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Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Division 3: Better Late Than Never

With some teams playing a high of seven games so far and some playing a low of three games, the Division III playoff picture and contender list is slowly taking shape. Without receiving the same amount of feedback that I did for DI and DII, it would’ve been hard for me to do an adequate job covering each DIII team one by one, so in lieu of that, here is a recap of what’s taken place and who we should watch out for.

In my opinion, the DIII champion should, barring any major upsets, come out of the following four teams: Masuk, EO Smith-Tolland, NFI and Sheehan. Now, I am fully aware of the run Tri-Town went on last year as an #11 seed and the continued carousel that is the Division II state tournament but DIII traditionally places teams seeded #1-5 into the semi's. Masuk rolls into play Wednesday night against their first real competition, D2's New Milford. The Panthers are 3-0 and have been lead by senior Charlie Christo and juniors Elijah Begin and Brian Denham, all over a point a game at press time. Senior leader Shane Dushay has also continued to play steady hockey for the Panthers. But the big story is on the back end where senior Connor Muller has yet to let in a goal through three games for Masuk. EO Smith-Tolland likes to think they can counter that group quite nicely. After all, they sit at 4-1 with their lone loss coming in overtime to D2 power Suffield-Granby-WL. The Bucks haven't really been challenged outside of that game but have disposed of opponents the way you would expect a power like them to. They are doing this behind excellent goaltending from senior Matt Schoen and constant contributions from up and down the lineup, headed by senior Pete Meyer. NFI comes in at 5-1 and aside from an inexcusable loss to Housy, they've been good. NFI has six players averaging over a point a game and can truly beat any DIII team on any given night. They have had the propensity, however, to take games off and win narrowly over teams they should slaughter. Junior Christian Benzing leads all scorers with 11 points through six games with seniors Parker Evans, Andrew Rosenblum and Luke McFadden as well as juniors Liam Henderson and Peter Masi all tallying 8 or more points this year. In goal senior Marchello Carlucci has been strong to the tune of a 1.60 GAA. Finally, Sheehan. To me, Sheehan could be the odd man out of this group but it's hard to over look their offensive potential. Lead by seniors Mike Cerrotti and Dylan Beaudoin the Titans have the ability to score with the best of them. The Gozzo brothers Paul and Sal also bring a different dynamic to the team in terms of adding offensive and defensive depth. Sheehan is 3-0 but gets their first real test of the year when they head to face NFI tonight.
Masuk's Connor Muller has yet to allow a goal in 3 games.

One team that kept Sheehan at bay was NFA-St. Bernard-Bacon-Stonington-Lyman Memorial or as their quickly becoming known, the Red Hawks. At 3-4 this co-op which has had some parts move around is a competent competitor any given night. This was evident in wins over D2's BCR and Farmington Valley as well as tight losses to Staples and Sheehan. Senior Andrew Gagnon has been solid for the Red Hawks and is one of the state's hidden gems. I would label the Red Hawks as a "contender" only in the sense that they can contend to make the state semi's with an upset. There are a few others in this group and then there are a fair number of pretenders (see below). Staples-Weston-Shelton (4-2), Hall-Southington (3-4), Woodstock Academy (3-1), Tri-Town (2-3), Housy (2-3-1) and Westhill (2-1) all appear to have what it takes to take down one of the big four if they bring it. Staples is offensively gifted and can certainly stymy weaker teams like Wethersfield-RH-Midd when they play their game but when Staples has been faced with comparable offenses their defense has imploded. Just check out these goals against (9 in a loss to BCR, 5 in a loss to Westhill, 5 in an OT win over Woodstock.) Hall-Southington has gained quite the reputation of being really good one week and being really bad the next over the past couple seasons. They're at it again. They've blasted Tri-Town and BCR, narrowly beaten Wethersfield, lost to Farmington Valley in OT, by 8 goals to the Bucks and most recently 4-2 to a comparable Woodstock club. Consistency they do not have. What they do have is some talent, junior Jarod Florian and senior Jackson Maxwell are really good hockey players, as well as a tough side. No team is grittier or sandier than Hall-South, something that could help or possibly hurt the co-op. Woodstock is the darling of this group. They still have that new team smell. They seem to play for all the right reasons and have a school that seems to be rallying around their young program. Now, they've started to translate all those good feelings into wins. The Centaurs (cool mascot btw) are 3-1 with their lone loss coming in OT to Staples. Their top three scorers are all sophomores headed by Ryan Blacks 9 points through four games. Now, do I think this team has what it takes to win the DIII title? Nope. Do I think they can upset someone who has the chance to? Yup. Tri-Town is solely on this list because in a million years I didn't think they would be making a semi-final appearance last season so I'd be a fool to leave them off now. Plus, I think goalie Phil Nicolescu is the real deal and can steal some wins for them. Housatonic-NW-Wamogo is an interesting team. They're 2-3-1 but had enough gusto to be able to beat NFI, one of the division's best. Housy was really good last year playing the schedule they played. This year things are a bit more stuff sledding, but they're getting by. The last of this group is a team that is very intriguing to me each season. Westhill is 2-1 with their lone loss coming in a 2-0 Masuk shutout. Not bad against one of the DIII's top teams. The thing that always kills a FCIAC team like Westhill in terms of seeding is the amount of talented out of division teams they have to play. For instance, only six of Westhill's final 17 games will be against fellow DIII competitors. However, the flip side of that is, I'm not sure there will be a team more ready for state competition after that slate.
Billy Berry, Joel Barlow          photo: Rocco Paul Valluzzo
Then there are near half of the other DIII teams. Five of whom will make the state tournament in my estimation as seeds 12-16 while the other four won't. I think DIII is down more than ever this year, like DII and DI. However, it doesn't mean we won't have quite the show watching these clubs battle it out for those coveted final spots. Joel Barlow has put themselves in a good spot. They are 3-1 and have bona fide talent on their roster. They don't have much depth but players like Charlie and Billy Berry and Kyle Converse have this team thinking home ice if all pans out. The Eastern CT Eagles should already chalk this season up as a success. This is a team that was 2-58 over the last three years and they sit cozy at 3-3 right now after a 3-1 start. With some winnable games coming up, ECE could add on a couple more before this season is said and done. BBD is 1-5 with their lone win coming against NY's Byram Hills. There's not much positive to say about BBD. The IceCats are only two years removed from the SWC Final in Danbury where they lost to Watertown-Pomperaug. But, man, were they good that year. Since then, they have only won one game against CT competition, four total. Stamford sits at an unimpressive 2-4 and has a scary schedule coming up with the likes of Darien, St. Joe's, Greenwich, and Staples facing off. Norwalk-McMahon comes in at 1-3-1. The Bears missed out on the state tournament last season and with the parity in the bottom 10 of DIII this year, with a couple wins they could punch a ticket. Shepaug-Litchfield-Nonnewaug at 1-4 is really a surprise to this group for me. They snuck into the tourney last year with 5 wins but returned a ton of talent in forwards Christian Stuart and Andrew Loya. Pair that with the emergence of sophomore Riley Baker and one would think this co-op would be doing well. The defending state champs find themselves on this list simply because of all that they lost. Newtown is 1-3 with their lone win coming in overtime against the Eastern CT Eagles. They lost badly to DIII powers NFI and Sheehan and in overtime to fellow cellar dweller Stamford. The Nighthawks are well coached and returned some key players so their ascent from these depths is more likely than some but they would need to change a lot of what's currently going on. Finally, our two winless clubs get a mention with Wethersfield-Midd-RH (0-5) and Lyman Hall-HK-Cog (0-3) bringing up the rear. Both have shown glimpses of hope. Wethersfield recently only lost to Newington-Berlin 4-0 and lost in OT to Hall-Southington while LHK-Cog lost 3-2 to NFI in their best game of the year only to fall 9-0 to the same club the next time out.  A lot of work is needed for both of these teams to breathe a chance at the final 16 at this point.

So where does that leave us? I think tonight's NFI/Sheehan game is a good measuring stick. I think Masuk and EO Smith-Tolland are probably the best two teams in terms of talent but that doesn't always equate to a championship. I appreciate those who got me team by team previews in. You're contributions make this worthwhile, it just didn't seem right to me to have some teams previewed and not all. So there it is, have at it. You all may not like it, but at least it's honest. 

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