March 13, 2012

Small College Journal: Uncharted territory for Amherst

By Mike Zhe

In the 29-year history of the Division 3 men’s hockey championship, never have two New England programs squared off for the title.

Amherst forward Eddie Effinger (photo: Amherst College Athletics)

Still some work to do, but the pieces are in place for the ECAC East champion Norwich and NESCAC champ Amherst to be playing for a national championship in Lake Placid, N.Y., on Saturday night.

Norwich, a perennial power under coach Mike McShane (Wakefield, Mass.) is in the Frozen Four for the third straight year and just two wins from its fourth national championship.

Amherst? A little less history. This is its first trip to the national semifinals. But there’s just as much excitement.

“It’s great for our program,” said Amherst coach Jack Arena. “The last four or five years we’ve certainly done pretty well. But with every step you take, when you go a little bit farther it kind of breaks the ice. And it’s raised the kids’ expectations, to be honest.”

The national semifinals will be Friday in Lake Placid. Top-ranked Norwich (24-2-2) will face No. 5 and defending champion St. Norbert (19-5-5) in the first game, with second-ranked Amherst (24-3-1) and No. 3 Oswego State (23-3-2) meeting in the late game.

The Lord Jeffs (24-3-1) have won 12 straight – the best current streak in Division 3 -- and their resilience has been on display in the last two.

They quickly found themselves trailing in their quarterfinal against Plattsburgh, yielding a goal three minutes in. But the shifts that followed slowly began swinging the momentum, even if the scoreboard remained unchanged at the first intermission.

“We were working,” said Arena. “We had been down 2-0 in the first period to Middlebury the weekend before and come back. So no one was too concerned.

“It’s interesting. We’d put a couple of shifts together and, when that happens, the energy and momentum builds for us.”

The result? Three second-period goals to take control of the game, two of them by senior forward Eddie Effinger. Goalie Jonathan La Rose made them hold up for a 3-1 win.

It will be a contrast in styles against Oswego, which ranks second nationally in scoring at 4.68 goals a game. Junior snipers Jon Whitelaw (22-19-41) and Paul Rodrigues (13-23-36) lead the way, and junior goalie Andrew Hare (.932 save percentage) has been solid at the other end.

“They’re most dangerous in transition,” said Arena. “They love to get the puck up ice quickly and attack. It’s the best group of forwards we’ve seen so far.”

Meanwhile, the Jeffs are allowing just 1.64 goals – best in the nation -- in front of La Rose, who leads Division 3 in save percentage (.943) and whose return to the team this year has been everything he and his coaches could have hoped for.

Offensively, Amherst has been balanced, with five players – Mike Moher, Mark Culp (Wareham, Mass.), Effinger, Johnny Van Siclen (Carlisle, Mass.) and Brian Safstrom -- in double-digits for goals, and freshman defenseman Aaron Deutsch leading the way with 18 assists.

“Our kids have really embraced an identity in how we play,” said Arena. “They don’t have to wonder day to day what we have to do to be successful. They know.”

The buses are slated to leave Amherst, Mass., on Wednesday night for the trip to Lake Placid. The team will practice on Thursday and take the ice Friday night for the semifinals.

And then maybe take another step.

Game of the Week

Division 3 semifinals, Friday (at Lake Placid, N.Y.)

Norwich vs. St. Norbert, 4 p.m.

This is the third straight Frozen Four clash between the teams. Norwich beat St. Norbert, 2-1, in double overtime to win the national championship in 2010, and the Green Knights returned the favor in the national semifinals last year, 3-2.

No team in Division 3 is scoring at a faster rate than the Cadets (4.75 goals), who are getting it done at both ends of the ice.

Junior forward Kyle Thomas (Waltham, Mass.), one of 18 semifinalists for the Concannon Award, with 16-31-37 totals, is part of attack that also features Pier-Olivier Cotnoir (21-20-41), Travis Janke (11-28-39) and a strong supporting cast.

St. Norbert, out of the NCHA, has an excellent freshman goalie in Derek Jacobson (1.58 GAA, .933 save percentage) and ranks fifth in Division 3 in scoring defense (2.14).

New England Division 3 power rankings

1. Amherst (23-3-1, 17-1-0 NESCAC)

Defenseman Mike Baran (Duxbury, Mass.) is one of 18 semifinalists for the Concannon Award, presented to the best American-born player in New England.

2. Norwich (22-2-2, 15-2-1 ECAC East)

Junior forward Pier-Olivier Cotnoir is looking to cap off a season that saw him earn ECAC East Player of the Year and tournament MVP, and be named one of 10 finalists for the Sid Watson Award for national player of the year.

3. Wentworth (21-7-1, 11-2-1 ECAC Northeast)

The Leopards’ 21 wins tie for the second-most in program history. The 3-1 first-round win at Plymouth State was the program’s first NCAA victory in seven tries.

4. Plymouth State (17-7-3, 12-3-3 MASCAC)

Panthers’ season for the ages ended with 3-1 home loss to Wentworth in the NCAA first round. Plymouth State lost seven games all winter and just four at home. Wentworth was responsible for three in both cases.

5. Bowdoin (16-6-3, 12-3-3 NESCAC)

6. Middlebury (14-10-3, 11-6-1 NESCAC)

7. Salem State (15-9-3, 11-4-3 MASCAC)

8. Castleton State (19-7-2, 12-4-2 ECAC East)

9. UMass-Dartmouth (16-9-2, 10-6-2 MASCAC)

10. Southern Maine (10-11-6, 7-7-4 ECAC East)

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