ECAC Northeast comes down to the wire

The coaches have talked about it all season. They knew just how close the talent was in the ECAC Northeast this season. They knew that, on any night, any team could beat the other team.

For the most part, they’ve been spot on. As a result, you have one heck of a playoff race in this league as the regular season winds down.

Perhaps Western New England coach Greg Heffernan put it best when he described the conference as a “last-weekend league,” that the jockeying and the fight for seeding will go down to the very last period of the very last game.

“And that’s great for our conference,” he said. “Everyone is involved.”

He’s absolutely right. With the league tournament set to start Feb. 23, the race is on. Of the eight teams in the league, seven of them are in play for the six postseason spots with only a handful of games left. Only Becker, at 1-9-1 in the league headed into the week, is out of contention, yet the Hawks can still take on a spoiler role.

Everyone else is scoreboard watching as the season winds down. After Monday’s action, including Wentworth’s 3-0 win over Suffolk, WIT, the preseason choice to win it all, was comfortably atop the conference with 19 points, followed by Nichols (15). There are two first-round byes to be awarded, and while the Leopards, last season’s tournament champions, appear in line to snag one of them, the Bison will have to scrap for the second, as Western New England (14) and Curry (13) were not far behind.

Salve Regina, Johnson and Wales, and Suffolk were also alive and well in the postseason mix.

“As an outsider, you see that the league is changing in terms of the respect elsewhere,” said Curry coach T.J. Manastersky, who played at Canisius and is in his first season in the conference. “This is a league that is definitely on the rise, and the parity is getting stronger. It’s not a one- or two-horse race like maybe it was a few years ago.”

You can see it in the scores too. Not only did most of the league teams fare well in the nonconference portion of their schedules, the league competition has been tight on the scoreboard. Plenty of drama, not so many blowouts.

“You’re going to go through adversity here,” Salve Regina coach Andrew Boschetto said. “Everyone does. But that’s what you want in your league. You want to go through the battles. But there is always respect for the other programs.”

Take last Wednesday, for example. Plenty of battles then. WIT outlasted Becker, 3-2, Curry and Salve Regina battled to a 4-4 tie, Nichols defeated Suffolk, 3-1, and Johnson and Wales nipped Western New England, 4-3. Not much breathing room there.

“You have to have the mentality as if you’re already playing playoff hockey,” Nichols coach Kevin Swallow said. “The atmosphere and the importance is there for every game, and how you play not only affects your team, but the others, as well, in the standings. That playoff mentality is a good thing for all teams.”

That’s something that resonates with all the coaches in this league. Perhaps more than other conferences, there is a pride there that all eight schools fight for. Sure, these programs get on the ice and want to defeat one another and set themselves up for a title, but they also want to see their neighbors do well. There’s a unique “united front” there that Heffernan describes.

“We’re all friends, we all get together, talk about things, and yes, we all want what’s best for the conference,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, for those three hours, we want our teams to go out there and beat the other guys, but before and after the games, we’re friends, we’re pretty much in the same boat, and we want the same things.”

Heffernan is truly a spokesman for the league. He knows the history, he understands the landscape, and he is a selfless promoter.

“It’s a great group of guys to work with, these coaches,” he said. “By and large, we all want our programs to be successful, but we also want to get better as a conference, better as individuals. I have to tell you, there’s a lot of buy-in from these coaches. We’ve created our own identity here as good academic institutions that value academics as well as athletics. We’ve created our own little niche here, and it’s a culture that we’re proud of. It’s now on us to continue to develop that.”

Through Monday, four teams had double-digit victories overall, including last-place Becker (10-11-1), and everyone, with the exception of the Hawks, had at least three conference wins.

“We want to continue to elevate our league in professionalism and in doing what we do,” Manastersky said. “Every night, you don’t know who is going to win. It’s gonna be the team who plays the right way.”

With all that said, the respect isn’t quite there yet nationally. There have been no ECAC Northeast teams ranked this season, though Wentworth received eight votes in this week’s poll.

“We try our best to do a good job of controlling what we can control,” WIT coach R.J. Tolan said. “Stick to the game plan, play the way we’re capable of playing, and those sorts of things will work themselves out.”

It certainly worked out for the Leopards last season. After their first-round bye, Tolan’s top-seeded bunch defeated Western New England, 5-3, to earn a berth in the finals. There, they outlasted Curry in overtime, 1-0.

The way this is shaping up, you can probably expect similar drama this postseason.