ECAC East/NESCAC wrap: Feb. 28

The quarterfinals are in the books, and as expected, there were some locks, some mild upsets and a couple of shockers.  It comes as no  surprise with all of the ups and downs of the regular season that the first round of the conference tournaments did anything but hold to form, so my 4-4 (.500) percentage maybe isn’t as bad an indicator of my team knowledge as I might think it is.  Regardless of the outcomes of the games, there was a lot of excitement from the very first drop of the puck, and both conferences now have their final foursomes set for a very familiar locale for the ECAC East, as well as a new host for the NESCAC Conference.
In the ECAC East, the top two seeds moved on in convincing fashion while the fifth and sixth seeds joined the party scheduled for this weekend in Northfield, Vt., home of the Norwich Cadets.  Norwich simply dominated an out-manned UNE squad with a 10-2 win that saw the Nor’easters muster just seven shots on net for the game while being assaulted with 50.  Down the road in Rutland, Vt., the shot totals were a bit closer between Castleton and New England College, but the home team broke open a 1-1 tie after the first period with a pair of goals in each of the remaining periods and cruised to a 5-1 win.  Five different players scored for the Spartans, who will be looking to create the rubber game with Norwich should both win their semifinal match-ups.
But let’s not jump to any conclusions about this weekend just yet, as the ECAC East has had its share of lower seeds winning the tournament, including the current fifth seed Babson who won it from the lower echelon twice in the past four seasons.  The Beavers apparently saw their playoff shadow and decided they wa-nted another two weeks of hockey.  On the road at Skidmore, Babson leveraged multipoint games from Matt O’Neill (0-3-3), Ryan Heavey (2-0-2), Ryan Smith (0-2-2) and Jay Hassely (1-1-2) in a convincing 5-0 win against the Thoroughbreds.  It was the four vs. five match-up, so not a big surprise as to the winner, but definitely a surprise as to the dominance and balance displayed by Babson on the road, where they have struggled this season.
The sixth seeded Huskies from USM also made it to the final foursome and a date with the host Cadets this weekend when they defeated the third seeded Beacons from Massachusetts-Boston.  The shocker here was the Beacons outshooting USM by a 61-23 margin and losing the game.  Braely Torris stopped 60 of 61 shots and veterans Paul Conter, Zach Joy and Dan Rautenberg all scored for the Huskies on their way to an improbable victory to extend their season.  Conter’s goal was an empty-netter, but all of the other goals came during five-on-five play.  After a scoreless first period where the Huskies withstood an onslaught of shots (22-6), three unanswered goals built a lead that Eric Tufman and the Beacons could not overcome.  The Huskies have been looking for consistency in the goal all season and maybe after stealing this one, Torris is getting hot at just the right time of the season.
So the match-ups for next week see the top -seeded Cadets facing Southern Maine in one semifinal while Castleton hosts Babson in the other match-up for the ECAC East title.  Predictions from yours truly on both playoff weekends will be upcoming later in the week.
Over in the increasingly volatile NESCAC conference there were lots of thrills and spills in the opening round, including the No. 8 Wesleyan Cardinals upsetting the No. 1 Continentals from Hamilton College.  When Norm Bazin, Hamilton’s head coach, told me just a week or so ago that it was going to be very difficult for teams to have their season end abruptly once the actual playoffs began, I am sure he was not thinking that his team was going to be one the team’s now hanging the skates up.  Yes, Wesleyan beat Hamilton way back in November, but not many people saw this one coming except maybe coach Potter and his Cardinals.
Over a month ago, Chris Potter was looking to see more offensive production, and in the last game of the regular season, Wesleyan laid 14 goals on UNE.  One player who was working very hard but not seeing the positive results was Tom Salah.  Potter noted how Salah was making other contributions on the penalty kill and elsewhere and thought that before the end of the season, Salah would regain his scoring touch and score a big goal or two in a game that would help the Cardinals win.  Well, don’t you know that Salah made good on that premonition by scoring to extend a 2-1 lead in the second and putting the game away with an empty-net goal, his second goal of the game, and just fifth of the season.  The Cardinals outplayed and outshot Hamilton by a wide margin in the first two periods in building a 3-1 lead then held on in the third when Geoff Mucha scored to offset Joe Houk’s power-play goal that had closed the game to 3-2.  This is Wesleyan’s first appearance in the final four since the tournament’s inception.
So with No. 1 gone, Williams had a chance to claim hosting rights if they could get by No. 7 Trinity.  The Ephs came back with two third period goals to erase a 3-2 deficit and won a thrilling quarterfinal by the final score of 4-3 behind goalie Ryan Purdy and forward Ben Contini who setup the tying goal and John Wickman’s game-winner with just over three minutes remaining in the third period.
For No. 3 Middlebury, a trip to the final four and pursuit of their 11th consecutive title game meant having to beat Colby on home ice.  The Panthers got behind early and could not overcome a two-goal deficit in losing to Cody McKinney and the White Mules by a score of 2-1.  McKinney made 37 saves on 38 shots in posting the win, surrendering just one power play goal in the third period to Middlebury.
Yet another one-goal game and we weren’t done just yet with the close games.  The final match-up between Amherst and Bowdoin also saw a one-goal game as well as being the only overtime game of the quarterfinals in either league.
Bowdoin kept answering the bell after falling behind three times by a goal before finally winning the game with just a minute and a half remaining in the first overtime period.  The 4-3 final saw specialty teams on display in the middle stanza, but the seesaw battle was ultimately decided in even strength play on a goal by Colin Downey assisted by Owen Smith.  Bowdoin’s comeback reversed the regular season game where Amherst came from behind to beat the Polar Bears and now sets up a dramatic third game with cross-state rival Colby in the final four this weekend.
Wesleyan will take on the host team from Williams and regardless of the outcomes on Saturday, there will be a new and first time conference tournament champion crowned, as none of the final four have handled the hardware since the inception of the NESCAC tournament.
So it all comes down to one more weekend and hopefully two more games to win the league and play for something more.
Trophies on the line – drop the puck!