ECAC East/NESCAC weekend wrap: Jan. 31

It’s official — scoreboard watching season has opened and now will be in full swing entering the final three weekends of the regular season. As if things weren’t hotly contested enough in the conference standings, this past weekend’s action clearly tightened the races and has teams wondering about how to get as many of the 12 points available in February as they can.
So, who are this week’s movers and shakers?
At the top of the ECAC East, it has become the battle of Vermont with Castleton and Norwich tied for first with 22 points apiece — six points clear of third place Babson. Technically, Castleton has the top spot on the basis of more wins (11 vs. NU’s 10) and has been on a roll this season.  Currently at 17-2-0, the Spartans are unbeaten on the road at 10-0 this season, where they will play four of their final six games.  Of the remaining home games, one will be the rematch with Norwich in two weeks, where the Cadets will try to avenge a nonconference loss before Christmas in a game that likely will have more significance in the standings and potential hosting of the ECAC East final four should the teams get there.
For third place Babson, last weekend found the Beavers picking up three of four points for the second weekend in a row.  After a 9-4 pasting of St. Mike’s on Friday, coach Jamie Rice’s squad played a great game against Norwich and earned a point with a 4-4 overtime tie.  Senior Jason Schneider (4-3-7) was the offensive star of the weekend and he may be finding his game at just the right time of the year.  After redshirting last year due to a serious knee injury, Schneider started out slowly this season, but has now scored nine goals and leads Babson with five game-winning tallies.
Fourth place Massachusetts-Boston stumbled this weekend, losing both ends of the Norwich-St.Michael’s road trip.  After a difficult 2-0 loss on Friday to the Cadets, the Beacons really had trouble getting it going against the Purple Knights and lost 4-1 while being outshot 45-30. Only Vinnie Jacona’s late third period goal prevented senior goalie Brendan Rimmer from his second shutout of the season.  The Beacons return home this weekend for their final two games against ECAC East conference opponents before finishing the season with battles against four of the top teams in the NESCAC conference.
Speaking of the NESCAC conference, things have certainly tightened up in the standings after it looked like a couple of teams might go and hide from the rest of the league.  Right now, just seven points separate first from seventh place in the standings, so a good weekend or a bad one in the final three certainly can change a position quickly.
For league leader Bowdoin, this past weekend saw two key matchups with Williams and Middlebury. The Polar Bears split the weekend games, holding on for a 3-2 win over the Ephs before dropping a hard-fought game, 4-2, to the resurgent Panthers.  This weekend promises more of the same playoff intensity as Bowdoin heads on the road to face two other top-four contenders in Hamilton and Amherst.
Look at the standings and you just might be surprised by the No. 2 team in the standings.  Hamilton proved this past weekend that they will win anyway you want to play it.  On Friday night, the Continentals needed an empty-net goal to close out a 3-1 victory over Southern Maine.  On Saturday, it looked like the NHL All-Star game with a 10-7 scoring bonanza against UNE, where the visitors scored eight times in the second period to take control of the game.  Joe Houk, Michael DiMare and Bryan Kelly each had two goals in the game and will need to bring the offense home this weekend against always tough Colby and Bowdoin.
Amherst became the first team to lose this season in league play to UNE.  As previewed, this was a trap game, as the Nor’easters had been playing well with nothing to show for it in the win column until their 5-2 victory over a struggling Lord Jeffs team that suffered its third consecutive loss.  Saturday’s 3-0 win over Southern Maine righted the ship, but it doesn’t get any easier for Amherst, with their final four games on the road against ECAC East opponents.
There is another team lurking just outside the top four, and it should be no surprise that Middlebury has got things going.  A 4-1 win over Colby on Friday was followed up by a 4-2 win in the rematch of last year’s NESCAC championship game, and the Panthers are just one point out of a home playoff seeding with one game in hand on three teams above them in the standings.  Since January 1, Bill Beaney’s squad is 6-1-3, and will really find out where they are with three more road games this week, including Plattsburgh on Tuesday night and Norwich on Friday night.  Juniors Martin Drolet and Charlie Strauss have led the Panthers back from the disappointing start early in the season and, once again, Middlebury appears to be in the mix.
There is  still a lot of hockey to be played in February, but the weekends and number of games are going by at a frightening pace.  Not much time left to make your move and play the best hockey you can and need to when it matters most.
3, 2, 1…drop the puck!