February 14, 2012

Small College Journal: High seeds no lock to run table

By Mike Zhe

Just win, baby?

Nope. Just get in, baby. 

Norwich's Tim Houston (24) looks for a pass during a game against Babson. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Hartmann)

The sports landscape has changed plenty in a generation, from the days when the battle cry of teams like the dominant Oakland Raiders signaled postseasons that usually ended up with the highest-seeded team celebrating. 

No, these days we have the New York Giants coming out of bracket obscurity — twice! — to win recent Super Bowls. The eighth-seeded Canadiens and seventh-seeded Flyers springing upsets to reach the Eastern Conference finals two years ago. Even Minnesota-Duluth running the Division 1 table last winter from a No. 3 seed.

Just get in, baby. Then see what happens.

So, with Division 3 regular seasons wrapping up either this weekend or in the days that follow, it’s a perfect time to see who’s in, out and on the bubble for conference tournament play.

NESCAC

Amherst, Bowdoin and Middlebury are all but locked in as the top three seeds for the eight-team tourney, and they’re the three teams that have played the best hockey in the second half.

The Lord Jeffs (13-1-0 NESCAC) have clinched first place and will play at home as long as they win. Bowdoin (10-3-3) is 10-2-2 overall since the last weekend before the holidays, a pair of rock-solid wins against Tufts (5-1) and Conn. College (7-0) that kicked off their streak.

“I think the weekend that really gave our team confidence was that last weekend before the break,” said Bowdoin coach Terry Meagher.

The league gets more interesting toward the bottom, where Trinity, Conn. College, Hamilton and Colby are separated by five points as they chase the final two berths. Last-place Colby can turn up the heat with a win at Conn. College on Friday.

ECAC East

Norwich was toppled from its No. 1 national ranking after losing to Skidmore Friday. But it’ll be the No. 1 seed when its own conference tournament begins next week.

The Cadets (14-2 ECAC East) own a four-point lead and the tiebreaker on Castleton State (11-3-2), which they’ve beaten twice. They’ll host last-place University of New England (1-15) in the quarterfinals.

It’s the rest of the field that’s in flux. UMass-Boston (8-7-1) has shown a knack for the upset, but needs to overtake third-place Babson (8-5-3) or fourth-place Skidmore (9-7) to avoid hitting the road in the first round, even as it’s on a 7-2-1 tear.

“I think we have a pretty diverse team,” said UMB captain Jimmy Ennis (Roslindale, Mass.), the league's reigning Player of the Week after a five-point weekend. “It took us pretty much half the year to find the right balance.”

Babson is 5-1-3 since losing to Norwich at Fenway Park on Jan. 13, and gets another crack at the Cadets on Saturday.

MASCAC

This race has just been fun from start to finish. And, as we approach the finish, it’s Plymouth State with the inside track for the top seed and right to host games at beautiful Hanaway Rink.

Six teams get in and the Panthers (13-6-2 MASCAC) could be the first ones with a strong finish. They lead Salem State (9-3-3), whom they beat 4-3 on Saturday, by one point and third-place UMass-Dartmouth (8-5-2) by four points. The top two finishers get byes to the semifinals.

Fitchburg State (7-6-2), Worcester State (5-9-2) and Westfield State (3-9-4) also look like good bets to extend their seasons, with Framingham State’s (3-10-3) remaining two games at Salem and Dartmouth.

Remember, the tourney champ gets an auto bid to the NCAAs this year.

ECAC Northeast

The picture is clearest here among the four New England leagues, with Curry (10-2 ECAC Northeast), Wentworth (9-2-1), Johnson & Wales (7-3-2), Nichols (8-4) and Western New England (7-5) all assured of a spot in the top six.

Becker (3-8-1) should be the sixth team, as long as it can get points during a weekend swing at Salve Regina (2-10) and Suffolk (0-12).

Game of the Week

Curry at Wentworth, Thursday

This game probably decides first place in the ECAC Northeast and the top seed for the conference tournament.

Curry, a season that began with talk about leaving a national mark, not just a league one, began taking on water after the holidays. But by beating both Johnson & Wales and Wentworth the first time around, Rob Davies’ crew ensured it will have to be toppled from its perch; it won’t go voluntarily.

New England Division 3 power rankings

1. Norwich (19-2-1, 14-2 ECAC East)

Cadets got stunned at Skidmore on Friday, 3-2, despite holding a 40-16 edge in shots, but bounced back by beating Castleton State, 7-5, behind game-deciding goals just 17 seconds apart by Blake Forkey and Tory Allan late in the third period.

2. Amherst (16-3-1, 13-1-0 NESCAC)

Lord Jeffs’ 8-0 rout of Tufts Saturday featured an assault on three different goalies. Sunday’s 5-2 win over Conn. College was their sixth in a row.

3. Castleton State (16-5-2, 11-3-2 ECAC East)

Spartans will have to make peace with second place after seeing quick 2-0 lead slip away against Norwich Saturday. They’ve got a home-and-home with Skidmore this weekend.

4. Bowdoin (13-5-3, 10-3-3 NESCAC)

John McGinnis, Harry Matheson, Ollie Koo (Greenwich, Conn.) and Rob MacGregor each scored goals both nights as the Polar Bears beat Wesleyan (6-4) and Trinity (4-1) to stay two points ahead of Middlebury in the battle for second place.

5. Plymouth State (13-6-2, 10-3-2 MASCAC)

Kyle Greco scored the game-winning goal and set up two others as the Panthers went to Salem State and took a 4-3 win that puts them in first place by a point with three games to go.

6. Salem State (12-7-3, 9-3-3 MASCAC)

Nick Lampson’s (Groton, Mass.) four goals highlighted a rock-solid, 6-1 win over UMass-Dartmouth on Thursday. Last three opponents — Westfield State, Worcester State and Framingham State — are at the bottom of the league standings, which should at least ensure longtime coach Bill O’Neill (Lynn, Mass.) collects his 500th career win.

7. Wentworth (16-6-1, 9-2-1 ECAC Northeast)

Skylur Jameson had two goals and two assists as Wentworth held off Becker (3-2) and routed Suffolk (8-2), setting up a possible winner-take-all game with Curry Thursday.

8. Middlebury (11-8-3, 10-5-1 NESCAC)

Resurgent Panthers are 4-for-4 in February and have tightened up the defense, allowing just five goals in the wins after yielding four or more in five of previous eight games.

9. Johnson & Wales (13-7-3, 7-3-2 ECAC Northeast)

Wildcats lead the nation in goals per game (4.78) but went 0-for-7 on the power play and had to settle for a 1-1 tie with Becker on Saturday.

10. UMass-Dartmouth (13-7-2, 8-5-2 MASCAC)

Corsairs would likely have to run the table and get some help over their last three games to finish in first. That stretch includes a trip to first-place Plymouth State on Saturday.

Mike Zhe can be reached at mzhe@hockeyjournal.com.