Neutral Zone’s New England scouts wanted to offer coaches, players and fans a free opportunity to go inside the Elite 8 matchups and learn about the teams and their top prospects. We will also be releasing the Large School and Small School previews for our subscribers.
The Elite 8 Tournament has 8 capable teams of winning it all, and we don’t say that to be politically correct. The home teams are all favored to win, but the margins are razor thin. We will have scouts at each game except the Lawrence vs. Exeter game.
#1 Lawrence Academy vs. #8 Phillips Exeter Academy
Lawrence Academy: The top team in prep this season with an impressive 22-4-1 record. This team has shown the ability to rise to the occasion; they won the EG Watkins Tournament against an impressive field featuring Gunnery, Thayer, Culver and Dexter. They are also 3-0-1 against Elite 8 competition this season. What makes this team the top seed in prep school is their balance and depth; they are talented at every position, they have a combination of size and skill and solid core of veteran talent. Lawrence can roll three talented lines of forwards who can play in any situation and have a nice compliment of skilled, two-way defenseman. Their defeners can move the puck and are efficient in the special teams game. The Spartans allowed less than 2 goals against average (1.96) on the season. This team has no obvious weaknesses and have shown a level of consistency that is unmatched in the league.
Exeter: Exeter, like their opponent, has a deep roster with no obvious weaknesses. They are deep up front, they have some size on the back end and have gotten strong goaltending from freshman goalie Ryan Welch. They don’t have that one go-to-guy like they have had in the past, but they have several capable goal scorers and a good combination of speed and toughness. They play a controlled, smart game and have an impressive +2 goal margin average this season where they average just over 2 goals against (2.07) and over 4 goals scored per game (4.38). Exeter is 0-3 against teams in the Elite 8, but they were all one goal games.
Matchup: These two teams have not faced each other this season and the game looks like it could go either way. Lawrence is the better team, they are deeper and more talented, but Exeter is certainly capable of an upset. The margin here is not as wide as many would expect from a #1 vs #8 seed. The key matchup here is the Lawrence skilled and gutsy offensive attack against Exeter’s blue line. If they can take advantage of that mismatch, they will have success, but if they run around and take bad penalties the Exeter power play could make them pay. The goaltending matchup could go either way, both goalies have had strong seasons but they have also benefited from strong play in front of them. Exeter is winless against Elite 8 competition and Lawrence is undefeated against Elite 8 competition so we give the edge to Lawrence, but we think it’ll be a close game.
#2 Dexter School vs. #7 Salisbury School
Dexter School: Dexter is arguably the hottest team in prep hockey; they haven’t lost a game in 2017 and have only 2 NEPSHIA losses all season (Gunnery, Proctor) finishing the year with a 21-2-3 record. They are a puck possession team, they skate really well and have depth at all three positions. Dexter puts a lot of pressure on opposing teams because they are fast and talented; they’ll convert turnovers into goals and they have an excellent power play. Jack Rathbone is arguably the most talented player in prep school hockey and can take over a game. Their blue line is mobile and moves the puck well, making them a tough team to pin in their own end. The team averages under 2 goals against per game and a lot of that has to do with Aidan Murphy between the pipes. He brings experience, poise and leadership to this team. They are a perfect 3-0 against Elite 8 competition but their overall schedule isn’t overly challenging. While Dexter on paper has been untouchable most of the season, they are a younger team without much playoff experience or size on their roster.
Prospects to Watch: D Jack Rathbone (Harvard), D Sean Keohan (Dartmouth), F Matt Boldy (BC), F Ian Murphy, F John Femia, F Chase McInnis, D John Fusco, D Ben Meehan, F Jack Nisbet, F John McElaney, G Aidan Murphy
Salisbury School: Salisbury is not a team that is used to playing on the road in the playoffs, but they’ve had a rocky road to get here. They started the year 5-4-1 through their first 10 games, then went 9-1 over the next 10 games and finished the year 6-3-1 in their last 10 games. They have only played one team in the Elite 8 and lost earlier in the season. Salisbury, as is custom under Andrew Will led teams, has a healthy blend of talent and toughness. They are aggressive, hard to play against and capitalize on their chances. If their best version of themselves shows up they can beat anyone in the league, but consistency has been their Achilles heel this season.
Prospects to Watch: F Tyce Thompson (Providence), F Johnny Beecher, D Nick Hale (Holy Cross), F Alex DiPaolo, F Kevin Wall, F Jacques Bouquot (BC), D Ryan Verrier (UNH), D Peter Diliberatore (Quinnipiac), F Riley Johnson, F Matthew Holmes, D Noah Lee
Matchup: This game has the best story line of all the playoff matchups. Two of the most accomplished coaches in prep hockey in Dan Donato and Andrew Will, who have both won New England prep titles at Salisbury meet again in the playoffs. The last time these schools played was for the Elite 8 Championship in 2015 where Salisbury won to capture their third straight Elite 8 title. This matchup represents two very different teams both in roster and style. Dexter is a fast, skilled, youthful team where Salisbury is a bigger and more physical team. Their contrast in styles will make for an exciting contest. The key for Dexter, who is a perfect 3-0 against Elite 8 competition, will be playing to their advantages which is their skating, special teams and puck possession ability. The key for Salisbury, who is 0-1 against Elite 8 competition, will be to take time and space away and play to their advantages which is size and physicality. Dexter deserves the right to play favorite as their goaltending, depth up front and Jack Rathbone on the blue line give them the edge; but it’s never wise to count Salisbury out in the month of March.
#3 KUA vs. #6 Thayer
KUA: After the first twenty games of the season this looked like the team to beat in prep hockey with a 17-3 record. The Wildcats have a lot of offensive fire-power with 10 players compiling over 25 points this season, 9 of which are upperclassmen. They play fast, they play aggressive and have a strong core of senior leadership (their top 5 scorers are all seniors). They have the second best scoring margin in prep hockey as they average over 4 goals per game (4.25) and allow just 1.58 goals against. While KUA has had a lot of high end prospects in previous seasons, this is a much more balanced team that can run 3 to 4 lines all game and get scoring from up and down the lineup. Their starting goaltender Sean Dynan has been outstanding in net for KUA and gives them another dimension where they can win grind it out, low scoring games as well as high flying, high scoring games. KUA is a perfect 3-0 against Elite 8 teams, but is not coming into the playoffs playing their best hockey with 2 of their 5 losses on the season happening within their last 3 games.
Prospects to Watch: D Jordan Harris (Northeastern), F Roope Hirvonen, F Mike Lombardi (Quinnipiac), D Sean Thomson, F Andranik Armstrong, F Thomas Samuelsen (UConn), D Bryce Dolan, F/D Chris Konin, F Logan Cash, F Arlo Merritt, G Sean Dynan
Thayer: Similar to their opponent, Thayer is loaded with talent. They have a pair of 60 point producers, three forwards with over 20 goals and a skilled, athletic blue line. Thayer plays with a great combination of speed and grit and their top line of Carreau-O’Brien-McDonough is the best in prep hockey. They looked indestructible in the middle of the year with an 10-1-0 stretch from late December to early February, but since then have ended the year 3-4-0 in their last 7. They have struggled in their own end and have only won two games this season with 3 or less goals scored, which shows they aren’t built to win close, low scoring games. Thayer also has a 1-5 record against Elite 8 competition, which shows that they had a tough schedule to get here, but also shows they have been on the wrong side of those games.
Prospects to Watch: F Jay O’Brien (Providence), F Casey Carreau (BC), F Aidan McDonough, F Tristan Amonte, D Jayson Dobay (UMass Amherst), F Reilly Moran, D Jake Flynn, D PJ Garrett, D Nolan Hayes, F Evan Goggins, D Cam Lemanski, F Christian Hayes
Matchup: While these are two of the most talented teams in New England, neither of them are playing their best hockey heading into the playoff round. They also have not faced each other this season. This has the potential to be a high scoring game with two potent offenses going toe to toe. KUA is deeper and more balanced from up and down the roster, but Thayer has the best line in New England and they play a tougher brand of hockey than KUA is accustomed to playing in the Lakes Region. The key for KUA is to take advantage of their depth and the mismatch between their offense and Thayer’s defense. For Thayer to win they’ll need to take care of their own end, stay out of the box and capitalize on their potent power play. We give KUA the edge because of their depth, better defense and goaltending play, and their perfect 3-0 track record against the top teams in the league.
#4 Rivers vs. #5 Belmont Hill
Rivers: Rivers is 14-1-0 in their last 15 games and in all 14 of those wins they allowed 1 goal against or less. A deep, disciplined team with all 10 of their leading point producers being upperclassmen. The team has some big, mobile defenseman with smaller, grittier forwards. The goal scoring on this team is spread out which makes them tough to defend and their best player many nights is in their crease which is needed in playoff hockey. Head Coach Shawn McEachern has his team in tip top shape and playing their best hockey at the right time of the year. They allow only 1.50 goals against which is the lowest goals against average in prep hockey and they also have the biggest scoring margin (+2.89). Rivers comes to the playoffs with an even 3-3-0 record against Elite 8 teams.
Belmont Hill: Belmont Hill is another team that enters the playoffs playing their best hockey of the season. They have only one loss in their last 12 games and wins over Elite 8 teams Rivers, Thayer and a tie against #1 ranked Lawrence. This team is heavily reliant upon a few key players as their top two scorers, Sam Hesler and Christian O’Neill, represent nearly 40% of the teams total scoring. Their best position could be in net where they have two excellent goaltenders in Connor Hopkins and Jack Eselius. The Hilltoppers are similar to Rivers in that they have a lot of upperclassmen in key roles and play a defensive minded style of play. They enter this game off a seven-game win streak where they have outscored their opponents 24-10.
Matchup: This is a great matchup between two Boston area day schools who have played each other twice this season and are split in the series. Both teams are built from the goal out and are tough to score against. We expect a close, low scoring, hard fought game. There will be a lot of seniors in this game battling to keep their prep careers going. This contest will come down to special teams and goaltending as both teams goalies are capable of stealing a game. Rivers has a little more size and a little more depth, especially on the backend, so we give them the edge in this one, but the margin is slim.