The expansion of the Hockey East Tournament this season to all eight teams means that the entire conference is included in the postseason in the three of the four D-I leagues. Only in ECAC Hockey, where only two thirds of the 12 teams advance, must a team earn its way into the playoffs.
That requirement can produce some anxious moments as the regular season winds down for teams in the bottom half of the ECAC standings. Entering the final week of the regular season, Union has been eliminated and cannot advance to the playoffs. For those that stand in the seventh through 11th positions, the playoff prospects vary.
After finishing tied for eighth in the standings a year ago but losing a tiebreaker to Brown for a tournament berth, Rensselaer has wrapped up the seventh seed in the tournament. Coach John Burke doesn’t want his team to relax heading into the final weekend, even though it has less on the line than others.
“I thought we had a good game against Brown, but I didn’t think we were as hungry as they were, because they were fighting for their lives there,” he said. “We need to get back to that level that we were playing the previous games, because you just can’t turn it on and off, your intensity level. Hopefully, our team learned from this past Saturday. We want to continue to work on some things for the playoffs, but we also want to make sure that we come and attack the game with the same mindset that we had since Thanksgiving on.”
One of the problems the Engineers had last season that prevented them from reaching the tournament was inconsistency in net.
“We had four great years with Sonja van der Bliek, we graduated her, so we had some big holes to fill,” Burke said. “Anytime you have freshmen in key positions, you want them to succeed as quickly as possible, but you know there’s going to be some ups and downs. I thought both Kelly [O'Brien] and Brianna [Piper] played well last year at times, but at times they struggled. I think the year of maturity, playing in our league and playing the games they had last year, gave a lot more experience and they were a lot more confident to come into play this year. Kelly has kind of taken over the starting job and has clearly solidified that spot for us. It’s all goaltending, and it gives yourself a chance to win games, and she’s definitely done that for us this year.”
This season started slowly for RPI; it was just 2-11-2 overall and 0-5-0 in the conference at the end of November. Rattling off four straight league wins at that point allowed the Engineers to jump back into the thick of the conference standings. A key to the team’s resurgence has been the play of freshman forward Alexa Gruschow, the team’s leading scorer.
“She’s had a major impact from day one on our program just with her speed, her skill, and her competitiveness are the things that stand out the most besides her hockey sense,” Burke said. “She’s just a kid who is always going to get better each day.”
That competitiveness from Gruschow and her teammates is a trademark of Burke’s teams.
“We’re a program that really strives, and we stress competition every single day,” he said. “Whether it’s in the academic world or in practice, you’re always competing. Those are the type of kids that we look for, but we also look for kids who can skate. We feel we can play both a physical and at times a finesse side. We really stress competing in one-to-one situations, and hopefully come out in those situations on above 50 percent, 60 percent of the year, one-on-one battles.”
If the season were to end today, Jeff Kampersal’s Princeton Tigers would be the eighth and final seed. They can maintain that position regardless of other results if they can pull off a sweep at Brown and Yale, two teams they defeated earlier in February.
“I just think we have to approach it like it is our playoff life on the line,” Kampersal said. “It doesn’t really matter who we play in this league. I think our team has been accused in the past of getting up for big games and maybe not for games that we should be competitive in. Brown is extremely well-coached, Yale is well-coached. Brown didn’t have a good day against us the first time around. We were losing to Yale, 1-0, into the third, so we’ve had great games. We’d just really like to focus on giving a great effort every shift, and hopefully, it will go our way. We’re getting more confidence, we’re putting pucks on net, and thinking better out there. Now, it’s just a matter of executing.”
Princeton was another team that stumbled early, holding a league mark of just 2-10-2 in mid January.
“We had a rocky start, no question,” Kampersal said. “I think since end of January, we’ve played a really solid brand of hockey. It hasn’t been perfect by any stretch, but it’s been a lot of heart and soul. We don’t have many players this year. We’ve had some bad injuries and depth issues, but the kids have battled on and forged ahead. I’m actually really proud of our kids coming out of exams. We had a real terrible game against Colgate two weeks ago, which was completely baffling. It still wakes me up at night as to why we played so poorly, but every game except that we’ve played really well.”
The Tigers were able to revive their playoff fortunes with a 4-1 upset at Clarkson last week.
“We’ve been getting chances to score in all of our games, and against Clarkson, we were able to finish some goals,” Kampersal said. “Kelly Cooke had two nice shots underneath the post on [Erika] Howe, who’s probably the best goalie in our league, so that was nice to see. In some of the other games, we’ve been right there. Against Cornell, we were in it until 12 minutes to go; St Lawrence, we were in it until four minutes to go. It’s just a matter of them burying their chances and us not doing that. We’re getting more confident as we go along here.”
One of the things that Princeton has had to battle along the way has been injuries to a couple of its top skill players. Kampersal says that Denna Laing has been playing literally with one arm the whole season, which has hampered her scoring. Olivia Mucha, one of the team’s top scorers as a rookie, is still trying to recover after a couple of shoulder surgeries.
“We’d like better production from those kids, but they’re out there working hard and giving all that they can give, so I’m proud of them for that,” he said. “The two seniors, Corey Stearns and Kelly Cooke, have stepped up big time this year in terms of carrying the team on their shoulders when necessary.”
He would also like to see his team play with a bit more of the attitude he saw from past successful Tigers teams.
“We do miss a little grit right now,” Kampersal said. “We have heart and soul, but just that little extra oomph, that kid who will do whatever it takes to sort of succeed. Not cheap, but in terms of just like would step on somebody’s hand to take a dollar bill out of it if necessary. Like really tough, tough kids. So, we’re trying to redevelop that culture here to make sure it’s a consistent, competitive environment every day.”
Colgate sits just a point behind Princeton in the standings, but because it doesn’t play the Tigers, its playoff destiny is not entirely within its control.
“We’d love to have secured a spot to this point, but that obviously isn’t the case,” coach Greg Fargo said. “We’re just going to try and control what we can control at this point like we’ve been doing the last few weeks. Head into this weekend hoping to get four points and see what happens. In order to have a chance to get to the playoffs, we’ve got to worry about ourselves and not about what everybody else is doing.”
The Raiders fell victim to a common theme — a slow start. They were winless in their first nine league games.
“For us, I feel like it’s almost been the tale of two seasons really,” Fargo said. “I felt like when we went in late November, early December, that St. Lawrence-Clarkson trip was pivotal for us. Even the tie against Dartmouth the weekend before was a big one for us. Things for us I felt like they really started to come together at that point. Prior to that, it’s easy to look at our schedule, there were some lopsided losses there and some points that we dropped along the way. Losing to Yale and Brown both in late October, those are points that looking back at it we would love to have. We let some other games slip away from us. It’s taken awhile to get our players comfortable with how we want to play and knowing that we can’t take periods off. I think we did more of that in the first half. I think there is a result of everybody getting to know the systems and understanding what our expectations are. We’re seeing some more wins in the second half of the year, which has been good for everybody.”
Fargo wants his team to play a very basic, fundamental style.
“We talked about it a lot where our best defense is playing in their end,” he said. “In order to be successful, we have to manage the puck. We have to get it in deep, and start to establish some play down low in their end. I think for us, that’s been the key to our success here in the second half of the year, trying to outwork some teams down low. Get pucks to the net with some traffic. Sometimes, it’s not as flashy as maybe people would like, but I think our results in the second half have shown that when we play that way, good things can happen for us.”
Colgate closes the season on the road at Union and RPI, and to have any chance of improving to eighth, it would seem that a sweep would be mandatory. Should the Raiders fall short, despite posting some impressive results that include a win at Clarkson and a tie with SLU, they need look no farther than a 1-3 record against Yale and Brown, two teams currently below them in the standings.
“We’re pleased with the progress since day one,” Fargo said of his first year at Colgate. “It’s been a really fun year for our team. To see the growth and to see how our team is learning how to win and how we need to play, to me, that’s been very exciting to watch. I have to give a lot of credit to our team for how far we’ve come. Our goal all year has been to make the playoffs, so I can’t say that I’d be completely satisfied without being there. But we’re all competitive, we all want to win, and I think for us that would be as far as our program goes, not having been there the past three years, that would show some growth. But looking back on it, sure, it’s great to see that we’ve come a long way. I think that we’d like to be rewarded with earning a playoff spot after our play this weekend.”
The Bears had control of the their playoff future until losing at Harvard on Tuesday night. Now, Brown needs to use the home ice of Meehan Auditorium to its advantage on Friday against Princeton and Saturday versus Quinnipiac and hope for some help. Coach Amy Bourbeau doesn’t think fatigue will be a factor for her team, despite the extra midweek game necessitated by the recent blizzard.
“We have one of the larger rosters in the league with 25 kids,” she said. “We’re pretty healthy. I don’t think we’ll be tired. I honestly think a game over another practice this late in the season is much more exciting to our group.”
Bourbeau is looking for an extra boost against Princeton, a team that defeated the Bears, 6-1, on Feb. 8.
“We didn’t have a great game against them the first go around. It was probably one of the weaker games of the season for us, so I think we’ll be extra motivated to play this game. It also falls on a perfect weekend for us, as we head into Senior Weekend. There’s a lot more energy and excitement around supporting our seniors at this time, so in a period where we’re really fighting for playoffs, we get to do it in our home rink during Senior Weekend.”
As we see throughout the sport, certain match-ups are problematic.
“For us playing them, it is always a challenge because they do have skilled offense and they do have speed,” Bourbeau said. “That brings us a little bit of trouble at times. It is one of the teams that gives us some trouble, so we have to be extra prepared for that.”
Like its conference foes, Brown has struggled with not having a full lineup in some games, but for the Bears, the problem has not been injuries, but rather international competitions for senior forward and leading scorer and current ECAC Player of the Week Alena Polenska.
“It’s tough; we don’t get Alena as much as we’d like,” Bourbeau said. “She was out for two and a half weeks the first semester, and then two and a half weeks the second semester, which is a lot of hockey. She is a captain and a leader. She’s highly skilled. She meant everything to us in the RPI game. She had four points out of the five that we scored. She brings the offensive side of things that our team desperately needs, so she’s a huge factor for us.”
Offense is key for the Bears, who have gotten excellent goaltending from the tandem of junior Aubree Moore backed by senior Katie Jamieson.
“Through the first half of the season, we were excellent defensively,” Bourbeau said. “We were in the top 10 in penalty kill; we were in the top 10 in the country in team defense. So it was rock solid, and all through that first semester we were losing all of our games by just one goal. We were so close, but we just couldn’t put that puck in the net. Then we shifted our focus the second semester trying to get more offense, which we have. Our power play has gone off and our offense in the number of goals that we score has certainly increased, yet we sacrificed a little bit of defense, so it’s kept us kind of where we are in the standings because of it.”
Despite holding 11th place, the Bulldogs have a shot at qualifying for the postseason because of having a game in hand on the competition. That game is at Harvard on Tuesday night, making the shot a bit on the long side. Prior to that contest, Yale hosts Quinnipiac and Princeton.
“Last year at this point, we certainly were out of the playoff picture, so I think we made some strides in the right direction here, too,” coach Joakim Flygh said. “Our kids know the importance of every game, obviously. I think our kids walked away from this past weekend a little disappointed, too, being up in both games in the third period and not finding a way to close them out. I think that’s a learning process for us. It’s been a little more painful than we’d like it to be, but I think our kids know what the outcome is going to be here in the last three games. I think that if anything we’re going to get a great effort out of them. That’s all we can really ask for at this point, is to work hard and try to play within our systems and find success that way. Hopefully, our goalie can steal a game or two for us.”
Goaltending has been one of the team’s strengths.
“My first year here we had Jackie Snickeris, who was tremendous,” Flygh said. “Last year, we struggled a bit in net. This year, Jaimie Leonoff has been lights out for us most nights and certainly given us a chance to be in a lot of games, and be in games in the third period, and given us an opportunity to be competitive.”
On the offensive side, Yale is highly dependent on youth, with four of its top six point getters being rookies.
“I think parts of the second half you’re seeing that it’s a different environment for them to play college hockey, and they’ve been tired in certain games,” Flygh said. “They can go through a high school season knowing that certain games don’t matter that much and get to kind of put their feet up a little bit, where when you get to the college level, every game matters so much. Kids are bigger, stronger, faster, so there’s no opportunities to take a shift off. Like any freshman, they’ve definitely gone through their ups and downs, but overall, I’ve been pretty pleased with them as a whole.”
That has been further complicated by injury problems causing players to miss significant games, including Lynn Kennedy, 17 games, Emily DesMeules, 19, and Ali Austin, 24.
“We lost Jackie Raines, who’s been our leading scorer for the past couple years,” Flygh said. “She had hip surgery in the fall, and is taking the year off to conserve her eligibility. When you’re a little bit challenged to score and you lose a kid you rely on a lot, it certainly hurts us. Jenna Ciotti is another girl that has been good for us that got a concussion early in the season last year and unfortunately is not playing because of it. It’s chipped away at our depth, too, because we felt pretty good going into the season thinking everyone is going to be healthy and then we’ve had to deal with three major injuries up front. Added to that, now too we have Janelle Ferrara hurt. Unfortunately, Steph Mock got mono two weeks ago and she’s done for the season because of that. It’s something I’ve been pretty used to since I got here. We’ve had a ton of injuries.”
Despite the adversity, the Bulldogs have improved, although it isn’t obvious due to the advances made by other teams as well.
“I think overall this is probably the most competitive our league has been in some ways, if you look at the results,” Flygh said. “The teams are still placed in similar positions as they have in the past, but on a day-to-day basis in games, I think they’ve been a lot more competitive overall. There haven’t been too many blowouts in our league play this year, and I think that’s certainly a testament to the league just getting more competitive.”