ECAC East/NESCAC wrap: Feb. 6

Well if we learned anything from another terrific Super Bowl between the New York Giants and New England Patriots, it is that it may not be that the entire of body of work over a season that counts, but that the team that gets it right when it matters most. The Giants, deservedly, won the game and became the first nine-win team to carry off the Lombardi Trophy as the NFL’s best team on the last weekend of the season. So what does that have to do with D-III hockey in New England? Well, there are clear front runners that have been playing well all season, and there are the teams that are really getting it going at the critical juncture of the season.  Here’s a quick look at both from both conferences with just two weekends remaining in the regular season.
We all know that Norwich has been the cream of the crop all season in the ECAC East, but Castleton until this weekend has been knocking on the door for the top spot until running into giant killers Massachusetts-Boston and a red-hot Babson team that always seems to find itself at the right time of the year.
On Friday, Castleton fell behind quickly to the Beacons on the road by a 5-0 score by the end of the second period, but fought back valiantly with four goals in the third period, only to lose by a score of 5-4. The third period momentum carried over to Saturday, as the Spartans earned a hard-fought point with a 2-2 tie at Babson, where the Beavers scored an extra-attacker goal with 40 seconds remaining to send the game to overtime.
Castleton still has a five-point lead over third-place Babson, but the gap between third and seventh place is now just four points with four games remaining for each team. For the giant slayers at Mass.-Boston, which has defeated both Norwich and Castleton on home ice this season, the momentum from Friday’s win was difficult to maintain, as it lost, 4-2, to Skidmore on Saturday and is now embroiled in a five-team fight for home ice in the playoffs, something that has proved to have value against the top teams in the league this season.
For Southern Maine, a long-awaited four-point weekend was perfectly timed, as the Huskies took two games from in-state rivals University of New England (UNE) to move back into contention for a home ice berth and, more importantly, end a losing streak with some solid hockey that saw the Huskies score 12 goals in the two games, including six on the power play.
While Norwich took four points this weekend as well, it has not clinched the top spot just yet. In fact the only certainty in the playoff structure is that UNE will be traveling to meet the top seed, which Norwich has an opportunity to clinch this weekend with a head-to-head matchup with second-place Castleton.
Every year, it seems to come down to the final games of the regular season for playoff berths, and so it is this year in the ECAC East.
Amherst clearly made a statement this weekend in taking four points from Bowdoin and Colby to create a seven-point lead in the conference standings. The Lord Jeffs haven’t quite clinched the top spot, but they are a point away from doing so in the final two weekends. On Friday, the key matchup with Bowdoin saw Amherst reverse Bowdoin’s formula for success with third period superiority with two decisive goals in a 3-1 win. Despite being outshot in the first two periods by a collective 29-13, the Lord Jeffs leveraged the strong goaltending of senior Jonathan Larose to create space between themselves and the second place Polar Bears.
Meanwhile, the team that is truly on the hot streak is Tufts, which is currently tied for third place with the resurgent Panthers of Middlebury, as both teams swept their two weekend games to pass a stumbling Williams squad.
Tufts is 5-0-1 in its last six games, and sophomore Kyle Gallegos has been the offensive star for the Jumbos, assuming the team lead in points while going 5-1-6 in the two wins over travel partner Connecticut College this weekend. Scott Barchard remains rock solid in goal for the Jumbos, who are poised to finish higher than their best-ever seventh position in the NESCAC standings this season.  Who knows what could happen with a home game in Medford to open the playoffs.
Middlebury has apparently righted the ship with two solid wins over Trinity and Wesleyan this weekend behind Dan Fullam in goal. The 3-2 and 3-0 wins showed its typical formula of solid defense and goaltending combined with great special teams and timely scoring.  Three of the final four games on their schedule are at home, but include two games with Williams and one each with Hamilton and Amherst, who have beaten the Panthers already this season. A home ice berth will clearly have to be earned.
Amherst is the closest thing to a lock for position in the NESCAC conference. Just five points separate third place from seventh place, and even tenth-place Colby is not mathematically eliminated from the playoff race with four games remaining. It’s going to be quite a finish to be sure.
So, right now for anyone that is chasing a spot or trying to guarantee a postseason berth, the prior body of work doesn’t really matter much anymore. Right now it’s about  finding your game, digging deep, and trying to create the magic that can turn a mediocre season into a ride to the Super Bowl by playing the best your team has to offer at the most important time of the year.
It is all about momentum, points, and proving you can win in crunch time. No matter what the sport or level, some things are universally applicable. Four games and eight points can be huge for any team, but the momentum gained in taking them all could mean something special in the playoff tournament. You really have to love February!
It’s playoff hockey — drop the puck!


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