Six-shooting weekend

While both the ECAC East and NESCAC conferences play out the semis and finals of their conference tournaments this weekend, there really are more differences than similarities in the pairings for the final four groupings. However, one thing in common is the presence of teams from the lower half of the brackets, including three in the NESCAC tournament and two in the ECAC East. Is it just a sign of very competitive leagues? That’s for sure, but what’s really certain is nobody is taking playing anyone for granted at this time of year, particularly two six seeds that have made their mark in recent weeks and carry that momentum into the postseason.

Southern Maine and Colby both knocked off teams that many expected to win last weekend on home ice. The upsets that took Massachusetts-Boston and Middlebury out of the playoffs most assuredly have confidence growing in the locker room and two teams ready to face their next significant challenge in the semifinals.

Jeff Beaney’s Huskies endured a long cold January filled with the flu, injuries, and changing their style of play to be ready for this time of year. So far, the adaptation has seemed to take for a team that hasn’t had anything come the easy way this season.

“We identified some things pretty early on with this team that were going to force us to make some changes from our usual style of play,” stated Beaney. “It is very difficult to change what you are doing during the course of a season, but we knew it would help us to be our most competitive at the most important time of the year, and at least thus far it’s holding up pretty well. We have had some key guys really banged up, which definitely hurt our offensive output. When you have a guy like Zach (Joy) battling nagging injuries all season and getting the kind of attention that a goal-a-game type guy gets, you are going to have to figure out how to get things done, and it may not be pretty.”

Certainly one very bright spot for the Huskies this season has been the play of junior defenseman Paul Conter, who leads the team in scoring. Conter constantly gets the attention of the opposition whenever he is on the ice, but has modified his game this season to be a more complete player in the Huskies system.

“Paul has probably had his best season this year,” noted Beaney. “It was obvious when he first got here that he had great offensive skills, so it’s no surprise that he continues to put up numbers. However, this year he has sacrificed some of those opportunities to be more at-home defensively and has really put the team first with his play; that includes things like blocking shots and being more conservative with the puck. He has had to pick-up some slack for some other guys that have been injured or struggled a bit this season, but he has been a strong leader and is a big reason we are still playing in March.”

The Huskies certainly know they have an uphill battle in facing the defending conference and national champions from Norwich on their home ice. So do they have to play the perfect game on Friday to move on? No, but probably pretty close.

“They are really talented and can play you anyway you want to play it”, remarked Beaney after watching film of the Cadets in preparation for the semifinals. “We do not want to get in a track meet with them and we don’t want to play a big physical game either. We are going to have to be smart, not give them short ice to play with and really be cognizant of areas not to turn the puck over to them. If we can do those things and get the type of goaltending that Braely (Torris) gave us last week, we just might play more than one game this weekend.”

On the other side, Norwich coach Mike McShane is very aware of what a good group or role players, a little “puck luck” and a hot goalie can do in a winner-takes-all scenario.

“We played them the very first weekend of the season,” noted Norwich coach Mike McShane. “A lot has changed since then, but in looking at the film, their first line is really strong and can cause a lot of problems for anybody. At this point in the season and for just one game, if you have a hot goalie, some strong checkers, and play without many mistakes, anyone can win a one-game playoff, so we are not taking anybody lightly with so much at stake this weekend.”

Many of the same conversations are being had over on the NESCAC side where, as coach McShane would say, “nothing really surprises me anymore.”

Wesleyan, Colby and Bowdoin represent the lower half of the bracket this weekend at host Williams, and any team that wins will relish in the delight of their first-ever NESCAC tournament championship. Yes there is a six seed in play on this side of the postseason as well, and Colby now has the added opportunity of knocking off their biggest rival in their pursuit of the NESCAC crown.

Back in December, Bowdoin and Colby played their annual home-and-home weekend with one game counting in the league standings and the second being played as a nonconference battle. Typically, the teams have split the weekend, but this year the Polar Bears took both games, so game number three is for much bigger stakes come Saturday afternoon.

While Bowdoin’s season started out strong, hit a speed bump for four or five games in February and bounced back again, Colby has steadily built their play after a terrible start to the season that saw them struggle for the first 10 games of the season. During the second half, the Mules have been one of the better teams in the conference and have seen their reputation as a trap team transformed into an opponent that many teams do not want to match up against with their depth, size and speed. Senior Billy Crinnion has been explosive in the second half in leading the Colby offense, along with steady contributions from a number of other players, including Michael Doherty, “Spike” Smigelski and Wil Hartigan.

Fellow Maine resident Jeff Beaney likes what he sees in the Mules and wouldn’t be surprised to see them playing for it all on Sunday.

“Jim’s team is playing a little different style this year and right now they are going pretty good. If Cody can keep it on track in goal, they are a team that can beat anybody over there in the final four. Add in the difficulty in beating a team three times in a single season, Colby might just have a lot of things going their way this weekend.”

Backstopping the Mules in goal has been the resurgence of senior Cody McKinney, who was a big part of the team’s second half success, as well as last week’s quarterfinal victory on the road over Middlebury by a score of 2-1. McKinney has had solid numbers for the Mules since January, and his continued strong performance in goal will be needed to stop a Bowdoin attack that averages nearly 4.5 goals per game.

Generally speaking, it is difficult to beat any team twice in one season, so three times may be a lot to ask of Bowdoin in this classical clash of traditional rivals. You can always throw out the records when these two play, and the last playoff match-up in Brunswick went Bowdoin’s way in an overtime thriller where Colby had several power plays and chances to win in the extra session. So what happens here? It’s going to be a lot of fun finding out.

So, the match-ups in the ECAC East find No. 1 Norwich hosting No. 6 Southern Maine and No. 2 Castleton playing No. 5 Babson on Friday afternoon and evening, with the championship game scheduled for Saturday night. In the NESCAC tournament, No. 1 Williams hosts No. 8 Wesleyan and No. 5 Bowdoin meets No. 6 Colby on Saturday afternoon, with the title game on Sunday.

Basically this weekend, anyone has a chance to win. Cliché yes, but do it right for 60 minutes, play your best game and execute with few mistakes and any team can fall by the wayside if they don’t meet the intensity or level of play of their opponent, regardless of seeding or record. The final four in any conference is always special, and this weekend the hockey is sure to be spectacular, with everything on the line for a chance to play a second game this weekend and not take the long walk to the dorm or longer bus trip back to campus. The season has flown by, and now everything teams have practiced and played for is on the line. Enjoy it, because it doesn’t, really doesn’t, get much better than this.

It’s all inside the glass now — drop the puck!