The Road to the Elite Eight: Preview, Analysis, and Break-Down

Note: The following rankings are taken from USHR.

There is only one week left in the 2015-2016 regular hockey season, and it’s going to be a fun one. With that said, here’s our analysis for the Elite Eight rankings as they stand right now, as well as some background on the teams currently on the bubble.

No. 1: Avon Old Farms (18-1-4)

Jake: Avon took a bit of a stumble this week, at least by their standards. Despite poor play, they managed to stay undefeated since their second game of the year by pulling off some chaotic comebacks. Regardless, the Winged Beavers must play better if they want to have a chance in the Elite Eight, and they know that.

Avon faces a difficult closing week that could affect their seeding. They play a tricky Canterbury squad that has held with some top teams, and then they close out against Founders League Rival Loomis, who gave them some trouble in their first meeting of the season. Win those two games and the Winged Beavers lock up the No. 1 spot heading into the playoffs.

Mike: This past week, Avon showed that they won’t go quietly. They came back from two third-period deficits to force a couple of ties this week, one of which came against a team under consideration (TUC) right now for the Elite Eight, No. 4 Salisbury. A trap Founders League game against Choate could’ve ended up as Avon’s first loss since their second game of the season, but the Winged Beavers found a way to score two late goals and keep their spot at the top of the rankings. Their road trip up to rival, Salisbury, also showed exceptional grit. After battling for 53 minutes without getting on the board, Jamie Armstrong ‘16 broke the seal with an empty Avon net. Their third game was a win against Pomfret, which also could have turned into an upset when factoring in the Winged Beavers’ fatigue and the fact that it followed such an emotional rivalry game. It should also be mentioned that in the the formula that decides which teams make the Elite Eight, ties count as half of a win, and they are not negative. Avon has a major game this Saturday against No. 6 Loomis, which will be their last game of the season and could cement their No. 1 seed.

No. 2: Kimball Union (26-3-1)

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Ben Finklestein of KUA, their leading scorer with 64 points. Credit: New England Hockey Journal.

Jake: The Wildcats were given a run for their money against the Penguins but overcame a Cushing goal with 2 seconds left with an overtime goal by Ben Finkelstein ‘16 (pictured right). The win was KUA’s twelfth in a row and they are rolling as they come into the final week of the season. Currently, the Wildcats’ losses and their lone tie have come to team’s under consideration and they have five wins against such teams. They have proven they deserve this high of seeding and have been playing better hockey of late than number one AOF but they still are behind the Winged Beavers in both JSPR and RPI rankings provided by USHR.

Mike: Kimball Union has been a solid team all season, and they continued their success this week with wins over two teams currently under consideration for the Elite Eight: #7 Cushing and Proctor. They have prevailed in close games against good teams and continue to show their right to be one of the top-ranked teams in New England.

No. 3: Exeter (24-3-1)

Jake: Exeter is another team getting hot at the right time of the year. They rolled over a goalie-less NMH on Wednesday and then skated past a free-falling Deerfield. Exeter boasts an impressive 5-1-1 record against TUC’s, and that justifies their high ranking.

They have a pretty simple week leading up to the playoffs against Winchendon and Andover, both teams with losing records. They should stay among the top tier of the Elite Eight and would love to draw a matchup against Cushing who they beat in both of their meetings earlier this season.

Mike: Although Exeter has not played as many tough games as other teams in these rankings, especially not the Founders League teams, they have continued to win. There is no reason for them to drop in the rankings because of this weaker schedule, though. The rest of their season should not give them much trouble, as they are playing two teams that are not under consideration for any post-season tournament, especially not the Elite Eight.

No. 4 Salisbury (18-4-1)

Jake: Salisbury had plenty of time leading up to the much anticipated matchup against number one AOF. The game did not disappoint, but the edge in play went to the Saurum Knights outshooting the Winged Beavers 30-17 according to USHR. It would have been a win for them if Jamie Armstrong ‘16 had not scored on a highlight-reel backhand shot with 59 seconds left to tie the game. The performance dispelled any notions that Salisbury had lost their game after the stunner against Loomis.

Salisbury lags behind the teams in front of them in their record against TUC’s which is 4-3-1. Salisbury’s firepower is also weaker than their championship teams the past few years, but they boast two of the best goaltenders in New England. They can hang with anyone as long as they play full games. Their fatal flaw has been weak stretches of play. They let up third-period goals to Deerfield and Avon and a four-goal second period to KUA. They finish out the season against Hotchkiss and then a tricky game against Canterbury who have upset some good teams.

Mike: I think Salisbury should be higher up in the rankings. Three of their four losses came during the holiday tournament (and they were missing players). They have only lost one other game since, and that came against fellow Elite Eight team, No. 6 Loomis. The Knights’ tie against Avon was a hardfought game in which they were the better team for the majority. Aside from those Flood-Marr losses, Salisbury has appeared to be at least in the conversation for top two or three in New England.

No. 5: Gunnery (21-6-1)

Jake: Gunnery plays in arguably the game of the week this Wednesday against the resurgent Martlets. Westy currently sits right outside the top eight, and the win against Gunnery, who is a major TUC, would probably be enough to vault them into the playoffs. The win for Gunnery would also be huge and help their current 4-3-1 record against TUC’s. Afterwards, they face a potential trap game against Berkshire, who has shown the ability to play some top teams tough.

Mike: It seems that every season Gunnery is in the conversation for the Elite Eight. Although they have only a slightly-better-than-.500 record against TUC’s, they have made a game out of all of them. Their largest margin of defeat against these teams was three goals, and these games are often decided by one goal. Their matchup against Westminster is a massively important game for both teams as it could either cement Gunnery’s position in the Elite Eight or help Westminster’s resume for the No. 8 seed.

No. 6: Loomis (15-5-3)

Jake: Loomis took a step back after their great win against Salisbury with a loss to Westminster. The loss didn’t hurt them in the rankings this week, but it puts them in a precarious situation entering the final week. They currently post a 3-3-1 record against TUC’s, so they are right on the edge with a lot of teams knocking on the door. They face two tough Founders League matchups against Choate and No. 1 Avon. If they lose either of those games, they could very much find themselves out of the Elite Eight depending on other teams’ results. Below are the Pelican’s three goals in their comeback win against Salisbury in their pump-up for senior night.

Mike: Loomis’s spot in the Elite Eight is a delicate place, as they have an average record against other teams under consideration. Their Saturday matchup with Avon will be a deciding factor in whether or not they make the Elite Eight. They are a good team that can hang tough with anybody in New England, but their loss to Westminster hurts the probability of them making the Elite Eight. If they beat Avon however…

No. 7: Milton (17-4-2)

Jake: A team that seemed like a surefire Elite Eight team is now fighting for their lives with arguably the toughest closing week of anyone. They face Thayer on Wednesday who they just lost to on Saturday and then Nobles on Saturday who they lost to the week before. If the Mustangs lose either game, they will almost certainly fall out of contention as Thayer is knocking on the doorstep, among others. Milton currently has a losing 2-3-1 record against TUC’s, so the two wins this week are needed to ensure they do not dive right out of the playoffs.

Mike: Milton has had a steady decline in ranking since they held the No. 2 spot earlier this season. This gradual slide has come as a result of their record against teams under consideration being below .500. They have began to show their fallibility in recent games with losses to Thayer and Nobles – two teams that happen to be their final two opponents. It all comes down to this week for the Mustangs.

No. 8: Cushing (17-9-1)

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Credit: The Cube

Jake: After a rough stretch in January, the Penguins are back in the top eight. Their only two losses in the past seven games come to KUA and Salisbury, who are top contenders for the trophy. Their game against TUC St. Mark’s will decide whether or not they make the Elite Eight or not. Cushing has seen their resurgence in the form of wins against TUC Tabor and Canterbury. Their wins from early on in the year against Avon, Westminster, and Proctor are also a big reason that they are back in contention. They have also had one of the toughest schedules of any team with 12 games against TUC’s and have a 5-7 record in those contests. If they sneak in, the Penguins could be a sleeper to take it all and surely would relish a first round game against Avon who they matched up with well at the beginning of the season.

Mike: Cushing has been in the running for an Elite Eight spot since week one, and they deserve to be in the conversation. No schedule in New England is tougher than the Penguins’. Although they have a losing record against teams under consideration for the Elite Eight, they still have a very solid record in general. Like Loomis and Milton, Cushing is depending on this week to help their cause for the Elite Eight.

On the Bubble: Brunswick, Westminster, St. Mark’s, Thayer

Jake: All of these teams have a shot at a spot in the final. As I see it, there are potentially three spots up for grabs that are currently held by Loomis at No. 6, Milton at No. 7, and Cushing at No. 8, as all three of those teams face difficult closing weeks as well. St. Mark’s, Thayer, and Westminster face the most clear-cut ways into the top eight.

St. Mark’s plays Cushing, so that is a must win in order for them to still be in the conversation by the end of the week. Thayer faces Milton at home and have a great shot to catapult themselves since they already beat Milton this past Saturday on the road. They are also hot, going 7-1 in their past eight games to give themselves a real shot at sneaking in at the last second. Westminster welcomes Gunnery on Wednesday as they attempt to make up for their mid season slump that saw them drop from No. 1 to out of the top ten entirely. They have come back with great wins against Loomis and Berkshire, but they need this one at Gunnery to complete that comeback.

Brunswick has the least convincing path back in. They were in the eight spot for five straight weeks before dropping out in this rankings due to losses to Gunnery and Berkshire these past two weeks. They play in the Empire Cup this weekend that does not include a TUC, so they will need the most help from other teams in order to sneak back in.

Mike: This is going to be a fun week for prep hockey. The last few seeds of the Elite Eight are absolutely for the taking. Jake and I both fully expect there to be a shake up with the last few teams to make tournament. Any of the four bubble teams could sneak in, and any of the bottom three teams currently in the tournament could fall. Loomis has a tough matchup on Saturday night, Milton has games coming up against two teams that they’ve lost to recently, and Cushing has to beat a surging St. Mark’s team.

For updates on the biggest games, stay tuned to @PrepSportReport on Twitter.

By Jake de Saint Phalle and Mike Giamalis

Note: Featured image courtesy of the Salisbury School.