboard watching is about to begin in earnest. Everyone knows that points are at a premium; the match-ups are key and everything is up for grabs. I know I say this every year but . . . it doesn’t get any better than this!

Drop the puck!

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