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Welcome to the New Year, and if the hockey we have seen to officially start 2012 is any indication, we are all in for a very good year as fans of the game. Thought I would change up the weekly blog this time around, as there were some interesting games over the past weekend and some results that made me ponder and have some thoughts beyond the actual event, so here goes.

Codfish Bowl
Massachusetts-Boston must think that there is a special formula for opposing goalies in the championship game of its own tournament. Each year in the Peter Belisle coaching era, the Beacons seem to get to the championship game no problem, only to run into a wall in goal for the opponent in the final that ultimately sees the trophy heading somewhere else besides the confines of the Clark Center.  Recently, it was Bobby Leiser from Fitchburg State (more on him later), who made over 40 saves in downing the Beacons. This year Tufts’ Scott Barchard turned in yet another stellar performance in making 42 saves on 43 shots in the Jumbos 2-1 win over the hosts, who once again threw everything but the kitchen sink at the other goalie, only to come up short. Congrats to Tufts on the win, and a hint for next year to coach Belisle — make the other net seven-by-four.

Norwich Classic
No surprise really that Norwich won its tournament over the weekend, with wins over Morrisville and Fitchburg State in the final by a 5-1 score. What should be a surprise is that it was Fitchburg State playing in the final, having tied Elmira 1-1 in overtime in its opening round game and winning the shootout in three rounds, two-to-one. Now I know the USCHO columnists pick games every weekend, and certainly there are enough participants on the USCHO Fan Forum who do the same. Nowhere did I see anyone picking Elmira not to be facing Norwich the next night, with the expectation of two nationally-ranked teams playing for the tournament title. So what happened? Bobby Leiser happened. The Falcons goalie made 47 saves to help his team advance to the final, where they just couldn’t turn the trick twice over ranked opponents in the same weekend.

So why do I bring up the Elmira/Fitchburg State game in the ECAC East blog this week. The fact is that D-III hockey has become so competitive that no one should be surprised when ranked teams lose to teams that most ECAC West fans couldn’t find on a map. Sure the game is officially a tie; I get that, and the shootout format is considered a gimmick by many for these tournament games. The fact remains that a disciplined team like Dean Fuller’s squad and a really hot goalie like Leiser can take down any team at any level, and with the amount of talent now available to all of these programs, these results are becoming more common every week, so much so that I will get on my soapbox for a minute to push the 16 NCAA Championship tournament format for D-III again here. Clearly, there are multiple teams that over the course of the year have and will demonstrate an ability to compete with the best of ranked teams.  Moreover, in the AQ format, with extremely limited at-large bids, one stumble or run-in with a hot goalie on a Cinderella team can end the season for a conference top qualifier or number one seed that has shown consistency all season long. At the end of the day, there are more conferences and teams in D-III than D-I — let’s hope the NCAA does the right thing soon and gives all of us a tournament where all of the best get a chance to go for the brass ring.

Outdoor hockey
Having enjoyed the great atmosphere and warm weather that blessed the 2012 edition of Frozen Fenway, I am a believer that the attraction for the outdoor venue is not waning when the right product is put out on the ice for passionate fans. Two thrilling overtime games between Massachusetts-Amherst and Vermont followed by UNH and Maine made for a great night that was attended by over 38,000 folks. This Friday afternoon, Babson plays the host to arch-rival Norwich at Fenway, as two top D-III programs get to experience the special atmosphere of Fenway Park and outdoor hockey on a grand scale.

While this year’s NHL Winter Classic focused on Philadelphia and the Flyers hosting the Rangers, Boston recreated the 2010 venue for a three-week period to embrace public skating, key high school and private school rivalries, as well as men’s and women’s matchups from both Hockey East and the ECAC leagues. While the response has been great commercially (several sold out events), there has been a passion about the chance to enjoy the roots of the game in a hockey-rich area where many players started playing the game. I am looking forward to the Friday afternoon game between the ECAC East rivals, and expect to see in the players’ eyes the sheer joy of playing the game in a classic venue that is now becoming pretty well known for hockey. as well as the summertime residents. All in all, I think the past two weeks have been a great way for venerable Fenway Park to begin the celebration of its 100 year anniversary.

Back to the grind
This week ends all of the tournaments and now focuses back on league play. Both conferences are very competitive (as expected), and whether it’s NESCAC or ECAC East, a good weekend or a bad one can really change your fortunes, but don’t despair if you are a fan and your team struggles a bit. Playing everybody twice provides opportunities for either redemption or a four-point sweep. The fun begins now in the separate leagues, and the focus now shifts to points every weekend.

Indoors or out the game is red hot — drop the puck!