This Week in the ECAC East and NESCAC

Wow!

I mean wow!

Talk about polar opposites: the NESCAC conference quarterfinals basically all held to form with the top seeds holding serve on home ice in the first round setting up a classic No. 1 vs. No. 4 and No. 2 vs. No. 3 semifinal round at Amherst College on Friday while the ECAC East featured upsets galore.

For the record, this writer was 75% right (including the scores) with the exception of Williams beating Bowdoin in overtime by a margin of 3-2. Right score, right period, wrong team. It doesn’t get easier this week but it should be fun.

On the ECAC East side of the equation, I thought I was being bold in predicting upsets by seeds five, six, and seven. I should have read my own material from just a week prior where I warned teams about the danger of playing against UMass-Boston–not too bright on my part but in my own defense, I did see the 9-1 loss against Conn College that ended the regular season and wasn’t sure that the “second” season was going to be enough to revitalize the Beacons on their way to Norwich.

How wrong was I?

David killed Goliath in his own backyard and for the first time ever, ensuring the ECAC East final four will be somewhere other than its normal locale in Northfield, Vt.

“We basically started to build them back up on that Monday,” stated Beacon head coach Peter Belisle. “We told the kids we had a new life, that it was a new season and that we could all of the other stuff from the regular season behind us and just focus on one game.

“The kids really played great and Ryan Donovan was big against Norwich. I thought my heart skipped a few beats when Kashirsky’s shot fluttered past him and hit the post in regulation and sat in the crease. One of our defensemen, I am not even sure who, cleared it out and that was a big play. Then Wayne Sands, who as a defenseman is our leading goal scorer made a huge play in overtime following up his own rebound to give us the win. That may be the biggest win for our program.”

As if No. 8 beating the top seed wasn’t enough, Nos. 6 and 7 won too, so the highest remaining seed is New England College as the No. 4 seed who won the right to host the final four by surviving in overtime against Southern Maine–the other game I had the score right and winner wrong.

There is some great hockey on tap this weekend and for the eight teams remaining, it’s wide open. Everybody has a shot and everyone understands they are much closer to hoisting some hardware. The pressure is on and nobody is taking any opponent lightly.

Here are my predictions for this weekend’s final four tournaments. And remember: sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.

NESCAC

Amherst has earned the unusual distinction of hosting both the men’s and women’s final fours this weekend after finishing first in the regular season in their respective conferences. On the male side, it’s the first time hosting for Amherst and the atmosphere should be special for the J-E-F-F, JEFFS, JEFFS, JEFFS!

No. 2 Middlebury vs. No. 3 Williams

This is the early game on Friday afternoon and in the regular season match-up back in January, Williams rallied late for a 4-4 tie at Kenyon Arena at Middlebury. The Ephs have to feel a little like Rodney Dangerfield in that they don’t seem to go too much respect.

They have been consistent all year but never have been very prominent on a lot of people’s radar screens. In fact, many–myself not included–felt that Bowdoin could go in and upset the Ephs last weekend. In the end, though, that was not the case as freshman Ryan Purdy continued his torrid second half run in goal for Williams, posting a 2.25 goals against average and superb .929 save percentage. Last week he was even better in stopping 46 of 48 shots for a .958 save percentage in the win over Bowdoin. Those kind of numbers will win a lot of hockey games.

Up front, Williams will continue to look to be opportunistic and balanced in their scoring led by seniors Matt Draheim (nine goals, eight assists, 17 points) and Brett Haraguchi (8-9-17) as well as sophomores Matt Masucci (7-12-19) and Ryan Young (9-7-16). The four lead the team in points as well as special team goals and game-winning tallies. If special teams are a factor in this one, Williams will need to take advantage of Middlebury’s penalty kill unit which has struggled on occasions this year.

For the Panthers, they are looking to return to the championship game for the 10th consecutive season. They have a core of players that have seen all of this before and will be expected to lead the team in their pursuit of another NESCAC title.

Up front, seniors Jamie McKenna (14-22-36) and Mason Graddock (13-8-21) lead the conference’s most prolific offense that can challenge in even strength situations and is deadly on the power play. Freshman Martin Drolet (19-14-33) looks to build on his first conference tournament experience where he scored two goals against Hamilton in last week’s quarterfinal win.

Defensively, the Panthers are deep and have experience in goal with senior Doug Raeder having played a lot down the stretch. While his overall statistics have not been great this year, Raeder has played in big games before and that experience could prove huge.

If it’s not Rader, Middlebury has great confidence in freshman John Yanchek who has gone 12-1-0 this season with a 2.56 goals against average and .900 save percentage. The Panthers traditionally do not give up a lot of shots, so it’s about making the needed saves and setting up the transition attack.

Prediction: Middlebury 4, Williams 2–The Panthers have the experience and a little more firepower than the Ephs. Special teams will be a factor in this one as Middlebury advances, searing for their eighth NESCAC crown.

No. 1 Amherst vs. No. 4 Trinity

The nightcap on Friday pits the defending champions from Trinity against Amherst’s best defense. This one could go awhile based on the performances of two of the nation’s premier goaltenders: Amherst’s Cole Anderson and Trinity’s Wes Vesprini. I am not just thinking overtime, but multiple overtimes if these guys do their usual thing between the pipes.

Trinity played Amherst all the way back in the first game of the season in November–which seems like ages ago. They are one of the few teams to score more than two against the Lord Jeffs this season, but gave up five in the opening night loss. Vesprini is a key for the Bantams as he has the ability to carry a team in the playoffs as he did last season on their run to the title and through to the NCAA quarterfinals. Although just 5-5 in their last 10 games, the Bantams are playing good hockey right now and will outwork most opponents every night.

“I feel pretty good about the effort the kids have shown the last few games,” said coach Dave Cataruzolo. “We didn’t get the results we wanted the last weekend against two very good teams in Skidmore and Castleton but I felt like we were setting up well for the playoffs with the level of intensity and energy. We need to play our brand of hockey and execute rather than worry about what Amherst does well.”

A key area of focus will be on containing the NESCAC Player for the Year, Amherst’s senior defenseman Jeff Landers.

“He just makes everyone else around him so much better,” observed an obviously impressed Cataruzolo. “He sees the ice so well and can distribute the puck to people in position to score goals–we are going to need to be aware of him and for sure part of the game plan is staying out fo the box so he doesn’t get power play opportunities against us.”

Sophomore Adam Houli (10-11-21) and freshman Paul Jaskot (10-10-20) lead the team statistically but look for key leadership from seniors Ryan Masucci (9-11-20) and defenseman Chris Diozzi (6-10-16) if the Bantams are going to surprise the home team in the semis.

It’s been awhile since Amherst has seen defeat on the ice. You have to go back to January 17 and a 1-0 road loss at Salem State. At home, the Lord Jeffs are unbeaten at 9-0-1 so home cooking is definitely a good thing in Amherst’s pursuit of their first NESCAC title.

The key for Amherst is the back half of the ice. Their defense and goaltending are exceptional. The blueline corps includes seniors Jeff Landers (8-27-35), Rylan Burns (1-11-12) and Shane Lennox (2-2-4), all who are rock solid and very composed in front of the unflappable Cole Anderson and Jonathan Larose whose numbers this year defy description. Combined the two are 19-4-1 with a 1.49 GAA and .951 save pct. Amherst won’t beat themselves, but will need to score enough on Vesprini to win it.

Prediction: Amherst 2, Trinity 1–I would go with double overtime on this but don’t want to have to bring my sleeping bag to the rink. This game will be as advertised with the only difference potentially being senior Jeff Landers who has a knack this season for the big goal or big pass setting up the big goal in any situation. Look for a Amherst vs. Middlebury rematch in the final on Saturday night.

FINAL–No. 1 Amherst vs. No. 2 Middlebury

This potential championship game would be a rematch from the last week of the season where Amherst stormed out to a 4-0 first period lead and calmly survived the Middlebury onslaught for two periods, before hanging on for a 4-3 victory. Unlike the semifinals where the match-ups took place early in the season, this one is fresh for both teams and it is probably the intangibles that decide the outcome here.

Home ice is a factor for the Lord Jeffs, who will look to complete the season with an unbeaten record at home. For Middlebury, coach Bill Beaney will be behind the bench for this game, something that was not the case in the prior match-up. This should help the Panthers. Special teams are also likely to be a factor again in this game.

Prediction: Amherst 3, Middlebury 2–Head coach Beaney is famous for saying that goaltending and defense win championships. He’s right about that. And in this case Amherst has a slight upper hand. But I do not think this game will the end the season for either team; I expect this result will still place both teams in the NCAA tournament.

ECAC East

New England College becomes the first team to host the final four other than Norwich. Ever. And their home rink probably has a similar advantage for the resident team as Kreitzburg has held for the Cadets. This tournament is wide open as last week’s results indicated how closely matched all of these teams truly are. Not sure what to expect on Friday and wish somehow I could clone myself to be at both places to see both sets of semis–I will have to live vicariously for this one and here is what I expect to happen.

No. 6 Skidmore vs. No. 7 Babson

Both teams played well on the road last week and came away with key victories against the higher seeded opponents. Both squads have also started playing well at the right time of the year and are quite familiar with each other, having played twice already this season–once in the regular season and once in the Oswego Holiday tournament. The outcome of both of the games went to Skidmore by 4-1 and 5-2 scores.

Babson has been led all year by junior forward Jason Schneider (9-21-30) and senior defenseman Alex DiPietro (7-18-25), who bring intensity and performance every night for coach Jamie Rice’s team. Freshman goalie Andrew Peabody has stepped in nicely for the Beavers, improving on his regular season numbers by posting his first playoff win last weekend along with a .964 save percentage in earning second star honors for the game against Castleton.

Babson does have some big game experience from players who were part of the 2007 championship run, so look for JT Balben, Pat McLaughlin and Brad Baldelli to all play key roles in the run for the title.

For Skidmore, this is new territory. Their run through February, however, has prepared them well for the intensity of the playoffs as the last few weeks made each and every game seem like a postseason tilt in the hunt for points and seed positioning. This is a very young team that will need to leverage the leadership of seniors Phil McDavitt and Mike Gibbons. Offensively, a trio of sophomores lead the way with Brett Bandasian (10-13-23), Hunter Thayer (9-10-19) and Alex Mykolenko (10-6-16) will need to leverage their speed in attacking the Babson defense.

Coach Neil Sinclair noted that “his team is excited to be in this position–playing with an opportunity to play for a conference title. Last year we went through a lot but there were some good lessons learned. This year it is exciting to be in the final four but we are probably still the underdog based on Babson’s experience. I really like our speed in this match-up and our counter attacking offense.”

In goal, freshman Colin Bessey has been outstanding in the second half of the season and last week was the star of the game in the 4-3 win over Salem State where he stopped 41 of 44 shots.

Prediction: Babson 4, Skidmore 3–This one could go to overtime and I would not be surprised. It’s hard to beat a team three times in a row in any season–just ask Connecticut College about Trinity. Think experience and talent wins out here over just talent.

No. 4 New England College vs. No. 8 UMass-Boston

The Pilgrims were the only top seed to survive and it took overtime against Southern Maine to end up hosting this weekend. During the regular season, New England College downed the Beacons by a 5-2 score with both teams combining for almost 80 shots on goal, 34 in the first period alone. Coach Carroll’s team would probably like to see that kind of track meet again but it’s unlikely that the Beacons will want to play ‘run and gun” with the offensive talent NEC rolls out every shift.

Freshman forward Olli Kalliosaari (11-12-23) had a three point game the first time around along with a strong contribution from sophomore Johan Granath (9-13-22). While leading scorer Mark Ehl (9-16-25) was kept off the scoreboard in early February, he had key assists last week on both the game tying and game-winning goals for the Pilgrims.

Goaltender Aaron Harvey has been very consistent this year but will need to be sharp and improve on last week’s save percentage stat for the Pilgrims to advance to the final on Saturday.

For the Beacons, coach Belisle is looking for a repeat of last week’s very disciplined game that held down the Norwich attack and saw the return to form of junior goalie Ryan Donovan.

“Ryan looked great last week,” said Belisle. “He was in total control of the puck and played like we know he can–it’s really important this time of the year to get great goaltending and if he continues to play like this we are in the hunt.”

Another key for the Beacons is offense from the blueline as freshman Wayne Sands is the team’s leading goal scorer including last week’s game winner in overtime.

“He’s probably our MVP at this point in the season but we still have some more hockey to play,” commented Belisle. “We can’t let this game go like the first one and will need to create some traffic in the neutral zone to slow down their talented offensive players. This is wide open for any of the four teams so we will need to play very well in all facets of the game to advance.”

Prediction: NEC 3, UMB 1–Yes, I’m tempting the fates again by picking the higher seed against the Beacons, but the Pilgrims are 12-3-1 at home this season and really like to play there regardless of the opponent. This one will probably come down to who is better between Harvey and Donovan and I am going with consistency here.

FINAL–No. 4 New England College vs. No. 7 Babson

It’s hard not to consider the first match-up where the Beavers shutout the Pilgrims 6-0 on home ice. No excuses for the Pilgrims who were fighting the flu and injury bugs and would take nothing away from the strong game Babson played in racing out to a comfortable 5-0 lead. However, that is not a likely scenario this time around.

The teams are playing for the autobid and I expect the game to be close but also expect experience on the road to overcome the home ice advantage.

Prediction: Babson, 3 NEC 1–This makes up for results that were not quite up to expectations in the regular season. Two titles in three years clearly elevates the program and Babson will look to continue their post-season success in the NCAA tournament.

When all the conference championship games have concluded and the victors are crowned, hopefully three teams from the two conferences will make the NCAAs–which will lead to some more excitement in March and perhaps right up to the D-III Frozen Four in Lake Placid.

The field is whittled down and now it’s down to just a couple of more games before someone is dancing on the ice and collecting conference hardware. If your team is still alive, support them this weekend–especially the seniors who are likely playing their final games in competitive ice hockey. It’s a ride no one wants to get off, but this weekend truly anoints the champs. Congrats to all of the teams that made this season so exciting right up until the end and to those with games yet remaining.

The final four summits are set–drop the puck!

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