This Week in the ECAC: October 23, 1998

Three ECAC teams have gotten their seasons underway already, and this weekend, three more begin the march towards Lake Placid.

Last weekend the conference earned a split with its Hockey East foes. Vermont’s late comeback was not enough to down New Hampshire, but Rensselaer shocked Boston University with an overtime win. In the process, the Engineers accumulated a bit of hardware, as indicated below:

ECAC Player of the Week — Danny Riva, Rensselaer ECAC Rookie of the Week — Matt Murley, Rensselaer ECAC Goaltender of the Week — Joel Laing, Rensselaer

In picks, the dynamic duo were the same as a coin flip last weekend.

Last week: 1-1 Season to date: 1-1, .500

This weekend sees the ECAC tangle with Hockey East again, as well as one series against the CCHA. It’s the second week of battling for bragging rights.

Colgate (0-0-0) at Northeastern (1-1-0) Friday, 7:00 pm, Matthews Arena, Boston, Mass.

Colgate finished the 1997-98 season in the midst of one its most disturbing slumps in some time. This weekend marks the Red Raiders’ first chance to redeem themselves for last year’s late-season debacle that saw the team eliminated after two games against Harvard in the ECAC quarterfinals.

Unfortunately, the team has picked a difficult challenge in Hockey East foe Northeastern. The Huskies have two games under their belts, and don’t appear as young and inexperienced as many thought the lineup–sans Marc Robitaille–would look come the start of the 1998-99 season. Granted, a weekend split with Bowling Green doesn’t necessarily translate into a national championship or even HE contention, but it has given Northeastern an edge over Colgate who has yet to meet competition out of the intersquad ranks.

This weekend’s action will also most likely give the hockey world a first look at rookie Jason LeFevre, the highly touted netminding recruit out of Hotchkiss. The newcomer will need solid support in front, since he will no doubt be christened with numerous blasts from the sticks of Northeastern’s Billy Newson, Todd Barclay, and Roger Holeczy, who have figured into six of the Huskies seven goals this season. [For more on Northeastern, please refer to "Pops" Hendrickson’s Hockey East Preview].

Senior forward Jed Whitchurch, a 1997-98 ECAC Honorable Mention selection, will also get his first taste as Colgate’s go-to scorer now that last year’s 23-goal scorer, Dru Burgess, is no longer around to shoulder the offensive load. Perhaps the most interesting player to watch will be junior Andy McDonald, who must also step up his play in the offensive zone.

This matchup should be interesting since it pits two questionable yet potentially dangerous squads against each other. Last year at this time the Red Raiders were ranked in the top ten, but that national billing proved short-lived as the team responded poorly to the pressure of being a frontrunner. Starting the 1998 season as a dark horse, things should be quite different for Colgate, especially if LeFevre lives up to his advance press as one of the most talented netminders in the nation.

Picks: Northeastern is a seasoned Hockey East team, which, although still young across the board, gained invaluable experience during last year’s Cinderella run. Factor in the added bonus of having two games behind them and it spells a "W" for the Huskies. The Red Raiders put up a valiant fight, but the Huskies notch a Friday night victory over the ECAC. Northeastern 4, Colgate 3

Northern Michigan (2-0-0) at Clarkson (0-0-0) Friday – Saturday, 7:30 pm – 7:00 pm, Cheel Arena, Potsdam, NY

This season, Clarkson — despite the gaping hole left in net by the graduation of Chris Bernard and two-time All-American Dan Murphy — has once again been picked to finish atop the ECAC race. The Knights’ opener against a tough, albeit unpredictable, Northern Michigan team in Cheel Area will be a good test of the accuracy of those polls.

The goaltending factor will most likely remain a mystery regardless of who gets the starting nod this weekend. Morris’ notable handling of the Murphy/Bernard situation the past two years has proven that the 11-year coach has no fear of shaking things up between the pipes. Then again, with arguably one of the strongest defensive corps standing in the way of opposing offenses, Morris has some leeway in finding a first-string netminder.

That physically intimidating group of blueliners is led by sophomores Kent Huskins and Willie Mitchell, last year’s ECAC Co-Rookies of the Year, and will be the essential element to any Clarkson success against Northern Michigan [For more on the Wildcats, see Paula C. Weston’s CCHA preview.]

While Mitchell has never been shy to let loose from the blue line, veterans like junior Philippe Roy and senior Aaron Gates will provide a stay-at-home style that will complement, and in many instances save the younger, aggressive defensemen.

If Clarkson struggles, it will stem from the offensive question marks that may dog the team in the early months. Replacing 38 percent of last year’s scoring will be a difficult challenge for Morris. Look for Co-Rookie of the Year Erik Cole to score early and often with Ben Maidment and Matt Reid adding fuel to the offensive fire. Maidment finished second on the team in scoring last season with 11 goals and 32 points, and there is no doubt that the senior gained confidence during last year’s race to the ECAC finals in Lake Placid.

If all of its components deliver like they have in the past, Morris and Co. should have no trouble lighting the lamp, keeping opposing shot totals low and when all is said and done the team should walk away from Cheel with a season-opening victory. The only X-factor is that which stands between the pipes.

Picks: With two solid wins over Miami already in hand, Northern Michigan presents a formidable challenge to the very green Golden Knights. Nonetheless, in the end the polls will stand true to form and although it will be a battle in Potsdam, N.Y., Clarkson wins one and Northern wins one. Clarkson 4-2, Northern Michigan 5-3.

St. Lawrence (1-1-0) at Merrimack (0-0-0) Friday – Saturday, 7:00 pm, Volpe Center, North Andover, Mass.

Well, if there was a team that wanted to debunk preseason doubts, it would have to be St. Lawrence. A second-place finish at the Ice Breaker Invitational at the University of Minnesota, which included a stunning 6-4 win over the host team, was not expected from the Saints. The almost-upset over Boston College in the championship game was merely the icing on the cake for Joe Marsh and his motley crew.

The story of the weekend was goaltender Eric Heffler, named the tournament MVP after notching 74 saves in the two contests. Heffler has always been considered a strong goalie, but he has been without sufficient offensive support from the rest of the team. Therefore he has invariably lingered in the shadows of such ECAC netminders as Cornell’s Jason Elliot, Harvard’s J.R. Prestifilippo, Union’s Trevor Koenig, and even the goaltending battle between Dan Murphy and Chris Bernard at Clarkson. Perhaps Eric Heffler has signaled to the ECAC that this will be his year.

"It was great to see Heff come away with a win after another outstanding game in net," Marsh said. "He had some big nights against top competition last season, but we couldn’t score enough goals to make him a winner. [At Minnesota] we were able to give him some goals to work with and he had a great game."

Due in part to impressive performances by veterans John Poapst, who netted two goals against the Gophers, and Bob Prier the Saints gave Heffler a newfound offensive cushion in Minnesota. The following night, St. Lawrence engaged in a tight checking contest against Boston College that remained scoreless until late in the second period. Al Fyfe’s first collegiate tally turned into a wasted effort as the Eagles scored two unanswered goals to secure the victory. Heffler, who collected 28 saves in the losing effort, was once again the story of the contest.

"It was a much better start to the season than a year ago," Marsh said of his 1997-98 squad that finished 10th in the ECAC. "While we wanted to win the tournament, I think we gained a lot in terms of confidence from the performance…we will try to use some more combinations in our games at Merrimack."

The underlying statistics should give Saints’ fans cause to worry because the Saints were sorely outshot in each of its games. The Gophers managed a 50-24 edge in shots and forced Heffler to make 22 saves in the third period alone which brings to question the true strength of the St. Lawrence defensive crew.

Merrimack, with its offensive guns in Rejean Stringer, Kris Porter et al., should offer the Saints a reality check after such a successful weekend in Minnesota. The offensive-minded Warriors will be looking to shoot the puck as often as they can at the Saints and hope that Heffler is not up to snuff.

[For more on Merrimack, please refer to "Pops" Hendrickson’s Hockey East preview.]

Picks: Regardless of its upset over Boston University in last season’s Hockey East playoffs, Merrimack just isn’t as strong as its league counterparts. The Saints, although probably not as great as they may have appeared in the Midwest will prevail in both games even if Heffler delivers a less-than spectacular performance St. Lawrence, 6-2 and 4-3

J.C. Penney Classic Union (0-0-0) vs. Niagara (1-1-0) Friday, 4:00 pm, Alfond Arena, Orono, ME Consolation / Championship Union (0-0-) vs. Moncton / Maine (2-0-0) Saturday, 4:00pm / 7:00 pm, Alfond Arena, Orono, ME

Union begins the season with a brand-new head coach, former Harvard standout Kevin Sneddon. Sneddon has been with the program for five years, so he is no stranger to Schenectady. In fact, he recruited most of the players on the team.

"I think in particular with the timing of everything that happened at Union, I think that if I had been coming from the outside I would have been more overwhelmed," said Sneddon. "But being at Union for five years, and now into my sixth I’m more comfortable with knowing what needs to get done and I’m excited about the opportunity."

He will coach a team that is desperate for goal production. The Dutchmen did not score much last season, and the obvious aim is to put numbers on the board in support of goaltenders Leeor Shtrom and Brandon Snee.

Brent Ozarowski, Mark Szucs and Ryan Campbell are the returning leading scorers, but between the three were 25 goals — one-third of the team’s total last season.

The Dutchmen are looking to prove the coaches wrong, as they were picked to finish 12th in the league.

"In our first team meeting I told them that we probably would be there," Sneddon said. "I was anticipating that and I have never been a big believer of preseason polls. It will motivate our guys to earn some more respect around the league."

Meanwhile, the Purple Eagles of Niagara are coming off the biggest shocker of the young season. A 2-1 victory over defending national champion Michigan came on the heels of a 6-5 overtime loss in which the Eagles were leading in the third period.

Make no mistake, this is no Division I-in-name-only squad. the Purple Eagles are here, and they play a tough brand of hockey led up front by Mike Isherwood, Mikko Sivonen, Peter DeSantis and P.J. Perry.

"Up front our forwards are going to be a lot more productive," said head coach Blaise MacDonald. "We had some sophomores on offense last year who had subpar seasons. They have had a great summer of conditioning, both their minds and their bodies, and I expect breakthrough seasons for them."

In goal is Greg Gardner, the U.S. College Hockey Online Defensive Player of the Week, who was spectacular this past weekend with 46 and 33 saves in the two games.

"We solidified our goaltender situation last year with Greg Gardner clearly being the number one goaltender," said MacDonald. "The exciting thing was when Greg faced a couple of bumps in the road, he challenged himself to get better."

Picks: If Niagara can beat Michigan, one would think that they could beat Union. It’s not a slight on the Dutchmen, but Michigan is a top-ten team, and Union is not. Go with logic. Niagara 4, Union 2 The next night, Union handles Moncton to capture the consolation, 6-1

Rensselaer (1-0-0) at UMass-Lowell (0-0-0) Saturday, 2:00 pm, Tsongas Arena, Lowell, Mass.

Rensselaer pulled off an overtime win over nationally-ranked Boston University last weekend when ECAC Player of the Week Danny Riva tied the game in regulation and won it in overtime. It was quite a way to start off the season for the Engineers.

"I thought we played real hard throughout the whole game," said Fridgen. "We got behind by two, but we kept our composure and we kept chipping away. We turned some real good opportunities into goals.

"You think back a year ago and how they embarrassed us on their home ice, and this was a little redemption for us. That might have been in the back of their minds. They did a real good job of staying focused and kept chipping away. Hopefully that’s a start and we can build on it."

The Engineers will hope to build on an offense that can attack from many angles. The Engineers had the legs moving on their first two lines — lines centered by Riva and Alain St. Hilaire. The Engineers also received a big boost from freshman Matt Murley. He scored the first goal of the season for the Engineers, and the highly touted rookie has fit right into the Engineers’ plans for the season.

"Matt’s just a natural talent," said Riva. "He’s got a great head for the game, and he’s not playing like a freshman, he’s playing like a veteran already."

The Engineers will travel to take on UMass-Lowell, which plays its first regular season game against UMass-Amherst on Thursday. The RiverHawks are also a very young team, with 11 freshmen trying to crack the lineup.

However, the ‘Hawks do have five of their top seven scoring forwards back in Chris Bell, Brad Rooney, Doug Nolan, Jeff Boulanger, and John Campbell. Scott Fankhouser looks to be the man between the pipes with the graduation of Martin Fillion.

[For more on the RiverHawks, please refer to "Pops" Hendrickson’s Hockey East preview.]

Prediction – The Engineers showed some clout in their win over BU last weekend. If that momentum can carry over, the Engineers will go to 2-0-0 on the season. Look for them to put one together on the road. Rensselaer 5, UMass-Lowell 2

Vermont (0-1-0) at Boston University (0-1-0) Saturday, 7:00 pm, Walter Brown Arena, Boston, Mass.

Boston University is licking its wounds from an opening-game loss to Rensselaer this past weekend in overtime. The Terriers have a lot of youth, especially on defense, with four of their six starting defenseman playing their first game on defense.

"I thought the game would be more wide open, and that we would be back on our heels because of our young defense," said Terrier head coach Jack Parker.

The Terriers can expect another team that might open up the game in Vermont this weekend. The Catamounts have always been known as a skating team, and with a team that likes to skate, one expects goals.

But the one problem is that scoring goals has been a problem for the Catamount team. The Cats put three goals on the board in a 4-3 loss to New Hampshire this past weekend. Two of the goals came from Eric Lundin, while the other came from Matt Sanders.

"One of our problems over the last couple of years, even with (Martin) St. Louis and (Eric) Perrin, was not putting the puck away frequently enough to win lots of games," said head coach Mike Gilligan. "What we would like to do is look for more balanced scoring. There will be scoring expected from even the freshmen this year. I think we’ve got the talent to expect five to six more goals from each player."

It looks like Lundin is on his way to getting extra goals, and it’s still early in the season, but if the Cats expect to win, they do need the scoring.

They will also need the goaltending. The situation was a little unsettled this weekend, as Andrew Allen came out of the game having played just 9:27, and giving up one goal on four shots. He was relieved by Marty Phillips who made 28 saves and allowed three goals.

[For more on Boston University, please refer to "Pops" Hendrickson’s Hockey East preview.]

Picks: The Terriers are young, but they show that they can be a formidable force. Boston University 4, Vermont 2

Next week in ECAC action: Friday, October 30: Vermont at St. Cloud Army at Colgate

Saturday, October 31: Vermont at St. Cloud Army at Rensselaer Merrimack at Union St. Lawrence vs. Colgate (Buffalo Showcase, Marine Midland Arena, Buffalo, NY) Guelph at Cornell New Brunswick at Princeton

Sunday, November 1: New Brunswick at Brown

Becky Blaeser and Jayson Moy are ECAC Correspondents for U.S. College Hockey Online.

Copyright 1998 Becky Blaeser and Jayson Moy. All rights reserved.