A most interesting round of eight

Bowdoin vs Norwich Womens Hockey (Brian Beard/Creative Images Photography)

With the final playoff seedings only being determined after Monday’s make-up game between Trinity and Bowdoin, the quarterfinals are now set for the NESCAC tournament. While not every team qualified for postseason play, the final games went a long way in determining who was in and out, and who stayed home vs. getting on a bus. For Connecticut College coach Jim Ward, being on the outside looking in is definitely not a good feeling, but as a very interested party in the league and upcoming playoffs, who better to handicap the first round and likely Final Four participants next weekend at the highest seed remaining.

“It’s a horrible feeling being done for the season,” noted Ward. “A tie didn’t do us any good on Saturday in terms of getting in, so that is why we pulled the goalie in overtime — trying to get that extra point. It hurts not playing, but we can’t blame anyone but ourselves for not getting into the top eight. That said, there are some real interesting match-ups in the first round for sure. Not sure how many upsets there will be, but there will be some really good and close games on Saturday.”

Here is a breakdown on the quarterfinal match-ups.

No. 1 Bowdoin vs. No. 8 Hamilton
The Polar Bears had absolutely nothing to play for in Monday’s neutral site make-up game with Trinity, which was won by the Bantams by a 10-5 score. The top seeds control their own destiny, and can host the final four teams at “The Sid” with a win against Hamilton on Saturday. The Continentals are really beat up, have lost a lot of players to injury, and face a very long bus trip for the quarterfinal match-up. Those items don’t work in the favor of the visitors for sure.

The season series went to Bowdoin by scores of 6-2 and 5-2, and the Polar Bears leveraged their speed and offense with a big third period in the first game and a big opening period in the last game between the two at home. After Monday’s loss to Trinity, it might be fair to look for some angry Polar Bears coming out aggressively in the first period looking to match the blueprint for success found in the last game these two teams played against each other.

So coach Ward, what do you think on this one?

“It’s hard to see Hamilton traveling there and winning,” said Ward. “They are just so banged up, and missing some key players that would help them offensively. Their goalie is going to have to be great, and they are going to have to play things very tight and try to frustrate Bowdoin into making some mistakes. Monday might have actually helped Bowdoin ramp it up for the weekend. I think they win and host.”

No. 2 Williams vs. No. 7 Colby
Williams earned the second seed by its consistent play all season, while Colby rallied late in the year to move from the bottom of the standings to the seventh seed by winning four of its last seven games, and three in a row in conference.

Both games in the regular season went to the Ephs by scores of 3-2 and 9-2. The 9-2 drubbing at home in mid-January may actually have been the catalyst for the Mules to start playing their best hockey, as they finished the season with a 4-1-2 streak after the loss that saw Williams put up nine goals in the first 40 minutes of play.

What do you like about this one coach?

“I really have been impressed with Williams this season,” stated Ward. “They usually tail off at the end of the year, but not this season. I like their defensive group a lot, and their goalie along with the Trinity kid may be the two best in the conference. Colby has got it going late, but their defense certainly isn’t as strong as Williams’, and I think that could be the difference in this one.”

No. 3 Trinity vs. No. 6 Wesleyan
The make-up game win on Monday moved the Bantams into a home-ice slot and guaranteed a third game in a row with their in-state rival and travel partner. On the final weekend of the regular season, the teams split a home-and-home series, with each winning a one-goal decision on home ice. The teams are very closely matched, and the difference may very well come down to goaltending, which would seem to go the Bantams’ way behind Benjamin Coulthard.

Controlling the conference’s leading scorer, Keith Buehler, will be of the utmost importance for Trinity in this match-up of familiar foes. For Wesleyan, keeping it close will be a challenge following the confidence-boosting 10-goal performance the Bantams posted in Monday’s win against top-seeded Bowdoin.

Hey coach, aren’t travel partner games the tough ones to pick?

“They just played last weekend in two very close contests,” noted Ward. “There isn’t a lot of room for errors in this one.  Buehler is probably the best player in the conference, and certainly the best we saw all season along with the kid Mulvey from Norwich. He could be the difference-maker for the visitors, but this one is really close and Coulthard is probably the difference-maker for Trinity.”

No. 4 Amherst vs. No. 5 Middlebury
The Panthers were the big losers in the final juggling of the standings, having lost a home ice berth and now traveling to face Amherst, a team they lost to by a score of 5-3 in the final game of the regular season. The Lord Jeffs rallied from a 3-2 deficit midway through the third period to take the lead and seal the win with an empty-net goal.

The final moves in position may have benefited the Lord Jeffs the most if recent history is any indicator of likely performance.  Amherst has won the last five meetings between the two teams, including last year’s conference championship game. The defending champions have some big game players on their roster who certainly would like to earn their way back to a shot at another NESCAC title.

Four against five is always an interesting match-up, right coach?

“I really like Middlebury’s freshmen,” stated Ward. “Those kids can really play, but they don’t have any experience in this setting as compared with Amherst. Goaltending is just so critical at this time of the year, and Middlebury still seems to be looking for an answer coming into the playoffs. Amherst has been there before, and has enough of those players back that should rise to the occasion again.”

It should be no surprise that the playoffs are going to be tight regardless of the match-ups in this conference. Only four points separated first place from fifth place, and just two points separated second from fifth. The teams are talented and very well-matched. It’s the emotion, energy, and intangibles that are likely the key factors in determining who advances to the Final Four next weekend and one step closer to a NESCAC championship and autobid to the NCAA tournament.