ECAC Playoffs: Final Four by Jayson Moy
In the voice of the one and only Jim McKay …
"It’s time to go to the Adirondack Mountains, and the cozy town of Lake Placid. Here we will see an intense drama unfold when four teams do battle for the little cup known as the Scotty M. Whitelaw Trophy.
"Here we find three of the last four ECAC tournament champions — Cornell, RPI and Clarkson — and a team that was in the championship game two years ago: Princeton.
"The battle begins in earnest on Friday afternoon. On the line is not only the trophy, but an automatic bid to the Big Dance."
ECAC Semifinal No. 1 No. 6 Princeton (18-10-4, 11-8-3 ECAC) vs. No. 1 Clarkson (26-8-0, 17-5-0 ECAC) Friday, 4 p.m., 1980 Olympic Ice Arena, Lake Placid, N.Y.
Regular Season November 8: @ Clarkson 5, Princeton 2 February 14: Clarkson 2, @ Princeton 1 (OT)
"We’ve got some unfinished business," said Clarkson head coach Mark Morris.
Two weeks ago it was the regular-season ECAC title that was unfinished; this week it’s the ECAC Tournament Championship. Clarkson won the first ECAC tourney championship, held at Lake Placid in 1993, but have not fared well since.
In 1994, the Golden Knights lost in the semis to RPI, settling for a win in the consolation game. In 1995, it was the same, but this time the semifinal loss was to Princeton. Last year, they lost in the semis to Cornell, and also lost the consolation game.
That is, the situation in Lake Placid has gone downhill for the Knights ever since the first time they were there.
Each season, Clarkson makes a strong run in the second half, only to disappoint. But this year, that run is even better: just one loss (to Vermont) since January 3, moving Clarkson all the way up to number-two in the nation in the final Around the Rinks/USCHO poll.
In the past, it’s always been about the superstars. But this year, Clarkson is doing it with defense, Todd White’s 34 goals notwithstanding.
"You’re not going to win hockey games if you don’t have solid goaltending and play well in your won end," Morris said, "And I think the key to our success this year has been being patient. It’s the same kind of hockey Princeton is playing right now. In their own zone, they’re playing like men."
Princeton’s only trip to Lake Placid came two years ago, and it lost to RPI in the championship game. That was the Tigers’ only Final Four appearance ever — until this year.
Princeton’s 18 wins so far ties a school record set in 1995, and the Tigers are a better team top to bottom — and healthier — than the one that got to the final game two years ago.
There’s a good goaltending match brewing, between Dan Murphy of Clarkson and Erasmo Saltarelli of Princeton.
Murphy allowed only three goals last weekend, and that was plenty good because the Knights put up the offense to support him.
Saltarelli played the better part of three games against Vermont, and was named the ECAC Player of the Week, primarily for his outstanding play in game three. He made 18 saves in the third period of that contest, helping Princeton hold on and advance.
Saltarelli alternated in net at the beginning of the year, but has now started seven straight games. His longtime friend and teammate, captain J.P. O’Connor, says Saltarelli has become the backbone of the team.
"I’ve been playing with Erasmo a long time," said O’Connor. "The more important a game, the more pressure on him, the more people heckling him in the stands, the better he is. That’s just the way it goes. The more playing time he gets, the stronger he gets. Over the last three or four games he’s just demonstrated (it)."
Princeton continues to get offense from a lot of places when it needs it. Team goal-scoring leader Scott Bertoli (15) returned for Princeton last weekend after sitting out with a groin injury, and had two goals and two assists.
Jean Verdon added two goals within one minute on Friday against Vermont, breaking a 1-1 tie. Verdon, however, hurt his shoulder Saturday, and missed Sunday’s game. His status is questionable.
But the forward depth is what impresses with Princeton. The Tigers don’t lose a step by inserting role players like freshman Brad Meredith and sophomore Brian Horst — two more players who buy into the Tigers’ smart, aggressive forechecking system.
"Don Cahoon has gotten his guys to play hard and he’s maximized their talent," said Morris, who attended Sunday’s decisive quarterfinal game three between Vermont and Princeton, and was impressed with the way the Tigers handled the nationally-ranked Catamounts.
"Their staff does a great job recruiting a lot of players and developing them. Some of them were borderline scholarship kids that were a litle bit tempting, but not enough to jump right out and offer them a full scholarship.
"But they’re playing like full scholarhip players (now). They’re moving the puck smartly, they’re banging people, they’re playing with a purpose. And that’s what playoff hockey is all about. They’re pretty dangerous.
"They’ve won all the battles around the net (against Vermont). They won every one-on-one battle along the boards. They’re just not the same team we played a couple of weeks ago. They are so sharp; I’ve never seen them this sharp before. I haven’t seen a team playing as well as they’re playing right now."
When you talk Clarkson offense, you have to talk Todd White. White added five points to his impressive Hobey Baker resume in the series over Yale.
You also have to mention Jean-Francois Houle and Chris Clark. Houle’s 51 points this season have been unexpected, and Clark put two power-play goals on the board this weekend.
"Dan Murphy has been solid," said Morris about his team. "We’re also happy with our defensive pairs. They seem to be playing in sync. I’m happy with the offense, because outside of Todd White, we don’t have a superstar."
PICK: Clarkson is on a roll — no one will dispute that. But the last four years at Lake Placid have not been kind to the Golden Knights. Can Princeton defeat Clarkson for the second time in three years here? The speedy forwards of Princeton make it tougher for the Golden Knights, especially on the larger ice surface. I feel an upset coming on … Princeton 4 Clarkson 3
ECAC Semifinal No. 2 No. 4 RPI (19-11-4, 12-7-3 ECAC) vs. No. 2 Cornell (19-8-4, 14-6-2 ECAC) Friday, 7 p.m., 1980 Olympic Ice Arena, Lake Placid, N.Y.
Regular Season December 6: RPI 4, @ Cornell 2 February 22: Cornell 5, @ RPI 2
That two teams picked to finish in the middle of the pack are now in the semifinals at Lake Placid is a testimony to the coaching prowess of Mike Schafer and Dan Fridgen.
Each coach won an ECAC Tournament in his first year: Fridgen two seasons ago, and Schafer last time. And they’ve shown that was no fluke. Both will merit consideration for the ECAC Coach of the Year, though this game is probably a little more important to both of them.
Playing both games last weekend for the Engineers, Joel Laing defeated Union twice and was named the ECAC Rookie of the Week.
"It’s a situation where you have a hot goaltender, and you want to ride him and not change the karma," Fridgen said.
"He played real well against Princeton (March 1)," Fridgen added. "He came up and he made the big saves when we needed him to. It was a little bit of a concern for me knowing that he hadn’t had back-to-back [starts] on any weekend during the season."
For the Big Red, there should be little doubt who will be in goal. Jason Elliot was the ECAC Tournament MVP last year, and allowed only three goals against Harvard on the weekend.
Don’t expect much to change for the Big Red or the Engineers. Both teams will just go out and play the same game that they have been playing all season long.
"You don’t have to change the philosophy of what you do," said Schafer. "You have to force turnovers and play defense. You have to stick to your own philosophy and wait patiently."
"If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it," added Fridgen. "Every game is a new game, and we don’t see ourselves changing now. I think if we can do anything, we can play better. There’s a game to play, and you can’t be fat and happy about it. You have to play 60 more solid minutes."
Cornell is returning, and looking to repeat. The Big Red have 16 players back from last year’s championship squad, although a core of top-scoring seniors graduated — players like P.C. Drouin, Brad Chartrand and Mike Sancimino.
RPI is looking for its second championship in three years, but returns only five players from the last title team. It’s a matchup of youth and experience on Friday.
"It’s going to be real exciting," said Laing about Lake Placid. "One-game shots are real exciting. I can’t expect anything more."
"We’ve won it (in 1995), and we want the younger guys to have that feeling," said RPI forward Eric Healey. "We’re going to have a lot of fun when we get up there, (but) we’ll play to win."
PICK:Red signals war, and this game will be one. Both teams have proven that they can play defense and win. Who does it better? It will boil down to balanced scoring. Cornell 3 RPI 2
Consolation Game (Saturday, 1 p.m.)
Should be a feisty one between RPI and Clarkson. Clarkson makes it 3-0 over RPI this year. Clarkson 5 RPI 3
Championship Game (Saturday, 4 p.m.)
This is a tough defensive battle, so expect a low score. It comes down to goaltending, and Jason Elliot has the experience from last year to help him through. Cornell repeats. Cornell 2 Princeton 1
Correction: In a recent feature story about St. Lawrence, it was incorrectly stated that Saints forwards Joel Prpic and Paul DiFrancesco were suspended by head coach Joe Marsh last year for disciplinary reasons.
Prpic was in fact suspended, but by the school, for a variety of reasons culminating with a fight in downtown Canton.
DiFrancesco was not involved in any way.
Forward Derek Ladouceur did miss the same game as Prpic, but it was because of injuries sustained in the fight, and not due to a suspension of any kind.
USCHO regrets the error, and apologizes to DiFrancesco and St. Lawrence.
In pointing out the error, St. Lawrence head coach Joe Marsh said of DiFrancesco, "He’s one of the greatest individuals we’ve ever had here.
"He is on the all-time team as a kid who’s beyond reproach."
Jayson Moy is the ECAC Correspondent for U.S. College Hockey Online.
Copyright 1997 Jayson Moy . All Rights Reserved.
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