Here we go again!
Doesn’t seem to matter that the interlocking schedule between the ECAC East and NESCAC is over this year — it’s still getting too close to call at a lot of different levels in the standings. We are all in for some fun scoreboard watching as we wind down the final three week s of the regular season.
ECAC home ice up for grabs
So it appears that Norwich and Castleton are slugging it out for the top spot, having created a seven-point gap over third place Babson in the standings. Yes, I did write Babson, and the fact that they have emerged from the Frozen Fenway as true competitors overall should not be a surprise to anyone based on past performance. In fact, from Babson in third with 14 points, to Southern Maine in the least desirable playoff spot in seventh with 10 points, there are five teams that are now battling for not only home ice, but avoiding a first round date in Vermont against either of the league leaders.
Babson and travel partner Massachusetts-Boston hooked-up this weekend for a two game home-and-home series that saw two overtime games and the Beavers taking three of a possible four points to jump into third place overall in the conference. While just 6-11-2 overall, Babson has gone 3-0-2 since a 4-1 loss to Norwich at Fenway Park, and has been playing playoff style hockey, with four of the five games going to overtime, including both games with Mass.-Boston this past weekend. Goaltender Andrew Peabody has been in net for four of the five games, earning three wins in that span that now sees the Beavers starting to play much more consistent hockey each and every night.
For other competitors, including New England College, Skidmore, Mass.-Boston, and Southern Maine, points are going to be incredibly important these last three weekends, with only Skidmore taking two points this weekend as compared with just a single point for New England College and Mass.-Boston, and none for Southern Maine. About the only thing assured at this point is the top two teams and the number eight seed in the ECAC East — everything else will come down to the remaining matchups and who wants it more. And you wonder why coaches have either no hair or gray hair — it is stress time for sure.
NESCAC no different
The only tangible difference between the two conferences is that with Trinity and Wesleyan playing mostly Saturday and Sunday game schedules, coaches have to agonize an extra 24 hours over the standings on the NESCAC front.
Amherst created some room at the top this weekend by taking advantage of its games in hand and stretching out to a four-point lead over second-place Bowdoin. The Polar Bears and Lord Jeffs hook up this Friday night, so mark that one on the calendar of important head-to-head games this weekend.
Meanwhile, Connecticut College took three of four points this weekend with a key road win at Middlebury and an overtime tie with Williams. Keith Veronesi had two goals and an assist for the Camels over the weekend, which now finds yet another team scratching at the home ice playoff picture.
Tufts pulled even with Middlebury in the standings, earning a 2-2 tie on the road with an extra-attacker goal with just 32 seconds remaining in regulation. Speaking of the Panthers, with John Yanchek out of the line-up, they have been desperate to find some consistent goaltending from a cast of four netminders who collectively are 0-3-3 and sporting goals-against averages over 4.00. Not a pretty picture when your offense has been scored but eight goals in the last six games, which includes just one win and a tie.
Meanwhile the gap between third and sixth place is just six points, and only eight points to Connecticut College in seventh. Everyone has just six games remaining, so head-to-head battles and tiebreakers are likely going to come into play in deciding exactly where everyone ends up in the standings.
Like back-to-back losses to Bowdoin and Norwich by a collective 12-1 score weren’t enough, Southern Maine took no points this weekend following a 3-2 loss at St. Michael’s that finds them sitting in seventh place and staring at a date with Castleton in the playoffs if they started today.
“Playing those two back-to-back isn’t going to inspire a lot of confidence in any team if Bowdoin and Norwich have it going,” said coach Jeff Beaney. “While Bowdoin shows off a bit more in their style of play, Norwich is just so disciplined and continues to grind you down so you just can’t make any mistakes. Any positives coming out of those two games really need to help us down the stretch, since as usual, it’s going to be a tight race and clearly nobody really wants to be in the seven or eight spot. That said, Mass.-Boston and Babson played for the championship as seven and eight seeds, so I am not so sure it matters where you end up as long as you are playing good hockey when the playoffs come.”
Saturday’s 3-2 loss in Winooski didn’t help Southern Maine gain any ground this weekend, and now it faces a challenging home-and-home series with in-state rival University of New England this upcoming weekend to try and rekindle its winning ways and garner some all-important points in the standings.
“It is going to be a wild one up in Biddeford on Friday,” noted Beaney. “That place is going to be jumping, and the atmosphere will be a tough one to play in for sure. I am not looking forward to going up there and then turning around and coming back home, but the schedule is what it is this year and right now we need to get some points and some positive momentum.”
One key positive for the Huskies has been the play of senior goaltender Braely Torris, who despite a losing record has a save percentage over .900 and goals-against average under three.
“He has been outstanding this year after getting off to a slow start,” said Beaney. “The great thing to watch is that he has terrific rebound control. He doesn’t give up those second chances to our opponents, and that has been a big factor in his and our success this season when we have found ways to win games.”
Torris will need to continue his consistent play and support the Huskies, who continue to struggle on the penalty kill. This season, they are surrendering a goal 27 percent of the time when a man down, and that just isn’t going to get it done come crunch time in February.
“After dealing with a number of injuries and moving some people around with roles, I think we are making some progress on special teams,” said Beaney. “At the end of the day, we know we are a pretty good team five-on-five. We just need to get a little more consistent on special teams and who knows what can happen in this league.”
Who knows is right coach. Don’t have my crystal ball warmed up just yet, but once again if you think you have it figured out, just check out the scoreboard on the weekend for the regular dose of surprise.
February is already here — drop the puck!