The battle is upon us. It’s Spartans vs. Cadets, and no, this not a reenactment of the legend of the 300, nor The Charge of the Light Brigade. With just four games remaining in the regular season, this is to get a leg up on the other team for first place in the ECAC East and capture the number one seed entering playoff time.
“This is really exciting for us, and this is exactly where we want to be as a team playing for the top spot,” stated Castleton coach Alex Todd. “We know that these guys are very good, and come in with a deserved reputation, having been the ECAC East and national champions last year. They have earned their respect, but we are excited about the challenge and have focused on getting here as a team and for the program. You win championships in phases. We have played in two tournaments this year and won them both, and now have a chance to win the regular season. It doesn’t guarantee anything but home ice, but it is another stepping stone.”
Castleton comes into the game at 17-2-1, having captured a win and a tie last week against UNE and Southern Maine on the road. Todd feels that the team learned a lot from the tie against USM, and sees the reaction to the game as a positive coming into the big game on Friday.
“We definitely left a point on the table last week, and the kids knew it right away,” noted Todd. “We didn’t have to say anything in the locker room. They understood we had a 4-2 lead entering the third period and got away from some things that have made us successful. They weren’t sad or depressed. They were mad and already focused about the game the next day, where we started out fast and finished strong — played a full 60 minutes.”
The Spartans are led by their big three forwards, Stuart Stefan, Josh Harris and Justin Alonzo, who have combined for 48 goals and 108 points so far this season. They really have been successful in all circumstances on the ice, and are not afraid of any match-up with the opponent’s best line.
“I did try and keep them away from the other team’s top line at points in the season,” stated Todd. “The three of them came to me and asked very directly for me to stop doing that. They are very comfortable playing against anyone out there and want the challenge of playing against the top line every night. They aren’t just about offense, so they relish doing their job and playing their game to show they are among the best.
“I don’t think I will be matching Friday night, just because Norwich has so many weapons and you can’t focus on just one line when every line can hurt you if you don’t get work hard every shift. We have seen a lot of development and goals in the second half from players like Cody Ayers, Nick Lasorko and Colin Murray. They all have the majority of their goals (seven each) in the second half, so our top line doesn’t have to do it all. We are getting solid contributions across the board. and we will need that on Friday night.”
On the other side of the match-up, Norwich comes in off a solid weekend against two of the top teams in the NESCAC conference. On Friday, Norwich rallied from a 3-1 deficit to tie Middlebury 4-4, then followed that up with a solid performance against Williams in a dominating 3-0 win.
“I think we have had a really tough schedule the last few weeks,” noted Norwich coach Mike McShane. “We came back from 4-1 down to tie Babson in a great hockey game and then had two solid results this past weekend with match-ups that have caused us trouble in the past. The game with Middlebury is always so emotional, and traditionally we have had trouble coming back to play Williams on the next day. We got off to a very fast start in the first period, and it could have been a bigger differential if it weren’t for Williams’ goalie (Ryan Purdy). We are starting to play pretty well and Friday night, like all of the games, will be a big one with first place on the line.”
One area where the Cadets are likely to showcase something different for Castleton from their game in December will be the guy between the pipes. Parker Carroll (6-0-2 overall) came in at the break for Norwich and has assumed a large quantity of the playing time since his arrival. He has posted three shutouts in eight starts, and has been a key contributor in the strong play by Norwich in their last 10 games, where they have gone 7-1-2 overall.
“We were looking for a goalie, primarily as a backup,” noted coach McShane. “Parker was available, and has really stepped right in and played well for us since the break. We like both of our goalies. Alex is extremely quick and moves very well laterally in a more traditional butterfly style while Parker is more of a stand-up, staying square out on his angles, challenging shooters kind of goaltender. We have three shutouts in our last five games, so we would like to keep up the intensity in the defensive end and avoid falling behind early like the games with Babson and Middlebury.”
Offensively, the Cadets have seen some of last year’s super freshmen get off to slow starts, but are now hitting their stride in terms of seeing production coming from their hard work. Sophomore Kyle Thomas posted a hat trick in the 4-4 tie with Middlebury and now has 11 goals on the season. Both Thomas and last season’s hero of the national championship game, Pier-Olivier Cotnoir, are on the cusp of hitting the 20-point plateau and joining four other Cadets who have surpassed that level already this season.
“Kyle had such an outstanding year last year as a freshman,” stated McShane. “It is only natural that expectations would be high this year based his output last season. He has really worked hard, and now is getting some of those chances to find the back of the net. If he can keep it going, it just gives us another weapon offensively that the other team is going to have to try and defend. We are showing some good depth and ability to score on all of our lines, and that has definitely helped us in the second half.”
Friday night, Spartan Arena will be the battlefield, and to add just a bit more atmosphere to the event, the traditional “Green Out” against Norwich is being augmented by an element of the recent HBO 24/7 series featuring the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins. The first ever “Fist Pumping Green Out” will be on display at the rink, which has become one of the loudest places to play in the league over the past couple of seasons. The fans know what is at stake in this one too, so let the music blare, the fists pump, and the intensity on the ice match the excitement in the stands.
To quote the venerable Jim Prior, voice of the Beanpot and other major high school and college hockey events, “The teams are ready. Let’s play hockey.”
In a sea of green — drop the puck!