By Peter Langella
As a former Norwich player who lives one town away from campus and attends all of the home games, I’ve found that the narrative amongst fans this season has been almost entirely focused on two points.
1. Norwich is not very good anymore,
2. The NEHC (old ECAC-East) has improved by leaps and bounds over the past couple of years.
I respectfully disagree on both points.
Do I think Norwich is less deep than they usually are? Absolutely. But they are still very close to being the same. One or two scorers and one or two defensemen would make this squad a legitimate championship contender. Remember, the Cadets are a team that’s only one year removed from an overtime loss in the NCAA quarterfinals, their goaltending tandem is a better pair than the school has had for a decade, and Will Pelletier, when healthy, might be the most dynamic forward in the country. The problem with lacking another elite scoring threat is that everyone else on the roster is forced to play in situations that are above their abilities. You have defensive forwards taking chances to score goals, defensive defensemen doing the same, and secondary scorers losing confidence when they’re not putting up the first-line numbers that they’re trying to produce. It’s a snowball effect, and it leads to the ugly losses and ties that Norwich has suffered this year.
Inconsistent? Sure. In a tough fight to secure top recruits? Probably. But anyone who thinks Norwich isn’t an elite team isn’t watching the hockey I’m watching.
In regards to point number two, the numbers simply don’t support many fans’ beliefs about the NEHC as a whole.
In the regular season, this year’s NEHC teams went 34-30-5 against nonconference opponents. Four games above .500, which is decent. But a look inside the numbers tells a much different story. The league was 26-6-0 against the ECAC-NE, MASCAC, NE-10, and Independents (Canton and Daniel Webster). No NEHC team played a team from the western conferences this year, which means that the NEHC had the very poor record of 8-24-5 against the ECAC-W, NESCAC, and SUNYAC.
Eight wins in thirty-seven games against the top competition in the region.
And, three of those wins were against Conn College and Wesleyan (the two NESCAC teams with the worst records). Babson’s win over Hobart and Norwich’s win over Plattsburgh are the only out-of-conference wins the entire NEHC has against ranked teams.
These numbers don’t jive with the narrative that the NEHC is an elite conference.
It’s a slightly different conference, sure, but the overall make-up is pretty much the same as the conference I played in 10-12 years ago. Norwich and Babson are good, same as always, UMass-Boston is a lot better, but NEC (two league titles and a final four appearance in the 2000s) is a lot worse, so there’s a balance. UNE is pretty good, but USM is quite bad right now, so there’s another balance. St. Anselm, St. Mike’s, and Skidmore are mostly the same. Castleton is the only anomaly; they weren’t as good as their record a few years ago, and they seem to be better than their record now.
As for the the top of the conference, I only see one elite team.
I commend UMass-Boston for winning its first regular season title in thirty-four years, but they don’t have the resume to be considered a great team yet. They went 0-2-1 in nonconference games against the top three eastern conferences, and they have the 41st toughest schedule in the country. They also split with both Babson and Norwich this season in NEHC play. If you want to be considered a great team, you have to beat the best teams in your league more times than they beat you, you have to build a tough nonconference schedule, and you have to win the games against other great teams.
UMass-Boston hasn’t done that.
Babson is still the second best program in the NEHC (and they have been for a decade). I consider them a great team, year in and year out. They’ve been to the NCAA’s four times in the last ten years, and they’ve won four league titles, three on the road at Norwich. Sure, they’ve disappointed in the NCAAs, but how many programs consistently win games in that tournament?
Only a handful.
Which brings me back to my alma mater. Norwich is the one truly elite team the NEHC has, and, despite their inconsistent play in the conference this year, the Cadets still went 5-2 in nonconference games, including a 4-2 record against top conferences. Six games is not a huge sample, but I think they put in a strong performance. It’s unfortunate that the interlocking schedule with the NESCAC evaporated several years ago because that allowed the NEHC teams to match up against a larger number of quality teams before the playoffs began.
The only team in the NEHC that played more games against teams from the top three eastern conferences was Castleton with seven. They went 0-7, but their scheduling practices are commendable, and I think it’s a big reason why they seem to be playing solid hockey down the stretch; they’ve seen enough good teams to know what level their play has to be at in order to compete.
The NEHC still has a lot of work to do if it wants to leave its old self in the dust, namely to win more nonconference games against top competition and get more teams into the NCAA tournament.
And, maybe I’m a nostalgic homer, but until someone like UMass-Boston proves me wrong, I’d put my money on Norwich or Babson to come away with the bid.
Peter Langella is a former player at Norwich University, who contributes "A Player's Perspective" to D3hockey.com.