Quantcast

Warning: there be math here

Well now, it’s been quite some time since I posted in my own blog (rather than the ECAC Hockey blog)… but I was bit by the curiosity bug, and it led me to do some quick research on D-I hockey as a whole rather than strictly the ECAC, so I figured it was time to resurrect this sucker.

The question on my mind, specifically, was about league “tightness”: a lot of coaches talk about how competitive their own leagues are, how their conferences are – top to bottom – the most talented or challenging or whathaveyou. How tight their leagues are, is what you’ll hear most often. So I did some mathematical querying to find out which leagues really are the tightest at the wire.

Here’s what I found. (If math scares you, consider yourself warned. Nerds: rejoice, for there be numbers on t’other side of yonder headline!)

And the Pepto Prize goes to…

…no surprise to me or my readers: ECAC Hockey. Try to shoot bias-sized holes through my methodology all you like, but I simply plugged the numbers and reported what spat out.

ECAC Hockey’s final regular-season standings have had the lowest standard deviation (symbolized by sigma, “σ”) score of any league in three of the last four years. To translate for the non-stat-minded, the lower the score, the tighter the league as a whole. One σ from the mean (average) will by definition cover 34.1 percent of the population… so if σ for a league is 8.0, for example, then over 68 percent of the league’s points (and likely, teams) will fall within eight points of the average.

This year, σ for ECAC Hockey – albeit with four games left apiece – is a measly 4.75. Meanwhile on the other end of the spectrum, Atlantic Hockey’s is 8.91; Hockey East’s, 7.29; CCHA’s, 7.22; and the WCHA’s, 6.05. That doesn’t mean there aren’t exciting races going on in those leagues… it just means that there is likely to be more at stake for more teams in the tighter conferences right now.

σ in recent history

The largest σ in the last four years was the CCHA’s 12.99 last year. Yawn. The tightest at the end of the regular season was ECAC Hockey’s 5.91 in 2007-08 (narrowly edging AHA’s 5.93 that same year).

The ECAC has had the lowest average σ over the past four (nearly five) years, as mentioned, with a 6.30 score. Here are the other leagues’ average σ over the same period:

  • Atlantic Hockey: 8.30
  • CCHA: 10.62
  • The long-lost CHA: 7.55
  • Hockey East: 8.36
  • WCHA: 8.4

I imagine a few of you will find this interesting, while many will absolutely not. It’s not meant to say that any league is any better than any other. All it implies is that there are likely to be more and/or tighter races for postseason position in some leagues than in others, and that’s really all I set out to find.

If I Ran the World (Part 2)

First, let’s revisit the last topic: realignment. The primary concern seems to be the amount of long-distance travel that the “new” WCHA would suffer, so let’s see if we can tweak it a bit.

Second Iteration: Break Up Minnesota!

Let’s try making things a little easier on North Dakota and Wisconsin – because, of course, those programs are so persecuted already. Let’s re-unite Minnesota with UW and NoDak, for the sake of the rivalry if nothing else. That said, moving one team won’t make a huge difference, so we’ll have to pluck another program from the Land of 10,000 Lakes and sacrifice the Alaskans. How about St. Cloud?

Air Force
Colorado College
Denver
Minnesota
Nebraska-Omaha
North Dakota
St. Cloud
Wisconsin

Northern Hockey Conference

Ergo…

Alaska
Alaska-Anchorage
Bemidji State
Lake Superior
Michigan Tech
Minnesota-Duluth
Minnesota State
Northern Michigan

Moving on to a new topic: the NCAA tournament.

The Great Debate: National Champ, or Tourney Champ?

I approve of the current 16-team size of the NCAA tournament, so there’s really only one big tweak to make: when it comes to the NCAA’s, only a deluded or thoroughly ignorant individual would mistake the tournament champion for the indisputable best team in the country. That’s not to say that the title-winners aren’t the best, but the system is in no way set up to insure such a result.

It’s not just hockey, either – the other obvious comparison is the squeak-ball (basketball) bracket, which also follows the single-elimination, non-series format.

So what’s the best solution? Let’s consider all the factors.

Series vs. Singles

The obvious drawback to playing single-game rounds is that the better team doesn’t always win. Series wouldn’t promise as much either, but it gives the truly dominant squads a chance to prove as much. Everyone has bad days: just ask the Michigan Wolverines, or Minnesota Gophers.

The big positives are that the tournament can advance much more quickly in its current state, and that upsets are undeniably exciting. (That said, would we have enjoyed at least one competitive game at last year’s Frozen Four if, say, New Hampshire, Denver or Cornell had advanced instead of RIT?)

The biggest problem with a best-of format is that it takes time – a whole weekend for a tightly played three-game set. Risk of injury increases, not to mention the rest and studying time that the student-athletes lose. The diminishing number of upsets might make the tournament less dramatic as well, but that is a secondary concern.

Series would generally give us a more predictable result, but it’s never a sure thing (just see Brown’s improbable tear through the ECAC Hockey playoffs last spring). There would be more fans through the gates per round, and who ever complained about more hockey? At least those in attendance would be guaranteed a minimum of two contests for their troubles.

Proposal: Looking Back, Moving Forward

As recently as 1991, the first round and quarterfinals were played at the higher seed’s home rink; only the Frozen Four site was neutral. I think we should take a cue from the past and reinstate the high seeds’ privilege.

Play a best-of-three (so it would only take one weekend) at the higher seed’s home. It would cut travel expenses and all but guarantee strong attendance figures, which has been a primary concern at recent (neutral) regional sites. We’d be down to four teams after two weeks, which brings us to the Frozen Four. Here’s where things get sticky.

The Frozen Four: Making it Work

In order to keep the championship weekend a true all-encompassing event for NCAA fans, it doesn’t make sense to have it come down to only two teams. By now, the four best (or at the very least, hottest) teams in the nation have qualified, and we’ve taken the same three-week period as we currently have. So let’s admit that three more best-of-three series wouldn’t draw the same attention, even if it seems moderately hypocritical to discard the series when the stakes are greatest.

Question of Width

What’s to be done about Olympic vs. NHL sheets? Of the 58 D-I rinks, 40 sport NHL dimensions (200′ x 85′). Only seven (Alaska, Northern Michigan, UNH, Colorado College, Minnesota, Minnesota State, and St. Cloud) have Olympic sheets, leaving 11 in between (mostly 200′ x 90′, but there are some deviations: Harvard’s rink is 204′ x 87′, for some reason, and RIT and Minnesota-Duluth have smaller-than-NHL sheets).

Should the NCAA insist on NHL ice for the Frozen Four? If so, what’s the trickle-down effect for the regionals? Personally, I like Olympic ice for the wide-open hockey that it breeds… but that said, over two thirds of all D-I programs are played on 200′ x 85′ sheets (or smaller). I don’t think the majority should be punished, but hey, if you don’t want to play on the big ice, maybe you should just secure the home-ice advantage.

What Would Have Been

Here’s how last year’s first round would have looked under the aforementioned proposals, with the actual victors bolded:

Alaska at Boston College
Yale at North Dakota
Alabama-Huntsville at Miami
Michigan at Bemidji State
Vermont at Wisconsin
Northern Michigan at St. Cloud
RIT at Denver
New Hampshire at Cornell

Only four favored teams won; think the field would’ve looked differently had the higher seeds played at home? Me too.

If I Ran the World (of D-I Men's Hockey)

It’s mid-summer, that time when hockey burns the faintest despite all of our collective passion… but let’s face it, it’s tough to get wrapped up in the game on ice when the concrete is doing all it can to keep from melting.

So in accordance with the time-honored tradition of presenting off-season hypotheticals, I give you my New World Order of D-I hockey: how the game would look if I could re-tool it here and now.

The Conferences

There are soon to be five D-I men’s conferences: Atlantic Hockey, the CCHA, ECAC Hockey, Hockey East, and the WCHA. These will envelop 57 of the 58 current programs, as we all know of Alabama-Huntsville’s dismal plight. But I’ll say it now; these are not ideal conferences.

It wouldn’t be right to simply segment D-I into geographic compartments; that is disrespectful to the histories of the leagues and their respective programs. We should strive to preserve long-standing rivalries and affiliations, but there are some current arrangements that simply don’t make sense. Time for some tinkering.

Regional Concerns

First off, the two largest groupings of programs are in New England and Great Lakes states, with numerous other nearby outliers in New York and Minnesota, for example. (Yes, I am aware that both of these states actually touch Great Lakes, but not in the same way as Ohio or Michigan or Wisconsin, so kindly keep it to yourself.)

Instead of multiple different leagues, I’d prefer to organize the D-I landscape into something more resembling divisions… operating under the same rules, with roughly the same number of teams, so everyone has something resembling an equal shot at earning an auto-bid to the NCAA tournament. I’m shooting for six leagues of eight teams apiece, plus one league with 10.

Because there are so many teams bunched up in these areas, it should be relatively easy to maintain some traditional ties without stretching too far.

ECAC Hockey

A dozen teams is too many, but whom do you cut?

Clarkson and St. Lawrence seem like easy candidates due to their location, but they wouldn’t be easy fits in any other league, either. You can’t remove any of the Ivies, despite Princeton’s status as the southernmost school in the conference by far. Rensselaer and Union have strong traditional ties to the league too, not to mention they’re right in the heart of its geographic footprint, and while Quinnipiac is the newcomer to the pack, it’s already got a buzzing rivalry with nearby Yale and would demand a partner-in-exit anyhow.

There is no win-win arrangement here, but I think the least painful decision would be to sever the North Country teams from the league. Hence:

Brown
Colgate
Cornell
Dartmouth
Harvard
Princeton
Quinnipiac
Rensselaer
Union
Yale

Atlantic Hockey

This will be a bit different than its current arrangement. Gone are Air Force, Canisius, Mercyhurst, Niagara, RIT and Robert Morris, all of whom are quite far afield of the heart of the conference (and its namesake coastline). We need to add a couple programs to the mix, so in come Merrimack and Providence from Hockey East — two smaller schools that have a lot of history, but simply haven’t been able to compete at the same level as Boston University, Boston College, New Hampshire, etc. Thus:

American International
Army
Bentley
Connecticut
Holy Cross
Merrimack
Providence
Sacred Heart

Hockey East

This powerful league is thus left with what has been its strongest eight in recent years:

Boston College
Boston University
Maine
Massachusetts-Lowell
Massachusetts
New Hampshire
Northeastern
Vermont

Northeastern Hockey Conference

This new splinter league will admittedly face tougher travel logistics than the two aforementioned conferences, but that is the unfortunate byproduct of programs that fall outside the primary D-I footprints. Most of these teams were culled from the outskirts of Atlantic and ECAC Hockey leagues, but we’re also adding Ohio State. I hate to put an impediment between OSU and Miami, but it’s the program that makes the most sense for this budding league.

Canisius
Clarkson
Mercyhurst
Niagara
Ohio State
RIT
Robert Morris
St. Lawrence

Now then, moving out west…

The CCHA

Out go Alaska, “t”OSU, Lake Superior and Northern Michigan; in comes Alabama-Huntsville… because the Chargers need a home.

Alabama-Huntsville
Bowling Green
Ferris State
Miami
Michigan
Michigan State
Notre Dame
Western Michigan

The Northern Hockey Conference

With 16 more teams to go, this is where we run into some serious travel expenses and a tough pack of programs to divide. Time to split what’s left. It’s hard to call this the WCHA, because it’s not going to be the most western of the new conferences… even though the temptation is there, because the heart of the WCHA will be in this new league. We keep the Minnesota schools in a pack for travel and rivalries’ sake, but at the huge expense of cutting Wisconsin and North Dakota out — Minnesota-Twin Cities’ biggest rivals.

Bemidji State
Lake Superior
Michigan Tech
Minnesota-Duluth
Minnesota
Minnesota State
Northern Michigan
St. Cloud

The WCHA

Here we come to what should be called the Frequent Fliers Conference. It’s not pretty on the budget, but it’s packed with some high-caliber programs.

Air Force
Alaska
Alaska-Anchorage
Colorado College
Denver
Nebraska-Omaha
North Dakota
Wisconsin

Final Rundown

With a mere 14 games required for a balanced schedule in most leagues, that leaves as many as 20 non-conference dates open under the current restrictions… so even if Clarkson doesn’t have RPI on its conference slate, it could easily get a date or two with them every year, the same way USC does with Notre Dame in football. Same with Minnesota-North Dakota or -Wisconsin, and the same goes for Army-Air Force.

Not that any of this amounts to anything at all, but it was a fun exercise, and I hope to hear some feedback that contains more than a string of profanities (as enjoyable as those are to decipher through our censoring program).

More to come as the mood strikes. Happy off-season to all!

Might We Propose? Potential Rules-to-Be

The NCAA Ice Hockey Rules Committee submitted 22 proposed amendments to the rule book, to take effect at the commencement of the 2010-11 season and to become eligible for review following the 2011-12 campaign. The panel also recommended three experimental rules – which would only be enforced in non-NCAA contests – and noted two “future considerations”, to be revisited at a future date. Here are those items, courtesy of Rules Committee Chairman Forrest Karr and the NCAA:

Rules

Rule: Stopping play when video review is imminent

Explanation: In games with video review, when a close play occurs at the goal and the referee is certain he/she will review the situation, play shall be stopped when no advantage is gained, similar to a stoppage for an injured player.

Rationale: Currently, there is no rules support to stop play in these situations. Allowing some referee discretion would save potential issues with the opposing team scoring a goal, penalties assessed, etc.

Rule: Half Shield allowance (mens play only)

Explanation: To work with the NCAA Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sport to research and study the use of half shield facial protection and the potential impact on NCAA competition.

Rationale: The committee believes that the technology of the half shield facial protection has improved in recent years and plans to work collaboratively with the mens college hockey community and the sports medical and athletic training community to determine if this type of protection is appropriate for NCAA competition. Many other similar age levels (Olympic competition, juniors, etc.) allow the use of the improved half shield protection.

Rule: Delayed penalty enforcement

Explanation: If the non-offending team scores during the delayed penalty, the penalty would still be enforced and that team would receive a power play.

Rationale: Would provide the non-offending team an extra opportunity to create some scoring chances.

Rule: Contact to the Head

Explanation: Alter the language to read: A player shall not target and make contact with an opposing players head or neck area in any manner or force the head of an opposing player into the protective glass, boards or goal cage.”

PENALTYMajor and a game misconduct or disqualification at the discretion of the referee.

Rationale: This is an important safety issue and the committee is concerned about some violent contact that has occurred in the game and caused injury. To make this rule more clear, any time a player targets the head or neck area of an opponent, it must be a major penalty and a game misconduct penalty at a minimum. This rule is not intended to cover incidental contact or contact with the head that occurs that should be a minor penalty (e.g., unintentional high stick, body check where the contact is initiated at the shoulder or torso, but the follow through makes some contact with the head). Clear direction is being provided here to assist officials, coaches and players with this rule.
The committee expects a heightened awareness to direct contact to head, but it should be noted that many contact to the head fouls in previous seasons that were minor penalties should remain minor penalties (for example, an incidental high sticking foul would remain a minor for high sticking).

Rule: Defensive team shoots puck out of play from defensive zone

Explanation: When a delay of game penalty is not called, the team that shoots the puck directly out of play would not be allowed to change its players.

Rationale: This would provide some penalty for a defending team that shoots the puck out of play directly. If the puck is ruled to be deliberately shot out of play, a delay of game penalty may still be issued.

Rule: Faceoff location – Shot off of goal and out of play

Explanation: When the puck is shot by the offensive team and it hits the goal cage and goes out of play, keep the faceoff in the offensive zone.

Rationale: The offensive team seems to be penalized unfairly for this faceoff location.

Rule: Hand Passes

Explanation: Require that a hand pass must be deliberately directed to a teammate or create a gained advantage for this rule to be in effect.

Rationale: Too many hand passes are being called that are not truly hand passes. For example, a defenseman is trying to hold the line at the offensive blue line and the puck deflects off of the players glove and goes to a teammate in the neutral zone. This was not deliberately directed and therefore should not be a violation of the hand pass rule. This change will assist officials to properly administer this rule.

Rule: Hybrid Icing

Explanation: New rule that would mirror a system used in some junior leagues where the linesmen judge which player would touch the puck first if an icing is in effect.

Rationale: To add an element of touch-up icing used in professional levels and eliminate some whistles in the game without compromising safety.

Rule: Shorthanded team not allowed to ice the puck

Explanation: Enforce icing at all times of the game.

Rationale: This change would remove a contradiction in the rules that allows a team that has violated the rules in one area to violate another rule in order to compensate for being shorthanded. This would provide more scoring opportunities for the power play team and could encourage more skilled play from the defensive team.

Rule: Obtainable pass

Explanation: Remove this provision in the rules.

Rationale: This rule has created more difficulty for linesmen to judge icing calls and some teams have used this rule to their advantage without making a skilled play.

Rule: Overtime

Explanation: To have goalkeepers change ends of the ice before the overtime period begins.

Rationale: This rule would make line changes more difficult for both teams and will lead to scoring opportunities and a reduction in the number of tie games.

Rule: Overtime

Explanation: To have goalkeepers change ends of the ice before each overtime period when games are played to a winner (20 minute, sudden death periods).

Rationale: This rule would continue the progression that is natural to the game. The overtime periods are intended to be an extension of the game; teams change ends during regular play and this would be consistent.

Rule: Awarding goals

Explanation: To allow a goal to be awarded during a breakaway situation with an empty net if the player is fouled.

Rationale: This has occurred in a handful of games and a goal was awarded as obvious and imminent. The committee believes this was the right call, but rules support was not clear.

Rule: Use of timeout to change players

Explanation: If a team ices the puck or creates a stoppage that does not allow a change of players and the

Last Train out of Albany

The NCAA hasn’t given up on Albany, but ECAC Hockey has.

This weekend marks the last time for the foreseeable future that the league will host its championship tournament in the Empire State’s capital city. Next year? Atlantic City … the city that’s “always turned on”. Multiple public-address announcements publicized the change-of-venue during the weekend’s games at Albany’s Times-Union Center, home of the last seven conference tournament finales; each announcement was met with vociferous disapproval from the crowd.

As distasteful as the town’s slogan may be for a family-oriented association like the ECAC Hockey league, the move was all but necessary for a league that is hungry for greater national attention. The championship weekend’s attendance hasn’t topped 16,500 since the spring of 1999, when both North Country teams (St. Lawrence and Clarkson) played for the crown in relatively local Lake Placid. Albany’s draw peaked at 16,217 for the weekend – and 8,637 for the title game – five years ago, when Cornell beat Harvard 3-1 to hoist the trophy.

Much of the problem rests in the championship quartet. Popular regional program Rensselaer didn’t qualify for a single ECAC Final Four in its eight years in the Capital District, and Union – in nearby Schenectady – only just made it this year. Since the conference has no control over the qualifiers, commissioner Steve Hagwell and the ECAC Hockey general committee are trying a different tack: go to the alumni, instead of the other way around.

Hagwell & Co. hope that Atlantic City will draw more successfully from the heavily populated alumni base in the greater New York City area, and Boardwalk Hall offered suitable facilities and the most attractive incentives package of those received by the league. ECAC Hockey approached practically every reasonable site in the Northeast, according to Hagwell, and A.C. was ultimately deemed the best option for not only attendance factors, but fiscal ones as well.

The commissioner remains tight-lipped about which venues a) responded to the league’s inquiries and b) what packages were offered, but he did mention that popular options such as Lake Placid; Manchester, N.H.; Bridgeport, Conn.; and Glens Falls, N.Y. were approached.

It obviously remains to be seen how well Atlantic City will host this tournament, but it should not be dismissed out-of-hand as an irresponsible or knee-jerk decision.

ECAC Hockey: First-Round Pairings

Here are next weekend’s first-round matchups:

No. 12 Clarkson @ No. 5 St. Lawrence

No. 11 Brown @ No. 6 Rensselaer

No. 10 Dartmouth @ No. 7 Quinnipiac

No. 9 Harvard @ No.8 Princeton

Byes:

No. 1 Yale

No. 2 Cornell

No. 3 Union

No. 4 Colgate

ECAC Hockey Update: One Game Left

With one game to go, things are looking much clearer in ECAC Hockey. Here’s how things are shaking out. (Current standings are listed here.)

First-Round Byes are Set

Yale has clinched the No. 1 seed in the tournament and at least a share of the Cleary Cup.

Cornell has secured the second seed and has a shot at sharing the regular-season crown.

Union is locked into third place.

Colgate earned the final first-round bye in defeating Rensselaer, and St. Lawrence falling to Dartmouth.

Hunt for Home Ice

Rensselaer is playing for fifth place, but can’t fall far – sixth is the worst-case scenario for the Engineers, who own the tiebreaker over current No. 7 Quinnipiac.

St. Lawrence can jump Rensselaer for fifth, and holds the tiebreaker over both RPI – which is a point ahead – and Quinnipiac, which is a point back. Seventh is the basement for the Saints at this point in time.

Quinnipiac can only improve on its seventh seed, holding a three-point lead over eighth-place Harvard. There’s not much room for improvement, though: sixth is the ceiling.

On the other hand, Harvard – with 17 points – is desperately fighting off Princeton, Brown, and now Dartmouth, who each lurk a point back, for the final home-ice spot in the first round.

Scratching and Clawing

Brown and Princeton are joined by Dartmouth with 16 points. They may all end up in the ninth-11th spots, but they each have an opportunity to advance to a home-ice slot as well. More on this group in a moment.

Clarkson is doomed to finish last in the charts.

Potentialities

Making Sense of Big Messes

If Cornell wins and Yale loses, Yale takes the top seed but the programs share the title of co-champions.

If Quinnipiac wins, St. Lawrence ties and Rensselaer loses – knotting the lot at 22 points – the Engineers will take the No. 5 spot by virtue of it’s five points (two wins and a tie) against the other two. QU would take sixth (two wins, four points) with SLU falling to seventh (1-2-1 record against the two).

The Quest for Eighth

If Princeton and Brown tie, and Harvard loses, those three will each have 17 points. Bruno would climb into that coveted eight-spot with a 2-1-1 record against the other two, followed by the Tigers (1-1-2) and Crimson (1-2-1).

If Harvard ties, Princeton wins and Dartmouth wins – 18 points each – the Tigers climb to the top with the 3-0-1 applicable record. Harvard (2-1-1) finishes ninth and the Big Green (0-4-0) tenth.

Still going: if Harvard ties, Brown wins and Dartmouth wins – again, 18 each – the Crimson get to stay at home with the 3-1-0 record. The Bears and Big Green each went 1-2-1 against this mini-field, but Dartmouth won the head-to-head, clinching ninth.

The Grand Finale

If Harvard loses and Brown, Princeton and Dartmouth all tie, it’s a four-team cluster with 17 points. The Tigers get the nod for eighth with a 3-1-2 record in this fray, followed by the Crimson (3-2-1), Bears (2-2-2) and Green (1-4-1).

I hope I haven’t missed anything, but knowing me – and the state of this wild league – it’s entirely possible. Good luck and good hockey to all!

Sunday Morning's ECAC Hockey Playoff Picture

For those who can’t wait for Thursday’s column, a quick update on the lay of the land. Yale is alone atop the pack with 30 points, thanks to Cornell’s blown lead at Dartmouth … here’s where everybody else stands.

Yale is locked into a first-round bye and a top-three finish. Two more points clinches the top seed, three points claims the Cleary Cup alone.

Union and Cornell are also assured top-three finishes and first-round byes, and play each other on Friday at Lynah. The squads tied in their Messa matchup, so their next game looms large.

Rensselaer and Colgate are tied for fourth – the last bye – with 22 points apiece, and face off in Hamilton on Friday night. Colgate can finish as low as seventh, since Quinnipiac owns the head-to-head tiebreaker, while RPI can technically sink to sixth. Neither, however, can catch up to a third-place spot.

St. Lawrence is in sixth place with 21 points at the moment, but can climb as high as fourth or fall as far as eighth. The Saints are at home this weekend, where they are 7-2-4 this year.

Quinnipiac can finish anywhere between fifth and 11th, but bridging the three-point gap separating the Bobcats from the Saints will require a Herculean effort.

Harvard, too, has a wide swing, able to finish between sixth and 11th. The Crimson possess an edge on the record-versus-top-four tiebreaker against sixth-place SLU, but to finish that high Harvard will have to sweep and the Saints will have to get swept.

Princeton and Brown each lurk a point behind Harvard, and can finish between seventh and 11th. Both own head-to-head tiebreakers over the Crimson, and they play each other in ‘Jersey on Saturday … Brown won the first meeting.

Dartmouth is in 11th right now and can fall no lower, but can climb as high as seventh.

Clarkson is stuck in 12th.

Handicapping the Field

Yale hits the road against Princeton and Quinnipiac. You have to like the Bulldogs’ chances of hanging on to a co-championship at the very least, though Saturday’s edition of the War on Whitney will be a good test for the offensively gifted but defensively challenged Elis.

The winner of Friday’s Union-Cornell game will claim the head-to-head advantage, though both teams must certainly realize that they’re likely playing for second place, or at best a share of the regular-season title. With Cornell hosting the Dutchmen and bye-seeking RPI – and Union playing Colgate on Saturday, who is also seeking that final bye spot – neither team has anything remotely resembling an easy path this weekend.

Aforementioned Colgate and RPI are gunning for fourth place, with each team in control of its own destiny: win, and get a week off. St. Lawrence is hot on these squads’ tails – and holds the tiebreaker over each – but a one-point lead is like a one-goal lead: it’s yours to lose. Just like Cornell and Union, RPI plays at Colgate and Cornell this weekend while Colgate takes on Union on Saturday. No easy games, that’s for sure.

St. Lawrence may have the “easiest” challenge this weekend, hosting Dartmouth and Harvard with a very realistic shot at fourth place. The Saints have been great at home, and these Ivy travel partners haven’t exactly been setting the world on fire this year. As noted, the Saints hold head-to-head tiebreakers over both Colgate and RPI.

Quinnipiac should play for postseason momentum, not necessarily for sixth place: three points is a lot to make up in two games. Friday’s tilt against Brown may well be a first-round preview, with Brown in 10th and the Bobcats seventh. That preview bit holds true should QU slip, too … Brown would look good for ninth, while the ‘Cats would fall to eighth.

Harvard had a good chance to climb to seventh or higher going into last night’s game against Colgate, but a 4-2 loss leads the Crimson to look harder at the teams behind it than at those ahead. Brown and Princeton – both one point behind – hold the head-to-head over Harvard, and neither of them have to make Harvard’s grueling road trip to the North Country this weekend.

Princeton plays Brown at Hobey Baker Rink on Saturday, but first the Tigers tackle Yale while Bruno heads to Quinnipiac. Both teams have their eyes on stealing Harvard’s home-ice position, but doing so will probably require a three-point weekend.

Dartmouth has a shot at climbing the standings, but I don’t think that ranking is as important to the Big Green as momentum. Sure, a trip to Princeton is less desirable than – say – Boston, or the Capital District, but the picture is a bit muddy to try to play for an opponent.

And as for Clarkson? Well, the Golden Knights need to figure it out in a hurry, and are certainly praying that St. Lawrence finishes fifth – that would be the most fortuitous draw in history for a last-place team. A five-mile road trip for the North Country program? Yes please!

On Faceoffs and Playoffs

Last weekend, Union scored three goals in 6:29 to draw within 4-3 of host Harvard. The only problem was that the Dutchmen’s third goal, scored by defenseman and All-American candidate Mike Schreiber, lit the lamp with merely 3.4 seconds remaining.

Going for broke, Union coach Nate Leaman elected to keep goalie Corey Milan on the pine and set up his six skaters for the desperation draw at center-ice. With a center taking the draw, the five remaining Dutchmen lined up on the red line to the right-wing side.

The strategy was certainly unusual, if not ultimately successful.

“I didn’t have a time-out, and we didn’t have enough time to script it,” said Leaman. “That’s stuff you think about during the summer.”

Leaman preferred to keep us guessing at the design details of his “onside kick” formation, but he made up for his secrecy with a gem of a tactical tale from years past.

Relating a story from his days as a Harvard assistant, Leaman recalled a game against Yale when new Sacred Heart head coach C.J. Marottolo was still an assistant with the Bulldogs.

With a draw at the Yale blue line against the Bulldogs’ bench, Marottolo showed his genius as a tactician: the Blue & White won the draw, and the short-side winger promptly hopped the boards onto his bench. A player at the far end of the pine vaulted the dasher behind the oblivious Crimson defense, received a breakout pass and was off to the races on an uncontested breakaway.

Faceoff plays are often overlooked by the average fan, but sometimes those under-appreciated sets will positively drop your jaw.

ECAC Hockey Playoff Update

A Saturday afternoon amendment to this week’s “What We Know”: Yale beat St. Lawrence to knot the season series, negating head-to-head as a tiebreaker. Rensselaer beat Quinnipiac to take that tiebreaker, Union topped Princeton to claim the same advantage, and Brown beat Clarkson to wrest the head-to-head there. Cornell’s white-wash of Harvard gave the Big Red the season sweep, and Colgate’s tie at Dartmouth gave the Raiders the edge as well.

Final Standings Update

Clarkson (8 points) can finish no higher than 10th, therefore assuring a first-round road trip.

Dartmouth (12 points) and Princeton (14) can finish no higher than seventh.

Brown (15 points) can finish no higher than fifth – out of contention for the bye – but no lower than 11th.

Harvard (17 points) and Quinnipiac (18 ) can finish no higher than fourth, but no lower than 11th.

St. Lawrence (20 points each) can finish between fourth and ninth.

Colgate (20 points) can finish as high as third or as low as ninth.

Rensselaer (22 points) can finish between first and eighth, insuring the Engineers of a first-round home series, if not a bye.

Union (26 points), Yale and Cornell (28 each) have also clinched a bye week, but nothing more: either team could wind up as low as a No. 4 seed.

The State of ECAC Hockey: One Coach's Perspective

I called up one of my most dependable interviews, Rensselaer head coach Seth Appert, to get his thoughts on ECAC Hockey vis a vis its non-conference challenges. Well-spoken, affable and cerebral, Appert has proven himself time and again to be a great source when discussing the more nuanced aspects of the game.

A goaltender at Ferris State from 1992-96, Appert then served as an assistant coach at the University of Denver for nine seasons before accepting his first head-coaching position at RPI.

Brian Sullivan: ECAC Hockey teams seem to be struggling on the national stage, when it comes to wins and losses in non-conference games. Thoughts?

Seth Appert: Frankly, the number of non-conference games that we have plays into that as well. We play more non-conference games, so just by its nature we tend to lose some of those games. The non-Ivies, specifically.

BS: If you look at it, you’re playing 22 conference games, whereas the other leagues are playing 27, or mostly 28. So mathematically, one way of looking at it is that one of your league games is worth 25 percent more than any other league’s.

SA: Correct.

BS: So it makes sense that, through nobody’s fault, ECAC coaches are going to prioritize league games because they’re that much more important.

SA: Well, I don’t know if I’d say that. I think that they are important for everybody. They carry more value for us because you don’t have as much time to make up ground, I guess; you don’t have the potential of a two-game weekend against the same team to make up ground, either. But at the same time, I don’t think that teams in other leagues are saying that their league games aren’t as important, and, ‘We’re going to save something for our non-conference series next weekend.’ I don’t think that’s the case.

BS: Well not exactly that, but if you’re in another league, then you’ll have fewer non-league games, so therefore each one might feel a little more important.

SA: Well there’s that. I do agree with that. All league games are important; I don’t know if I’d say that our league games are any more important. They carry more significance because there are fewer games, but I don’t think they’re more important. I think everybody treats league games with a high degree of importance, but certainly there are pluses and minuses to the non-conference (situation). The plus is how many non-conference games we get, but the minus is, as you said, there are so many of them – everybody else has six of them, you can get a little more focus on those six – when we have 12-14 of them, it’s a bit more difficult I guess. But at the same time, when you have those 12 or 14 non-conference games you can use them to play a lot of premier teams from other conferences as well.

BS: Well that’s another problem. Generally speaking, there are some big-time matchups between ECAC teams and teams from other conferences. We’ve seen Harvard go out and play Minnesota, RPI has played three big Hockey East teams (as well as Michigan and Michigan State), but there are some other schools – not to name names – who seem to load up on weaker opponents … kinda like SEC football, where you’re looking for wins and an opportunity to build your team, rather than looking for big statement wins.

SA: Well that all depends on the coaches’ philosophies on how to build their teams. It doesn’t hurt you to play lesser-ranked teams, as long as you win!

BS: Well that’s the problem, is we’ve seen some teams … who have lost a lot of games to bad teams. It also seems like with the added focus on league games – with fewer of them to play – it seems like some of the coaches tend to use their non-conference games to tinker around with their lineups a bit more, play their second- or third-string goalies more, rest some of their players more. Do you think – even if you’re going to do that – do you think you should change your schedule to where you’re playing more non-league games either on the heels of, or just prior to, a bye week, so there’s a little more focus on those games?

SA: Well we don’t have a lot of control over that; your schedule is what it is. You have certain open weekends, certain league weekends, certain non-conference weekends. So there’s not a dramatic amount of control that you have over that. The fact of the matter is that the non-Ivy teams in the ECAC have to play a lot of non-conference games in October: I think this year we played eight in October this year, all non-conference games.

BS: Is it your personal philosophy to go out and take on as many big-time opponents as possible, or do you feel that you do need a couple of “weaker” programs in there to give yourselves a break?

SA: I think you need a mix, but I’d prefer us to play a high degree of difficulty non-conference schedule. We went to Alaska, we played Alaska and Alaska-Anchorage, and while AA may not be at the top, they’re a strong team, and Fairbanks has a very good team. We played UNH, we played UMass, we played BU, Michigan, Michigan State … I think we’ve played some good hockey teams. Sacred Heart has won, I think, 11 games in a row right now (actually a 12-game unbeaten streak, 10-0-2). Army just beat and tied Air Force, who was a final-eight team in the national tournament last year. It’s not necessarily that those games are games that hurt your PairWise and RPI standings; you need to intelligently pick those teams that you play, because you want a good strength-of-schedule.

When you’re talking non-conference, sometimes it’s your best guess. You may think it’s a good team, but two years down the road they could end up not so hot, and so losing to that team could kill your RPI, and winning might not benefit you. A lot of non-conference scheduling is guesswork – look at us this year. New Hampshire, Boston University and Michigan don’t have the records they would normally have. UNH is on a run, and they’re on top of Hockey East, but they have a poor non-conference record, so our strength-of-schedule doesn’t look – right now – as strong as I’d anticipated it looking. BU is below .500, New Hampshire is just starting to pull away from .500, and Michigan is just above .500. Now normally at this time of the year, those teams might be 17-8-8, so those things factor into it and you don’t really have control over it (as a coach making a schedule).

BS: How far in advance to most major and mid-major programs set their schedules?

SA: Probably two to three. Maybe three-to-four for tournaments, things like that, but for the most part it’s two-to-three years out in the future.

BS: When it comes to tournaments that you’re not hosting, is that something where you have any say at all over who you play? Can you say that you prefer not to play another ECAC Hockey opponent, for example?

SA: You might not accept an invitation if they have the opponents up front. We’re going to a tournament – and I’d rather not speak in specifics – in the future, because we know that in the first round of the tournament we’re going to get to play a top-half Hockey East team, a team that consistently finishes in the top half of that league. So we know that the first day of the tournament will draw a real strong non-conference opponent, so those things factor into the decision.

BS: That’s in the contract, that you’ll get to play them?

SA: Correct.

BS: Here’s a two-part question: first, do you believe that the ECAC is hurt, at the end of the year – RPI-wise and PairWise(wise) – by its parity, and by beating up on itself?

SA: I’ll say this, we’re not if we take care of business non-conference.

BS: Well, you’re jumping the gun a bit; that’s Part 2. Basically, do you believe that the league looks weaker statistically by the parity that we have, playing against each other?

SA: No, I don’t think so. For instance, look at the WCHA right now. I think that our conference is the best in the country, top to bottom. I do. I think that our depth and our competitiveness on a night-to-night basis – there are very few free games in our league, you know? Where you win – or lose – going away, and I find that extremely impressive. But with that being said, the reason I say no to that question, is let’s look at the WCHA right now.

Everything’s cyclical, but right now the WCHA has a bunch of teams at the top of the PairWise. But they also have a bunch of teams where you could throw a blanket over the top of six teams, and say you couldn’t tell who was going to finish first and who was going to finish sixth in that league. All of those six are beating each other up, so none of their league records look spectacular. None of them are Miami, where they’ve only lost one league game. But that parity isn’t hurting them, beating each other up isn’t hurting themselves, because they won a lot of non-conference games this year.

So our league, beating itself up, makes us better for the end of the year – but we need to take care of business in the non-conference games. We did a good job of that last year, and our numbers bear that out, and that’s why we had three teams in the (NCAA) tournament, and almost a fourth with St. Lawrence being the first team out.

BS: Do you feel that there’s any way that the league can help lay the groundwork for a stronger non-conference schedule?

SA: We talk about that a lot in league meetings, and I’m not an expert on those things. There’s probably a lot of kids on our campus at RPI who can tell you more about the statistical probabilities and all that than I can. But there are some coaches in our league who are very good at it, and they bring in outside people to look at those things as well. I guess from my perspective – and I’ll do whatever’s necessary to get more league teams into the tournament – if there was anything we could do, that made rational sense, I’d certainly look at it. Right now, my sense of it is, for my program let’s go play the most games we can against the best teams in the country. For the last three years we’ve gotten our nose bloodied, in a big way, but this year we’re starting to turn the corner. The last three years we’d play those teams and play good, and lose, and play good, and lose. It would take a toll on us, from a confidence perspective, and now we’re starting to see the benefits from playing those games. Now when we play those types of teams, we’re ready for those kind of games. I don’t know about our record against teams of “big-name” quality, but I know that this year we’ve beaten UNH, we’ve beaten Michigan, we’ve beaten Boston University. Close loss to UMass, too. Now we’re used to playing in those games, and we’re starting to see some success in those games.

BS: I guess my last question for you is, among hockey people – folks you’re friends with who have carried over from your playing days and your time spent coaching in Denver – do you get questions where people just have total misconceptions about the state of the ECAC and its strength?

SA: Ummm .. I’d say yes, but there’s less now than there was. That’s because there are a lot of programs in our league that are doing very good jobs not only of coaching, but also of recruiting. I look at what Princeton’s done, I look at what Yale’s doing, I look at what Union’s doing, I know Cornell’s been there for a long time, St. Lawrence as been there for a long time. So I look around our league and I see programs that are continuing to get stronger right now. So I think the answer to the question is yes, but at the same time I think there are less and less of those, because we’re doing a better job in non-conference games. We got three, almost four teams to the national tournament last year. Look at the highly drafted kids that entered into our freshman class around the league last year, so I think those things are all starting to change opinions about us.

For those of you who went through all this trouble to get my Beanpot Consolation prediction: Northeastern 3, Harvard 2. I simply can’t place any confidence in the Crimson at all right now; it was all I could do to pick them over Brown in what will feel like a must-win game to Teddy Donato’s crew.