How wacky have things turned out this season in the ECAC West? See for yourself:
The world of the ECAC West continues to spin at a dizzying pace this season.
Elation and Despair
Last weekend was a mix of elation for some teams and despair for others, as four teams played Round 2 of their travel partner games. On Friday night, it was RIT and Utica who were experiencing the highs of elation, while Hobart and Elmira’s emotions were at the other end of the spectrum.
The Tigers defeated Elmira 5-3, and with that win jumped into the driver’s seat for the regular season title. Just like the game the previous week, RIT carried a 3-1 lead into the third period and then watched it evaporate as Elmira came storming back to tie the game in the opening minutes of the third period. RIT learned the hard lesson that several other teams have been shown by Elmira this year, that the Soaring Eagles can never be counted out of games with the talent and drive that they have.
The game remained tied for most of the third, until Jason Chafe backhanded in the game-winner with just over four minutes left to play. RIT then slid in an empty-net insurance goal to seal the 5-3 victory.
Utica also was feeling good after its 4-4 tie at Hobart that put the Pioneers ahead in the race for the fourth playoff spot. The Pioneers built and rebuilt three separate two-goal leads during the first half of the game, only to watch Hobart chip away. Trent Flory tallied three of Utica’s first four goals, all of them even-strength.
But Utica couldn’t contain the Hobart power play, and the Statesmen scored three goals with the extra attacker to earn the tie.
Saturday was a reversal of emotions for both Hobart and Utica. For the second straight week, Hobart defeated Elmira, this time by a 5-3 score.
Elmira got on the scoreboard first, just 57 seconds in, with a goal by Brandon Rose. And it looked like Elmira would shake off the disappointment from the night before and gain the revenge against Hobart that it desired.
The Statesmen had other intentions, and ripped off five consecutive goals to take a commanding 5-1 lead by the six-minute mark of the second period. Once again, special teams gave Hobart the jump. In that span, the Statesmen scored two power-play goals, a shorthander, and a four-on-four goal.
Elmira tallied two goals through the remainder of the game, but it wasn’t enough to prevent Hobart from winning.
The Hobart/Elmira game had completed before the RIT/Utica game started, so Pioneers coach Gary Heenan knew that Hobart had once again vaulted past Utica into the fourth playoff spot. He needed to defeat RIT to keep pace, and that meant taking risks.
It was a tightly played first period, but the RIT offense gained the advantage and built a 4-1 lead. The teams exchanged goals in the second period, which set up a wild third stanza.
Utica was trailing 7-3 with just under seven minutes remaining in the game when Heenan took his timeout. Following the break in play, he kept goaltender Rich Rager on the bench, and sent out an extra attacker. Heenan was digging deep into his bag of tricks to try and pull out the miracle comeback.
Just four seconds after the timeout, Jimmy Sokol scored for Utica and it looked like the ploy might just work. RIT rebuilt its 8-4 lead with a goal by Darren Doherty just over a minute later. Heenan pulled Rager again two minutes later, this time for over three minutes, but Utica couldn’t score again.
Last weekend lived up to expectations, with four wild games with unforeseen twists, and each one with huge playoff implications on the line.
Jockeying for Position
With two more weekends of play remaining in the regular season, don’t expect normalcy to return to the league anytime soon. Here is a rundown of the teams contending for playoff spots and what they need to do to attain their goals. The teams are listed in order of current standing.
RIT — The Tigers have taken care of business over the last two weekends and are now in the driver’s seat for the regular-season title. But RIT hasn’t clinched anything yet. The Tigers need to beat Hobart in their only game remaining on February 28 to clinch the title. Or, if Manhattanville were to lose one of its three remaining games, RIT would back into the league title. The lowest RIT can finish is second place.
Manhattanville — With three games remaining, the Valiants can finish as high as first or as low as fifth and out of the playoffs. Manhattanville must hope for an RIT loss or tie versus Hobart. If that happens, then the Valiants can still claim first place by winning all of its remaining contests. Two scenarios exist that could result in a tie with RIT for the top spot.
Any loss in its remaining games would likely relegate Manhattanville to a second- or third-place finish.
Hobart — The Statesmen only have one game remaining, that being at local rival RIT. A win or a tie in that game would clinch a playoff berth. Any combination of two Utica losses, or a loss and a tie by the Pioneers, would do as well. The Statesmen could finish as high as second, or could miss the playoffs in fifth.
Elmira — The Soaring Eagles are reeling from the emotionally draining defeats of the last two weekends. With three league games remaining, Elmira could finish as high as second or as low as fifth. Realistically, though, the only difficult league game is the last game of the regular season at Manhattanville. Assuming Elmira can win both games against Neumann, the Soaring Eagles are just playing for position in the middle of the pack.
Utica — Utica also can finish between second and fifth. If the Pioneers win their four remaining games, they will make the playoffs. Or, if RIT beats Hobart, then Utica would only need to collect six points in the remaining four games to end up in a numerical tie with Hobart. That would be enough for Utica to make the playoffs, since the Pioneers own a 1-0-1 head-to-head record against Hobart and therefore control the tiebreaker.
Neumann — Statistically, the Knights still have a chance to make the playoffs. Realistically, though, the best Neumann can hope for is to play the role of spoiler, steal a point or two from one of the contending teams, and ruin someone else’s offseason.
Clarity is slowly coming to the playoff picture in the ECAC West. But it seems this year will go right down to the wire before the view becomes crystal clear.
Game of the Week
The game between Manhattanville and Utica on Friday is crucial, not only to these two teams but also to the playoff hopes of all five ECAC West teams in contention. A victory by the homestanding Pioneers would help their cause to make the playoffs, and also clinch the league title for RIT.
If Manhattanville wins, its hopes of a league title are greatly helped, and Utica’s aspirations are dashed.
All eyes will be watching the results from the Utica Aud intently Friday night, cheering for whichever team that aids their favorite team to prevail.