These quarterfinal match-ups are supposed to be a reward for the No. 1 team.
For all the hard work it did to finish at the top of the standings, it gets to play the No. 8 team in a game that is supposed to be a mere formality, the No. 8 team simply ushering the top team to its seat in the semifinals.
The quarterfinals of the ECAC East tournament, though, will be no simple formality for the Norwich Cadets.
Despite a roster severely depleted, the Skidmore Thoroughbreds enter tonight’s match-up against the ninth-ranked Cadets holding out hope for a big upset. In their regular-season match-ups, the Thoroughbreds pushed the Cadets to overtime in a 3-2 Dec. 6 loss in Vermont, then lost in Saratoga Springs, 3-0, on Feb. 8, though that game was a bit closer than it looks on paper.
Skidmore also played the second game, and all their games in the second half of the season, short at least one entire line.
“We’ve dressed 13, 14 or 15 kids since the middle of January,” Skidmore coach Neil Sinclair said. “So I’m really proud of the kids, and when we played Norwich at home the last time, we had 14. They played really well, and they were right there. We’ve been doing the same thing, over and over, for the last month and a half or so. They’re doing an unbelievable job, and I know they’ll go in [tonight]y and give it the same effort again.”
The Thoroughbreds have forced overtime in 10 of their 25 games, going 1-2-7 in the extra session. Seven of those overtime games have come since the roster started shrinking.
A break here and there, Sinclair said, and the Thoroughbreds know they could have ended up better than 7-11-7 overall and 3-9-6 in the ECAC East.
A break here and there, and they may have been able to surprise Norwich (13-3-2 ECAC East, 17-5-3 overall), which won its 16th straight ECAC East regular-season title (this year shared with Babson). They have twice tied UMass Boston and lost a pair of close games to Babson, both nationally ranked teams.
If they are to jump up and surprise the Cadets, though, they have to manage a few more shots on goal. In their two meetings this season, Norwich has outshot Skidmore, 40-20 and 38-17.
“Power play is critical [to generating chances],” Sinclair said. “In the game there, we scored on the power play. We had our chances in the game in Saratoga on the power play and just couldn’t get it to go, and we had chances in the third period. Power play this time of year is critical. Faceoffs are critical. We’ll talk about the fact that Norwich is going to get shots and we’re going to have to defend, but not break. I think the kids have been terrific with that in the past two games against them.”
The 3-0 loss two weeks ago was 0-0 through the first period, then Norwich booked a pair of goals early in the second. The last came with an empty net late in the third as the Thoroughbreds had pulled their goalie for an extra attacker.
In the December OT loss, Skidmore took a 1-0 lead on its first power play. After a pair of Norwich goals, late in the first in early in the second, the Thoroughbreds tied it up at 14:14 in the third, but they allowed a quick goal in overtime to end it.
Freshman goalie Jack McDonald worked the first game and the second half of the last game, stopping 55 of 58 shots in 89 minutes of work. He is likely to start tonight’s contest.
Vlad Gavrik leads Skidmore with 20 points (10 goals, 10 assists), followed by senior captain Brad Schuler (5-14-19), Marc Cibelli (7-11-18), Anthony Bird (6-12-18) and Aaron Beck (13-4-17).
Schuler and Beck have helped keep the team positive despite the challenges with the roster and results, and Sinclair believes their example will help the Thoroughbreds step fearlessly onto the ice tonight.
“They’ve been terrific,” Sinclair said. “We sit down and talk to them about the game plan, and I think everyone is in agreement that even though we didn’t get the W’s we may have wanted, we were playing really good hockey.”