The Road to Yale is truly heating up now as New England prep hockey's 62 teams vie for playoff spots in the Elite 8, Large School, and Small School tournaments. With only a month left in the season, here are the teams to watch, the games to be at, and the players to keep an eye on.
Elite 8 Contenders
In a season that is ripe with parity, there has been one constant throughout the year: Exeter (18-0-2) has been the team to beat. There have been some near escapes, like ties against Dexter and KUA, but the Big Red, led by Teddy Hart (33 points) look primed for the top spot in the Elite 8. Right behind Exeter all season has been the class of the Founder's League, Loomis-Chaffee (17-2). The Pelicans are undefeated at home this season and have six forwards with 20 points or more. Alex Esposito (Vermont commit) and Eric Esposito (UNH commit) lead the way. Having lost most of their top-line players from the 2014 Elite 8 championship team, Salisbury (13-2-1) figured to be on the edges of the Elite 8 chase. Yet, the Sarum Knights have gotten hot recently and have not lost since December 17th. Bailey MacBurnie (.942 save percentage) has been a rock in net. The Flood-Marr champions are set for another Elite 8 run. Cushing (16-2-3) boasts the best line in prep hockey. The David Cotton (BC recruit), Bailey Conger (St. Lawrence commit), and Jake Simons line has combined for 50 goals and 131 points. Few teams have been able to shut these high-flying Penguins down. In the midst of a 10 game winning steak, Nobles (14-3-1) is the class of the ISL and it isn't even close. Not only have the Bulldogs been taking care of league opponents with ease, but the team has also knocked off Dexter and Berkshire. Miles Wood (BC recruit) and the rest of the Bulldogs will be back in the Elite 8. Kimball Union (16-4-1), without the star power of last year's team, has quietly been getting better and better. With three goalies that all have save percentages above 90, the Wildcats have the depth to go all the way this year. Gunnery (15-5) started off the season slowly but have really ramped it up since a loss to Cushing at the beginning of January. The Highlanders do not have many signature victories but based on recent years always figure to be a tough-out come playoff time. Dexter (10-2-4) seems to be turning a corner and it is just at the right time. After a tight loss to Gunnery and some shocking ties against New Hampton and Albany Academy, the team recently knocked off 2 loss St. Mark's and came oh so close to beating Exeter but had to settle for a tie. Junior Pat Daly (19 goals) has been sensational this season as Ryan Donato (30 points) bears the brunt of defensive pressure. Big games coming up against Brooks and Tabor that need to be victories. Playing a rather weak schedule but taking care of business has been the story of Brooks' (12-1-3) season so far. Brooks has only tested itself against one Top 10 team and it ended in a 3-2 loss to Exeter. A big game coming up against Dexter that will determine if Brooks is pretenders, or contenders. Wrapping up the Top 10 sees a rejuvenated Brunswick (14-4) program that has caught everybody by surprise this season. 'Wick has beaten Loomis, Westminster, and Belmont Hill and has close losses against Rivers and Choate. Big games against Exeter and Salisbury will determine their Elite 8 fate.
Games to Watch
February 3rd: Brunswick @ Salisbury
February 4th: Thayer @ Nobles
February 6th: Dexter @ Brooks
February 11th: Avon Old Farms @ Gunnery, St. Mark's @ Brooks
February 13th: Brunswick @ Exeter, Tabor @ Dexter
February 14th: Loomis @ Salisbury
February 15th: Cushing @ Salisbury
February 18th: Loomis @ Westminster
February 20th: Nobles @ Belmont Hill
February 21st: Cushing @ Kimball Union, Salisbury @ Avon Old Farms
February 24th: Loomis @ Choate
February 25th: Gunnery @ Westminster
February 28th: Andover @ Exeter, Avon Old Farms @ Loomis, Gunnery @ Berkshire, Milton @ Nobles
Players to Watch
Here are the FIVE players that could well decide who takes home the Elite 8...
David Cotton of Cushing
The Boston College recruit has been putting up big numbers and only needs four more points to get to 100 in two seasons. Impressive stuff. The star Penguin is the heart and soul of his team and if Cushing wants to lock a home playoff game, it all comes down to Cotton.
Miles Wood of Nobles
Having missed numerous games due to his participation with the USA, Miles Wood will be a huge factor down the stretch for the Bulldogs. In the little time he has been lacing them up for the Dedham, MA outfit, the Boston College recruit has been an offensive dynamo. If Nobles wants to have a home playoff game this year, they need Wood firing on all cylinders.
Ryan Donato of Dexter
Ryan Donato, a Harvard recruit, put up stupid numbers (78 points) for Dexter last year. While his production is down this year, Donato is still the best player in prep hockey. His ability to command attention has allowed Pat Daly to shine but if Dexter wants to make a dent in the Elite 8, the team needs Donato playing at an elite level.
Bailey MacBurnie of Salisbury
MacBurnie, a newcomer to the Sarum Knights this season, has been the team's standout performer. While all the attention was on the Smith brothers last season, this year all eyes have been on the Knights' tendy. He ranks third in New England with .942 save percentage. With Salisbury playing such a daunting schedule down the stretch, all the pressure is on MacBurnie to deliver.
Alex Esposito of Loomis-Chaffee
The Vermont recruit was the reason Loomis defeated St. Paul's in last year's Large School Championship game and he figures to be a major factor again this postseason. He has scored 17 goals on the season and for the Pelicans to keep flying high, they need Esposito to continue racking up the goals.