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. Continue reading

Tufts’s 2016-17 roster posted

Tufts has posted its 29-member roster. The roster includes 9 freshmen, all of whom are included in our recruits database. Attrition was modest was 3 veteran players not retuning for this year: d-man Ryan Wolter and forwards JJ Ganss and Zack MacQueen. Wolter was a regular on the blue line so his contributions will likely be missed.

Only the Amherst and Trinity roster remain MIA . .

Tufts hires prep school coach Pat Norton as head coach

After a somewhat protracted process, today Tufts announced the hiring of Pat Norton, the head coach for the Tilton School in New Hampshire, as its new head coach. Norton’s background includes extensive prep school head coach experience (the past 10 seasons with Tilton). His resume also includes 8 seasons of work as an assistant coach at the college level, including 4 seasons with Norwich (1996-97 through 1999-2000 seasons, including a NCAA championship run in 2000) and 4 seasons at the D1 level (2000-01 through 2002-03 seasons at UVM and 2003-04 at Northeastern).

His coaching record at Tilton, one of the smaller hockey-playing prep schools, was mediocre with only 3 winning seasons during his 10-season tenure. His team’s best seasons were in 2008 (23-8) and 2011 (22-10-3). He played collegiate hockey for UNH as a light scoring forward, graduating in 1996 and scoring 3 points in 36 games, but was that rare commodity of a New Hampshire native (Concord) making the big time. Norton graduated from Concord High School in 1991 and then did a PG year at Northfield Mount Hermon. Norton’s father is Bob Norton, former UNH assistant hockey coach during the Charlie Holt years (and part of the sprawling Holt coaching tree), a long-time college hockey TV analyst, and current president of the Gridiron Club of New England.

With this hire, all 10 NESCAC schools have coaches in place for the upcoming season, with new coaches in place at both Middlebury (Neil Sinclair) and Tufts. In the past 4 seasons, new coaches have been hired at Trinity (Matt Greason), Hamilton (Rob Haberbusch), and Colby (Blaise MacDonald) for a 50% turn-over in the NESCAC coaching ranks.

Good luck to Norton and lets hope that Tufts is working on a secret plan to build a rink and replace the NESCAC’s worst facility, the Valley Forum in Malden, with a higher quality on-campus venue some time in the not-too-distant future.

Tufts HC opening

Still no news on the identity of a new head coach for Tufts although it has been more than three months since the departure of long-time HC Brian Murphy in May. The notice of the job opening on the Tufts website was taken down several weeks ago, implying that the search and selection process is nearing its end. Still, it is odd to go so long without naming a replacement for Murphy, especially as the summer months are critical in the NESCAC recruiting process (NESCAC coaches can obtain “pre-reads” from their admissions departments starting on July 1 and can obtain “commitments” from recruits to apply to their schools as those pre-reads are completed).

Another head coaching vacancy — this time at Tufts

For the second time this year, a well-established NESCAC head coach is stepping down: this time it is Tufts head coach Brian Murphy, who will be joining former Middlebury HC Bill Beaney on the sidelines when the next season opens in November. Murphy is a bit of a Tufts institution, having captained the Jumbos in 1995, joined the Tufts coaching staff immediately following his graduation as an assistant coach, been elevated to head coach in 1998, and served as Tufts’ head coach throughout its tenure in the NESCAC. The only reason we know of this opening is because Tufts posted a job announcement for the vacant position on May 14.

Murphy’s departure is a slight surprise as the Jumbos had one of their most successful season’s this year, knocking off no. 1 seed Trinity in the NESCAC quarterfinals, 2-1, and giving eventual champion Amherst almost all it could handle in the NESCAC semifinals before falling by a score of 3-2. Murphy was named the NESCAC coach of the year in 2012, the only one of his 14 NESCAC seasons in which his team had a winning record in the NESCAC (9-8-1). The Tufts hockey program is seriously handicapped by playing at an inferior, off-campus ice rink (the Valley Forum in Malden, Massachusetts). Murphy’s overall record at Tufts has been weak during its NESCAC years, with two of the last three seasons producing only two NESCAC wins. (Tufts is a bit of an outlier in that it was the last NESCAC school to become a conference playing member, not adopting a full NESCAC schedule until the 2001-02 season). The Jumbos’ NESCAC record has been well below .500 and  is somewhat out of synch for a school that prides itself in contending for NESCAC championships in most sports and for national championships in several sports (men’s soccer in the fall of 2014 and contending for a repeat championship in men’s lacrosse and softball in the next few days) . . .

Championship Weekend!!!

NSN will be webcasting both semifinal games on Saturday and the final on Sunday at this link. All three games will be played at Orr Rink in Amherst, MA, home ice for the highest surviving seed, no. 2 Amherst. Here is a link to the NESCAC release on championship weekend, which spends a disproportionate amount of space on Amherst.

Semifinals (Saturday):

no. 4 Williams v. no. 3 Conn College: 1 pm
no. 8 Tufts v. no. 2 Amherst: 4 pm

Finals (Sunday):

winner of Williams v Conn College game v winner of Tufts v. Amherst game: 2 pm

We are down to a surprising final four–Amherst, Conn College, Tufts, and Williams–with the 16th NESCAC champion to be crowned Sunday afternoon at Orr Rink in Amherst, MA. There are two frequent final four participants (Amherst and Williams) and two newbies (Conn College and Tufts). Of the four finalists, Amherst and Conn College closed out the season strong while Williams did a slow fade and Tufts struggled. In terms of history, of the four contenders, only Amherst is a previous NESCAC champion (2009 and 2012) while Williams has appeared in the championship game on two occasions (2011 and 2013), falling to Bowdoin on both occasions. As new participants in the final four, Conn College and Tufts will both be painting on a blank canvas.

Missing from the final four are three teams that, among them, have won 87% of the league’s prior 15 championships, with Middlebury having won 8 (2000-02; 2004-07; 2010), Bowdoin 3 (2011, 2012, and 2013), and Trinity 2 (2003 and 2008). So we will either see Amherst moving into a tie with Bowdoin for second place in terms of NESCAC crowns won or we will crown a new champion and expand the number of schools with NESCAC championships to five. As we know from last weekend’s results, featuring the no. 8 team (Tufts) upsetting the no, 1 team (Trinity), anything is possible with the one-and-done play-off format. Still, Amherst would appear to be the favorite to win it all heading into the weekend, with the caveat that there are signs of parity and balance as Amherst, Williams, and Conn College each split their season series with each other (Tufts is the outlier, losing all six games to the other three contenders).

Here is how we rate the four teams based on the probability of each team emerging as the NESCAC champion on Sunday:

1. Amherst: Of the surviving four teams, Amherst has the strongest offense (3.72 GPG) and the strongest defense (2.22 GPG). It has the best PP (28.3%) and the best PK (81.7%) of the remaining teams and the goalie with the best save percentage in the league in Danny Vitale ’15 (.942) and the league’s no. 1 goal scorer and no. 2 point scorer in freshman David White (16-10-26). Perhaps even more telling, it is the strongest performer of the surviving teams by a wide margin, having lost only twice in 2015.

As to its record against the other three contenders, there are signs of vulnerability: Amherst split the season series with Conn College (a 6-4 loss at Amherst on Jan. 16 and a 4-0 win in New London on Feb. 13) and Williams (a 4-3 loss in Williamstown on Dec. 6 and a 5-3 Amherst win in Amherst on Feb. 21) and swept Tufts in two close games (a 3-2 win at Amherst on Jan. 17 and a 3-1 win at Tufts on Feb. 14). The Jan. 16 6-4 loss to Conn College was when Amherst goalie Dave Cunningham ’16 went down with a season-ending injury late in the game to be replaced by Vitale, who was shaky in his debut, allowing goals on the only two shots he faced and taking the loss. Vitale has been near perfect ever since, losing only the Bowdoin game on Feb. 7 by a score of 4-3. Amherst’s achilles heel  is that it is often territorially dominated by large margins as it was in both Bowdoin games (a 4-2 win and a 4-3 loss), Amherst’s  3-2 win over Trinity, and the LJs’ 5-3 win over Williams, banking on Vitale and an opportunistic offense to bail them out and thatit sometimes get a late start (Mifflebury dominated the .

Amherst’s preview of play-off weekend.

2. Conn College: The Camels are the biggest surprise of this season, showing great improvement as they went from seventh place to third place in a single year and won more games than any other Camels’ hockey team  (14), and could easily continue to surprise this weekend. Conn College finished the season on a roll, winning 8 of its last 10 games and ousting a feisty Hamilton club in the quarterfinals by a score of 4-3 in overtime. Conn College’s strength is its defense, allowing only 2.44 GPG, with only no. 1 Trinity and no. 2 Amherst producing better defensive numbers. The Camels are back stopped by junior Tom Conlin, who emerged as one of the league’s top goalies this season, being named to the all-NESCAC second team and finishing third in the league in save percentage with a solid number of .922. Conn College also has a fine trio of scorers in Northfield Mount Hermon teammates Tim DiPretoro ’16 (6-13-19 for sixth in the league), J.C. Cangelosi ’15 (8-9-17 tied for ninth in the league), and Joe Birmingham ’16 (6-5-11).

Conn College has a solid record against the other three play-off contenders, splitting the season series versus Amherst (a 6-4 win on Jan. 16 in Amherst and a 4-0 loss in New London on Feb. 13) and Williams (a 2-1 loss in Williamstown on Nov. 21 and a 3-1 win in New London on Jan. 30) and sweeping Tufts (a 2-1 win in Malden on Feb. 6 and a 4-1 win in New London on Feb. 7). With Conn College’s strong close to the season and its momentum, it would not be surprising to see the Camels continue their outstanding season for at least another day by ousting Williams in the semifinals.

Conn College’s preview of play-off weekend.

3. Williams College: The Ephs stumbled to the finish line, winning only once on the last five games of the regular season and barely escaping Bowdoin in the quarterfinals in OT (4-3) even though the Polar Bears started a wobbly freshman in net in place of Bowdoin’s injured play-off ace Max Fenkell. Of great concern for Williams has been the subpar performance of its defense and goalie Sean Dougherty. The Williams PK was eighth in the league with a kill rate of just 76.6%. Dougherty, who spent most of his NESCAC career at or near the top of most goalie statistical categories, slumped in his final season to eighth in the league in save percentage at .908.  The Williams’ defense, which typically is at nor near the top of the league, finished sixth this year, allowing 2.61 GPG. On the bright side, the Williams’ offense was strong and diverse, producing 3.06 GPG (fourth in the league), with a nice  distribution of scoring among several top-tier forwards (Craig Kitto ’15, David Italiano ’18, Tyler Young ’17, and C.J. Shugart ’18).

There is room for optimism for Williams fans as the Ephs compiled a solid record against the other three contenders during the regular season, with a sweep of Tufts (a 9-0 win in Williamstown on Nov. 22 and a 4-2 win in Malden on Jan. 31) and splits with both Amherst (a 4-3 win in Williamstown on Dec. 6 and a 5-3 loss in Amherst on Feb. 21)  and Conn College (a 2-1 win for Williams in Williamstown on Nov 21 and a 3-1 loss in New London on Jan. 30). The Ephs could easily pull things together, as they eventually did in OT versus Bowdoin in the quarterfinals, and, with a good game from Dougherty, oust the Camels to reach the finals for the third time in five years.

Williams’ preview of play-off weekend.

4. Tufts: The temptation is strong to place Tufts ahead of Williams in the predictions based on its stunning 2-1 upset of Trinity in the quarterfinals but a close examination of the Jumbos’ record shows a weak finish to the regular season (winning only twice in the last 8 games) and that it was swept by each of the three other contenders during the regular season (a 9-0 loss to Williams in Williamstown on Nov. 22 and a 4-2 loss in Malden on Jan. 31; a 3-2 loss to Amherst in Amherst on Jan. 17 and a 3-1 loss to the LJs in Malden on Feb. 14; a 2-1 loss to Conn College in Malden on Feb. 6 and a 4-1 loss to the Camels in new London on Feb. 7).

Tufts finished ninth in the league in offense (2.06 GPG) and its defense was almost as unimpressive, finishing in eighth place (3.5 GPG). Both its power play and its penalty kill were next to last in the league at an 11.9% success rate and a 75% kill rate. On the bright side, goalie Mason Pulde ’17 has good save percentage numbers at .914 for fourth in the league and was brilliant against Trinity last weekend and rookie Brian Brown was one of five players tied for ninth in the league in scoring with a solid stat line of 10-7-17.

All-in-all, the numbers suggest that the Jumbos should plummet back to earth in the semifinals versus Amherst and exit the post season but stranger things have happened when the game is actually played as we were reminded last weekend.

Here’s a link to the Tufts’ perspective on the game.

Here’s a link to video of the two Tufts’ goals against Trinity and an interview with HC Brian Murphy.

NESCAC is good to go as Tufts posts its roster

Tufts has posted its 30-man roster, with very few surprises. There is lots of stability and continuity in the little world of NESCAC hockey. The Tufts roster includes all 11 names in our recruits database plus sophomore goalie Mason Pulde, a transfer from Middlebury, who was not a member of the Panthers hockey team. The freshman class is large while the top three classes are roughly equal in size (6 seniors, 6 sophomores, and 7 juniors). The only two missing players that were expected to return are senior d-man Derrek Schartz (he played in 9 games last year) and sophomore goalie Ryan Kellenberger (he was Tufts no. 1 goalie last year in terms of minutes played but was supplanted by senior Greg Jenkins toward the end of the season; Kellenberger transferred to Vanderbilt and is playing club hockey there). The biggest question for the Jumbos is which one of the three new goalies will emerge as a no. 1 net minder after the loss of all three goalies from last year’s edition of the Jumbos.

All ten NESCAC rosters have now been posted with days to spare before the November 15 launch of the latest iteration of NESCAC hockey.