ECAC East championship weekend

Zach Andrews_Mass.-Boston (Tori Pizzuto)

Wow! What a surprise! The ECAC East championship once again goes through Northfield, Vt., and Kreitzburg Arena, the home of the top seed and number one team in the country, the Norwich Cadets. That said, the top four assembled in Vermont for Friday and Saturday all have visions of claiming the league crown, and their resumes support the possibility of any of them reaching that pinnacle for the season.

It is not often that the top four seeds have advanced without any quarterfinal upsets, but that is the case this season, and there was a clear-cut difference among the top and bottom halves of the draw in the level of performance each team brought to the consistency of their overall games this season, particularly in the second half. The match-ups are both great rivalry games, and that always adds a bit of intrigue and excitement to the game. Here is a look at both semifinal games in what promises to be a weekend of great hockey and a chance for some history to be made for one team.

No. 4 Castleton vs. No. 1 Norwich
The hosts gladly welcome back their in-state rivals to Kreitzburg Arena, which has been a house of horrors for the Spartans in recent games. Last year’s conference championship game was an 11-1 blowout on home ice for the Cadets, and the regular season match-up this season was as easy as 1,2,3, as in goals per period on the way to a 6-1 win. The Cadets also won the first match-up at Castleton by a 2-1 score, with the winning goal coming in the final 15 seconds of regulation, so it is unlikely that coach Mike McShane is going to allow his team to take any team lightly on their way to a fourth straight conference title, and the potentially rarified air of four straight Frozen Four berths if they can continue their winning ways.

Offensively, balance is a key for the Cadets, who showcase a 100-point line and a number of other key players who can hurt opponents. Seniors Kyle Thomas and Pier-Olivier Cotnoir are among several experienced forwards who can turn it on at any time and will take pressure off the top line. While a couple of different goaltenders have seen ice time this season, junior Chris Czarnota has seen the most time of late, and has the statistics to back up an opportunity to backstop the pursuit of another ECAC East crown.

For Castleton, last week’s decisive quarterfinal win over New England established a new winning streak, following a four-game losing streak in the month of February. Seniors Josh Harris, Justin Alonzo, and Dan Bell lead the team in scoring, as well as experience, and still harbor hopes of earning the first-ever league title for Castleton. Junior goaltender Erick Cinotti will be a key to the Spartans success, and he, like the rest of the team, will need to focus on exorcising the ghosts of games past at Norwich and severely cut down on the 17-goals against in the last two games played in Northfield.

Both teams need the win to move a step closer to some special history for the program. The question is, to which team does the history and experience mean more?

No. 3 Babson vs. No. 2 Massachusetts-Boston
This semifinal pits the travel partners against each other, and finds the Beacons looking to build off a 1-0-1 record against Babson in a home-and-home series on the last weekend in January. The first game saw the visitors erase leads of 2-1, 4-2, and 5-4 and score three unanswered goals in the final four and a half minutes to take the win at Babson. Shots, penalty minutes, and other statistics were pretty even between the two teams in the see-saw affair that was not duplicated the following night on the Beacons’ home ice.

It was a tighter second game, with shots about even, but this time, it was the Beavers who turned a 2-0 deficit into a 2-2 tie with less than three minutes remaining in the third period. The game actually jump started Zeke Testa’s season in goal for Babson, who has played the last eight games for the Beavers and posted a 7-2-4 record overall and an impressive .932 save percentage.

Babson has played in two of the last three championship games in the conference tournament, so there is experience and knowledge of what it takes to advance in the playoffs. For the Beacons, last week’s quarterfinal win over the University of New England was the first in the playoffs for any player on the roster. While they have won two other tournaments this year, this is the playoffs, so how much they can build that momentum into continued success this weekend against a veteran team remains to be seen.

Freshman goalie Zack Andrews has a championship pedigree dating back to his junior hockey days, and while his statistics don’t jump off the page at you, his coach and his team have great confidence in his big-game presence and his ability to put up wins.

“Zack is a very competitive kid,” noted coach Peter Belisle. “He has come into my office after games a couple of times this season expressing disappointment in his performance and the number of goals he has given up. I have told him not to worry about it. He is out-playing the guy down the other end and giving up fewer than the opponent’s goalie, and that is all that matters — it’s about winning. Since the second half, he has been very consistent, and has that playoff experience on his resume that we hope will help us in this tournament.”

The winner of this one will have definitely earned the right to play for the title, and don’t be surprised if this one is decided late in regulation or in some bonus overtime hockey.

It is exciting to still be playing hockey in March, and with so much riding on these games, there is no doubt that the effort and intensity will come out for all of the participants. Who wants it more? We will find out Friday!


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