Well the first week of the conference playoffs definitely did not disappoint in terms of the level of play and excitement that sudden death hockey brings to any and all arenas.
There were favorites who won comfortably; there were upsets by visitors who came ready to play; and there were three 2-1 games decided in overtime that clearly demonstrated the old adage about â€œthe thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.â€
This week the final four for both conferences are set. The hosts are the top seeds. Norwich once again is hosting the ECAC East championship, while Bowdoin — and its new Sid Watson Arena — hosts the NESCAC title weekend for the very first time in search of their first conference title.
For both conferences, the top two seeds are into the final four and the other home ice seeds were upset in the quarterfinals, showing the great balance among the teams in both conferences. Anything can happen in a one-and-done tournament, so it may not be about being the best team but more about the team that is playing its very best right now — when it matters most.
This is what everyone started playing and prepping for way back on Nov. 1, when the first practices began in earnest. There is no question that everyone will be ready to play and leaving the maximum effort on the ice. Passing Bowdoin head coach Terry Meagherâ€™s â€œpillow testâ€ shouldnâ€™t be an issue this weekend.
â€œWhen you finally go to sleep at night after a game and put your head down on the pillow, can you honestly say as a player and a teammate that you left everything on the ice and performed to the best of your ability that day?â€ asked Meagher. â€œIf the answer is yes, then you should sleep well. If no, you need to step it up the next time out and focus on being the best you can be for the entire 60 minutes or more.â€
Thereâ€™s no question that players this week will leave it out on the ice, most likely for the last time this season. But depending on the outcomes, there probably wonâ€™t be a lot of good nightâ€™s sleep while wondering about what might have been for three teams that ultimately donâ€™t skate with the championship trophy.
Hereâ€™s a look at the semis and likely final matchups for the two conferences.
ECAC East Final Four (Hosted at Norwich)
No. 6 New England College at No. 1 Norwich
Regular season result: Norwich won 6-2 at home in a game where they took the lead on a late second period goal and scored three in the third for the final differential.
Preview: The Cadets like home cooking as their 14-0-2 record would indicate. They have outscored their opponents 133-37 this season, so not only do they have firepower, they donâ€™t give you much on the back end either. The FAT (Fast Attack Trio) line of Forkey, Anderson and Thomas is one of the best in the country, but the Cadets have a lot of other weapons and great balance from all four of their lines.
For NEC, Alex Muse has had a terrific season and several of the seniors on this team would clearly like nothing better than to knock off their long time rival. Aaron Harvey is going to have to be a big game goalie if the Pilgrims are to have any chance in this one, as the Northfield faithful will create a very hostile environment for the visitors.
Prediction: Norwich wants the title back and would like to enter the NCAA tournament as conference champions. Overall, itâ€™s been an up and down year for NEC and while last weekâ€™s win at Castleton should boost the confidence, the Cadets have just too much depth and talent for the Pilgrims to post another upset in Northfield this weekend.
Score? Norwich 5, NEC 2.
No. 5 Skidmore vs. No. 2 Babson
Regular Season Result: Skidmore defeated Babson 4-3 on the road in a game where the Thoroughbreds took an early 3-0 lead and held on against the Beavers, who narrowed it to the one goal differential with an extra-attacker goal in the final minute of the game.
Preview: â€œI thought we had some great chances after a bad start,â€ said University of Massachusetts-Boston head coach Peter Belisle. â€œThey are a very good hockey team and [Zeke] Testa is very, very good in goal. If they get that kind of performance from him this weekend at Norwich, they will definitely challenge again for the championship.â€
Testa did not play in the regular season game between the two teams but has been a fixture in the Babson net down the stretch. For Skidmore, they will need to have playoff-caliber goaltending and continue to get big goals from Alex Mykolenko and Matt Czerkowicz. Both teams like to skate and move the puck so this one shapes up to be a track meet, meaning both teams will get good chances putting a further premium on the guys between the pipes.
Prediction: There is a lot to like about the way Babson plays at this time of the year. They have won two titles in the last four years and will be poised to challenge again this year. Zeke Testa is the difference this time around and the Beavers create the final between the two top seeds on Saturday night.
Score? Babson 4, Skidmore 2.
Projected ECAC East Championship Game: No. 2 Babson at No. 1 Norwich
Regular Season Result: The teams skated to a 3-3 overtime tie at Babson. Despite being outshot by almost a 2-to-1 margin, the Beavers held a 3-2 lead in the third only to be tied by a last minute goal by the Cadetâ€™s Blake Forkey.
Preview: â€œI think this is the game everyone expects to see on Saturday night,â€ said Beacons head coach Peter Belisle. â€œBoth of these teams are very talented and the goaltending for both is excellent which should mean a close game.â€
Overall, Norwich has been exceptional anywhere they have played this year. But they have been especially good at home. Babson actually has a better record on the road than at home and has played more games away from campus this season.
Terry Woods, Chris Wood and the rest of the Beaver forwards are going to have to attack the size and speed of the Norwich defenders in order to get good opportunities on goalie Ryan Klingensmith. The power play, which clicked for two of their three goals against Norwich, will need to be effective here if the Cadets find themselves in the box.
The formula for Norwich doesnâ€™t change much from what has worked all season. Pressure, pressure and more pressure on the opposition by rolling four lines and moving the puck quickly in transition will create good offensive chances that will challenge Zeke Testa.
Prediction: The number one seed and top ranked team in the country didnâ€™t get to that lofty plateau by accident. The Cadets will reclaim the crown from last yearâ€™s champions in a hard fought title game. The home ice does matter in this one and the game is ultimately closer than the final score projects.
Score? Norwich 5, Babson 2.
NESCAC Final Four (Hosted at Bowdoin)
No. 6 Hamilton at No. 1 Bowdoin
Regular Season Results: Back in early February, the Polar Bears surrendered an early tally at home and then ran off six unanswered goals, including two shorthanded, on their way to a 6-1 victory.
Preview: There is something that just seems right about the NESCAC championship weekend being hosted at a rink named after a legend in college hockey, Sid Watson. I am sure he will have the best seat in the house watching the festivities in â€œhisâ€ arena.
Hamilton has been very good down the stretch, winning their last four in a row including two overtime wins in the last two weeks. Three 20 point scorers lead the way for the Continentals who will rely on the leadership of Chris Lorenc, Joe Buicko and Anthony Scarpino to carry the load offensively.
For Bowdoin, last weekâ€™s overtime thriller against cross-state rival Colby showed this team can get it done with defense and solid goaltending. While defenseman Kyle Shearer-Hardy leads the team in scoring, senior Colin MacCormick and junior Jeff Fanning have been key goal scorers for the Polar Bears who lead the conference in offensive production this season.
Goalie Chris Rossi has had a magical year, posting a 13-0-1 record, and last week came up with some big saves in overtime to give Bowdoin a chance to win their quarterfinal matchup at home.
Prediction: Donâ€™t see overtime in this one but it is going to be close. The home crowd will be rocking and that will help Bowdoin rise to the occasion and take another step towards their first NESCAC title.
Score? Bowdoin 3, Hamilton 2.
No. 5 Trinity vs. No. 2 Middlebury
Regular Season Result: Trinity came back to tie the Panthers on a late third period goal after falling behind 2-0. The Bantams were outshot 40-23 in the game and settled for the 2-2 overtime tie behind the great goaltending of Wes Vesprini.
Preview: â€œI am sure we are both different teams now than when we played the first time,â€ said Trinity head coach Dave Cataruzolo. â€œWe have relied heavily on Wes [Vesprini] but actually have been asking him to do less as the season has gone on the defense matured over time. We really try to limit the Grade A scoring chances and have successfully kept things to the outside so hopefully we can do that against Middlebury who has a number of very talented offensive players.â€
Five Panthers have double digit goal totals this season and sophomore goalie John Yanchek has taken over the number one spot down the stretch for the Panthers who have won seven in a row and ten of their last 11 on the season.
Last week they bombarded one of the nationâ€™s best in Tuftsâ€™ goalie Scott Barchard so Vesprini should expect to see a lot of pucks from a lot of different angles.
These two teams are very familiar with each other in the playoffs and Trinity has recently had the better of the matchups. They will focus on playing a tight defensive game and trying to counter-attack when the opportunities present themselves. Adam Houli with 15 goals on the season is the only player in double digits for the Bantams so offensively they will need somebody else to find the back of the net to upset the Panthers.
Prediction: This is the proverbial matchup of offense vs. defense; the firepower of Middlebury vs. the defense and goaltending of Trinity. While the Bantams have had the better of recent matchups between the two teams, I think the offense wins out here in combination with the solid play of Yanchek for Middlebury. Vesprini has been great and will be in this one too but the Panthers prevail.
Score? Middlebury 3, Trinity 2 (OT)
Projected NESCAC Championship Game: No. 2 Middlebury at No. 1 Bowdoin
Regular Season Result: The Panthers built an early 4-1 lead at home against Bowdoin and won by a 5-2 score at the end of January.
Preview: Both teams were great in the final month of the season in trying to gain the top spot in the regular season standings. Bowdoin matched Middleburyâ€™s seven game win streak to close the season and their last loss was to the Panthers.
Any time these two teams get together it is an exciting hockey game. Both teams play a similar 3-2 style of play that have some unique elements based on the styles of two great coaches: Middleburyâ€™s Bill Beaney and Bowdoinâ€™s Terry Meagher.
Yancheck played in the first game between the two teams and now will play in his first conference title game. Rossi did not play the first time around so the Panthers will have to solve the unbeaten senior in order to win the title.
Both teams skate very well and move the puck quickly in transition with a lot of support to the offense coming from the back line in players like Hardy for Bowdoin and Bryan Curran for the Panthers. These are the most prolific offenses in the league but donâ€™t expect a big score here.
Prediction: Last year saw Amherst hosting for the first time and winning their first title on home ice over the Panthers in the final. This year Bowdoin will hand the Panthers their first loss to a NESCAC team all season in a hard fought game that will come right down to the end.
Score? Bowdoin 4, Middlebury 3.
NE-10 Conference Tournament
The two remaining D-II teams face off against each other in the finals of the NE-10 tournament on Saturday afternoon. St. Anselm, the top seed, will host the number two seeded Ice Dogs from Assumption College for the NE-10 crown.
Regular Season Result: Way back in early December the hawks put a hurting on the Ice Dogs, winning at home by an 11-2 score that included five power-play goals and two shorthanded tallies. Both teams are at a different place now so you can throw the first matchup out the window when a title is on the line this time around.
Preview: Assumption boasts two 40 point scorers in sophomores Tyler Larsen (18 goals, 22 assists, 40 points) and winger Pat Oâ€™Kane (26-14-40). Both have been prolific in any and all situations on the ice but especially deadly on special teams where they can score on the power play or shorthanded. Goalie Nick Blanchette comes into the final with a solid 2.92 goals against average and .922 save percentage, but will need to be at his best against the high flying Hawks.
For St. Anselm, being the top seed is not unfamiliar territory, but winning the tournament from that position has been a challenge as the hawks have only lifted the trophy twice.
â€œWe know we come in with everyone gunning for us,â€ said Seney. â€œItâ€™s great that we get to play this game at home with our fans here so hopefully we can be one of only three teams that can say they won their last game of the season.â€
The Hawks will rely on leading scorer Coleman Noonan (21-22-43) and freshman Tucker Mullin (16-15-31) to lead the offense while goalie Alex Wyse looks to continue his clutch play in goal that belies his season statistical numbers.
Prediction: This one will be a high scoring affair as there is just too much offense on both sides for the goalies to stop everything thrown at them. St. Anselm had a great second place finish in the difficult ECAC East and interlocking NESCAC schedule so they are battle tested and ready to claim the only piece of hardware available to D-II teams today.
Score? St. Anselm 6, Assumption 4.
Everyone is focused, excited and really projecting the â€œtake them one at a timeâ€ approach to the weekend. Win one and move on. Win two and enjoy the celebration in advance of playing on the national stage in the NCAA tournament. The rewards are right there in front of everyone, which makes the winning sweeter and the losing more difficult to swallow. The teams are ready — are you?
Drop the puck.