NESCAC championship weekend

Nick Anderson of Williams (Kris Dufour)

A different team will be celebrating this year’s NESCAC championship and automatic NCAA bid, following the elimination of last season’s title holder Amherst in its quarterfinal with Middlebury. The number one seed and host Bowdoin Polar Bears are hoping to repeat the magic from just two years ago, but will have their work cut out with the final four teams assembled and ready to do battle at “The Sid” this Saturday and Sunday in Brunswick, Maine.

Here is a look at the two semifinal games that are really too close to call among teams that have been very close in quality and performance all season.

No. 5 Middlebury vs. No. 1 Bowdoin
An interesting side note to this match-up is that neither team is likely to see a goaltender that they faced in the regular season. During the two regular season games, Middlebury utilized both Nick BonDurant and Liam Moorfield-Yee, while Michael peters and Dan Fullam have seen the bulk of the time in goal down the stretch for the Panthers. Down the other end, freshman Max Fenkell played in both games for Bowdoin, while starter Steve Messina has seen the majority of playing time for the nationally-ranked Polar Bears.

The two regular season games finished 1-0-1 in Bowdoin’s favor, with the tie game taking place at home in the first weekend of the regular season. The second game at Middlebury was won by the Polar Bears by a score of 3-0, so there is an element of success the hosts will bring to the ice Saturday afternoon.

The Polar Bears have been dynamic offensively all season and are led by Ollie Koo, Daniel Weiniger, and Harry Matheson. While those three have been most consistent in putting up numbers, Bowdoin has another six players with five or more goals this season, representing a very balanced and dangerous offense to any opponent. The power play has been extremely efficient at 27 percent, so it would be wise for the Panthers to avoid taking penalties.

These teams have faced each other many times in the NESCAC tournament, and the games are always close and generally have favored the Panthers, including a championship win in 2010 at Bowdoin. It is difficult to count out a Bill Beaney-coached team come playoff time, but the key will be goaltending and finding consistency good enough to take down the top seed on their home ice.  Both teams play the three-back system, so there will be a lot of speed and open ice play as both look to transition to offense quickly and challenge the play all over the large sheet at Bowdoin.

No doubt this game is another close one, and the key will be the quality of goaltending. I bet there are some film sessions going on this week and scouting reports on shooters to make sure the men between the pipes are ready to go.

No. 3 Trinity vs. No. 2 Williams
In the first scheduled game on Saturday afternoon, the higher seed has the mirror image of the host school in that they lost and tied their opponent during the regular season. In both games against Trinity, the Ephs could only generate one goal on offense.  Goal scoring is likely to be a challenge for both teams, as Sean Dougherty and Benjamin Coulthard are probably the two premier goaltenders in the conference, and the key to their team’s success this season.

Sophomore Peter Mistretta leads the Ephs with 14 goals, but no other player has more than eight for a team that just barely averages three goals per game. There are a number of seniors on this team that have been chasing the elusive NESCAC crown, so their motivation should be obvious in what will be a difficult opponent on Saturday. John Wickman, Eric Rubino, Cody Skinner, and Evan Dugdale will be key factors upfront for the Ephs, while defenseman Mike Brofft will anchor what has been a fast-maturing defensive corps for Williams.

For the Bantams, the Menard brothers are the tempo setters for coach Matt Greason’s team. The two have combined for almost 20 goals and over 40 points this season, and have been the backbone of the power play. Sophomore Jackson Brewer and senior Jordan So have been the offensive leaders in terms of points, and will need to step up, as neither recorded a point in the two games against Williams this season.

Both regular season games were low scoring, and both teams have played hard-nosed playoff style hockey all season, so the atmosphere on Saturday should be very comfortable for both teams. The defense and goaltending has been exceptional all year, so don’t expect anything less in this game where a single goal could be the difference, and more importantly the only tally of the hockey game. The question is, who gets the one that sends their team to the final on Sunday?

Three of the four teams have won the NESCAC championship, with only Williams in search of its first title this weekend. The motivation for all is the same, whether they have tasted victory on the final weekend or not. The match-ups are great, and the level of play will surely not disappoint in one of the best venues to watch hockey in all of New England.

It’s the final weekend, and likely all but one team is done for the season. The stakes can’t be higher!