There were still more surprises among many of the championship games this weekend, including some winners that may reshape the makeup of the NCAA tournament. Colby and Nichols both rode a hot streak and great goaltending to their respective league titles while Hobart also won on the road to earn the NEHC title in its very first year as a member of the conference. That win likely sends the defending national champions from Norwich home to end their season. Another key takeaway from the weekend was many of the games were not close, at least not on the scoreboard. Geneseo and Utica both posted wins with a better than five-goal margin, while St. Anselm needed a third-period rally to force overtime and an amazing come-from-behind 6-5 win. Here are some of the stunning highlights from the weekend.
The Nichols vs. University of New England game gave Nor’easters coach Kevin Swallow an opportunity to beat his former team to earn their first CCC championship. Scott Cuthrell and the Bison had other ideas as Nichols took an 8-3 road win to earn the title and autobid to the NCAA tournament leaving UNE, Salve Regina, and Endicott to wonder about their fates in the Pool C bid discussions.
After Nichols took a 2-1 lead in the first period on goals from Vincent Crivello and Chris Deming, Scott Cuthrell helped put the game away in a span of 1:37 in the second period when he scored twice and set-up J.B. Baker for a goal that gave the Bison a 5-1 lead. The Nor’easters tried to get back in it when they closed the gap to just two goals, but two goals from Filip Virgill and another from Nicholas Mangone provided the final margin in the runaway victory. Colin Brennan made 36 saves, including 18 in the final period for the win.
The championship game appeared to be a battle of two high-powered offenses, but goalie Brian McGrath showed he could be the showstopper the Falcons needed to win the MASCAC title and earn their first trip to the NCAA tournament. McGrath out-dueled Massachusetts-Dartmouth’s Drew Michals by making saves on all 45 shots he faced. McGrath was particularly good in the second period, stopping 20 Corsairs shots before Kyle Hillick scored a late power-play goal to give the Falcons the goal they needed for the win. Tyler Warila scored early in the third period with assists from Nik DiNicola and Sascha Figi to give the Falcons a 2-0 win.
The No. 1 seed St. Anselm Hawks faced a familiar opponent in No.2 seed St. Michael’s, and the first two periods were not what the Hawks wanted to see on the scoreboard. The Purple Knights jumped out to a 2-0 lead on goals by Eric Salzillo and Nic Hermary in the first period, only to see the Hawks answer on goals from Liam O’Sullivan and Kevin Curley. The second half of the second period was all St. Mike’s as they built a 5-2 lead off goals from Andrew Olevitz, Paul McAuliffe, and Sam Finkelstein. That brought Brenden Cain into the game to replace starter Colin Soucy for St. Anselm, and maybe that was the spark they needed. The third period was all Hawks as they outshot the Purple Knights, 16-10, and scored three unanswered even-strength goals to tie the game at 5-5 at the end of regulation play. The overtime session was back and forth until a St. Michael’s penalty gave the Hawks a power play they didn’t take long to take advantage of. Jeremy Carignan scored at 12:13 of overtime to give the Hawks the amazing come-from-behind win, 6-5 and the NE-10 in Jim Tortorella’s first year as coach.
The Norwich Cadets had trouble with Hobart in Northfield all season and the championship game started out as a close battle with both goalies playing well for their respective teams. Frank Oplinger was just a bit better than Norwich’s Tom Aubrun and the Statesmen scored three goals, including an empty-net goal to seal a 3-0 win and the conference championship in the first year of play in the NEHC.
The game was remarkably free of special teams play as Hobart went scoreless on their three chances and Norwich never had a man advantage in the game. Andrew Longo and Jordan Haskell provided all the offense Oplinger would need and Lawson MacDougall provided the final margin with 20 seconds remaining in the third period. Oplinger finished with 30 saves, earning the shutout and Hobart’s first ever autobid into the NCAA tournament.
Saturday’s semifinals saw Colby score early and late in support of Sean Lawrence’s 39 saves in a 5-1 win over Wesleyan to earn their spot in the title game on Sunday. The other semifinal saw host Trinity surrender an early 2-0 lead to Williams before answering with five unanswered goals in a 5-2 win.
On Sunday, Lawrence and Alex Morin matched saves in a scoreless first period before Colby took a 2-0 lead early in the second period on goals from Zack Hale and Spencer Hewson. The third period saw Trinity finally solve Lawrence on a goal by Michael Grande, but Cam MacDonald answered Grande’s tally just 13 seconds later and then iced the game for Colby with an empty-net goal, giving the Mules their first NESCAC title and a trip to the NCAA tournament.
Sean Lawrence was stellar in goal for Colby as he finished the weekend stopping 77 of 79 shots he faced against Wesleyan and the defending NESCAC champions from Trinity.
The Fredonia Blue Devils were hoping for one more road upset on their way to a SUNYAC championship, but ran into a determined Geneseo team who used a fast start to create a big cushion on their way to a 7-1 win. Mitch Ferguson, David Szmyd, and Tanner Salsberry all scored for the Knights in the first 10 minutes of the first period before Joe Serpic added one for a 4-0 lead before the 12-minute mark. Sam Wilber scored for Fredonia, but Pat Condon added a pair of goals and Tyson Empey scored his 21st of the season for the final margin of victory.
While most of the goals on the evening were generated on shots from the point, Empey’s was a highlight-reel goal where, entering the zone in a one-on-three with two defenders closely guarding him, he ripped a shot from the left circle to the top corner of the goal just under the crossbar and inside the post for a 6-1 lead. Devin McDonald stopped 27 of 28 shots to pick up his 18th win of the season and help the Knights to the SUNYAC title and NCAA tournament bid.
In another lopsided championship game, Utica showed off its prowess on the power play, converting on five of seven opportunities and downing Elmira 8-3 to win the first ever UCHC championship. Eight different players scored for the Pioneers, who raced to a 3-0 first-period advantage on extra-man goals from Gregg Burgmaster, Daniel Fritz, and Roman Ammirato. The teams traded two goals apiece in the second period before Utica added three more in the third period from Conor Landrigan and two power-play goals from Dalton Carter and Joey Rutkowski. Carter, Burgmaster, and Kyle Lajeunesse all finished with three-point nights for the Pioneers, who outshot Elmira, 37-35, in the win.
Since the UCHC does not yet have an autobid, the Pioneers will have to see if their body of work overall will be good enough with their league title to get them a Pool C bid.
Scott Cuthrell, Nichols: The senior forward picked up two goals and an assist in pacing the Bison to an 8-3 win over UNE in the CCC championship game.
Sean Lawrence, Colby: Lawrence backstopped the Mules to a semifinal win over Wesleyan and a championship game win over Trinity by stopping 77 of 79 shots, giving Colby their first NESCAC title.
Frank Oplinger, Hobart: The Statesmen’s goalie stopped all 30 shots he faced in a 3-0 road win over Norwich to earn Hobart the NEHC championship in their first season of league play.
What a great season, and the playoffs clearly showed what we have seen all year in that any team can be better on any given day. The losses by the top seeds will likely impact the NCAA selections, and unfortunately some very good teams aren’t going to be playing anymore hockey after this weekend despite outstanding seasons. Time for a 16 team D-III tournament -– but that is a topic for another column and a day far away from “Selection Sunday.”