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With roughly a week remaining in the unofficial first half of the season, conference races are starting to shape up and heat up, making the New Year look all the more exciting for all fans. Any all points are going to be important coming down the stretch in February, but it may be points gained in early December that may in fact be the difference in the final standings, playoff position, and home ice in March. Lots of hockey between now and then, so enjoy the battles over the next week as an early holiday gift, and let’s take a look at who is hot and who is not.

ECAC East
Norwich — The Cadets took round one with cross-state rival Castleton on home ice on Friday night, 3-2, but the teams were clearly closely matched. A quick 3-0 start in the first period, including two power-play goals, turned out to be all the Cadets needed in stifling the Spartans’ high-powered offense for the final 34 plus minutes of play. Both the Cadets and Castleton are creating some early separation in the standings from the rest of the teams, so the February 11, 2012 match-up could have implications for first place in the conference.

Southern Maine — After starting out 1-4-0, the Huskies swept both games this past weekend against Massachusetts-Boston and Babson. Goaltender Braely Torris picked up two wins and a shutout while stopping 58 of 61 shots in the two games. The Huskies will try to keep the momentum going when they host Bowdoin on Tuesday night in a nonconference game.

Mass.-Boston — The Beacons’ offense had a breakout game in avenging last week’s PAL Cup tie/loss to the University of New England in a shootout. After falling behind 3-1 in the first minute of play in the second period, the Beacons scored seven unanswered goals, including four in a span of seven minutes late in the second period, to post the 8-3 win. The win was just the first in the conference for Mass.-Boston, which is looking up at a lot of teams in the standings. A nonconference match-up with Wentworth on Thursday night will be a good test for Mass.-Boston, as it tries to win back-to-back games for the first time this season.

St. Michael’s — Since beating Southern Maine on November 11, the Purple Knights are 0-5-1, having scored just 12 goals in the six games played. Freshman A.J. Pieprzak leads the team in scoring with six points in eight games, including five goals, but the Knights will need more to compete when they return to game action at the end of the month in their own tournament against Salve Regina and Becker College.

NESCAC
Middlebury — At 4-0-0 and atop the conference standings, the Panthers are getting strong goaltending from John Yanchek (.926 saves percentage, 1.61 GAA), and phenomenal defense, especially on the penalty kill, where they have surrendered just one goal in 26 chances this season. A difficult road trip against Hamilton and Amherst awaits them the final games of the first semester.

Amherst — Just behind Middlebury with a game in hand, the Lord Jeffs have been equally stingy in giving up goals to the opposition. Jonathan LaRose has a 4-0-0 record and an incredible 1.00 goals against average in supporting a balanced attack that has 12 different players scoring for Amherst so far this season. Saturday’s home date with Middlebury should be a great game to close out the first half.

Williams — Sandwiched between Middlebury and Amherst are the Ephs at 4-0-2 overall and 3-0-1 in the league. If you sense a recurrent theme, Williams also boasts a well-balanced attack, with 12 different goal scorers and a great goaltender supported by a stellar defensive corps. Williams too faces Amherst and Hamilton on the road this weekend, so all of the top teams will be looking to create some distance between their rivals.

Trinity — Matt Greason’s squad has been off to a rough start at 2-4-0 overall and 1-3-0 in the conference. The Menard twins, juniors Chris and Jeffrey, have twin goal totals of four apiece, which combined represents more than one-half of the team’s total offensive output. A split this weekend with Amherst showed tight defensive play, but the Bantams are going to need more than three goals a weekend to move up in the conference standings.

We are off to a great and exciting start to the season. Just a few games remain before the semester and break for the holidays so enjoy the action remaining in December, and maybe send a list to Santa for what your team needs to make a run in the second half.

The elves are hockey fans too — drop the puck!