The championship finals are upon us this weekend, which will go a long way in filling out the field for the NCAA tournament, but first things first. Every team’s goal is to be champion of their conference, and to realize that goal, the ultimate victors are going to have to push their game to the next level and earn the title that isn’t going to be given to them by any opponent.
Here is a quick preview of the upcoming games on Saturday, including the remaining semifinal games in the NESCAC conference before their title game participants are determined for Sunday.
Endicott overcame a 57-save performance by Johnson & Wales goalie Joey Ballmer to post a 4-2 semifinal win on Wednesday night to earn the right to host the championship game on Saturday for the second year in a row.
Their opponent is a resurgent University of New England squad that for the second playoff contest in a row raced to a 4-0 lead on the road on their way to a 6-3 win over No. 2 seed Nichols. Armand Uomoleale scored twice, while Dylan Bengston chipped in three points in the win by the No.5 seed.
Utica and Hobart — part II. This is the same championship matchup from last season, but with a change in venue as the top seed Pioneers have the home-ice advantage and the added motivation to win the title in pursuit of a chance to truly be a home team in the NCAA tournament, where the Memorial Auditorium in Utica will play host to the D-III Frozen Four at the end of March.
The conference does not have an auto-bid, so the added win against a quality and nationally ranked opponent will be important in either team’s quest to play more March hockey.
Tuesday’s semifinals ensured a return engagement from last year’s conference final, with Plymouth State playing host to Salem State on Saturday. Ryan Stevens scored twice, including a short-handed goal to reach the 20-goal mark for the Panthers, as they romped over Fitchburg State by a 7-1 score.
Salem State took the less offensive approach, as John Needham’s second-period goal stood up as the game-winner behind goalie Jason Pucciarelli’s 19 saves for a 1-0 win to advance the Vikings to the final and a chance to defend their MASCAC crown from last season.
This is yet another conference final where No. 1 plays No. 2 in the championship game. Norwich is 12-0-1 at home, but won’t look past a determined New England College squad that lost both regular season games by identical 4-3 scores. Conference player of the year William Pelletier leads a high-octane offense for Norwich, but faces the NEHC goaltender of the year in NEC’s Brett Kilar.
It should be no surprise that the conference that opens the regular season last will also finish the conference tournament schedule last. Hamilton, led by conference player of the year Even Buitenhuis, earned the right to host for the first time in program history and will take on Wesleyan in one semifinal. The Cardinals upset Colby in the quarterfinals to advance to the championship weekend.
In the other semifinal, Williams will be battling to retain its NESCAC title claim against another team with a very seasoned playoff roster in the Trinity Bantams. The game has some potent forwards on both sides, including the Ephs’ David Italiano and Trinity’s Sean Orlando, but the game may come down to the efforts of one of two young goaltenders who are playoff veterans — Williams’ Michael Pinios or Trinity’s Alex Morin.
Oswego and Plattsburgh didn’t look like a possibility as the championship final back at the semester break, but a 10-1-1 record since mid-January has Plattsburgh playing for the trophy against its biggest rival. The regular season game at Oswego went to Plattsburgh by a 2-1 score about a month ago, but the stakes are much higher now for the senior-laden and experienced Lakers vs. the young guns from Plattsburgh, who have grown up in the second half. All games between these two seem to be “instant classics,” so don’t expect different on Saturday.
Everything is on the line this weekend. Nothing else matters except for 60 minutes, or longer if needed, to have the supreme effort on the ice and lay claim to conference hardware and glory for the season that started way back in October.