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Union College: It’s got a ring to it

First and foremost, congratulations to the Union College Dutchmen for their national championship. There is little more to be said about the program’s rise, the team’s resilience, the coaches’ influence, or the way the team played in Philadelphia and indeed all year long than what has been already said. Union is the only team to enter the offseason with a win (there hasn’t been just one such team in at least 15 years, if not longer), and becomes the 21st member of the NCAA Division 1 Men’s Ice Hockey championship fraternity.

Yale staked the claim; Union builds the foundation

Around this time last season, I wrote an emotional, stream-of-consciousness, thoroughly sincere piece about ECAC Hockey’s title-game monopoly, and what it meant not only for the schools involved, but for the entire ECAC community after a 24-year championship drought.

Last April, Quinnipiac – 30-7-5 and the No. 1 team in the nation at the time – faced Yale (21-12-3), a team that stunned college hockey with upset wins over Minnesota, North Dakota, and UMass-Lowell on the road to the finale. QU hadn’t lost to Yale in two seasons (4-0-1), and nearly ended the Bulldogs’ season with a consolation-game win in Atlantic City three weeks prior.

We all know what happened next; there are some clever t-shirts out there that succinctly sum up Yale’s perspective on the matter. Yale had its first men’s hockey title, the greater New Haven hockey scene had a lot to crow about, and the ECAC had climbed itself out of the rut. Yet, there were detractors.

In a perfect world, I myself would prefer playoffs and championships to be decided in best-of series rather than one-and-done contests; there is too much opportunity for luck and circumstance to affect the outcome in the current format. Would Yale really have beaten Minny, UND or UML in best-of-threes, much less all three of them? Were the Bulldogs really the best team last year… or just the best (or luckiest) team on the ice in four late-March, early-April contests? Chances are about 100 percent that a lot of people out there are glumly nodding along with these rhetorical questions. Even if ECAC Hockey “deserved” (however you interpret that word in this context) the national crown last year, was Yale really the league member most worthy?

Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to take anything away from the 2012-13 Yale Bulldogs or the program as a whole. They played inspired hockey when it mattered most, and that’s all you can ever ask of a team. Heck, an ECAC team could theoretically finish a season with a national championship and a 10-34 overall record (since, as in many leagues, all teams make the playoffs), so criticizing Yale’s road to the top is at best a philosophical exercise; at worst, sour grapes.

Union’s championship vine, however, bears no foul fruit: The Dutchmen did not score any true upsets on their way up the podium. Union finished the season with the best winning percentage in D-I (.810, 54 points better than second-place Minnesota; last year, Yale finished seventh at .635), the most wins (32, three ahead of Ferris State), the fewest losses (6: Minnesota had 7, Boston College, 8), and a 17-game unbeaten streak (16-0-1). They boasted the country’s second-highest average scoring margin (+1.67; BC had +1.75), a top-five defense (2.14 goals-against per game, fourth), and its second-best offense (3.81; BC, again, was first at 4.10). Bluntly put, critics don’t have a leg to stand on when it comes to this year’s D-I champs.

The point

Despite some evidence to the contrary, this is not a compare-and-contrast bit. This is the milder-mannered sequel to last year’s aforementioned brag blog, in which I build upon my prior point:

ECAC Hockey is again the home of the national champion, and Union’s run should leave no doubt as to the veracity of the conference’s consistency and level of competition. In April 2013, the Yale Bulldogs fought for a plot on a plum piece of land that hadn’t seen an ECAC visitor in over a generation. The Blue & White planted the seeds, at least in the minds of many outside observers.

This year that land not only bore some exceptional fruit, but its resultant nectar spills light and effervescent into a crystalline flute. Cheers to the Dutchmen, and to all that was the 2013-14 college hockey season.

ECAC Hockey back on the national stage

Playing in its own back yard, Quinnipiac draws Providence

The Bobcats will play the Friars for the second time this year, the teams tying 3-3 in Hamden in late November. After so much time, there will be little to glean from that result – it was the weekend after Thanksgiving, after all – but some things that were true then remain true now: The Bobcats will keep a close eye on 19-goal scorer Ross Mauermann and his top feeder Nick Saracino; and QU will have to play a hard-nosed, gritty game to get enough goals past sophomore star Jon Gillies.

Providence was shuffled out of the Hockey East tournament in the semifinals, losing 3-1 to New Hampshire in Boston. UNH effectively buried the Friars with three second-period goals; PC’s only score came in the third. Beyond Robert Morris – making its first-ever NCAA appearance – Providence is the program that had the longest NCAA drought among this year’s qualifiers, last dancing on the big stage in 2001.

The Bobcats watched the selection show from home after dropping Friday night’s ECAC semifinal against Colgate in heartbreaking fashion, as Raiders Kyle Baun popped a game-tying, extra-attacker rebound past Michael Garteig with 55.6 seconds to play in regulation. Tyson Spink then sent QU packing one minute into double-overtime, denying Quinnipiac a shot at the Whitelaw Cup with a loss in the semis for the second year in a row. To be sure, the Bobcats will rise to the occasion Friday in Bridgeport.

It’s a re-Union party in Bridgeport

As has been noted prolifically on social media, the East Regional in Bridgeport will feel awfully familiar to long-time Union fans: All four teams have coaches on staff who once (or currently) coached the Dutchmen.

First-round opponent Vermont is coached by Kevin Sneddon (Harvard ’92), who not only won a national championship with current Harvard coach Ted Donato, but also coached Union for the five years prior to Nate Leaman’s tenure. Sneddon has a good thing going in Vermont, going 167-188-56 in Burlington with seven winning seasons, two NCAA appearances and a Frozen Four appearance (2009). Sneddon went 50-99-18 in Schenectady.

Leaman’s coaching record at Providence topped the .500 mark this year with a 21-10-6 season, boosting the former Union head coach and Maine assistant to 52-44-17 in the Ocean State. An eight-year leader in Schenectady, Leaman posted a 138-127-35 record with the Dutch, culminating in the program’s first Division 1 NCAA appearance in the spring of 2011… with current Union head coach Rick Bennett, among others, on his staff.

Finally, Quinnipiac assistant coach Bill Riga served five years under Leaman at Union, and has worked the last six seasons for Rand Pecknold and the Bobcats. While stats are hard to drum up for assistants, it’s hard to ignore Riga’s influence as a top recruiter… everywhere he’s gone, NCAA bids have seemed to follow.

As far as Union’s matchup Friday goes, the Dutchmen will key on Catamounts forwards Chris McCarthy (No. 3) and Mario Puskarich (No. 21). The senior-freshman pair has combined for 35 goals and 75 points over UVM’s 37-game season. An 11-6-3 record in early January dissipated in a mediocre second-half fog for Vermont, which went 9-8 over its most recent 17 games.

Raiders face a familiar foe

Colgate’s draw is even more familiar than some of its ECAC opponents: The Raiders have played first-round opponent Ferris State three times already this year, winning twice and losing once. True, the teams haven’t met since Jan. 4, but there should be ample tape-and-tendency knowledge to build from in both camps this week.

The Raiders took a step forward as a program last weekend, making it back to the ECAC Hockey championship game for the first time in 24 years. They couldn’t overcome Union’s all-around excellence, but Colgate nonetheless impressed as a NCAA-worthy club in a scratch-and-claw comeback win over an undoubtably worthy Quinnipiac team on Friday.

FSU started the year red-hot, holding a 17-3-3 record as of Jan. 11… the Bulldogs had my top vote in the USCHO Poll for a little while, and others joined me for a week or two as well. Their second half hasn’t been quite as torrid – 11-7 since then – but that’s a pretty decent pace all the same. The Bulldogs feature six players with double-digit goals, 14 with double-digit points, and a team save percentage of .927.

That 2-1 record might be good for a dash of confidence, but boy, Ferris State is no chew toy.

ECAC Hockey: The final chapter

Welcome to the final awful predictions of the 2013-14 ECAC Hockey season. I’ll be your guide on our final nauseating spin through Prognostication Pass, but be sure to bone up with Nate Owen’s quotes and insight in this week’s ECAC Hockey column. I’m just here to ice the proverbial cake.

By the way, if you don’t care about the picks, skip to the end for some bonus material.

Nate: Typically, Brian and I have gone solo each weeks with the picks. But what the heck; it’s the championship weekend, so I’ll jump in.

Friday, March 21

1 Union vs 4 Cornell 4:07
Cornell will be without senior and 20-point center Dustin Mowrey, and coach Mike Schafer admitted in this week’s column (link above) that the Big Red will be unlikely to “pump in four or five goals”. He ain’t kidding: The Red have only scored 18 goals in their last 11 games (6-5), and they were actually out-scored by Clarkson (5-4) in last weekend’s three-game series. For Cornell to win, the defense and senior goalie Andy Iles will have to be absolutely at their best. Meanwhile, Union has scored the same 18 goals in less than half the time: The Dutchmen did it in their last five games (5-0). The defense and both goalies combined to shut out four of Union’s last six opponents. So, Union is playing very well, and Cornell is playing with barely the slimmest margin for error.

To sum up what you’ve already presumed, I have a hard time seeing Cornell pull it out against a team as deep, hot, and consistent as Union. Dutchmen extinguish the Big Red, 4-1.

Nate: Michigan’s loss in the Big 10 tournament Thursday bumped the Big Red up to 15th in the PairWise, and a loss will lead to some nervous scoreboard watching over the weekend. It will be interesting to see how Cornell adapts to the big ice; the Big Red are 12-6-1 on Olympic Rinks since Mike Schafer took over as head coach. The Dutchmen enter the weekend red-hot; Union’s eleven-game unbeaten streak is tied for the best in the nation. I think Union advances to it’s third-straight ECAC Championship game.

2 Colgate vs 3 Quinnipiac 7:37
As noted in my column two weeks back as well as in Nate’s Wednesday write-up, Colgate has been a remarkably healthy team. This builds consistency and chemistry of course, and the Raiders’ 12-3-3 record in 2014 bears that out. The question mark on Colgate is on the front end: Since February, the Raiders have been hot and cold offensively, only once putting up three or more in consecutive games. As for their opponents, the Bobcats are – statistically speaking – one of the top teams in the nation, and they probably could have been even better had senior Jordan Samuels-Thomas not missed six games due to injury. It may seem odd to pin such importance on QU’s fifth-leading scorer, but the offense simply performs better when “JST” is in. His presence is either tremendous or terrifying depending on your affiliation, because he brings the boom as well as anybody else in the league. That influence truly swings the balance of power when his line is on the ice, as opposing puck-carriers feel a lot more pressure… which gives QU a lot more puck possession. In case you were wondering, QU beat Colgate 7-2 in Hamilton – with JST – in the fall; without him in last month, the Bobcats fell to the Raiders 3-1 in Hamden.

Don’t get me wrong: Samuels-Thomas is not the be-all, end-all of QU’s success, but the Bobcats are a different team with him in the lineup. A much better, much stronger, much more confident, and much scarier team. I like that team. A lot. Bobcats to the finals, 4-2.

Nate: I like Quinnipiac a lot, and wouldn’t be surprised to see them in Philadelphia next month. But, I like what Colgate has done in the second half. This is a young team, but they seem to be getting more and more confident as the year progresses. I might change my mind sometime during the four-hour drive to Lake Placid tomorrow, but I’m taking Colgate.

Saturday, March 22

1 Union vs 3 Quinnipiac? 7:37
If this indeed winds up being the title-tilt tandem, I just don’t know what to say, other than DO NOT MISS THIS GAME. It should be the dooziest of doozies. These teams split a pair of incredibly entertaining games: 6-4 Union in Schenectady was frantic and frenetic; QU’s 2-1 home win was an exemplar of solid defense and excellent goaltending. Ergo, I really don’t know what to expect… I suppose the traditional first-period feel-out, where neither side presses much, is likely; after all, a title is at stake between two teams that have already punched their NCAA tickets. At some point though, one of the many gifted playmakers on the ice will find enough space on the big sheet to test the keeper… and then we have a game. The Bobcats have better special teams than the Dutchmen, but Union goalie Colin Stevens has significantly better numbers than Q’s Michael Garteig. Honestly, those are the only major differences or edges I can identify. If this ends up being a special-teams battle – where the refs aren’t afraid to call penalties – edge goes to Quinnipiac; if the stripes swallow their whistles, I’d give Union the advantage.

Given that it’s the championship game, and I have to make a pick, I’m going to guess a low-penalty slugfest. JST aside, Union will like the five-on-five game against QU way more than playing the PP-PK game. Dutchmen, 3-2… I think!?

Nate: While I differed with Brian in the Colgate/Quinnipiac game, I’m agreeing with him here. Union over Colgate for the school’s third-straight Whitelaw Cup. A loss might not necessarily end the Raiders season;  they could stand to get an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, depending on how the rest of the conference championships shape up.

Bonus material

Nate and I will be in Lake Placid of course, and at some point this weekend we hope to sit down with ECAC Hockey commissioner Steve Hagwell specifically to ask him your questions. Therefore, submit some questions! You’ve got a few ways to do this: email me (brian.sullivan@uscho.com), Tweet me, or leave queries in the comments below.

Don’t miss our coverage this weekend: We will chat live with you folks through each game on our CoverItLive chat rooms, plus features and recaps for each contest. Come, watch the game with your laptop open and keep us company.

Also, be sure to check out the league’s handy little fan guide for all the relevant info on the event. Seriously, click the link. It’s not joke or trick or anything.

ECAC Hockey is headed back to the LP

ECAC’s final four is set

Congratulations to Union, Colgate, Quinnipiac and Cornell for their quarterfinal wins. Without further ado, Friday’s pairings:

(1) Union vs. (4) Cornell: 4:07 Union swept the season series
(2) Colgate vs. (3) Quinnipiac: 7:37 The teams split the season series

As wild as this league can be, it’s not so rare to see the four top teams advance to the conference’s final weekend: It happened just two years ago with Union, Harvard, Colgate, and Cornell. (1) Union edged (3) Harvard in the title game for its second Whitelaw Cup; the Dutchmen are gunning for No. 3 this weekend.

PairWise ramifications

For eight ECAC programs, golf season has begun again:

• Princeton
• Harvard
• Dartmouth
• Brown
• St. Lawrence
• Rensselaer
• Yale
• Clarkson

I wasn’t sold on Yale in the immediate aftermath of its Saturday elimination loss at Quinnipiac, but the Bulldogs have since fallen from 18th to 20th and are unlikely to move up the five or six spots necessary without, y’know, playing any more hockey.

The four remaining contenders are a mixed bag of NCAA shoo-ins and bubble-riders:

• Colgate and Cornell are 15-16 in the PairWise, respectively. Neither team can afford a semifinal loss, and it could very well be the case that only a league title would elevate either team to NCAA tournament qualification. Remember, there is no third-place game this year for better or worse (better, in my opinion), so there is even more at stake in Friday’s contests.

• Union and Quinnipiac – ranked third and sixth in the PairWise this morning – are all but assured NCAA berths. That said, even if we pretended that the league title doesn’t mean anything – and it definitely does for both programs – the Dutchmen and Bobcats would still be competing for more advantageous seeds, draws, and regional placements in the national tourney. So there’s that.

While we’re at it, let’s open the floor to bracket possibilities: Can anyone find a scenario in which Cornell or Colgate makes the NCAA field without winning twice this weekend? Use our handy-dandy PairWise Predictor and let me know using the comments section below! I look forward to playing around with it myself, as should all of you. It’s some good clean fun.

Notes ‘n stuff

• Broadcast notes, per ECAC Hockey’s tournament fan guide:

ECAC Hockey has partnered with Fox College Sports (FCS) to televise the 2014 semifinals and championship game March 21-22 at the 1980 Rink – Herb Brooks Arena, Lake Placid N.Y. Production shall be arranged by USA World Events, LLC.

Eric Frede will be the play-by-play announcer with Cap Raeder providing color commentary and Sonny Waltrous on the sideline.

Games will be on DirecTV as well. The channel location will be release the week of the championship.

FCS Atlantic on all other cable subscribers.

Following is an FCS channel finder to locate availability in your area.

http://fcs.channelfinder.net/start.asp

STREAMING

ECAC Hockey first-round and quarterfinal tournament games will be available for viewing by a global audience and be aired through www.ecachockey.com and America ONE Sports.

ECAC Hockey tournament games will be available for viewing by a global audience and be aired through www.ecachockey.com as well as http://www.americaonesports.com/partner_members.asp?id=407. Fans can watch all games from the ECAC Hockey tournaments on mobile devices as well as standard PCs and Macs. The games will be available on iOS devices as well as Androids.

Fans can either purchase a game for $9 (US) for viewing directly on a mobile device or purchase for viewing on a standard computer and add the mobile option for an extra dollar.

• As a reminder, this is the ECAC’s second go-’round in Lake Placid: The championship weekend was held here for 10 years before relocating to Albany for eight years, then Atlantic City for three. The ice surface is, understandably, Olympic-sized (200 x 100 feet) rather than NHL-sized (200 x 85)… all 12 league schools play their home games on NHL sheets.

• Union is looking to become the first back-to-back-to-back Whitelaw Cup-winner since Boston University won it four times in a row, between 1974-77.

• Commissioner Steve Hagwell has a conference call scheduled later today to discuss ticket sales thus far, fan buses, and related matters, so check back later for updates on that front. For the record, the ticket prices are set as such:

ALL-SESSION TICKET PRICES
Adult = $50
Junior/Senior = $40
*Students = $20

SINGLE-SESSION TICKET PRICES
Adult = $30
Junior/Senior = $25
*Students = $10

*Discounted Students Tickets will be available on campuses for the participating schools for the championship and at a designated student window at the Olympic Center Box Office.

Adult Ages: 13-64 — Junior Ages: 12 & Under — Senior Ages: 65 & Over

PREMIUM TICKETS
A limited number of special all-session Premium Seats are available by calling 518-523-3330 with access to the venue’s Hospitality Center.

PREMIUM ALL-SESSION TICKET PRICES
Adult = $175
Junior/Senior = $130

PREMIUM SINGLE-SESSION TICKET PRICES
Adult = $100
Junior/Senior = $85

GROUP SALES
Groups of 20 or more please call 518-523-3330 to qualify for a discount on any session.

Bonus section: Signings

Signing season has begun, coincidental with golf season, as it happens.

• RPI has lost two talented forwards to the professional ranks in sophomore Mike Zalewski (Vancouver) and junior Ryan Haggerty (New York Rangers).

• After initially believing that Yale senior forward Kenny Agostino had signed with Calgary – then questioning/retracting that info – it has since been announced that indeed, the New Jersey sniper has inked a pro contract with the Flames, who acquired his rights from Pittsburgh in last season’s blockbuster Jarome Iginla deal.

Any I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments section, or through Twitter.

ECAC Hockey picks: Quarterfinals

Overall: 71-47-12

It’s the second week of the playoffs in ECAC Hockey, with four berths in the championship weekend at Lake Placid on the line. Each series is a best-of-three, with all games starting at 7 p.m.

No. 10 Dartmouth at No. 1 Union

Season series: Union 2-0.

The Big Green were the only lower-seeded team to advance past the first round, using three third-period goals to beat Rensselaer last Sunday. Top-seeded Union is looking for its third straight Whitelaw Cup, and owns the nation’s longest unbeaten streak (8-0-1). The Dutchmen also haven’t lost at home in ten games. Dartmouth has shown plenty of life the last month or so, but it’s tough to go against the body of the work Union has put together this season. Union in three

No. 8 St. Lawrence at No. 2 Colgate

Season series: Colgate 2-0

This is the third time in the last five seasons these teams have met in the playoffs, with St. Lawrence holding  an 8-5 edge all-time in the postseason against Colgate. The Raiders defense and goaltending sparked a second-half surge that propelled them into second place, while the Saints’ defense and goaltending were black marks most of the season. Still, St. Lawrence played better down the stretch, and swept Brown at home last weekend.  Both teams have dangerous players on offense, and can push the pace up the ice. Saint Lawrence’s Greg Carey hasn’t scored as much lately, but the senior forward has the ability to take over game, while Colgate’s Tyson Spink has six goals in five career games against SLU. The Saints ended Colgate’s season last year in the opening-round; can the Raiders return the favor? I think they will. Colgate in three.

No. 6 Yale at No. 3 Quinnipiac

Season series: Quinnipiac, 1-0-1

It’s an early rematch of last year’s national title game and the ECAC’s third-place game. A Yale loss would likely end any chance of the Bulldogs repeating at national champions, while a win by Quinnipiac would send the Bobcats to their second straight championship weekend. QU  has dealt with some injuries recently, most notably forward Jordan Samuels-Thomas and defenseman Dan Federico. Bobcats coach Rand Pecknold doesn’t comment on injuries, so  there’s few updates on Samuels-Thomas or Federico. Yale’s defense has been strong this season, while freshman Alex Lyon has improved in goal as the year has progressed.  I’m taking the Bobcats, because I think they’re a little deeper at forward and also had a chance to get healthy over the bye. Quinnipiac in 3

No. 5 Clarkson at No. 4 Cornell

Season series: 1-1

While Quinnipiac/Yale and Colgate/St. Lawrence should features a lot of wide-open play, look for a tough, physical series between the Golden Knights and Big Red. That’s not to say each team doesn’t have their fair share of skilled players, but both are good at winning battles to the puck and playing along the boards. Each team also has a lot of talent on the back end, and size through the lineup. I think the difference is in goal.  The Big Red’s Andy Iles quietly had a very good regular season (2.20, .920), and is better than the Golden Knights’ Steve Perry or Greg Lewis. Cornell in three

Second-round matchups set

Two of the four series in the ECAC went to three games this weekend, with Clarkson and Dartmouth both winning  Sunday to advance. The Big Green were the only road team to win this weekend, rallying for a 5-4 win against  Rensselaer. It was the first time Dartmouth won when trailing after two periods in almost two years.

Here are the upcoming second-round series, including a national title game rematch in Hamden.

No. 10 Dartmouth at No. 1 Union

No. 8 St. Lawrence at No. 2 Colgate

No.6 Yale at No. 3 Quinnipiac

No. 5 Clarkson at No. 4 Cornell

Clarkson advances; RPI’s struggles continue

The Golden Knights hadn’t won an ECAC playoff series in seven years. That streak appeared to in danger of continuing after No. 12 Princeton won in overtime Friday. But Clarkson rolled 4-0 in Game 2, and then edged the Tigers 3-2 in the deciding game. Sunday’s game was the Golden Knights’ 20th win of the season, the first time the program has reached that mark since the 2007-08 season.

While Clarkson will make the trip south to Ithaca to face Cornell in round 2, the Engineers end the season with another disappointing home playoff defeat.

RPI hasn’t won a playoff series in Troy since 2004, when the Engineers swept Princeton in the opening round.

Bulldogs headed to Washington

Yale’s longest road trip this week won’t be for a game. The Bulldogs are set to head to the White House Monday afternoon to be recognized for the program’s first national title last season.  They’ll be recognized by President Obama along with Minnesota, last year’s women’s championship.  The event is open to the press and will streamed live on www.whitehouse.gov/live.

So long

It’s the end of the line for Harvard, RPI, Princeton and Brown. None of these teams are in any sort of position for an at-large bid, meaning the long offseason begins for the players and coaching staffs. Of course, it could be the start of some players’ professional careers, as seniors start to sign with NHL teams following the end of their collegiate season.

ECAC Hockey picks: First round

Let’s get right to the action… all games start at 7:00, unless otherwise noted.

12 Princeton at 5 Clarkson

Note: Saturday’s game begins at 7:30

Clarkson swept the season series against beleaguered Princeton, winning 4-3 in Jersey and 3-1 in Potsdam. Forgive my bluntness, but the Tigers look like dead meat: They have only scored three goals in their last four games, and haven’t mustered multiple goals in a game since Feb. 15 (a 7-5 loss at Yale). Princeton allowed 18 goals in the last two weekends combined. Clarkson is hoping that four points and strong defense in its last three games harkens a return to its mid-season swagger, but frankly, even a mediocre series from the Green & Gold should be enough to dispatch of a Princeton side that has never been healthy enough to synchronize. Clarkson sweeps.

11 Harvard at 6 Yale

Yale won the season series, 1-0-1, but also buried the Crimson in the non-conference meeting at Madison Square Garden in January. The Bulldogs are hoping to manufacture their first two-win weekend of the season, believe it or not, while Harvard will almost certainly require top play from its goaltender(s) and something more than the recent two-goals-a-game output of its sputtering offense. These teams have more than an historic rivalry in play, too: Just two years ago in Boston, Harvard came back to win a quarterfinal series against the Blue, two games to one. This has not been a dreadfully balanced rivalry lately, but Harvard head honcho Ted Donato always seems to dig a little something extra out of his squads come March. I see the Bulldogs prevailing, but not until Sunday night. Yale in three.

10 Dartmouth at 7 Rensselaer

If there’s an upset to be had in the first round, this is its likely setting. Dartmouth has rebounded admirably from a putrid 2-11 start, going 6-6-4 ever since. A .500 record may not seem like much, but considering the Green are 4-1-1 in their last six, I’d consider the team hot enough to tip host RPI. The wild card in this series may be the play of Engineers goalie Scott Diebold, who has played in 33 games this year and faced over 900 shots. The offense has been spotty, the defense tentative, and RPI looked readily victimized by quicker, more creative and dynamic Yale last weekend. The whole defensive concept will have to tighten quickly in order to keep shifty Dartmouth off the board. If this series remains low-scoring, I’d actually give Rensselaer the edge (despite conventional road-game strategy desiring tight-checking games)… if we hit five or six goals per game, I’m guessing the Green are ahead. Dartmouth in three.

9 Brown at 8 St. Lawrence

My oh my, just as Bruno got its legs going, they were cut out again in a pair of home shutouts last weekend. SLU is still a potent offensive team despite its somewhat porous defense and goaltending, and I’m not sure Brown can keep up if this series goes all track-meet on us. That said, an early goal or two for the visitors could knock the Saints back on their heels, especially considering that SLU’s team save percentage is .871… and that’s not even counting five empty-net goals against. So who’s mojo will come to play? Something’s gotta give: Either the Saints D/goalies will play better than their numbers, or Brown’s offense will turn last weekend into a distant memory. I’m not sure the latter is as likely as the former. SLU sweeps.

Gentlemen, start your beard-ing

The matchups

First, congratulations to Cleary Cup champion Union, who took the regular-season crown for the third time in four years (2010-11, ’11-12, and this season).

The Dutchmen are joined in their well-deserved bye week by second-place Colgate, third-place Quinnipiac, and fourth-place Cornell. Kudos, especially, to the Big Red for a tenacious rally against arch-rival Harvard; Cornell’s overtime victory secured the league’s final bye seed.

And now, the first round:

12 Princeton @ 5 Clarkson: Clarkson swept the season series, 4-3/3-1.

11 Harvard @ 6 Yale: Yale won the season series, 1-0-1, and also beat the Crimson 5-1 in a non-conference game at Madison Square Garden.

10 Dartmouth @ 7 Rensselaer: RPI swept the season series, 7-1/4-2.

9 Brown @ 8 St. Lawrence: Brown won the season series, 1-0-1.

Of moderate interest, none of the low seeds lucked into a local draw (e.g. 2009-10 Clarkson, which got to sleep at home between first-round “road” games at St. Lawrence). For those curious, the shortest trip of the first round belongs to Dartmouth (131 miles); the distance just slid in under Harvard’s trek to New Haven (134), though due to the directness of the route, the Crimson are likely to spend less time actually on the road.

On the other end of the spectrum, Brown will rack up nearly three times that mileage: It’s 360 miles from Providence to Canton. And last but not least, 12th-seed Princeton truly endures some last-place treatment with 386 miles of road between its Garden State campus and Potsdam, N.Y. Estimated travel time: Six and a half hours.

The one, the only, the PairWise

At this point, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Union is a lock for the NCAA tournament field, currently occupying the third one-seed in the rankings. Quinnipiac is looking pretty strong as well, but the algorithm is simply too sensitive for me to declare the Bobcats tourney-bound just yet (though I’m tempted to).

At the moment, Cornell is in a tie for 13th in the PWR, and holds an edge over Vermont in the Rankings Percentage Index (RPI). That’s a good thing. Unfortunately, the Red cannot afford to resign from the ECAC playoffs too early, or that 13 will turn into a 20-something in a heartbeat.

Colgate looks good at 16 – the Raiders are on the happy side of that burgundy line – but that line is deceiving. The Atlantic Hockey auto-bid/champion is almost guaranteed to hail from beyond the PWR’s top 16 (Mercyhurst is the AHA’s standings leader and strongest PWR presence at 34th), so that will bump the No. 16 program – Colgate – into golf season with nary a shrug. Raiders need to win a couple of series to solidify their at-large status.

Finally, Yale (19th) and Clarkson (24) are on the outside looking in. It may seem unlikely – especially for Clarkson – but I’m not ready to state definitively that either of them must win the Whitelaw Cup in order to qualify for the Big Dance. The Golden Knights would need a lot of help and a deep postseason run, but stranger things have happened.

Everybody else? Just win, baby.

Right time/wrong time

Who’s timed their hot streaks just right? Who’s at risk of free-falling right out of the 2013-14 season?

Hot…

Union is 8-0-1 in its last nine, now good for the longest active unbeaten streak in the nation thanks to Notre Dame’s OT upset of Boston College on Saturday. The Dutchmen aren’t so much building a fire as keeping it burning, having only lost four times since Halloween (23-4-2).

Colgate hasn’t put on the season-long laser show that Union has, but the Raiders’ 10-3-3 record since New Year’s is nothing to sniff at. The ‘Gate has only surrendered three goals or more in a game four times in that stretch.

Don’t look now, but 10th-place Dartmouth has only lost once in its last six games (4-1-1), and that defeat was the squeaker at Colgate on Saturday. If only the Green power play had been as effective as their penalty kill.

… not.

That thud you heard on Saturday was Princeton hitting the bottom. The Tigers are 2-12 in the second half of the season, and haven’t mustered more than one goal in any of their last four games (0-4). Injuries or not, it’s frankly a year to forget in the Garden State.

Harvard appeared poised to make another postseason run, but the last two weekends put a damper on those plans as the Crimson sputtered to a 1-3 record to close out the scheduled docket.

Brown is 2-7 since its January 31 dumping of Colgate; the Bears were also shut out in both games last weekend.

ECAC Hockey picks: Feb. 28 – March 1

Overall: 64-43-11

It’s the final weekend of the regular season in ECAC Hockey and the only spots decided are first (Union) and last (Princeton).Colgate has clinched a first-round bye, although the Raiders still can finish anywhere from second to fourth. Click here for a breakdown of all the possibilities for each team. All games are 7 p.m. unless noted.

Friday, Feb. 28

Rensselaer at Brown   

Picked to finish first by the media, RPI is eliminated from any chance of getting a top-four spot. However, both teams could clinch home ice this weekend. There are plenty of top-end scoring threats on each side, so secondary scoring could be essential.  Rensselaer wins       

Harvard at Colgate  

After platooning with Raphael Girard through the early part of the season, Harvard’s Steve Michalek has is unbeaten in four of his last five starts and has logged shutouts in two of them. But reigning rookie of the week Charlie Finn has come on strong for the Raiders as well, and I think Colgate has more weapons on offense. Colgate wins

Dartmouth at Cornell    

Cornell needs wins, not only for the conference standings, but for the PairWise as well. The last game between these teams ended with Dartmouth’s Eric Neiley getting a game disqualification at the end of overtime, so keep an eye on any carryover this at Lynah Friday. Cornell wins          

Quinnipiac at St. Lawrence      

The Bobcats are looking to snap a three- game losing streak compounded by injuries and a mini-scoring drought. St. Lawrence beat Quinnipiac in Hamden 3-2 on Feb. 8, and has been pretty solid this season outside of a brutal nine-game stretch in the middle of the year. QU is currently seventh in the PairWise, and I’ve got to think they’re a pretty solid bet for the NCAA tournament. Of course, that could change if their skid continues, but I think they’ll break out of it. Quinnipiac wins

Union at Yale     

Union wrapped up the school’s third regular-season title in four years last weekend, but don’t expect the Dutchmen to take the last two games off. That’s what coach Rick Bennett said, although he did mention the possibility of goalie Colin Stevens sitting for a game. Defending national champion Yale needs to put together some points if they want a first-round bye. Still, I’m not sure if a motivated Bulldogs team is enough to overcome the Dutchmen. Union wins            

Princeton at Clarkson     

The Golden Knights have struggled lately but even with their skid, they’ve still managed to win as many games in the second half (five) as the Tigers have won all season. Clarkson wins

Saturday, March 1

Union at Brown, 4 p.m.

The Dutchmen haven’t won at Meehan Auditorium since 2010. Union isn’t that far off from being undefeated – five of their six losses are by one goal, and the other was a two-goal decision with an empty netter. There are several scenarios Brown could be playing for on Saturday, but either way, I think the Bears continue the Dutchmen’s misery in Providence. Brown wins

Quinnipiac at Clarkson

It’s possible at by this point Clarkson will have been eliminated from any chance of getting a top-four spot. The Bobcats beat the Golden Knights 6-3 in a physical game in Hamden in February. That matchup was closer than the score indicated, as Clarkson overcame two early goals to tie the game, and had several potential goals reviewed. I think QU will head home with a sweep. Quinnipiac wins

Dartmouth at Colgate      

Like I said above, the Raiders need to pad their win total to get some cushion heading into the postseason. Dartmouth has played better over the last few weeks, but Colgate has been red-hot in the second half, especially recently. Colgate wins        

Harvard at Cornell    

Depending on Friday’s results, the Crimson could have the chance to play spoiler against Cornell. Either way, I think the Big Red should be able to neutralize Harvard’s speed and come away with a win. Cornell wins

Princeton   at St. Lawrence

The Saints blew out Princeton in New Jersey, so I don’t see any reason why they should lose to them at home. St. Lawrence wins

Rensselaer at Yale

There might be a shorthanded goal or two at Ingalls Saturday. RPI is third in the nation with seven on the season, while the Bulldogs set a school record with three against Princeton last weekend. Either way, RPI has won its last two games at Yale, and I think that will continue.   Rensselaer wins

Union clinches; Raiders on the rise

For the third time in four seasons, Union is the ECAC Hockey regular season champion.

The Dutchmen wrapped up the league title with a 6-2 throttling of St. Lawrence on Saturday. Union is on a seven-game unbeaten streak and has lost only three times since Nov. 9.

It will be interesting to see how head coach Rick Bennett and his coaching staff handle the final weekend of the season.  The Dutchmen are third in the PairWise Rankings but have had several injuries to key players throughout the second half.

I’d imagine most of Union’s regulars will play if healthy, but Bennett and his staff could cut back on some of their minutes, like they did with defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere, who didn’t play the final period Saturday against the Saints.

Raiders on the rise

Colgate closed last year with one win over the season’s final month. Head coach Don Vaughan said at the time it was a matter of a young team wearing down as the year progressed.

It’s been a different story for the Raiders this time around. Colgate swept Princeton and Quinnipiac on the road this weekend to move ahead of the Bobcats into sole possession of second place entering the final weekend. The Raiders are 9-2-3 in the second half, with one of those ties a shootout “win” over Minnesota in the opening game of the Mariucci Classic on Jan. 3. They followed that with a win over Ferris State in the tournament championship the next night.

“This certainly has a lot to do with maturity,” Vaughan said. “The start of the second half was really important for us in terms of confidence, when you can go on the road to Minnesota and beat the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country. And then guys just settled into their roles. In terms of chemistry, I can’t remember a team like this one that I’ve had in a long, long time. There are no egos in the locker room; they just get along so well.”

Tyson and Tylor Spink combined for five goals on the weekend, with Tyson getting his first collegiate hat trick Friday at Princeton. That 6-1 win snapped a three-game losing streak at Hobey Baker Rink for the Raiders, who enter the last weekend of the regular season on a five-game unbeaten streak.

Meanwhile, Quinnipiac has lost three league games in a row for the first time since November 2012. The injury-riddled Bobcats, who played this weekend without forward Jordan Samuels-Thomas and then lost defenseman Dan Federico against Colgate Saturday, head to Clarkson and St. Lawrence to close out the regular season.

Four teams and two spots

With Union and Colgate each locking up a first-round bye, that leaves four teams in contention for the final two top-four spots. Quinnipiac and Cornell are currently third and fourth, respectively, with Yale and Clarkson on the outside looking in.

A complete set of scenarios can be found here, but the Bobcats and Big Red each control their own destiny for their current spots.