Winter Sports Playoffs Underway At Vermont Colleges

Mar 12, 2015

Unless an invitation to the CBI or CIT tournaments comes Vermont’s way, the college basketball post-season ended last weekend when the Cats were knocked off by Stony Brook in the America East semifinals. But the area landscape is still jammed with championship action in hockey and skiing.

Here’s a look at the matchups that will play out this week:

MEN’S HOCKEY

Vermont survived a best-of-three opening round series against Maine in the Hockey East playoffs while Norwich and Plattsburgh State won their ECAC divisions to earn automatic berths in the NCAA Division III 11-team field.

Seventh-seeded Vermont (20-13-4) will try to end some negative playoff history when it meets No. 3 seed Boston College (20-11-3) in a best-of-three quarterfinal showdown in Boston beginning Friday. The Cats have faced the Eagles six times previously in post-season and BC has ended UVM’s season each time.

The schools split a pair of regular-season games at BC in mid-February. UVM won, 3-2 in overtime, after surrendering the tying goal with less than 10 seconds remaining in regulation. The Eagles answered with a 6-5 victory, hanging on after bolting to a 5-1 lead. Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon believes the Catamounts’ split will stand them in good stead.

“I think it was very important we won that game in overtime,” he said. “We’ve had games where we played extremely well at BC and came up short. We wondered if we could ever win there.”

Although Vermont was outplayed in the middle game of the Maine series and lost a two-goal lead in the third period of the clincher, Sneddon is happy with where his team is, mentally and physically.

“Maine probably played its best hockey of the year when it counted most and we got what we deserved on Saturday,” he said. “On Sunday, we obviously didn’t like giving up that lead in the third period but we were much more physical and paid greater attention to detail. In overtime we played to win, took a risk when we needed to and it paid off.”

Boston College is a different type of team this season than usually associated with coach Jerry York. The Eagles’ don’t have their trademark offensive firepower and instead are relies on defense.

“I don’t think BC is built for a lot of goals and I expect you’ll see more of the 3-2 game than the 6-5 ending,” Sneddon said of this weekend. “Thatcher Demko is an outstanding goaltender and (defenseman) Noah Hanifan is going to be a top 5 NHL draft pick.”

Vermont will start Mike Santaguida in goal in Friday’s opener and look to senior Mike Paliotta (nine goals, 26 assists) and sophomores Brady Shaw (16 and 11) AND Mario Puskarich (11 and 13) to step up.

“For a relatively young team, I think the mentality is good going forward,” Sneddon said. “I think we came out of the Maine series battle tested and with confidence.”

Norwich (24-3-1) secured its sixth consecutive NCAA Division III berth and earned a crack at a fourth national championship by edging Babson, 3-2 in overtime, in the ECAC East finals. The Cadets, who lost to Plattsburgh in their only regular-season game against tournament teams, host Plymouth State on Saturday.

Sophomore William Pelletier has been NU’s go-to guy all season. He was named the ECAC East player of the year after piling up 14 goals and 21 assists in 17 conference games. Junior Dean Niezgoda (14 and 13) and first-team all-conference defenseman Alec Thieda are two additional keys for the Cadets.

“This is a young team and we wound up in some tight games in the playoffs, but we’re healthy and we hope we’ve build some momentum,” said NU coach Mike McShane. “We don’t score as much as we used to. Our identity this year is built on defense.”

Plattsburgh (20-5-2) earned an opening-round bye after defeating Oswego State (which made the field as an at-large selection), 2-1, to win the State University of New York Athletic Conference’s automatic berth.  The Cardinals, who were 2-1-2 against the NCAA field in the regular season, play the winner of the opening round game between Nichols and Trinity on March 21.

WOMEN’S HOCKEY

As usual, the 8-team NCAA Division III field is jammed with schools located within VPR’s listening area. Norwich and defending champion Plattsburgh earned automatic berths by winning their ECAC divisions while Middlebury was awarded one of three at-large spots after losing to Trinity in double overtime in the New England Small College Athletic Conference finals. This trio has won a combined seven NCAA titles.

Middlebury (20-4-3) is shooting for its fourth championship and first since a three-peat from 2004-06. It will host Norwich (21-4-3) on Saturday at 7 p.m. at Kenyon Arena.

The Panthers went 1-2-1 against the tournament field, losing 4-3 to Plattsburgh, losing and tying with Elmira, and edging NU, 2-1, in overtime.

“That head-to-head win probably helped us make the tournament,” said Middlebury coach Bill Mandigo of the win over the Cadets. “But Norwich is a very well-coached team with strong goal tending, solid defense and an opportunistic offense.”

The Panthers follow senior forward Emily Fluke, the NESCAC player of the year after scoring 11 goals with 19 assists in conference games. She has 43 points overall. Freshman Jessica Young won league rookie of the year honors after finishing with 16 goals and 16 assists.

“Emily is an extremely smart and competitive player who does her best work in the trenches,” Mandigo said. “She’s not very big, but she throws her body in front of pucks and has a knack for finding the net.”

Norwich held off Castleton, 1-0, in the ECAC East finals and all four of its losses came against NCAA tournament teams. Senior Kaycie Anderson (11 goals, 17 assists) and freshman Maki Shuchuk (12 and seven) are the Cadets top guns

Plattsburgh (23-2-2) blanked Elmira 4-0 in the ECAC West finals to finish 2-2 against the Soaring Eagles in the regular season. The Cardinals have five skaters with at least 15 goals and two of them are freshmen – Kayla Meneghin (20 goals, 26 assists) and Melissa Sheeran (15 and 17). Plattsburgh will host St. Thomas (Minn.) on Saturday.

NCAA SKIING

The four-day co-ed competition at Lake Placid began with Wednesday’s men’s and women’s Nordic freestyle races at Mount Van Hoevenberg and will run through Saturday, with alpine events held at Whiteface Mountain. And while Vermont will be in the title discussion, this year’s power again lies out West.

UVM was the only Eastern school to qualify a full complement of 12 skiers while all six schools from the Rocky Mountain Intercollegiate Ski Association advanced a complete team. Denver is the defending champion, and leads all schools with 22 titles, but Colorado’s history in the East is hard to ignore.

The Buffaloes won the men’s championship in 1982 at Lake Placid, the final year before the competition became co-educational. And the Buffs took home the title both at Stowe in 2011, and Middlebury in 2013, the latest of their 19 championships.

Colorado is led by two-time defending Nordic champion Rune Oedegard and Mads Stroem, who finished 1-2 in nine races this season.

Vermont won its last crown in 2012 and was runner-up to Denver last year, climbing from fifth to second on the final day, 68.5 points behind. If the Catamounts manage to claim a seventh national championship this week, the alpine team will lead the charge.

Kristina Riis-Johannessen is the the defending champion in women’s slalom and won the giant slalom in the Eastern Intercollegiate Ski Association competition at Whiteface last month. Ellie Terwiel, who took off the 2012-13 season to earn a spot on the Canadian national team and is back on form after competing in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

On the men’s side, freshman Will St. Germain was named the EISA alpine rookie of the year. He won both slalom races in the EISA championships at Whiteface in February.

Both Middlebury and Dartmouth qualified 10 skiers. The Panthers’ power lies in women’s Nordic with Heather Mooney and Kelsey Phinney, while the Big Green will follow giant slalom skiers Patrick Caldwell (the EISA champion) and Fabian Stocek.

Alpine skier Fredrik Sandell is St. Michael’s College’s lone representative.