NESCAC Quarterfinals Preview

The quarterfinal games are evenly split between 1 pm and 3 pm start times, with the early start times for 2 of the 4 games (Bowdoin at Hamilton and Tufts at Trinity) due to the host team also hosting a women’s quarterfinal game on Saturday. In 3 of the 4 games, the higher seed (Hamilton, Colby, Trinity) has a clear edge in momentum, making the home team the clear favorite.  In the fourth game (no. 5 Amherst at no. 4 Williams), neither team has any real momentum going into the quarterfinals but Williams has a slight edge due to the home ice advantage and Amherst’s struggles on the road.

So from our vantage point, we may be looking at something shocking in the NESCAC – an upset-free set of quarterfinal games. That last happened 8 years ago in the 2009 play-offs (it almost also happened in 2012 and 2013 but for the no. 5 seed defeating the no. 4 seed in each of those years). Predictions are just predictions, of course, and anything can happen on the ice, especially in this era of parity where narrow statistical analyses do not determine the actual outcome of games.

No. 8 Bowdoin (5-12-1; 8-15-1) at no. 1 Hamilton (11-3-4; 17-3-4) (1 pm start)

Hamilton has claimed the no. 1 seed in the NESCAC play-offs for the first time since 2011. For the past 10 years, the no. 1 seed has been a mixed blessing in the post-season, with the no. 1 seed winning the NESCAC championship only 3 times in that 10-year period while being eliminated in the quarterfinals an equal number of times. In fact, Hamilton fell to no. 8 Wesleyan in 2011 by a score of 5-2, opening the door for the no. 5 Polar Bears to win their first NESCAC championship.

Still, no. 1 Hamilton and no. 8 Bowdoin are two teams moving in the opposite direction, with the Continentals the strong favorite in this game. The collapse of the Polar Bears is this year’s biggest mystery. Both teams finished the 2015-16 regular season in close proximity to each other in the standings (Bowdoin was no. 3 and Hamilton was no. 4 in 2016), with each team returning most of last season’s team for the 2016-17 season and Bowdoin having a stronger class of recruits on paper. Yet the two teams ended up at opposite ends of the standings .  . . .

Hamilton started the season very strong, running off 13 straight games without a loss (11-0-2). Once the streak was broken, things were a bit bumpy for the Continentals from mid-January to early February, with just 1 win in 6 games (1-3-2) but picked up in February as the Continentals closed out the season with 5 straight wins.

Bowdoin, in contrast, began the season in reasonably good form, entering the holidays with a 6-4 record (and with 3 of its 4 losses 1-goal losses in conference play), only to collapse in the second part of the season, winning only 2 games after the holidays for a run of 2-11-1 to finish the regular season. Ironically, Bowdoin’s two post-holiday wins were impressive (a 5-1 win over Trinity on Jan. 14 and a 3-1 win over Amherst on Feb. 3), indicating some talent and unrealized potential.

Hamilton’s home and road records are roughly comparable in league play (5-1-3 versus 6-2-1) while Bowdoin did slightly better at home than on the road (3-5-1 versus 2-7-0). Hamilton swept the regular season series, with a 6-3 win in Clinton on Jan. 7 and a 3-1 win in Brunswick on Feb. 4.

Hamilton and Bowdoin have comparable offenses with the teams tying for the third spot in the NESCAC and each producing 2.78 GPG. Where they diverge is on defense with the Continentals have the best defense (giving up a paltry 1.56 GPG) while the Polar Bears’ defense logged in at next-to-the-last in the league, surrendering an average of 3.61 GPG.  This stark difference in defensive performance cuts through various statistical categories, with Hamilton having the best goalie in Evan Buitenhuis (.948 save percentage) and Bowdoin having the next-to-the-worst goalie in Peter Cronin (.904 save percentage) in statistical terms. Similarly, Bowdoin has the next-to-the-last PK (just a 77.1% kill rate) while Hamilton’s is the second best in the league at 87.7%.

Hamilton will enter the play-offs without 2 of its better offensive players – senior Robbie Murden and junior Brandon Willett. Murden was Hamilton’s leading point and goal scorer last year (and also the leading scorer in the league and a first team all-NESCACer) – his season and career ended with surgery following the Jan. 27 Trinity game. Willett, the team’s no. 1 goal scorer and no. 2 point scorer, was injured in the next-to-the-last game of the season versus Middlebury. Hamilton’s strong blue line corps has stepped it up offensively this year, with 3 of Hamilton’s top 7 scorers being d-men (seniors Jon Carkeek and Connor Lamberti and FY Bennett Morrison).

Bowdoin and Hamilton have met 5 times in the NESCAC play-offs, with Bowdoin winning the more recent games (a 5-3 quarterfinal win in 2013 and a 6-2 semifinal win in 2010) and Hamilton winning the earlier games (a 4-0 QF win 2004, a 6-3 QF win in 2004, and 5-4 first round OT win in 2000).

Pick: Hamilton continues its solid play and advances to the semifinals

No. 7 Wesleyan (7-7-4; 12-8-4) at no. 2 Colby (11-4-3; 13-6-4) (3 pm start)

Colby’s play has been strong and consistent throughout the season, with 3 of its 4 conference losses being 1-goal losses and only 2 losses in its last 13 games (8-2-3). Wesleyan had one of its best records in recent years but faded a bit down the stretch, losing 4 of its last 6 games. Colby was close to untouchable on home ice, with a conference record of 8-0-1 (but the only blemish on home ice was a tie with its QF foe, Wesleyan). Wesleyan’s records in conference play on the road (3-3-3) and at home (4-4-1) are roughly comparable so should not be intimidated by playing on Colby’s ice. Colby won the regular season series (1-0-1) but both games were close (a 4-4 tie at Colby on Jan. 14 and a 3-2 Colby win at Wesleyan on Feb. 11).

Colby is solid statistically speaking but not spectacular (its offense is in the middle-of-the-pack area, registering 2.61 GPG (good for fifth ranked in the NESCAC) and its D is one of the league’s better defenses, allowing just 2.00 GPG (no. 3 in the league). Colby’s special team play is mediocre but its goaltending has been outstanding since junior Sean Lawrence joined the team at the semester break as a transfer from D1 Quinnipiac and quickly assembled the second-best goalie resume in the NESCAC (a .944 save percentage and the highest winning percentage in the league).

As can be expected for a seventh seed, Wesleyan’s statistics are in the middle of the pack, with both its defense (2.72 GPG) and its offense (2.56 GPG) ranked sixth. But Wesleyan has some important strengths – it has the best special teams in the league (its PK with a kill rate of 92.3% is extraordinary) and is the least penalized team in the league (just 6.8 PIM).

Colby and Wesleyan have met just once before in the NESCAC play-offs, with Colby prevailing by 4-1 in the 2009 quarterfinals.

Pick: Home ice is the difference as Colby advances to the semifinals

No. 6 Tufts (9-8-1; 11-10-3) at no. 3 Trinity (11-5-2; 15-6-3) (1 pm start)

No. 6 Tufts hit a rough patch in January, compiling a 1-6-2 record and losing 4 games in a row toward the end of the month, but even in its rough path, the Jumbos handed no. 1 Hamilton its only loss on home ice, 3-1 on Jan. 24, and ended the Continentals’ 13-game unbeaten streak. The Jumbos closed the season in relatively strong form, winning 4 of its last 6 games, and look to be well prepared for the post-season. No. 3 Trinity has been on a roll since a bad 2-loss road trip to Maine in mid-January, closing out the regular season with a 7-1-2 run, with the only loss being a 3-1 road loss to Williams on Feb. 3. Tufts’ record at home and on the road in conference play is virtually identical (5-4 versus 4-4-1) while Trinity’s home record in conference play is close to perfect (8-1-0). The 2 teams split a pair of regular season games, with Tufts winning the season opener 3-1 on home ice and then getting thumped by Trinity in Hartford on Jan. 20 in the return match by a score of 7-1.

During Trinity’s 7-1-2 stretch to close out the regular season, the Trinity defense and goaltending have been very strong and the Trinity O has regained much of its mojo of past seasons, outshooting all of its opponents in its last 10 games, usually by wide margins, and scoring 45 goals to its opponents’ 14 goals during that 10-game stretch. Trinity has a large and impressive senior class—forwards Ryan and Brandon Cole, Sean Orlando, Ethan Holdaway, and Will Sleeper and d-men TJ Sherman and Sam Johnson—which likely is aiming to finish their outstanding careers with a bang.

Trinity is well equipped to go deep into post-season play, with the strongest O in the league (3.61 GPG) and the second best scoring defense (giving up only 1.94 goals/game). Its weaknesses include a propensity for the sin bin (12 PIM or third worst in the league) and a mediocre PP (a 17.2% success rate). It has 3 of the league’s top 8 scorers in juniors Tyler Whitney and Anthony Sabitsky and senior Sean Orlando and a host of other excellent scorers, including the Cole brothers.  One of its hidden strengths is goaltending, with junior Alex Morin starting slowly but gaining strength as the year progressed, ending up with an outstanding save percentage of .931 (fourth best in the league).

Tufts, as the sixth place team, does not have the same glittery stats as the Bantams. Its offense is weak, producing only 2.39 GPG (good for eighth place); its defense is somewhat better, allowing 2.44 GPG, but still is just middle-of-the-pack (fifth rated). Junior Nik Nugnes has played the last 8 games in net for the Jumbos due to an ACL injury to senior Mason Pulde in late January and has established himself as one of the NESCAC’s best goalies, with a .941 save percentage (ranked third in the league).

Tufts has an impressive record in recent years as a giant killer in the post-season, knocking off no. 1 Trinity in 2015 in the quarterfinals and repeating the feat in 2016 by knocking off no. 1 Williams by a score of 2-1. In both games, a key factor in the Jumbos’ wins was the extraordinary goaltending of the now sidelined Mason Pulde.

Tufts and Trinity have played each other three times in the NESCAC play-offs, with the Trinity nipping Tufts 4-3 in the semifinals on the way to the Bantams’ third NESCAC championship in 2016, the Jumbos knocking off the no. 1 Bantams in the QFs by 2-1 in 2015, and Trinity thrashing Tufts in the 2005 quarterfinals by 9-2.

Pick: Third time is not a charm for Tufts and Trinity survives the Jumbos  to advance to the semifinals

No. 5 Amherst (9-6-3; 14-6-3) at no. 4 Williams (10-5-3; 13-8-3)  (3 pm start)

Amherst had a weak close, losing 3 of its last 6 games, and played its best hockey in January with a 7-0-2 record, including wins over Hamilton and Colby and a tie with Trinity. Williams also closed its season in a less-than-spectacular fashion, losing 3 of its last 5 games, including a 1-0 loss to Amherst. Williams’ record at home is strong in conference play (5-1-3) while Amherst has a poor road record at 2-6-1. The 2 teams split a pair of 1-goal games during the regular season, with Amherst registering a 1-0 win on home ice on Feb. 17 and Williams winning 4-3 on home ice on Dec. 9.

Williams features a high-flying offense with 2 of the league’s top 3 scorers (junior David Italiano (9-16-25) and sophomore Roberto Cellini (10-11-21)) and the no. 2 offense in the league (3.17 GPG). Its shortcomings are on the defensive end where it tied for sixth in the league, allowing 2.72 GPG, and was hampered by inconsistent goaltending, with a real drop-off in the play of last year’s co-RoY and all-NESCAC second teamer Michael Pinios, whose save percentage at .886 was the worst among the 14 regular NESCAC goalies. Similarly, Williams’ PP was the best in the league with a 24.7% success rate but its PK was close to the bottom with a miserable kill rate of 78.3%.

Amherst had a somewhat anemic offense, producing goals at just a 2.44/game clip. Despite the weakness of the O, Amherst does have a good PP, scoring at a 23.2% clip or second best in the league. Amherst excelled was on the defensive end, with the fourth best defense (allowing just 2.11 goals/game), solid PK (third best with a kill rate of 86.9%), and steady goaltending in the form of Connor Girard, the NESCAC’s fifth ranked goalie with a .927 save percentage.

Amherst has won all 4 NESCAC past play-off games with Williams: a 1-0 win in the finals in 2015, a 3-1 win in the semifinals in 2014, a 2-1 win in the semifinals in 2012, and a 3-0 win in the QFs in 2001.

Pick: Williams takes advantage of home ice to get the monkey off its back, downing Amherst for the first time ever in NESCAC post-season play

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