Top-seeded Panthers host Cinderella Salem State in title game
PLYMOUTH, N.H. – For the sixth time in the last eight years the final game of the Massachusetts State Collegiate Athletic Conference (MASCAC) men's ice hockey tournament will come down to the same two teams – Plymouth State University and Salem State University – as the pair meet Saturday (Mar. 2) at Hanaway Rink (7:00 p.m.) to determine which program will earn the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
The top-seeded Panthers are in search of a third MASCAC crown. PSU is making its seventh appearance in the title game in eight years, having captured the championship in the 2011-12 and 2014-15 seasons. The opponent in each of those banner years? None other than Salem State.
In search of their fifth title since men's hockey was reinstated by the league in 2009-10, the sixth-seeded Vikings are in the championship game for the eighth time in nine seasons. Salem State was the MASCAC representative in the NCAA tournament in the 2009-10, 2013-14, 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons.
Doors open at 6:00 p.m. and there are no advanced ticket sales for the game. Plymouth State season passes are valid for the championship game. The league has produced a digital program available at https://www.mascac.com/sports/mice/2018-19/files/MIH_Championship.pdf.
PSU (16-7-3) enters the title game as the number one seed for the fourth time after dispatching fourth-seeded Worcester State University, 6-1, in one of Tuesday's semifinal contests. Senior Tim Perron (Northborough, Mass.) gave Plymouth State a first period lead with a power play tally and classmate Matt Volonnino (Hackettstown, N.J.) scored twice as the Panthers' offense erupted for five goals in the second period to build an insurmountable 6-0 lead before the Lancers spoiled the shutout midway through the third period. PSU's special teams were on full display as the Panthers went 3-of-4 on the power play and added a short-handed marker to earn the lopsided win.
Volonnino, who now sits at 99 career points, leads PSU with 19 goals on the year, while classmates Michael Covach (Shillington, Pa.) and Ryan Stevens (Colleyville, Texas) add to the devastating first line. Covach leads the team with 39 points (11 goals, 28 assists), while Stevens adds ten goals and 24 assists to support the conference's most dynamic offense (4.11 goals/game).
Senior goaltender Evan Morelli (Reading, Mass.) improved to 14-6-3 after allowing just the single goal on Tuesday. The Panthers' netminder leads the league in winning percentage, is second in goals against average (2.40) and fourth in save percentage (.909).
Salem State (10-16-1) has taken the less traditional route to the title game. Attempting to become the lowest seeded team to ever win the MASCAC title, the Vikings hadn't won back-to-back games until the regular season finale and first round of the tournament. Now riding a three-game winning streak, Salem State will need to knock off the tournament's top three seeds in succession to claim a fifth title.
The team opened its fairytale playoff run with a thrilling, 4-3 win over third-seeded University of Massachusetts Dartmouth last Saturday (Feb. 23). The Vikings twice rallied from one-goal deficits in the first round win and junior Joe Smith (Holbrook, Mass.) notched the game-winner, his second tally of the game, with 3:27 left in regulation.
Salem State played from ahead all game while shocking second-seeded Westfield State University, 5-2, in a semifinal game that was much closer than the final score indicated on Tuesday. The Vikings jumped out to a 3-0 lead only to see the Owls score twice in a 26 second span early in the third period. The score stayed close until Smith scored a pair of empty-net goals in the final minute to end Westfield's championship dreams.
Smith, who missed 11 games early in the season, has come alive of late recording six goals and four assists over his last six games. The 5-10 forward leads the team with nine goals and his 17 points are the second most behind freshman Ryan Tierney (Methuen, Mass.), who has five goals and 14 assists in his rookie campaign. The Vikings will lean on freshman goaltender Sean Cleary (Barnstable, Mass.), who has amassed 738 saves over 24 starts in goal. Despite sporting a 3.53 goals against average on the year, his strong recent play is a large reason why the team is back in the championship game again.
Plymouth State averaged 5.67 goals per game while sweeping the season series, 3-0. The Panthers blasted Salem State, 8-1, in Salem on Nov. 15, then topped the Vikings by a 4-1 margin on Jan. 17 at Hanaway Rink. PSU completed the sweep with a 5-4 win in a chippy game in Salem on Feb. 9. Sophomore JR Barone (West Chester, Pa.) has especially enjoyed facing the Vikings as the forward has six goals and seven points across the three meetings.
The winner will receive the MASCAC's automatic berth into the 2019 NCAA Division III Men's Ice Hockey Championship. The full tournament field will be announced during the NCAA selection show airing Monday (Mar. 4) on NCAA.com at 10:30 a.m.
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