It’s hard to believe that half of the season is already behind us, but the holidays marked the midpoint in the 2001-2002 campaign. This is a good point to reflect on the play of the ECAC West teams so far, and look ahead to how things are shaping up in the run to the playoffs.
Elmira Soaring Eagles: ‘Soaring’ Only Against Ranked Teams
Elmira was one of the enigmas of hockey during the first half. The Soaring Eagles started out on a 5-1 run, defeating Plattsburgh, St. Norbert, and Wisconsin-Stevens Point along the way. For those counting, that means Elmira defeated the No. 1, No. 2, and No. 6 teams at the time. Very impressive.
However, Elmira’s record in the next nine games was a mediocre 4-5, all against unranked teams.
The root of the Soaring Eagles up and down play seems to be mental. Some nights, the team is riding an emotional high, pumped up and ready to go. Other nights, nobody’s home. And sometimes, you can see those trends all in the same game.
Take Elmira’s game two weeks ago against Gustavus Adolphus in the Johnson & Wales tournament. Elmira dominated the Gusties in the first period. But the second and third periods were a completely different game. The Soaring Eagles took a string of seven penalties to let the Gusties back in to the game, and then had another breakdown with 17 seconds to go when Gustavus scored the winning goal.
That game summed up the first half of the season for Elmira pretty well.
“I don’t know how we can get up for ranked teams, but not get up for non-ranked teams,” said Elmira coach Tim Ceglarski. “If I knew that, I would be working for NASA. Getting 26 players mentally prepared every day isn’t a science.”
Elmira needs to solve the problem quickly if it hopes to stay in the NCAA playoff race. The Soaring Eagles took a step forward this week with an 11-0 shellacking of Geneseo on Tuesday.
“We haven’t given up,” said Ceglarski. “We control our own destiny in a certain way. The key is to come mentally prepared to play every single game.”
Elmira knows exactly what it needs to do to stay in the hunt for the NCAA bid: Beat RIT twice in the regular season and then again in the ECAC West playoffs, all while not losing games against other ECAC West opponents.
Hobart Statesmen: Chemistry 101
It has been all about team chemistry in the Hobart locker room this season. It is getting stronger day by day. The players are having fun, the coaches are having fun, and that is being converted in to results on the ice.
“I’m having a blast,” said coach Mark Taylor. “Each player is getting better and even more important, each is growing as a teammate.”
Hobart currently has a 6-9 record, several steps better than the 4-8-2 record it had at this same time last year. And even the losses show some hope, as Hobart has only been blown out once this season (a 7-1 loss to RIT early on).
From a player perspective, one difference this year is freshman goaltender Adam Lavelle. The only time Lavelle hasn’t been in net for Hobart was when they pulled the goaltender at the end of several games. Lavelle has faced an average of over 37 shots per game, and earned a respectable .897 save percentage. Solid netminding gives Taylor a stable base to continue to build up the Statesmen team.
Hobart added a new goaltender to the team over the break to back up Lavelle. John Czaplinksi played at Kimble Union Academy.
Hobart is entering the toughest part of its schedule. January finds the Statesmen on the road for the entire month, playing eight games, including contests against the likes of Middlebury, Potsdam, Manhattanville, and RIT. Not an enviable schedule, but if the Statesmen can come out of that run even 4-4 it would set them up nicely for a stretch run.
“Our team chemistry has to keep getting stronger,” said Taylor. “Playing so many top teams in the second half is going to test that.”
Manhattanville Valiants: Continuing to Build
Coach Keith Levinthal and his players continue to build the Manhattanville program. In only their third season, the Valiants went 6-4-2 during the first half.
Even in the four losses, all but one was a close game that Manhattanville fought down to the end. The lone exception was the game at Potsdam that Manhattanville lost 6-2. The Valiants just didn’t show up to play that game, and it probably cost Manhattanville a spot in the national poll.
“I am pretty happy about the first half,” said coach Keith Levinthal. “The only game we didn’t show up for was Potsdam. But all the rest I am very pleased with.”
All signs point to a Manhattanville team that is on the edge of taking the next step in its development path. The Valiants have proven an ability to play with top ranked teams. However, through various mistakes or reasons they just haven’t been able to win those close games against upper echelon teams on a consistent basis.
Take the two games between Manhattanville and RIT this season. In the first contest, the Valiants had RIT on the ropes leading 4-3 midway through the third period. However, a dumb penalty followed by a mental breakdown let RIT score two goals in the last minute and a half of the game to steal the win.
The second game was just as close. Manhattanville had clawed back from a 3-2 deficit, with a goal early in the third period to make it 3-2 RIT leading. The Valiants were pouring on the pressure late, but just couldn’t find the back of the net, before RIT scored an almost-empty netter to seal the win.
The ability to finish in the big games is an attribute that young teams struggle with, and champions have confidence in. That trait is about the only ingredient missing from Manhattanville, and once the Valiants find it they will truly be a dangerous team.
Manhattanville lost one player over the holiday break, Scott Jensen. However, Shawn Brokop has joined the team.
The second half of the Manhattanville schedule is significantly easier. The Valiants don’t face any teams that are currently ranked in the USCHO.com poll. The biggest challenge they will face is a pair of league contests against Elmira.
If Manhattanville stays focused, it could easily win 11 or 12 of its 13 remaining games. And this would give them enormous confidence entering the playoffs.
Neumann Knights: A Step Behind
Coach Nick Russo’s comment — “I’m a little disappointed in wins and losses” — is probably an understatement. Neumann’s 2-11 record at the break is not what Russo was hoping for at this stage of its inaugural season in the league.
Neumann has shown some positive signs in several of the losses, keeping the games close. The Valiants lost to Umass-Dartmouth by only a single goal, and to Fredonia by a 4-2 score.
“Our biggest problem is that we are a step behind most of these teams,” said Russo. “The other weakness is our penalty kill. When we play shorthanded, we get killed.”
Like most coaches in the league, Russo was on the road during the holidays recruiting for next year. Rumors abound, of course, but the word on the street is that there are several strong players headed to Neumann next fall who could have an immediate impact on the team.
Unfortunately for Neumann, there is still half a season to go, and its schedule is tougher in the second half. In addition to the league schedule, Neumann has games scheduled against tough opponents like Lebanon Valley and Cortland.
Bad news also struck the team over the holidays as first semester grades arrived. Five players got lower than required grades and won’t be dressing for games during the second semester. This list includes three of the top seven scorers from the team. Their loss certainly will not help the Knights put more goals on the scoreboard.
To help fill some of the holes, Russo pulled in two recruits who will suit up for the Knights. Dave Doorman was originally recruited by Utica, but failed to make the team due to foot surgery. Doorman has now transferred to Utica. Scott Grable, a 6′ 200lb forward will also add some toughness to the Knight lineup.
“We’re still in the situation where we can play well and maybe win a couple of league games during the second half,” said Russo.
RIT Tigers: Clawing Along
The Tigers of RIT seem to have picked up this season where they left off last year. It is hard to find fault with a 13-1 record and the No. 2 ranking in the nation.
Even with all that success, the most talked-about event of the first half for RIT was the team shenanigans during a trip to Wisconsin that caused a round of player suspensions. It was during these suspensions that RIT got the only blemish on its record to date, a 4-3 loss to Wentworth.
For the first time in many years, it is the defense that is the strength of the RIT team. Two of the top five scorers on the team are blueliners, Jerry Galway (10-20-30) and Ryan Fairbarn (3-20-23).
“I wasn’t quite sure about our team,” said coach Wayne Wilson. “We were trying to figure it out.”
Whatever Wilson has been doing seems to be working as the Tigers currently hold first place in the league standings.
Key contests for RIT during the second half revolve around the series with longtime rival Elmira. A home-and-home weekend series with Oswego will also be tough contests for the Tigers.
“Our goal for the second half is to have a lot more structure,” said Wilson. “We need to forecheck aggressively, but still be in position defensively.”
Utica Pioneers: Maturing
Utica has seen a lot of success in the first half of its first season ever. The Pioneers have a 5-6-2 record, with wins over teams such as 2001 NCAA Quarterfinal participant Lebanon Valley and ECAC Northeast up and comer Johnson and Wales. Impressive results for a new team.
“As a team, we’ve shown that we can play in the league,” said coach Gary Heenan. “But we have shown some immaturity and youth.”
Utica lost one player over the break, sophomore forward Jeff Tittensor (6-2-8) who was fourth on the scoring chart.
Heenan also hit the recruiting trail over the holidays. He is staying with the philosophy started this year of recruiting older player from the junior ranks as Utica looks to add maturity to the team.
The second half will be just as tough as the first. Six league games remain, including a pair at Manhattanville. Plus Utica will face give Lebanon Valley a chance for revenge when the Pioneers travel to Pennsylvania at the end of January.
“Our goal in the second half is still to make the playoffs,” said Heenan.
Game of the Week
Plattsburgh at Elmira is the rivalry of the week. Elmira traveled up to the North Country November 17 and stole a 2-1 victory. That started a 5-6 tailspin for the Cardinals that they have yet to recover from. You can bet that Plattsburgh is looking to return the favor at Elmira on Saturday. But Elmira has been strong this year against nationally ranked opponents, and Plattsburgh just happens to be ranked No. 7 in the latest poll.