It may be the first day of spring, but area men’s and women’s college hockey teams are still rolling along in playoff form. Vermont, Norwich and Plattsburgh all face win-or-go home challenges this weekend.
Tonight, the Vermont men face Massachusetts-Lowell in the Hockey East semifinals at Boston Garden, while Plattsburgh State hosts the women’s NCAA Division III final four with a showdown against Norwich. On Saturday, Norwich plays at Amherst and Plattsburgh goes to Trinity in the men’s NCAA Division III quarterfinals.
Here’s how the weekend shapes up:
The Catamounts are coming off an exhilarating weekend in which they defeated Boston College, 1-0, in Sunday’s deciding game of their best-of-three quarterfinal series. It was the first time in seven post-season meetings that UVM bested the Eagles and it marked the first time since 1988 that BC lost a quarterfinal series after winning the first game.
“I’m still filled with a lot of pride,” said coach Kevin Sneddon of his team, that played six games in 10 days to win series against both Maine and Boston College. “They faced a lot of adversity but they just kept going, they were determined.
“And I think that’s the story going into this weekend. The NCAA tournament doesn’t matter – we’ve got to win. For us, we play our best when our backs are against the wall and that’s what we’re faced with now.”
Vermont (22-14-4) is 3-0 in elimination games this post-season but does not have the resume to earn an NCAA at-large berth: the Cats must win tonight and then again on Saturday against either Boston University or New Hampshire to claim Hockey East’s automatic spot.
If UVM does advance, Brody Hoffman figures to be in the middle of the winning equation. The junior goalie came off the bench to rescue the Cats at BC, earning redemption in a season of more valleys than peaks.
Hoffman relieved Mike Santaguida four minutes into the second period of the first game against Boston College with UVM trailing 4-0. Vermont lost that game 4-2, but over 120 minutes in the next three games, Hoffman stopped 75 of 76 shots, enabling Vermont to forge 3-1 and 1-0 victories.
“We didn’t win the game (Friday) but he shut the door for us and at least allowed us to compete,” Sneddon said. “He clearly was the best player on the ice for the next two games for either team. His confidence level is very, very strong right now.”
That wasn’t the case in early February when some rocky performances and a loss of confidence led to a brief suspension for his reaction to being pulled mid-game in favor of Santaguida. Hoffman’s last start before Saturday against BC had come on Feb. 7.
“That was kind of a wake-up call,” he said of the suspension. “The guys were supportive right through it, which is big. We kind of pushed through it and I was able to re-focus.”
With Santaguida now a fixture in goal, Hoffman got his house in order away from the rink and squared away his academics. On the ice, he came early and stayed late.
“I was just trying to stay positive and be a good teammate,” he said. “It was hard at times. You always want to contribute on the ice. I had to find ways to get better even though I wasn’t playing.”
The offensive playoff catalyst for Vermont has been sophomore forward Brady Shaw, who has four goals and three assists in six post-season games.
“I think confidence is the biggest thing, that and coach telling me to shoot the puck more and use my size to my advantage,” Shaw said. “I’m definitely trying to be more that power forward and it’s worked out for me lately.”
UMass-Lowell (20-11-6) defeated Vermont 4-2, and then settled for a 2-2 tie in a home series in late February. Hoffman did not play in either of those games, but played in all five last season when the teams split during the regular season before the River Hawks ousted the Cats in a three-game HE quarterfinal series in Lowell. The combined scores of those last seven games are 16-13 and six have been one-goal decisions.
“They are a really structured team that plays a real detailed game,” UVM captain Mike Paliotta said of River Hawks. “They don’t take many shortcuts, they’re always in the right spots and they really make you earn your offense.”
UMass-Lowell defeated Notre Dame in three games in the quarterfinals and is ranked 12th nationally. This is the River Hawks third consecutive trip to the semis and they remain alive for an at-large bid.
“We have to weather the storms – Lowell’s going to get their opportunities,” Sneddon said. “We’re similar in a lot of ways. The bottom line is we have to play with confidence. I told the team, no fears, no doubts, no regrets, just leave it all out there. That’s all we can ask and they’ve done that for us.”
The Cadet men will try to move one step closer to a fourth national championship against an Amherst (21-4-2) team that earned an opening-round bye after winning the New England Small College Athletic Conference title. Norwich (25-3-1) advanced after edging Plymouth State, 3-2, in the first round behind two goals from ECAC East player of the year William Pelletier.
“There were times we looked sloppy,” NU coach Mike McShane said of the win over Plymouth. “Defensively we played pretty well. We need to keep that and add to it offensively.”
The teams did not meet during the regular season, but the Lord Jeffs (coached by former UVM standout Bill Kangas) have been consistent at both ends of the ice.
“Physically, they’re a big team,” McShane said. “They check well and they have good size on defense. We have to use our speed to move the puck and create some opportunities.”
The Norwich women (22-4-3) knocked off Middlebury, 3-2, in the quarterfinals behind 30 saves from goalie Celeste Robert in the quarterfinals. Winners of four consecutive ECAC East titles and making their seventh straight NCAA appearance, the Cadets hope add a title to the one they won in 2011.
Senior forward Kaycie Anderson and freshman forward Sarah Schwenzfeier are NU’s go-to offensive stars. The Cadets have not won at Plattsburgh’s Stafford Arena since an 8-7 victory in 2012, a game that featured seven lead changes.
When the Cardinal women take on Norwich, it will be a rematch of last year’s national championship game, a 9-2 PSU victory. This season, Plattsburgh (24-2-2) tied the Cadets early in the season before winning 5-0 in February.
Senior Shannon Stewart and freshman Kayla Meneghin, the ECAC West rookie of the year, combined for 40 goals and 90 points this season. Nine Cardinals have scored at least 10 goals and PSU tops Division III in scoring with a 5.0 goal average.
The Plattsburgh men earned a spot in the men’s tournament for the first time since 2011-12 by winning the State University of New York Athletic Conference regular season title. After earning an opening-round bye, the Cardinals (20-5-2) will face a Trinity (22-3-1) team that ousted Nichols in the first round.
Connor Toomey and Michael Cassidy are PSU’s top guns. The Cardinals did not face Trinity during the regular season, but are 2-1-2 against teams in the tournament field.