No clear-cut favorite in NESCAC tournament as field looks tight

Middlebury senior defender Louis Belisle’s big goals have propelled the Panthers into a NESCAC quarterfinal matchup with Bowdoin (photo: Will Costello).

The final weekend of the regular season went a long way in determining the matchups in the quarterfinal round of the NESCAC tournament scheduled for this coming Saturday.

Trinity leveraged a pair of wins over travel partner Wesleyan to lock up first place and the top seed, but at the expense of seeing Wesleyan again in Hartford, Conn., this weekend.

Amherst used the final game of the regular season against Williams to wrap up the second seed and keep the Ephs just behind in the standings, while Middlebury captured a pair of home wins against Amherst and Hamilton to vault past Bowdoin and capture the final home-ice berth for this weekend’s first round.

This conference has proven to be deep and competitive from top to bottom each and every game, so it should be no surprise that even with the quarterfinal pairings set, there are no presumptions about highest seed or being on home ice being clear-cut, determining factors in the outcomes of these games on the weekend.

The last several weekends have seemed like the playoffs to many teams trying to find their best hockey down the stretch, so the atmosphere is likely to be only raised to a more acute level with the fear and risk of losing and going home for the season.

It is time for March hockey and some storied rivalries to open the conference tournament.

Here is a preview of the four quarterfinal games.

No. 8 Wesleyan @ No. 1 Trinity

Winning 2-0 and 8-5 on back-to-back nights shows Trinity can win with defense and offense. Those were the scores of the two games this past weekend between Trinity and Wesleyan, who will now face each other for the third time in nine days.

The top four scorers for the Bantams in Jackson Brewer, John Hawkrigg, Sean Orlando and Ryan Cole have totaled 70 goals. Yes, that is right seven-zero amongst the four forwards. That is an astounding 70 percent of the team’s production, so it is clear that if the Cardinals are to have any chance, they need to shut down these high-flying forwards and try to take advantage of some chinks in the penalty-killing armor for Trinity and sneak a couple by Benjamin Coulthard early.

Playing with the lead to could be a mission critical element for coach Chris Potter’s troops, who surely have no desire to lose for a third time to their travel partners.

No. 7 Connecticut College @ No. 2 Amherst

Just two weeks ago, the Camels went into Amherst and tied the Lord Jeffs 1-1 in a game that saw very few shots from either team and not a lot of offense overall. The Camels may have let one slip away in that they could not convert on any of their four power-play opportunities.

These teams are actually built very similarly in that there is a balanced attack and no way to focus on just one line or offensive weapon. Scoring has been deep and comes from among all the lines.

With the emergence of Mike Petchonka in goal for the Camels in the second half, Conn College has found its No. 1 netminder that gives them a chance each and every night, just like Dave Cunningham does for Amherst.

Both teams have young and mobile defenders like Amherst’s Aaron Deutsch and the Camels’ exciting freshman Greg Liautaud.

The difference here may be found in the Camels’ 5-1-1 record in their past seven contests, while the home team is almost as good at 4-1-2 in their last seven games. Expect this one to be close-checking and low-scoring and possibly include an overtime session – or two.

No. 6 Colby @ No. 3 Williams

The matchup on paper might be slanted towards the Ephs at home, but even with Colby’s struggles in February where it went just 3-5-0 in the last eight games, coach Bill Kangas and Williams should be worried.

Colby won the last regular-season meeting 2-1 and tied on the opening weekend of the season 1-1. Both games were low-scoring the way the home team likes to play them, but Colby brings some high-octane offensive players in Ben Chwick and Nick Lanza to the mix – a couple of players that can create highlight-reel goals for the Mules even against one of the conference’s best defenses and goaltenders in Sean Daugherty.

Chwick and Lanza combined for three points in the first two games, so it will be paramount to shut down the biggest offensive threats for Colby if Williams is to advance again to the conference semifinals.

No. 5 Bowdoin @ No. 4 Middlebury

They say that timing is everything, so after three straight losses to open February, the Middlebury Panthers were floundering below .500 and mired in the bottom half of the standings.

Then they went on a tear, taking seven of a possible eight points to leapfrog Bowdoin on the last Sunday of the season and take the No. 4 seed and a home-ice match-up with Bowdoin.

Senior Louis Belisle carried his team in the final games, scoring four goals, including the overtime winner against Williams that garnered the critical extra point that helped them capture fourth.

These two teams have met often in the conference tournament and the Panthers hold a decided edge in play. That said, don’t expect Colin Downey and the Polar Bears to go quietly on the road. After all, they are the defending conference champs and tied the Panthers in Vermont to open the regular season.

The game at Bowdoin was a thriller with Bowdoin coming from behind to tie the game in the final minute of regulation before winning in overtime. Hard to imagine a 5-4 playoff game, but with these two teams, anything is possible.

There is intrigue to be found in all of the pairings and without a doubt, the action will be great starting on Saturday afternoon. There isn’t much time to get focused and ready for high-intensity hockey where just one little mistake might be the difference in moving on or going home.