So it’s now down to just one weekend remaining in the regular season. Two games will decide the final playoff fate for teams in both conferences, and while the picture is still murky, here is what we know is clear in the playoff picture, as well as the many questions that still remain in both conferences.
It wasn’t the prettiest of weekends for Norwich, which earned a split of two games with Skidmore and Castleton. The two points gained in the win against the Spartans actually clinched the top seed for the Cadets, who lead by four points with two games remaining, but hold the tiebreakers with a 2-0-0 head-to-head record against the in-state rivals form Rutland.
We also know that Brad Holt’s University of New England squad will once again be making the quarterfinal trek to Northfield to play the top seed in the ECAC East. The top and bottom are clearly settled, and so is second place, as Castleton has a five-point lead over third place Babson and has locked up a home-ice berth. What is very unclear right now is who will finish in the number three through seven spots, as only four points separate third place Babson from seventh place New England College. Five teams are separated by just four points in the standings, and if past seasons are any indication of the extraordinary means teams may take to move into a higher position, we may see teams forgoing a sure tie and pulling the goalie looking for the win and the extra point that could make all of the difference in the standings.
There are lots of different scenarios, with some interesting matchups over the weekend, including Babson and travel partner Massachusetts-Boston traveling to Vermont for games at St. Michael’s and Norwich, as well as the two-game series between Skidmore and Castleton. Skidmore is 6-2-0 in its last eight games, including Friday night’s 3-2 upset over Norwich that saw a short-handed, empty-net, game-winning goal in the final minute for the Thoroughbreds come about as a result of the Cadets adding an extra-attacker goal with just nine seconds remaining.
Things are about the same in the NESCAC conference, where again the top of the leader board is crystal clear. Amherst has locked up the top seed in the playoffs, posting another weekend sweep with wins over Connecticut College and an 8-0 beat down on Tufts. The Lord Jeffs are playing great hockey right now, and look to add their second championship trophy to the case at Orr Rink in the last four seasons.
Second and third place are not finalized, as Bowdoin and a resurgent Middlebury team have room over fourth place Tufts. Bowdoin faces Connecticut College and Tufts on the road, while Middlebury hosts Hamilton and Amherst in the final weekend, two teams that beat them earlier in the season.
After that, it is all up for grabs in the NESCAC conference. Colby, which currently sits in 10th place, is just three points out of a playoff spot and faces Connecticut College, one of its closest competitors, on Friday night.
Tufts, which had been a very hot team of late, found an ice age of historic proportion this past weekend, where it went 0-2-0 and was outscored by Amherst and Hamilton by a 14-0 total for the weekend. The Jumbos have never finished higher than seventh in the conference, and their current perch in fourth for the final home-ice berth is tenuous if they play the final two games in the same manner that saw them lose badly on the road.
Teams five, six, and seven (Williams, Wesleyan, and Trinity) are only four points apart, and the final weekend has an interesting home-and-home series between the two Connecticut schools that ultimately may decide who is in, out, or playing a possible game on home ice in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament beginning next week. Williams, on the other hand, is 0-5-1 in its last six games, and the offense has been anemic, scoring just 10 goals in the six games. Williams’ defense and goaltending has been good all season, but 1.66 goals-per-game isn’t going to win a lot of hockey games at this point in the season. Home dates with Amherst and Hamilton will give the Ephs an opportunity to get back on track before the playoffs.
Top to bottom, every game this weekend can and will have an impact on the standings, and coaches will be trying to take care of business in their own games while tracking down scores between periods and immediately after games to see if their team received any help from some other league games.
For the most part, it is again down to the wire. While all of the ECAC East teams know they are playing in the playoffs, the intensity for position is just as high as in the NESCAC conference, where two teams are hanging up the skates after Saturday night for the season, and for the seniors on those teams, for their careers.
It’s really all on the line now — drop the puck!