WORCESTER, Mass. — They came into the NCAA tournament receiving less respect than all but one team: the MAAC’s ultra-underdog Mercyhurst. Outside of the North Country, there were few, if any, bracket predictions that showed them advancing on to the Frozen Four.
Even after winning the ECAC tournament, the St. Lawrence Saints finished a mere 14th in the Pairwise Rankings. Like Mercyhurst, they received an NCAA berth only because of their league’s automatic bid.
None of which fooled Colorado College coach Scott Owens.
“I was scared to death to play St. Lawrence,” he said after the Tigers won, 3-2, in double overtime. “We were playing a hot team.
“I said all week long to my team, ‘This team is a lot better than you think. This isn’t a 14 [Pairwise] team. This is a team that’s hitting it’s stride at the right time. It’s a team with a lot of veterans that have be en there, much [more] than us. You knew they’d be composed. … That’s a veteran team that knows how to win.”
— SLU head coach Joe Marsh
In some eyes, St. Lawrence also carried the burden of being the only ECAC team in the tournament while facing an opponent from a conference that had placed an unprecedented five members. To many SLU players, however, that was a misguided focus.
“We were more concerned with representing St. Lawrence,” said Russ Bartlett. “We’re proud to be part of the ECAC and to represent them is a great accomplishment for us. But we were really concerned with putting the best team on the ice for St. Lawrence.”
Despite the perceptions of many, the program boasts a proud history. The Saints earned their first NCAA berth back in 1952, just the fifth year of the national tournament. In an era when only two Eastern teams and two Western teams were selected, St. Lawrence earned that distinction another three times in the fifties — taking the eventual national champions to overtime twice — and another three times in the early sixties.
Four appearances in the eighties were highlighted by a 4-3 overtime loss to Lake Superior State in the 1988 national championship game. Two more selections in the nineties led to last year’s epic quadruple-overtime victory over Boston University that put the Saints into another Frozen Four.
Despite all the tradition, however, St. Lawrence has found itself repeatedly on the short end of the respect stick. And not just in seasons when it has only a 14 Pairwise Ranking.
“To be honest, I think we go through that every year,” said SLU coach Joe Marsh. “We’re a smaller school in a rural area, so it’s incumbent upon us to accept the role that, hey, we’re the Milwaukee Brewers compared to a Minnesota or a Maine that is the Yankees.
“That’s alright. There’s nothing wrong with that. You accept what you are and be the best at it that you can be. You get into this tournament and you’re going to play the underdog role.
“We were the underdog last year against BU and we were the only team that won both the conference and championship. It’s alright. It’s an easier focus for the guys to show what they can do. I don’t see it as a negative. We’ve got some pretty good players that I’m proud to have and I don’t see any way we would change it right now. It’s just big vs. small.”
This year’s mediocre Pairwise Ranking and overall lukewarm perception results from a horrendous start that might have buried a less resilient team. By the Christmas break, the Saints held a brutal 3-7-3 record, hardly the stuff of national tournaments.
At that point, the seniors used their experiences from three years ago to strengthen the team’s resolve.
“They remember what it was like when they were freshmen when we made it into 10th place in the ECAC by scoring with one second left in overtime against Cornell,” said Marsh. “That’s how we got into the [ECAC] playoffs. [This year] they made the most of that experience.”
The Saints kept faith despite the presumably lost cause of a 3-7-3 mark.
“You look at our record at Christmastime and a lot of people might think that the team would be down on themselves or ready to give up,” said senior goaltender Jeremy Symington. “But we were really just about the opposite.
“We knew what kind of team we had and what kind of schedule we had for ourselves and we just felt good about progressing toward the end of the season. Everyone just kept working hard and as the season progressed we just came together.”
Came together, indeed. A 17-5-1 second half put them back into the NCAA picture, albeit as a longshot.
“I’m just really proud of the way the team stuck together,” said Marsh. “We had a bit of a rough start, [but] I think you saw the finished product tonight.”
In some ways, this game against Colorado College followed much the same script as the entire season. By the time it was little more than two minutes old, the back-on-their-heels Saints had been forced to ice the puck three times. They rebounded first territorially and then from 1-0 and 2-1 deficits.
Leading the way with the first goal and his overall play was Erik Anderson, an underappreciated star who mirrors his school’s lack of hype. Anderson may be the ECAC Player of the Year and a Hobey Baker Award finalist, but he is still curiously missing from many discussions of the nation’s top forwards.
“Anderson was hurt, banged up pretty good,” said Marsh. “You saw him crawl off the ice. That’s just tremendous character. That kid has a bad ankle sprain, but I think you saw why he’s the Player of the Year even though you didn’t get a chance to see how good the kid really is. He’s about 75 percent.”
In the end, the Saints came up a little short, their season ending at 3:30 of the second overtime.
“Our big guys stepped up and played hurt and I’m really, really proud of them,” said Marsh. “As this thing wears off, they’re going to feel pretty good about what they accomplished and how they stepped up to the plate.
“I thought we played the type of game that we had to play. I was proud of the guys. We really showed a lot of character. It was one of the more satisfying years for me in terms of the way the team responded, particularly when things weren’t going so well.
“I think the guys feel they represented themselves well. … I’m really proud of what our kids have been able to accomplish. They gave us everything they had.”