BOSTON, Mass. – After one of the most memorable regular seasons in program history, men's ice hockey now turns their attention to perhaps one of the biggest weekends of this year's campaign as they travel to Saratoga Springs, New York to face Skidmore College in the first round of the ECAC East conference tournament. The two teams will face-off tomorrow evening at 7 p.m., with the winner advancing to the semi-final round, which will be held next weekend.
When comparing the Beacons and Thoroughbreds the two teams seem very similar in a variety of ways. Skidmore closed out the season just one point ahead of the Beacons to earn the fourth seed, while UMass ended their conference season as the fifth seed. Both programs have wins over nationally ranked Norwich University and Castleton State College. Both teams have had an impressive second half of the season as they quickly went from the bottom half of the conference standings to both being ranked in the top-5. Finally both programs feature a veteran core of players who are hungry to bring home their first ECAC East conference title for their respective programs and earn the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA Division III tournament.
Now where the two programs start to differ is in fact that veteran core of players. UMass Boston features nine seniors, who as freshmen helped the Beacons to the championship game of the ECAC East tournament in 2009. It has been that group that has pushed the Beacons to key conference wins this season, and who have earned UMass Boston national attention for their standout play.
When looking at the offense the Beacons main goal come this Saturday's contest is to get on the scoreboard early and do not let up. In the Castleton State College game, the Beacons got five straight goals before nearly letting the game slip by in the third. UMass Boston will need to come out firing against the Thoroughbreds. In their previous two meetings, Skidmore was able to score first and early to put the momentum in their corner. The Beacons will have to go into Saturday's contest with that same mentality. An early run can quickly push Skidmore up against the wall, but to really take the Thoroughbreds out of the contest the Beacons will need to find the back of the net as much as possible not only in the first, but in the second and third periods as well.
Playing a major part in that game plan will be senior Anthony Fitti (Havertown, Pa.) and sophomore Travis Daniel (North Brunswick, N.J.). Going into this weekend's match-up both Fitti and Daniel lead the Beacons with 10 goals each. Fitti has also proven to be the top playmaker for UMass as he sits with 17 assists for a team-best 27 points. Mike DeGrazia (Novi, Mich.) will also be a key factor in Saturday's contest as he is tied for first with 17 assists as well. Senior Jim Ennis (Roslindale, Mass.) is looking to keep what has been his best season to-date since coming to UMass Boston as he enters this year's tournament with nine goals and 10 assists.
When looking at the Beacons defense the biggest factor that will help the Beacons into next week's semi-final round is their ability to limit Skidmore's chances as well as staying out of the penalty-box. The Beacons will also have to win the physical battle. In their win over Norwich University anytime the Cadets touched the puck the Beacons defense quickly made their presence felt no matter where they were on the ice. Big hits and setting the tone early will be essential, but just like the offense they will need to keep that strong and determined play going throughout the later periods.
Even though they have seen some success on the penalty-kill, the Beacons need to keep all five skaters on the ice for as long as possible. They cannot afford to give Skidmore the man-up advantage. In the Skidmore has made it a habit this season of taking advantage of any power-play opportunity that has come their way.
On Saturday, look for Rob Florentino (West Roxbury, Mass.) and Tim Niedzielak (Chicago, Ill.) have stepped up as two of the more physical players on this year's roster. Along with 6'7" Bill Baker (Vancouver, British Columbia) the Beacons have a variety of size and speed at their disposal.
Between the pipes senior Kevin Bendel (Denville, N.J.) is the glue that will hold everything together this weekend. His tremendous play time-and-time again has helped the Beacons earn key victories throughout his senior season, and has earned him ECAC East Goalie of the Week honors on three different occasions. With last Saturday's 5-1 win over St. Michael's College, Bendel closed out the regular-season ranked second in the ECAC East in save percentage with a .925. His goals against average of 2.52 had him ranked fourth overall. In Division III, the New Jersey native sits 10th in save percentage (.929) and is tied for 11th in shutouts (2).
Next week's semi-final and championship games will be held at the highest-remaining seed left after Saturday's first-round games. Saturday's tournament schedule is as follows:
No. 8 New England at No. 1 Norwich, 7 p.m.
No. 7 New England College at No. 2 Castleton State, 7 p.m.
No. 6 Southern Maine at No. 3 Babson, 7 p.m.
No. 5 UMass Boston at No. 4 Skidmore, 7 p.m.
Note: Live stats and webcasts will not be available for Saturday's contest. To get score updates follow your Beacons on twitter @UMassBeacons.