Neumann Knights (17-9-2 overall, 8-5-2 in ECAC West)
Last Saturday, Neumann won its first ECAC West championship in dramatic fashion. Sophomore defenseman Jeff Rodell crashed the net and swatted home a rebound with just 4.2 seconds remaining to defeat Hobart, 3-2.
The title game was the culmination of the Knights roll through the league playoffs, starting in the play-in game against Utica, through a stunning win at Elmira and finally the dramatic victory over Hobart. This senior-laden team is not ending the season quietly.
â€œSaturday night, they made their point,â€ said Neumann coach Dominick Dawes. â€œThey have been playing that way for a couple of weeks now, knowing what they have needed to do. It is a good time. They are excited and loose. They are having fun, which comes along with being successful. The guys are excited about the opportunity to move forward.â€
Neumannâ€™s high powered scoring has landed many of the Knights near the top of most offensive categories in the ECAC West. Four of the top six scorers in the league are Knights, including seniors Mike Hedden and Kyle Casey, junior Matt Ward, and freshman Marlon Gardner. Each has tallied more than 30 points this year.
Freshman Ross MacKinnon took over the starting goaltender role early in the season and has been rock solid ever since, winning each of the ECAC West playoff games by a single goal.
After all the excitement from last Saturdayâ€™s title game, the Knights have had only a few days to prepare for the schoolâ€™s first NCAA tournament game. But perhaps that isnâ€™t such a bad thing for a team on a roll such as Neumann.
â€œAt this point of the year, weâ€™ve been playing well and are in a groove,â€ said Dawes. â€œThe Wednesday game isnâ€™t a bad thing to get right back out there and go. Thereâ€™s no waiting around for it. The players had Sunday to relax and unwind a little bit. Weâ€™ll skate Monday and Tuesday, then leave right after practice. Itâ€™s a quick turn around, but I think they like that. They would rather be out there playing in the games.â€
The Knights return to Elmiraâ€™s Thunderdomes to face a very familiar foe in the Soaring Eagles, a team Neumann has played five times already this season. Neumannâ€™s lone victory over Elmira this season came in its last game, in the ECAC West semifinals, on the same ice that the two teams will meet on Wednesday.
â€œWeâ€™ve played a quarter of our schedules against each other,â€ said Dawes. â€œItâ€™s fun. The older kids have seen each other a ton over the course of their four years. They know what each other has, the strengths of the programs. It should be up to them to decide who goes on. Elmira has had a great year. They deserve be there.â€
All but one of the five games between Neumann and Elmira this year has been decided by two goals or less. Wednesdayâ€™s NCAA play-in game should be another barn burner for the right to keep playing at least another game.
Elmira Soaring Eagles (16-7-3 overall, 9-3-3 in ECAC West)
For the third time in the last four years, the Elmira Soaring Eagles are in the NCAA tournament. Three weeks ago, it seemed like Elmira had the Pool B bid locked up, but then the Soaring Eagles lost altitude, struggling to only a 2-3-1 mark since the end of January.
Despite such a poor showing in the month of February, Elmira had built up enough of a rÃ©sumÃ© during the first four months of the season to be a solid Pool C tournament selection.
â€œI thought the numbers spoke for themselves,â€ said Elmira coach Tim Ceglarski. â€œAll of our numbers during the regular season had us in. Weâ€™re happy to be playing.â€
Now the Soaring Eagles face a very familiar Neumann Knights team. Wednesdayâ€™s NCAA play-in game will be the sixth time that these two teams have met, accounting for nearly a quarter of each teamâ€™s games this season.
â€œIt is unbelievable that it is six times weâ€™ve played them,â€ said Ceglarski. â€œWe have seen them play some great hockey and not so great hockey and they have seen us do the same thing. It is going to be a hard fought game, for sure. They are a great hockey team, a well coached team, and have a lot of offensive firepower. It should be an interesting match-up for sure.â€
Elmira holds a 3-1-1 advantage in its five previous meetings with Neumann this season, including a win in the consolation game of the Times-Argus tournament and an unbeaten record in the ECAC West regular season.
But Neumann stunned Elmira two weekends ago in their most important meeting of the season–prior to tonightâ€™s NCAA game–when the Knights beat the Soaring Eagles, 2-1, in the ECAC West semifinal round. In that game, Neumann got out to a 2-0 by the midway point and then held on for the victory.
If recent practices are any indication, Elmira has shaken off the sting of that defeat and are itching to get back on the ice again.
â€œI donâ€™t think what happened a week ago is in our guyâ€™s minds,â€ said Ceglarski. â€œWe have a lot of returning players that had a great regular season [last year] and nothing to show for it at the end of the year. That is more of a motivation.
â€œWe havenâ€™t played our best hockey over the last couple of weeks. But we had our best week of practice perhaps this past week and are just anxious to play again to see if we can continue the season a little bit longer.â€
In last yearâ€™s NCAA tournament, Elmira made it all the way to the national semis before falling to a high speed Plattsburgh team. The Soaring Eagles ran out to a quick 2-0 lead just five minutes into that game before collapsing before a furious Plattsburgh counterattack to lose, 6-3.
Extending their season another game this year is on the minds of every player that is still on the ice.
â€œThe sense of desperation has stepped up, the realization that the end might be right around the corner,â€ concluded Ceglarski.