ECAC East/NESCAC wrap: Feb. 20

Wow! That is really about all I can say after Sunday evening’s regular season finales in the NESCAC conference put a nice bow on a sensational regular season and definition on the quarterfinal round of the conference playoffs beginning next weekend.  Surprisingly, there wasn’t a whole lot of movement among those teams that were so tightly bunched up in the middle of the standings in both conferences, so Skidmore and Tufts maintained their position in the fourth and final home-ice position in their conferences. That means the matchups are set, and I now have about a week to start figuring out who will advance from the round of eight and be playing some more important hockey in the month of March.
Here are the quarterfinal pairings for next weekend:
No. 8 University of New England at No. 1 Norwich
No. 7 New England College at No. 2 Castleton
No. 6 Southern Maine at No. 3 Babson
No. 5 Massachusetts-Boston at No. 4 Skidmore
Before the weekend even started, we knew the top two seeds and the bottom seed, especially with St. Michael’s and St. Anselm ineligible for conference play as D-II schools (automatically qualify for the NE-10 championship tournament). What was really unclear was seeds three through seven, and again everyone did enough to keep their spot, but not really move up in the standings.  Winners in the scheme of things would surely be Babson, which took three points on the weekend and forced a late comeback by Norwich for a 4-4 tie in the season finale, and Skidmore, which split its home-and-home series with Castleton and avoided a trip to Boston for the quarterfinals. Losers in the mix would have to be Southern Maine, which managed just two points on two ties and couldn’t move up beyond sixth place, and New England College, which managed just one point in tying Southern Maine before losing to the University of New England in the final game of the regular season.
This conference tournament has been very interesting in recent years, including a season where the numbers seven and eight seeds played for the championship, so anything is possible. Not sure there is a hot team in the mix based on the final few weeks of play, but this year would not surprise me if anyone came out of the conference if a major contender has any kind of hiccup, or we see a masterful three-game run and hot goaltending — all possibilities from the teams playing for the title.
Here are the quarterfinal pairings for next weekend:
No. 8 Hamilton at No. 1 Amherst
No. 7 Trinity at No. 2 Bowdoin
No. 6 Wesleyan at No. 3 Middlebury
No. 5 Williams at No. 4 Tufts
Much the same applied to NESCAC as to ECAC East, in that we knew the top seed going into the weekend but had some interesting races for almost everything else remaining. Colby, Hamilton, and Connecticut College had a hard-fought battle for the eighth and final playoff spot, with Hamilton earning the spot on a tiebreaker with Connecticut College. The home-and-home series between Trinity and Wesleyan fell out as a split, with the home teams winning, so there were no position changes in the six and seven spots. Bowdoin and Middlebury clinched their second and third positions with wins on Friday and Saturday respectively, while Tufts needed a big win at home over Colby to deny the Mules any postseason hopes and hold off Williams from taking the number four and final home ice berth away.
So what does this past weekend tell us about the conference playoffs coming up? Well, the tournament clearly appears to be going through Amherst, which finished the regular season with just one conference loss and a total of 34 of a possible 36 points in league play. If the season finale against Middlebury (won by the Lord Jeffs by a 2-1 score) is any indication of the level of play we will see in the tournament, the action will be brilliant, and the outcomes not a foregone conclusion based on seeding or regular season records.
It may be hard to believe, but it’s all serious now.  It’s “win or go home time” again. One short week for one game that will decide who advances to the conference final four and a chance for winning the title and a NCAA tournament berth. Everything since November has led to this, and now everyone has a clean slate and a chance for postseason glory.
Seriously?  Drop the puck!