After four months of play, six teams have earned berths to the SUNYAC men’s ice hockey tournament set to start tonight with the play-in round.
No. 10 SUNY Geneseo bounced back from a loss at SUNY Potsdam on Feb. 1 and rattled off six straight wins, including a third period comeback capped off in overtime at Buffalo State (the tournament four seed) on the final weekend of the regular season, to secure the top seed.
The Knights received some help in their quest for home ice advantage from No. 12 Oswego State who knocked off No. 4 SUNY Plattsburgh on the final night of the season, breaking the tie for first between the Knights and the Cardinals.
The College at Brockport won four straight over the last two weekends, including a 3-2 win on Feb. 15 at ranked Oswego State, to not only make the tournament but also jump SUNY Fredonia into the fifth seed. The Blue Devils slipped in as the six seed despite going winless in their last five, losing to SUNY Geneseo and the College at Brockport in their last two contests.
Now, with the bracket set, here are some of the top storylines heading into postseason play:
1) At the top, it’s been a while: Impressive play down the stretch and the Cardinals laying an egg against the Lakers, a night after scoring 11 goals vs. SUNY Cortland, sewed up the SUNYAC regular season title for SUNY Geneseo. The Knights have not held the honor in 24 years. However, the top seed still has to answer the question of whether or not it is ready for the pressures of being the team everyone is chasing in the postseason.
As impressive as SUNY Geneseo’s season has been, winning 20 games and only tasting defeat in the SUNYAC twice, that loss on Feb. 1 sent up a red flag. On Jan. 31, the Knights knocked off SUNY Plattsburgh, then No. 4, and scored four of five goals on arguably one of Division III’s top five goalies, Mathieu Cadieux. Fast forward 24 hours, they allowed five goals to SUNY Potsdam and lost by three on their home ice.
If one adds in its three-goal defeat less than a week earlier at home versus Nazareth College on Jan. 25 and a four-goal downfall at Elmira College on Jan. 11, SUNY Geneseo has a lot to prove about its consistency over the next week and a half.
2) Armed and dangerous: Over the last four games, The College at Brockport head coach Brian Dickinson has ridden the hot goalie and it has paid off. Junior net-minder Aaron Green (4-0-0, .909 save percentage, 2.00 goals against average since Feb. 14) has taken the Golden Eagles from a fringe playoff team to a legitimate threat in the tournament.
On Feb. 15, Green stepped into the Campus Center Ice Arena crease and saved 45 of 47 shots faced en route to a 3-2 Brockport win over then No. 9 Oswego State. Jump ahead exactly a week, with the five seed up for grabs, Green stood tall again in front of the home crowd versus Buffalo State, stopping 32 of 34 shots in a 3-2 victory.
To go along with Green’s solid play between the pipes, the Golden Eagles have put up 15 goals in their last four games (3.75 per game). The player leading the charge is junior Chris Cangro who has tallied three goals and five assists during the stretch, good for more than a third of his 22 points on the season.
Heading to Buffalo State tonight, less than a week after beating the Bengals, Brockport is primed and ready to earn a spot in the SUNYAC Tournament semifinals.
3) Auto bid, or no bid: SUNY Plattsburgh worked its way to No. 1 in Division III by Dec. 2 and held the spot throughout the month. The Cardinals had the SUNYAC firmly in their grasp at the end of the fall semester, as well. Even after falling out of the top spot in the Jan. 6 USCHO.com poll, the Cardinals remained in the top six nationally for the rest of the regular season.
However, losses to Williams College, Hobart College, SUNY Geneseo and Oswego State have put chinks in SUNY Plattsburgh’s armor in terms of earning a bid to the NCAA tournament.
A bracket that features just 11 of Division III’s 72 teams, including automatic bids to the conference tournament winners of seven out of the nine conferences, the NCAA tournament leaves few spots available to teams that do not win their conference automatic bid.
Of the two conferences without an automatic bid is the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (WIAC). The WIAC is a conference growing stronger by the year and, this year, it has three of the top 11 teams in the country vying for the at-large bids, of which there are only four, to the NCAA tournament (No. 3 Wisconsin-Stevens Point, No. 9 Wisconsin-Eau Claire and No. 11 Wisconsin-River Falls).
In recent years, the SUNYAC has sent two teams to the tournament several times, but the parity of the conference this year has left some of top teams with more pedestrian records down the stretch. Also, that second bid in recent years has gone to a top seed that did not win the SUNYAC tournament, not a two seed, so an early exit for Plattsburgh or another loss at SUNY Geneseo may just end its season.
4) New faces, same goal: When looking to capture a title, many teams first focus on knocking off the reigning champions. In the case of the SUNYAC tournament, that reigning champion is the Oswego State Lakers. Even though just nine of 24 players are left from last year’s team that defeated Plattsburgh in the finals, the Lakers still hold on to the crown being chased by the six teams in the field.
A big 4-3 win at SUNY Plattsburgh just days ago, on the final night of the regular season, has put some life back into the possibility of run at a repeat, which was deflated after a winless weekend at home on Feb. 14 and 15 versus SUNY Geneseo and The College at Brockport.
Freshman goalie Matt Zawadzki looked like he was back in his early season form when he stepped in on Saturday, after sophomore Justin Gilbert gave up three goals and the lead versus the Cardinals, and stopped all 22 shots he faced to give his team a chance to come back and win. Zawadzki started the game against SUNY Plattsburgh at the Campus Center Ice Arena on Dec. 7 and stopped 35 of 38 shots faced en route to a 3-3 tie.
The rookie fire power of freshmen Matt Galati, Kenny Neil and Alex Botten mixed with the play making abilities of juniors Mike Montagna and assistant captain Bobby Gertsakis and the leadership of senior captain David Titanic has Oswego State looking like a serious third horse in the field.
Add in the talented defensive core, led by a top pairing of junior assistant captain Nick Rivait and sophomore Denton King, and the Lakers might just find themselves in their third consecutive SUNYAC tournament final next weekend.
5) Last hurrah: Buffalo State senior goalie Kevin Carr (44-46-12, .920, 2.68, nine shutouts in his career) has impressive numbers and all the accolades. Carr is an 11-time SUNYAC Goalie of the Week and was All-SUNYAC first team as a freshman, then twice the All-SUNYAC second team goalie since.
He has started 101 of Buffalo State’s 105 games during his tenure, including all 25 games this season, but what he does not have in his four seasons is a trip to the SUNYAC tournament finals.
In each of the last three seasons, the Bengals have earned a first round game on their home ice and won all three. In the next round, they have run into either Oswego State or Plattsburgh and seen their season end.
This season, it is Carr’s last chance to lead his team to the promise land, and if there is one factor that is crucial to a team’s postseason success it is having a hot, determined goalie.
6) Don’t overlook the sloth: Winless in its last five games, SUNY Fredonia slipped into the SUNYAC Tournament on the back of a SUNY Potsdam collapse as the Bears lost to Oswego State and SUNY Cortland at home on the last weekend of the season. However, one can never overlook the underdog.
Come postseason time, every team’s slate is wiped clean as how one plays for the 60 minutes at hand means more than how they played in all of the regular season.
Some of the upperclassmen on this Blue Devils team still remember the 2011 SUNYAC Tournament semifinals when they upset, then No. 1 in the nation, Oswego State at the Campus Center Ice Arena.
Now, three years later, the six seed has a chance to taste victory in Oswego again. It will be just short of 17 weeks to the day that freshman goalie Christopher Eiserman led his team to a win over the Lakers on Nov. 1, when the puck drops tonight.
If Eiserman can find the form he was in the last time he stepped in between the pipes at the Campus Center Ice Arena, a performance during which he saved 38 shots out of 40 faced, SUNY Fredonia might just find the magic to march on.
SUNYAC Tournament Predictions
No. 5 The College at Brockport over No. 4 Buffalo State, 4-3
No. 3 Oswego State over No. 6 SUNY Fredonia, 4-1
No. 3 Oswego State over No. 2 SUNY Plattsburgh, 4-2
No. 1 SUNY Geneseo over No. 5 The College at Brockport, 3-1
No. 1 SUNY Geneseo over No. 3 Oswego State, 4-3 (OT)