The 1995-96 ECAC season had all the elements that you would expect: surprises, disappointments, sadness, and of course jubilation.
Before the 1995-96 season began just about every team had a lot to look forward to.
Perhaps the Catamounts of Vermont had the most to look forward to. They returned 3 of the best players not only in the ECAC, but in the nation. Goalie Tim Thomas figured to be on of the top netminders in the country, and forwards Martin St. Louis and Eric Perrin should challenge for the national scoring lead.
Some teams came into the season counting on the men between the pipes. Princeton was riding the high of a trip to the 1994-5 ECAC Championship Game, and also the confidence of a proven goaltender in James Konte. The Tigers would once again strive to surprise people.
Harvard was in much of the same boat. The Crimson returned their top goaltender, as well as some talented forwards as the season opened.
For others, it was the coach who would be most responsible for leading their respective club. The Yale Bulldogs had Tim Taylor back at the helm with his full efforts this season, while Cornell had a new coach in Mike Schafer and a renewed spirit at Lynah and Brown University had Bob Gaudet who was named ECAC Coach of the Year the previous season.
Still more teams boasted depth as they entered the season. Colgate had both a strong defense and strong group of forwards coming back after another trip to the ECAC Final Four. St. Lawrence not only had most of their starters back, but a good group of rookies to boot. Clarkson, while losing some starters, still had enough depth to field a great team.
Dartmouth had renewed energy and effort from a young squad, but would they be able to overcome inexperience? RPI were trying to build on their upset drive to the ECAC Tournament Championship in 1994-5 and Union was trying to continue to turn their program around.
Where do we start? The preseason poll of head coaches in the ECAC picked Vermont to win the ECAC regular season title with Clarkson and Colgate close behind. How would the season pan out?
Mid-November and the ECAC regular season began with the usual Harvard-Brown game. Harvard would jump out quickly on Brown and go up 1-0 in the ECAC with a 7-2 thrashing of Brown.
The following week the ECAC started a full slate of games and we started to see how close the ECAC would be this season.
Vermont started out with a sweep of RPI and Union, 4-3, and 5-2. Cornell swept Brown and Harvard, 4-1, and 5-3. Clarkson swept Princeton and Yale, 7-2, and 3-0. And St. Lawrence also swept Yale and Princeton, 7-2 and 6-4. Colgate wound up with 2 points tying Harvard and Brown, 2-2, and 4-4. RPI and Union also wound up with 2 points each, both defeating Dartmouth.
So early on the teams picked to finish near the top began there.
Some more action the following week and all of a sudden a team not figured to be in the hunt, was 3-0-1 after 4 contests, the Big Red of Cornell. A tie with Vermont at 2 and a win over Dartmouth 4-3, the early lead in the ECAC belonged to Vermont and Cornell with Clarkson close behind.
Cornell would continue unbeaten in the ECAC until Mid-December with a loss to RPI, but by this time they had built a 4-0-2 record in the ECAC and trailed only Clarkson. Speaking of Clarkson, they began the season in the ECAC at 6-0-1 and found a new hero: Todd White. White picked up where Robitaille, Morin, and Mueller left off.
Heading into the Christmas break, it was as the coaches began seeing it coupled with a few surprises. Clarkson was on top at 6-0-1, Vermont close behind at 4-0-1, and Colgate at 5-1-2. The largest surprises were Cornell at 4-1-3, and St. Lawrence at 5-1-1.
A few surprises also arose in the individuals. Along with White from Clarkson, Brad Chartrand of Cornell was spearheading the resurgence. The dynamic duo of Perrin and St. Louis in Vermont, Mike Harder at Colgate, and Burke Murphy of St. Lawrence were also exceeding expectations.
Brown and RPI were languishing in mid-pack, and Princeton was baffled by their poor start: 1-6-1.
The new year would bring a fight at the top for positioning as the stretch run of February drew closer.
January would prove to be an interesting month for a few teams. St. Lawrence began their run at the top with an undefeated January. With wins over Cornell, Colgate, Vermont, Dartmouth, and Clarkson, St. Lawrence was able take the lead in the ECAC heading into the stretch run with a 10-1-1 record.
Clarkson had the lead in the ECAC and saw it disappeared as they only managed one win during the whole month of January, that against Dartmouth.
Dartmouth got hot winning 3 in a row to try to climb into playoff contention. They also tied Vermont and found themselves with 7 points from the month and in the hunt.
Vermont also lost once, and tied once, and was in second headed into February with the 9-1-2 record.
The pack had begun to even itself out into 2 groups. The top of the ECAC would begin to pull away from the bottom pack. St. Lawrence, Vermont, Clarkson, Cornell, Colgate, and Harvard would begin to splinter themselves from the rest of the field, and begin to leave Brown, RPI, Dartmouth, Union, Yale, and Princeton behind.
The stretch run of February would begin. Five weeks to go for the playoffs and a few races were heating up, including home ice for the quarterfinals, a bye from the play-down round, and home ice for the play-down round.
The first week of February saw a couple big games between division contenders. Clarkson versus Vermont and St. Lawrence versus Vermont. The big winner of the weekend would be Clarkson as they destroyed Vermont 5-1 and beat Dartmouth to pull 4 points out. St. Lawrence and Vermont both picked up 2 points with Vermont defeating St. Lawrence, and St. Lawrence posting a win over Dartmouth.
Meanwhile, Cornell picked up 4 points over Princeton and Yale, Colgate picked up 2, and Harvard picked up 4 points as well over RPI and Union. After the first weekend of February, the lead in the ECAC belonged to St. Lawrence, and Vermont was still just 1 point behind. A three-way tie for 3rd between Clarkson, Cornell, and Harvard ensued.
The big match-up the following weekend would be Vermont versus Colgate and Cornell. The North Country duo was visiting in the Capital District, and Harvard would face last place Yale.
Vermont would take 3 points on the weekend with a win over Colgate and a tie with Cornell. Clarkson would sweep Union and RPI, and St. Lawrence would tie RPI and defeat Union for three points. Harvard in the meantime would lose to Yale. St. Lawrence would continue to hold first place with 25 points, and Vermont still there 1 point behind. Clarkson had closed the gap to 3 points with 23 points, and Cornell slipped to fourth. Some news lower in the standings as Brown was now only 2 points behind Harvard for 6th place.
Three weeks to go and St. Lawrence was hanging on to their lead in the ECAC but only by the thinnest of hairs. St. Lawrence would crush Yale 10-1 but then would be upset by Princeton at home. In the meantime Vermont would sweep RPI and Union to pass St. Lawrence for the lead. Clarkson would also sweep Princeton and Yale to move up. And Colgate and Cornell would both sweep Harvard and Brown. The separation was complete. There were now three tiers in the ECAC. The top 5, Harvard and Brown, and finally the bottom of the pack fighting for play-down round competition.
Vermont was in first, followed by St. Lawrence, Clarkson and then Cornell. These 4 teams separated by 1 point each. Colgate would trail Cornell by 2 points in fifth.
Meanwhile, Harvard trailed Colgate by 5 points, with Brown only 2 behind the Crimson. RPI would lead the bottom of the pack trailing Brown by 5 points. Three points separated the Engineers from their closest rivals, Dartmouth and Princeton with 9 points each.
Four games remained on the schedule and there were some dandies on the horizon. The second to last week saw Vermont sweep Yale and Princeton to maintain their ECAC lead. St. Lawrence would keep pace with a sweep of Harvard and Brown. Clarkson also swept the duo to remain only 1 back of St. Lawrence. Cornell would also remain 1 back with a sweep of RPI and Union. The same for Colgate. This week would provide sweeps for all of the top 5 teams.
The last weekend of the regular season came on the first two days of March. Where would things shape out? Could Colgate climb into the Top 4 to get home ice for the quarterfinals? Who would win the regular season title? Could Brown overtake Harvard for the last bye into the ECAC Quarterfinals? Who would get home-ice for the play-down rounds the following Tuesday? Who would be in the play-down round?
A lot of questions to be answered. Colgate managed 2 points with ties against St. Lawrence and Clarkson. But Cornell would defeat St. Lawrence to take the last home ice quarterfinal spot. This would end up being a key factor. Clarkson would clinch 2nd place when they defeated Cornell in overtime, and tied Colgate. St. Lawrence would tumble down to third with only 1 point on the weekend with a loss to Cornell and a tie to Colgate.
Vermont left no doubt. They clinched the ECAC Regular Season title with a sweep of Harvard and Brown. Brown had to beat Dartmouth to move out of the play-down round, but they could not do it as Dartmouth surprised all and swept Brown and Harvard and clinch only their second playoff appearance in 16 years. Brown would wind up in 7th, and RPI would finish 8th with a sweep of Yale and Princeton, and would host Tuesday night play-down games. Dartmouth’s sweep gave them 9th, and Princeton’s win over Union gave them 10th place. Union and Yale would be the uninvited this year finishing 11th and 12th respectively.
The play-down round featured 4 teams, including the 2 teams in last years ECAC Championship Game, Princeton and RPI. Princeton would travel to face Brown at Meehan Auditorium.
Princeton would come out with a lead, but the Bears overtook the Tigers and advanced to the weekend with a 4-3 victory.
In Troy, Dartmouth surprised RPI and took a 3-1 lead in the second period but RPI came back and took a 4-3 lead in the third. The Big Green would tie it at 4 and send it to overtime. Jon Pirrong would provide the game winner from the blue line, and RPI would advance to the following weekend.
RPI had the difficult task of travelling to Burlington and take on the 1st place Catamounts. RPI would jump out to a surprising 1-0 lead in Game 1, but Vermont’s big boys took over as Perrin, St. Louis, and Ruid capitalized and took Game 1 5-2.
RPI would also take the early lead in Game 2, but once again the big guns took over, and Vermont swept the defending ECAC Champions out 6-4 and advanced for the first time to Lake Placid.
Brown would find themselves in Potsdam against the Golden Knights of Clarkson. In Game 1, there was little doubt as Todd White and Dan Murphy held the Bears to only 2 goals, and cruised to a 5-2 victory. Game 2 would prove almost the same result as Clarkson would become the first team to go to Lake Placid for four consecutive years with a 5-3 series ending victory.
A battle of travel partners in Ithaca as the Big Red hosted Colgate. A lot of people thought this series would be close but Jason Elliot in goal, and Brad Chartrand on the ice swept out the Red Raiders convincingly 8-3 and 8-1 and Cornell was Placid bound.
In Canton, the Saints fell in Game 1 to the 6th seeded Crimson of Harvard 5-2 as Harvard pulled the upset. To stay alive the Saints needed Game 2 and they responded with a close 3-2 last period victory. It was on to Sunday for the right to go to Lake Placid. As RPI did the year before, Harvard as a 6 seed would take out the 3 seed St. Lawrence with a resounding 8-4 victory and a third trip to Lake Placid.
The Final Four in Lake Placid had 3 of the Top 4 teams, and the surprising Crimson of Harvard. Harvard continues their surprising play and shocked the regular season champion Catamounts 4-3 with solid defensive play, and doing their best to control the French Connection of Perrin and St. Louis.
Game 2 would pit Cornell against Clarkson. Just 2 weeks earlier Clarkson had defeated Cornell 2-1 in overtime. Cornell never let the Golden Knights close as Jason Elliot pitched the shutout in a 3-0 win and a trip to the Championship Game.
In the Consolation game, Vermont defeated Clarkson 3-1, and put a severe blow in Clarkson’s chances to gain an NCAA berth.
The Championship game was a classic. Harvard never had the lead, but they tried vainly to tie the game at 2 but fell short as Cornell skated to the 1995-6 ECAC Championship with a 2-1 victory. For the second year in a row a rookie head coach in the ECAC had won the Tournament. Mike Schafer led the Big Red back to the top of the heap and sent Cornell back to the NCAA tournament.
The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee deemed three ECAC teams worthy of the NCAA tournament: Regular season champions Vermont, ECAC Champions Cornell, and second-place Clarkson. All three ECAC teams saw action at the Knickerbocker Arena in Albany, NY for the East Regionals.
Vermont received a bye, Clarkson got Western Michigan in Round 1. Clarkson cruised to an easy 6-1 victory and advancement to face defending NCAA Champions Boston University in the next round. Cornell however was defeated in Round 1 by the Lakers of Lake Superior State 5-4 in a tight game.
The NCAA Quarterfinals saw Vermont face Lake Superior State, and hang on for a big 2-1 victory with Martin St. Louis’ goal in the last 2 minutes of the game, and with the win they advanced to the Final Four in Cincinnati.
Clarkson was not so lucky as mistakes cost them against Boston University and they were ousted 3-2. Boston University would join Vermont in Cincinnati.
Vermont would face regular season WCHA Champions Colorado College in the NCAA Semifinals. The game would prove to be a classic as Vermont skated toe-to-toe with one of the best teams in the nation, but it was a controversial goal in the second-overtime that ended Vermont’s incredible season, 4-3.
The ECAC season was nothing less than spectacular. Parity said it all as the league split into three tiers. With battles from top to bottom the ECAC was intense and fun to watch. Here’s to hoping that the 1996-97 ECAC season is just as entertaining.