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This Week in ECAC Hockey: Feb. 4, 2010

ECAC Editorial

There are innumerable positive things about Harvard; it’s arguably the world’s premier and most famous university for a reason.

But right now, the men’s hockey team isn’t one of them.

This will come off as more rant than repartee, but the Crimson’s performance en route to its 6-0 slaughtering at the hands of Boston College on Monday was nothing short of embarrassing. The Volkswagen-sized North End rats fled from the stench. The last time a team lost by that much in the Beanpot was 10 years ago, when BC blasted Northeastern in the opening round by the same 6-0 score. (Three years prior, Boston University smacked the Crimson around, 7-1 in the first round.)

This isn’t all about Harvard’s 17-year Beanpot drought, or about its 2-10-0 record against BU and BC since autumn of 2006. Nor is it about the program’s three-, likely to be four-year stretch without an NCAA appearance or ECAC Hockey title, on the heels of five bids in a row from 2002 to 2006. It’s not focusing on Harvard’s 0-5 showing in those five NCAA appearances, or its meager two Ivy League titles since 1994.

You know, it’s not even about the league’s 1-3 record in the NCAA’s last year, or its 4-13 record in the national tournament dating back to its last Frozen Four team: Cornell ’03. There are bigger things to worry about than good ECAC Hockey teams losing over and over again to teams from the CHA and Atlantic Hockey, much less Hockey East, the CCHA and the WCHA … and let’s face it, what’s another couple of year tacked onto the ECAC’s 19-year stretch without a NCAA championship game participant, or 20-year span sans a national title winner?

I’m not upset about any of those things.

I’m fuming about all of them.

Beanpot Beatdown

Harvard’s self-detonated implosion in the opening game of the 2010 Beanpot Tournament was the straw that broke my keyboard, as the Crimson barely put up a fight in their biggest game of the season. In fact, three players — Ryan Grimshaw, Luke Greiner and Daniel Moriarty — took 10-minute misconducts late in the game to escape the brutality of it all. Greiner’s dismissal wasn’t even attached to a minor penalty; he must’ve just said the wrong thing to the wrong official, and off he went to the locker room.

But it wasn’t just Harvard’s most important contest, it was the league’s as well. Argue if you will, but it is my contention that the Beanpot is the most important game (or two, if we’re lucky) on the ECAC Hockey calendar right up until the league championship. The games are played in prime time, broadcast internationally, and held in the largest hockey market north of New York and east of Detroit. Every year, it’s an opportunity for the conference to step up and stake its claim to Big Dog status … but every year, now, it fails to do so.

To be perfectly clear, this column isn’t intended as a smear-job of Harvard, its men’s hockey team, or its staff. Ted Donato, Bobby Jay and Pat Foley are great guys with solid resumes and a fair amount of success in Cambridge to boot. At some point, there’s nothing else a coaching staff can do: the onus is ultimately on the players.

ECAC Hockey commissioner Steve Hagwell told me that while the Beanpot is a big annual fixture for the conference, it’s not the biggest. Every non-conference game and mid-season tournament draws the league’s full support and attention, and the Beanpot is no more or no less. I appreciate his position — the ‘Pot only ever involves one league team, after all — but my counterpoint stands: For as many Rensselaer-BU and Cornell-North Dakota tilts as you can muster, the Beanpot gets far, far more attention.

Poll-Quitters

A big part of my issue with … well, these issues is that ECAC Hockey gets precious little respect from the other big conferences (Hockey East/CCHA/WCHA). While schools like Minnesota, New Hampshire, Michigan and Notre Dame — to name a few — have been spotted way ahead of other comparable teams in the polls during poor seasons, what love does Union get for its recently unbeaten league record? Thirteenth? Please.

This isn’t about the rest of the nation devaluing our conference out of spite. Rather, it’s because ECAC programs beat up on each other so regularly and the parity tends to be so strong that when Yale loses to RPI, outsiders see it as a big upset. We see it as further evidence of the strength and depth of the league. (See also: Harvard beating Union, Brown downing RPI or Princeton over Harvard, just for starters.)

When was the last time North Dakota — a middling 13-10-5 squad this year — lost to either Michigan Tech or Minnesota State? Mid-October of 2008. Other leagues are far more predictable than ECAC Hockey, and it hurts us in the polls.

Obviously, polls mean nothing when you get down to brass tacks, but what do matter are the RPI and the PairWise rankings. How does ECAC Hockey shoot itself in the foot? By not only having to schedule more non-conference games (thereby generally watering down the strength of the non-con competition as a whole), but also by dropping so many of those games. Case in point: Quinnipiac was once 12-1-0 and ranked third in the nation in the USCHO.com Poll. (Even then, the Bobcats’ lone loss was to nobody Robert Morris, currently nine points back of Bemidji State in the CHA.) On the road to that sparkling record, the ‘Cats downed the likes of 2009 NCAA tournament participant Ohio State (twice) and what was then a 9-2-0, top 10-ranked Massachusetts.

Since then, QU has one — one — win in 13 games (1-10-2), and it was against American International (3-19-2 and dead-last in Atlantic Hockey). Losses include a sweep at the hands of St. Cloud State, a loss and draw against Niagara (7-15-4 right now), and a 1-1 tie at Holy Cross (6-14-5). Accompanied by losses to Brown, Princeton and Dartmouth along the way, Quinnipiac has literally played itself right out of an NCAA at-large bid.

The Fix

As Hagwell pointed out, ECAC programs play 22 league games, compared to 27 for Hockey East teams and 28 for Atlantic Hockey, the CCHA and WCHA. Parity aside, one big problem posed by playing so few league games is that each one is roughly 25 percent more important than a game in any other league … so if you are an ECAC Hockey coach, where do your priorities lie: beating Canisius this weekend, or remaining healthy and efficient for Colgate and Cornell next weekend? It’s not a tough decision, but I believe it costs us dearly in the end.

I don’t propose increasing the number of conference games, unless we add new teams. Rather, I would encourage the league and its coaching fraternity to look more closely at the mid-season non-conference schedule.

If you want to play Minnesota, why not give yourself the best opportunity by planning the games either before or after a bye week? Playing before a two-week break devotes your complete and utter focus to the Gophers. Doing it after a weekend off will give you the freshest legs. Shoe-horning non-league games between two regular ECAC weekends doesn’t work well, as coaches seem to sacrifice dominance for rest, second-string goaltending and line-tinkering. It’s a losing formula.

The Commish also noted that the conference has bandied about the idea of a scheduling alliance with other leagues, which is a great idea. Personally, I think that the ECAC should play far more games against Hockey East opponents. They’re all in the same region, and there are historic ties between many of the programs: Cornell vs. BU at Madison Square Garden; Dartmouth vs. New Hampshire for the Riverstone Cup; Brown vs. Providence in the Mayor’s Cup; and Harvard vs. BU/BC in the Beanpot should be only the tip of the iceberg.

Clarkson, Colgate and Quinnipiac combined for three Hockey East games … one apiece. Rensselaer, St. Lawrence and Union, on the other hand, played three each against the rogue spawn of the old ECAC. I know schedules are done years and years in advance these days, but northeast matchups between traditional rivals shouldn’t require a law office and a team of physicists to pull off.

I’m not accusing coaches of ducking big-name programs in favor of the Little Sisters of Division I. That said, I’m not lauding many of them for taking all comers, either. As the saying goes, you’ve got to beat the best to be the best. Beating up on each other, while challenging, only diminishes the league’s overall standing in the postseason formulae.

Props and Flops

We’re going old-school, with a C marking an average grade … grades take the program’s schedule, record and status into account, so two equivalent schedules and records may not receive the same grade. I also realize and consider that non-conference games are arranged a few years in advance.

Brown: Flop. D+
Non-conference opponents — Princeton, Providence, Bentley, Connecticut, American International, and St. Cloud State (twice).

NC record — 2-5-0

SCSU is the only team giving Brown a boost this year, as none of the other opponents carry so much as a .500 record. That said, it’s not horrible for a rebuilding program — last year, the Bears played two league opponents (Princeton and Yale) in non-con games, and only played one game against a big-name program, Minnesota.

Clarkson:Prop. A-
Non-conference opponents — Niagara, RIT, St. Lawrence, Boston College, Northern Michigan, Bowling Green, Michigan State (twice), Minnesota-Duluth (twice), and Alabama-Huntsville (twice).

NC record — 4-7-1

Way up north as Clarkson is, games against fellow border-huggers Niagara and RIT make sense. St. Lawrence? Yeah, I get it, and I’ll let it slide. Michigan State and Minnesota-Duluth ended up being nice gets, and even though it was probably determined five years ago, I’ll nonetheless credit Clarkson with some charity points for playing UAH in what may be the Chargers’ last season.

It’s tough drawing opponents to the North Country, so I’m glad that George Roll & Co. didn’t settle for a 100 percent Atlantic Hockey/northern Hockey East slate. It’s been an awful season for the Golden Knights, but I can’t complain about their out-of-conference slate.

Colgate: Flop. D+
Non-conference opponents — RIT, Massachusetts-Lowell, Army, Canisius, Notre Dame, Nebraska-Omaha (twice), Robert Morris (twice), and Niagara (thrice).

NC record — 3-5-4

What a mess this is. UMass-Lowell was a strong first-half team, Notre Dame has been at the top end of D-I for a few years now, and UNO has been fair-to-competent recently as well. But then you have the high-risk, low-reward RIT, Army, Canisius, and Niagara (twice scheduled, once in the consolation of the Shillelagh Tournament). The Raiders were a lackluster 3-2-2 against the softer majority of their out-of-league slate, and 0-3-2 against the top end; if they’d won a few more, they’d probably get a passing grade.

Cornell: Prop. A
Non-conference opponents — Niagara, Boston University, Colorado College, Princeton, New Hampshire, and North Dakota (twice).

NC record — 3-3-1

The only two programs anyone could dream of faulting Mike Schafer for are Niagara and Princeton, and that would be a weak foundation for a complaint. The Purple Eagles were Cornell’s first NCAA game of the season, and Princeton was a tournament pairing. Kudos to getting North Dakota for the two-year home-and-home series, splitting both last year and this, and for the big-stage MSG sequel against the defending national champions. CC and UNH are big-time programs enjoying a lot of recent success, which tastes magnificent when washed down with a pour of a full-flavored Big Red.

Dartmouth: Flop, C-
Non-conference opponents — Providence, Harvard, Sacred Heart, Vermont, Northeastern, Holy Cross, and New Hampshire.

NC record — 2-5-0

Games against Sacred Heart and Holy Cross aren’t going to turn any heads (especially when you lose both of them), and playing Harvard in an Ivy League non-con seems a little pointless, since it has no recent precedent. Beyond that though, it’s a solid helping of Hockey East for Bob Gaudet’s brigade: PC, UVM, NU and UNH are adequately-to-substantially challenging, but the grade would be much improved with a little more creativity. One or two AHA opponents, maybe; but Harvard too?

Harvard: Flop, D+
Non-conference opponents — Boston University, Dartmouth, Northeastern, Boston College (twice), and Minnesota (twice).

NC record — 0-6-0 (one game vs. NU remaining)

Great slate (excepting the befuddling Dartmouth tilt), terrible record … that’s all there is to it. A non-conference schedule with any other non-ECAC program instead of DC would’ve put Harvard back up to a C- (heaven forbid, from Harvard!?), but the Crimson were never going to get a whiff of a passing grade without so much as a tie to show for it. Funny, Harvard was 0-7-0 in non-league games last year, too, and 2-4-1 the year prior …

Princeton: Prop. B+
Non-conference opponents — Brown, Yale, Maine, Cornell, Connecticut, and Massachusetts-Lowell (twice).

NC record — 4-2-1

Three Ivy games and one pushover in UConn are a bit painful on the eyes, but I’ll remind you that the Cornell game was in the second-round of the Florida College Classic. Otherwise, the Maine and UML games were respectable, and the record is solid … especially considering how bad the Tigers had it in late 2009. Next time out, just try to ditch that whole Ivy Invitational … it’s really quite unnecessary.

Quinnipiac: Flop. C-
Non-conference opponents — Bentley, Massachusetts, Holy Cross, American International, Ohio State (twice), Robert Morris (twice), St. Cloud State (twice), and Niagara (twice).

NC record – 6-4-2

Half of the Bobcats’ dozen out-of-conference games were permissible: OSU, UMass, SCSU, and take your pick of one of the other Atlantic games. But then, three games against AHA foes and four more against the CHA? I’d much rather have seen a WCHA pair in there, and maybe one or two more Hockey East games. Quinnipiac has a gorgeous facility and it’s finally starting to draw some bigger programs … but I don’t think the ‘Cats are baiting the hooks (or winning against the smaller programs) often enough.

Rensselaer: Prop, B+
Non-conference opponents — Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Alaska, Alaska-Anchorage, Sacred Heart, American International, Niagara, Army, Bentley, Boston University, Michigan, Michigan State, and Union (twice).

NC record — 7-6-1

Talk about ambitious: Thirteen different teams, only five of those from the AHA or CHA, and two “exempt” games in Alaska to boot. Signature wins this year have included beating UNH, BU and Michigan, and the only real regrettable losses are to Niagara and Army. One of the Union matchups was in the title game of RPI’s Holiday Hockey Tournament, so overall it was an incredibly diverse docket for the Engineers this year. One game above .500 isn’t anything to crow about — not for this year’s team, in any case — but it’s not bad, either.

St. Lawrence: Prop. B-
Non-conference opponents — Massachusetts-Lowell, RIT, Clarkson, Army, Maine, Vermont, Boston College, Nebraska-Omaha, Sacred Heart (twice), and Niagara (thrice).

NC record — 6-5-2

With two exempt games for the IceBreaker, the Saints technically went a game shorter on the schedule than they had to. In any case, Joe Marsh buddied up with four Hockey East coaches, four Atlantic coaches, and a soon-to-be WCHA program to build his season. The problem is, the Saints’ only big NC win of the season was against Boston College (5-2 in the Denver Cup), but couldn’t beat UML, Clarkson, Maine, UVM or UNO (0-4-1 against the lot). Therefore, the non-league record is loaded up with soft wins and tough losses. Just like Clarkson, I appreciate how hard it is to either entice other teams to travel to the North Country, just as much as I know how hard it is to travel therefrom. That’s why I’m going easy on SLU, even though I would’ve loved to see them take on a few more HEA/WCHA/CCHA opponents.

Union: Prop. B-
Non-conference opponents — American International, Sacred Heart, Lake Superior State, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Army, Maine (twice), St. Cloud State (twice), and Rensselaer (twice).

NC record — 6-4-2

The Dutchmen got a pair of big wins over Maine to open the year, but as much momentum as the RPI Holiday Hockey Tournament victory over the host Engineers may have given them, they haven’t mustered much else in the non-conference department. I’ll give Union credit for gutting out a draw at St. Cloud, but the team is nonetheless 0-2-2 against the WCHA (SCSU), CCHA (LSSU) and Hockey East (UMass) when you look beyond the season’s initial weekend. Credit to coach Nate Leaman, though, for not loading up on CHA and Atlantic chum: only four of the Dutchmen’s foes this year have come from the AHA, and none from the lame-duck CHA. Union went 3-1-0 in those contests.

Yale: Prop. A
Non-conference opponents — Princeton, Massachusetts, Sacred Heart, Holy Cross, Vermont, Ferris State, and Wisconsin.

NC record — 4-2-1

Princeton, SHU and HC aren’t exceptionally outstanding teams to have on your docket, but the other four sure wound up as winners. Ferris State may not have stood out a few years ago when Wisconsin’s Badger Showdown was arranged, but it sure made believers out of many midwesterners when Yale whooped the then-11th-ranked, 13-3-2 CCHA’ers 6-1 in Madison. Following up the rout with a 2-2 draw against the hosts was a huge statement for the Elis and for ECAC Hockey in general, even though Hockey East folks may still point out that UMass and Vermont each downed the Blue & White earlier last autumn. Yale also went 3-0-0 against Ivy rival Princeton and Atlantic Hockey’s two representatives, Sacred Heart and Holy Cross.

Want More?

Rather than writing a 10,000-word column this week, I’ll spare your scrolling finger. Click here to read a Q&A with a former WCHA assistant and current ECAC Hockey coach about his thoughts on the league’s national status.

Readers’ Poll

Last week’s query earned a resounding response, as 20 of 42 respondents tabbed Princeton as the second half’s most likely dark horse. Brown, Clarkson and Dartmouth each received votes, but not even a third as many as the Tigers. Nine of little faith didn’t think any of the four candidates pose a threat in early 2010.

Also with an overwhelming majority was my demographic poll, which showed 25 of 41 voters coming from the ranks of ECAC alumni. (Nine others were local fans, four students, one member of a player’s family, one from a member program’s staff, and one “other”.) Yes, I should’ve realized that no player would publicly admit to reading the boards via his user name. I should’ve made the poll anonymous.

This week, I want to know if you agree with my assessment of ECAC Hockey’s non-conference performance.

USCHO covers the ECAC all week long on the ECAC Blog, with weekend recaps on Monday, picks on Friday, and updates during the week.


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