This Week in the ECAC: February 26, 1999

With only two weeks left in the regular season, the ECAC is, as usual, a jumbled mess. Or is it?

Hopefully we can try to clear things up for you.

With that in mind, we will dispense with the regular "style" of the preview and bring you something that might put things in a little better perspective.

But before we begin, please take a look at the ECAC Standings.

What stands out when one looks at the standings is that the ECAC has separated itself into four distinct groups of teams. So what we will do is examine each of these four groups and give everyone a nice rundown for the coming weekend.

Now you may ask, what exactly are the four groups? We will now define them.

Group I — The "I Want That Automatic Bid To The NCAA Tournament" Group

Group II — The "I Want To Get Home Ice In The Playoffs and Perhaps A Bid To The Dance" Group

Group III — The "Just Get Us In and I Know We Can Do Damage" Group

Group IV — The "October Is Too Far Away" Group

Let’s take it away…

Group I — The "I Want That Automatic Bid To The NCAA Tournament" Group

Group I consists of two teams — Clarkson and St. Lawrence. These two have pulled away from the pack and have a comfortable margin over the other 10 teams in the league. Both have clinched home ice in the quarterfinal series and both are ranked in the USCHO Poll.

What remains to be decided here is who finishes up top, getting the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament and the number-one seed — which is important if that team makes it to Lake Placid because that team would play the winner of the 4 vs. 5 game.

Clarkson Golden Knights Record — 18-9-1, 15-3-0 ECAC, 1st Best Possible Finish — 1st Worst Possible Finish — 3rd

What can you say about the Golden Knights? A lot of people were predicting doom for this team when the Knights had not reached the .500 mark at the beginning of December. But right now, those people are long gone and the Knights are in the familiar role that people seem to know — first place in the ECAC late in the season.

"We lost so much at the start of the year that we knew we couldn’t afford to stumble," said head coach Mark Morris. "We gave away a lot of wins so we definitely can’t coast now.

"When you lose, you get the attention of your players. It was definitely a humbling experience for our players, our coaches and all of us to endure that slow start. It was a real eye-opener for us."

Victories over Yale and Princeton last weekend extended the Knights’ winning streak to 11 games. With two games remaining, the Knights are firing on all cylinders looking for that automatic bid.

"If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it," said Morris.

St. Lawrence Saints Record — 18-9-3, 13-2-3 ECAC, 2nd Best Possible Finish — 1st Worst Possible Finish — 4th

Going into last weekend, the Saints were tied with the Knights, but after a 4-1 win over Princeton and a 3-3 tie against Yale, the Saints find themselves one point behind for first place and the autobid.

It was a great weekend for Bob Prier, the senior captain of the Saints. He was named ECAC Player of the Week for his four-goal, one-assist weekend.

"We had some outstanding efforts by our seniors this past weekend," said head coach Joe Marsh. "Our whole defensive group stepped things up under some adverse circumstances. Both games were physical games and they took their toll, but I was pleased with the way the guys responded. We got another big weekend from Eric Heffler, and Bobby Prier, John Poapst, Erik Anderson and Dale Clarke had great efforts as well. It was pretty consistent right down the line, which is what we are going to need in the stretch run."

Home ice is clinched and advancement to Lake Placid for the first time may loom for the Saints. Marsh likes the way things look for his team right now.

"We’re in good position heading into the final four games, but it is going to be a dogfight," said Marsh. "The two games this past weekend were both high-intensity, playoff-like games and that is what we are going to see in the last four. Everyone has something at stake, and we are going to play them as they come and try to stay on top of our game."

Games This Week For Group I Brown and Harvard at Clarkson Friday – Saturday, 7:30 pm – 4:00 pm, Cheel Arena, Potsdam, NY Harvard and Brown at St. Lawrence Friday – Saturday, 7:30 pm – 7:00 pm, Appleton Arena, Canton, NY

All four games are key matchups. St. Lawrence clinches at least second place with a win, as does Clarkson. Clarkson can clinch the regular-season title with two victories and two St. Lawrence losses; otherwise we go to next weekend to decide it.

Group II — The "I Want To Get Home Ice In The Playoffs and Perhaps A Bid To The Dance" Group

This grouping is playing for three home-ice spots in the quarterfinals, and that has been a real battle. Moreover, as this grouping is separated by only four points in the standings, so after this weekend, the positioning may change dramatically.

Of the five spots that these teams occupy and the three home-ice spots that are being fought for, one spot in particular is very important — third place.

There are a few big reasons for this:

Home ice. Making the playoffs is one thing, but playing in front of your own crowd is another.

Avoiding the play-in Game in Lake Placid. It may be premature to talk about this, but if you finish third in the league and you do get to Lake Placid, you will not be playing in the play-in game on Thursday evening. You move straight to Friday’s semifinal round.

Avoiding Group II. What does that mean? Well, if you finish third in the league, you will avoid playing the other four teams of this grouping in the quarterfinals. If you finish third in the league, your quarterfinal matchup is against a team from Group III. Despite what everyone says about the league being so even and how any team can beat another on any given night, you would rather take your chances against a team from Group III than one from Group II.

So for all those reasons, you really, really want to win this grouping Is there a downside to finishing third in the league?

Only one that we can think of. No team that has finished third in the league has moved on to Lake Placid since 1994, when Rensselaer defeated Union in the quarterfinals. Observe…

1995 — Rensselaer defeated Harvard, 3-1 (points) 1996 — Harvard defeated St. Lawrence, 4-2 1997 — Princeton defeated Vermont, 4-2 1998 — Cornell defeated Rensselaer, 4-2

Rensselaer Engineers Record — 18-9-1, 11-6-1 ECAC, 3rd Best Possible Finish — 1st Worst Possible Finish — 7th

To use the age-old cliché; the Engineers control their own destiny in Group II. They lead the grouping by two points, but have arguably the toughest schedule left of the five teams because they face the other four teams in the grouping.

The Engineers went from fourth to third last weekend, thanks to victories over Vermont, 5-2, and Dartmouth, 8-3, and two losses by Princeton.

"Things went real well," said head coach Dan Fridgen. "I thought that everybody contributed on all of the lines this weekend. We played strong from lines one to four and all six defensemen played well too."

While the Engineers do control their own destiny, Fridgen says that it doesn’t really matter.

"We just have one game at a time in mind, and we’re not looking too much at the big picture," he said. "People may write about it and I’m sure the guys see it, but we just to maintain the fact that we are playing well. We don’t want to look too far ahead — our [next] game is what’s important, and playing that game well."

Princeton Tigers Record — 15-9-1, 10-7-1 ECAC, 4th Best Possible Finish — 2nd Worst Possible Finish — 10th

Princeton started the season as the hottest team in the league, but has since turned into one of the biggest disappointments of the second half. The reason for the downward spiral has almost everything to do with Steve Shirreffs.

With the All-American defenseman in the lineup, the Tigers have one of the most capable blueline attacks in the country, but without him the team has been left in disarray. The defense lacks organization and cohesive movement, while the offense is struggling to produce goal-scoring opportunities, no doubt because their backs are constantly facing the opponents’ net.

As a result, the Tigers have gone from a favorite to capture the regular-season crown to one which will be lucky to maintain home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. The team’s zero-point weekend against St. Lawrence and Clarkson represented Princeton’s lowest ebb, as it was the first time this season that the Tigers suffered a weekend sweep.

"We’re at the point now where the team that makes the fewest mistakes wins games. It’s playoff-like hockey," said Princeton coach Don Cahoon, whose team has won only one of its past six. "The two teams we played (Clarkson and St. Lawrence) made fewer mistakes than we did. Our team in general played well, but not well enough. We have a few things to shore up."

With two weekends remaining, the Tigers will get a bit of a boost from a favorable schedule, as the toughest team Princeton faces is RPI — at home in Hobey Baker Rink in the regular-season weekend finale.

Colgate Red Raiders Record — 14-10-4, 9-7-2 ECAC, 5th Best Possible Finish — 3rd Worst Possible Finish — 10th

In what has been a frustrating time as of late, the Red Raiders went into last weekend hoping for some kind of consistency — the consistency that brought them three points during the first weekend of February, not the consistency that earned them goose eggs the two weeks encircling that one.

And the Raiders seemed to find it with wins over Harvard, 6-2, and Brown, 3-0.

"Our guys deserve a lot of credit; they worked very hard to prepare this week,” head coach Don Vaughan said. “The tendency is to become a little complacent this time of year, but we feel we have responded very well.”

But can that consistency show up for a second weekend in a row?

“We have certainly addressed these things quite often,” Vaughan said. “We’ve tried to improve our focus and our attitudes, as well change up some of our rotations."

Cornell Big Red Record — 11-11-3, 8-7-3 ECAC, T-6th Best Possible Finish — 3rd Worst Possible Finish — 10th

It started out as a good weekend for the Big Red. A 4-1 victory over Brown propelled Cornell into the fifth position in the standings — temporarily, because the next evening the Red were downed by bitter rival Harvard, 5-3, and were pushed to a tie for sixth with Yale.

"We didn’t play a real good defensive game," head coach Mike Schafer said. "People want to see us scoring four goals and five goals, but without the defensive effort and execution, you’re not going to win, and we proved that tonight."

The Big Red will take to the road this weekend and face one of their challengers for home ice in the quarterfinals: Rensselaer. The Big Red were successful in their last endeavors at the Fieldhouse, downing the Engineers four points to two in last season’s quarterfinals. But that was last year, as Schafer points out.

"We’ve got to find some answers here, quickly," he said. "We blew another chance (against Harvard) to be up there in fourth place, and now we slip into sixth. Obviously, it’s going to be a battle from here on in."

Yale Bulldogs Record — 10-12-3, 8-7-3 ECAC, T-6th Best Possible Finish — 3rd Worst Possible Finish — 10th

Yale salvaged last weekend’s homestand against Clarkson and St. Lawrence by virtue of a 3-3 tie against the Saints on Saturday night. A Keith McCullough goal at the 3:47 mark of the third period equalized the contest and helped the Bulldogs survive a 33-save performance by Eric Heffler.

"[Saturday night] was a more workmanlike effort, more practical," said Yale head coach Tim Taylor in the Yale Daily News. "We did a lot of little things that make a difference. Hopefully the two teams we played this weekend won’t give up too many points the rest of the season."

The crucial point enabled Taylor’s team to stay even with Cornell in sixth place in the standings, and perhaps more importantly, it increased the gap between Harvard and Vermont, which are currently five points below in a tie for eighth.

The game also helped ease the discomfort caused by the Bulldogs’ disastrous 8-2 defeat to Clarkson the night before in which the Golden Knights tallied eight unanswered goals through the first 50 minutes of play. Two goals by Marc Turco in the final stretch of play buffered the loss…at least a bit.

"After looking at the tape, I realized that it wasn’t an 8-2 game," Taylor said. "I was probably more upset than I should have been, but what I was concerned with was the lack of attention to detail."

Yale has a chance to further break away from the bottom pack as it faces Dartmouth and Vermont this weekend. And if the Bulldogs are able to put some distance between themselves and the teams struggling for playoff life, they can begin to look upwards at home-ice advantage, which is a definite possibility considering their schedule in the next two weeks.

Games This Week For Group II Cornell and Colgate at Rensselaer Friday – Saturday, 7:30 pm – 7:00 pm, Houston Fieldhouse, Troy, NY Colgate and Cornell at Union Friday – Saturday, 7:30 pm – 7:00 pm, Achilles Rink, Schenectady, NY Yale and Princeton at Dartmouth Friday – Saturday, 7:30 pm – 5:00 pm, Thompson Arena, Hanover, NH Princeton and Yale at Vermont Friday – Saturday, 7:30 pm – 7:00 pm, Gutterson Fieldhouse, Burlington, VT

The big matchups are in Troy, where Cornell and Colgate take on Rensselaer. Those two games should shuffle some things out in the standings. Rensselaer clinches home ice with two victories or one win and two losses by Yale, Colgate or Cornell. Princeton can clinch home ice with two victories, a loss by Yale and two losses by either Cornell or Colgate. Everyone else must wait until at least next week to clinch a home-ice playoff spot.

Group III — The "Just Get Us In and I Know We Can Do Damage" Group

This grouping is fighting for a playoff spot. While three of these teams can get home ice in the playoffs, it is more than likely that they will be going on the road during the second weekend of March.

It is here where the cliché, "Any team can beat any team on a given night," can best be used. St. Lawrence gave Yale a run last year from the tenth position and last year the eighth-seeded Cornell Big Red defeated the third-seeded Rensselaer Engineers.

Obviously the place one wants to finish in this grouping is eighth, meaning that that team gets to avoid going to the North Country.

Harvard Crimson Record — 11-12-2, 6-10-2 ECAC, T-8th Best Possible Finish — 4th Worst Possible Finish — 11th

It has become customary that Harvard is faced with a do-or-die situation come the final weeks of the season. Unlike last season, however, the Crimson has little chance of gaining home-ice advantage this year and must now concentrate on avoiding a second trip to the North Country, or at the very least make sure to reach the playoffs.

With a daunting trip to St. Lawrence and Clarkson staring them in the face this weekend, the Crimson will have to find a way to avoid a late-surge by Dartmouth, Vermont and even Brown.

"It doesn’t get any easier, but that’s OK," said Harvard head coach Ronn Tomassoni. "If we come committed and focused and willing to pay that price I think we can win. It’s not going to be an easy weekend by any means, but we’re not going to run away and hide."

In many ways, Harvard — like RPI — will control its own destiny in the final weekend of play as it will face off against Dartmouth and Vermont at Bright Hockey Center.

Vermont Catamounts Record — 12-13-2, 6-10-2 ECAC, T-8th Best Possible Finish — 4th Worst Possible Finish — 11th

The Catamounts kept themselves in the heart of the ECAC playoff race with a convincing 5-0 victory over Union on Saturday night. The win over the hapless Skating Dutchmen put Vermont in a tie with Harvard in eighth place heading into the final two weekends of play.

Five different Vermont players lit the lamp that night, giving the team a much-needed two points for the weekend. The night before, the Catamounts played the role of fodder for an RPI team after a playoff spot. The Engineers ripped off three unanswered goals in the first period. Although Vermont closed the gap, RPI would cruise to a relatively easy 5-2 victory.

The Catamounts will now look to inch their way up the ECAC standings as they host Princeton and Yale in their final homestand at Gutterson Fieldhouse.

Dartmouth Big Green Record — 10-14-1, 6-11-1 ECAC, 10th Best Possible Finish — 4th Worst Possible Finish — 11th

The Big Green had played very well for the last two weekends but only had four points to show for it. Nevertheless, those points put the Big Green in a position to move higher into the standings and solidify their playoff positioning. After Friday’s 5-2 win over Union, the Green found themselves in eighth place. But after Saturday’s 8-3 loss to Rensselaer, they were pushed back down to tenth.

"It’s disappointing because we’re much better than this," head coach Bob Gaudet said following the loss. "I don’t want to take anything away from [the Engineers], because they overpowered us; but we didn’t play the game we wanted to. It was disappointing."

Despite the loss, the Big Green are playing good hockey, and a trip to the playoffs for only the third time in 19 years may be forthcoming.

"The positive side is that we got two points out of a road weekend, which is tough in this league," Gaudet said. "We’ve been playing good hockey and the kids will work hard. We’ll find a way to regroup from this."

Brown Bears Record — 7-13-5, 3-11-4 ECAC, 11th Best Possible Finish — 8th Worst Possible Finish — 11th

As the weeks pass by, hope of a playoff berth for Brown is looking dimmer and dimmer. The Bears were struck down twice last weekend at Cornell and Colgate, and find themselves in 11th place, three points behind Dartmouth. To make matters increasingly worse, at a time when the Bears need a pair of victories stay in the chase, Roger Grillo’s team is about to embark on the toughest road trip of the year, visiting the league’s hottest teams in Clarkson and St. Lawrence.

"They’re all big weekends," Grillo said. "But, then, they’re all big weekends to start with. We’ve dug ourselves a hole and now we’ve got to come out fighting. And we have to do it on the road, which is not an overall negative given the way we’ve played at home."

After a loss against Cornell on Friday night in which the teams were whistled for a combined three penalties, Brown rebounded the following night against Colgate by creating a number of quality scoring opportunities in the early going.

But then a blast off the stick of Matt Kohansky clanked off the crossbar and fell astray, almost as if it was signaling the end of Brown’s offensive attack. The Red Raiders’ fickle defense helped Jason LeFevre collect his first career shutout.

"We really have to skate well this weekend," said Grillo. "That’s the most important facet of the game. We need to play disciplined and smart and hard, and give a solid effort. We need to work as hard as we know possible, and the results will come."

Games This Week For Group III Brown and Harvard at Clarkson Friday – Saturday, 7:30 pm – 4:00 pm, Cheel Arena, Potsdam, NY Harvard and Brown at St. Lawrence Friday – Saturday, 7:30 pm – 7:00 pm, Appleton Arena, Canton, NY Yale and Princeton at Dartmouth Friday – Saturday, 7:30 pm – 5:00 pm, Thompson Arena, Hanover, NH Princeton and Yale at Vermont Friday – Saturday, 7:30 pm – 7:00 pm, Gutterson Fieldhouse, Burlington, VT

There are key games here, but not one of the teams in this group play each other. So wait until next weekend when all four play each other. Things should heat up then, but for now Harvard, Vermont and Dartmouth can clinch playoff spots with two victories and one loss by Brown or one victory and two losses by Brown. Otherwise, we go to next weekend.

Group IV — The "October Is Too Far Away" Group

It has been a long season for the teams in Group IV, which every team is trying to avoid, but one is already there.

Union Skating Dutchmen Record — 3-22-3, 1-15-2 ECAC, 12th Best Possible Finish — 11th Worst Possible Finish — 12th

What can you say when you are out of the playoffs with two weeks left in the regular season? Not much, but that’s exactly the scenario for the Union Skating Dutchmen.

Last weekend the Dutchmen lost a pair of games, 5-2 to Dartmouth, and 5-0 to Vermont.

"It’s the same old story," said head coach Kevin Sneddon after Friday’s game. "It’s the biggest game of the year and our guys didn’t show up."

The Dutchmen will show up for the last four games hoping to play the role of spoiler as they take on four teams in the hunt for home ice in the ECAC playoffs. A Dutchman upset would certainly throw a kink into any of Colgate, Cornell, Yale or Princeton’s hopes.

Games This Week For Group IV Colgate and Cornell at Union Friday – Saturday, 7:30 pm – 7:00 pm, Achilles Rink, Schenectady, NY

Pride. Sending out seniors on a high note. Gaining experience for younger players. These are what the next two weekends are about for the Dutchmen.

Prediction Time Last Week: 7-5 Season To Date: 107-76

Brown at Clarkson — The Golden Knights are eyeing the automatic NCAA bid with a one-point advantage. For this night, the Knights will dominate the Bears. Clarkson 7, Brown 2 Harvard at Clarkson — Clarkson hasn’t been a friendly foe to Harvard in recent years. At this point of the season, Harvard is batting .000, considering that the Golden Knights are playing their best hockey of the season and the Crimson players will no doubt be fatigued following a tough battle the night before against the Saints. Clarkson 5, Harvard 2 Harvard at St. Lawrence — With a blizzard set to hit the New England area, Harvard embarks on its longest journey of the season. Although they will face off against the top two teams in the league this weekend, the Crimson — and especially senior captain Craig Adams — seem quite comfortable at Appleton Arena. Look for the upset of the weekend to happen there as Harvard begins its end-of-the-season run. Harvard 3, St. Lawrence 2 Brown at St. Lawrence — After the trip up to the North Country, the Bears will be hoping that home cooking sends them into the ECAC playoffs, because they won’t get a point out of Appleton Arena. St. Lawrence 5, Brown 1 Cornell at Rensselaer — There certainly has been a lot of recent history surrounding these two teams. From the meeting in the ECAC semifinals two years ago in Lake Placid to the Big Red’s upset of the Engineers in last year’s quarterfinal series, there is no love lost. Nothing has been settled this year, as the teams battled to a 3-3 tie at Lynah Rink in December. Right now, you have to take the offense of the Engineers over the offense of the Big Red. Rensselaer 5, Cornell 3 Colgate at Rensselaer — Have the Red Raiders found the consistency that has been lacking in 1999? Can the Engineers hold off the four teams that want the third seed in the playoffs? The Red Raiders owe the Engineers for a Rensselaer overtime victory back in December. Colgate 5, Rensselaer 4 Princeton at Vermont — The Tigers just aren’t playing well enough for a two-game sweep; at the worst they will lose out on home-ice advantage with a dismal showing this weekend. Meanwhile, the Catamounts have their backs against the wall at the moment and desperately need a win to keep them in the race. Vermont 6, Princeton 3 Princeton at Dartmouth — It’s sink or swim for Princeton. Still MIA is the team that captured the Mariucci Classic in resounding fashion. Thankfully for the Tigers, they don’t have to deal with the likes of Minnesota or even Boston University this weekend…only Dartmouth. Princeton 3, Dartmouth 2 Cornell at Union — The Dutchmen have been a thorn in the Big Red’s side over the last few years. The Big Red solved that hex earlier on in the season and should do so again this weekend. Cornell 3, Union 1 Colgate at Union — Red Raider assistant coach Stan Moore will not be returning to Achilles Rink this weekend, as he is on a recruiting trip. But whether Moore was going to be there or not, the Dutchmen still can’t match up with the Red Raiders. Colgate 6, Union 1 Yale at Dartmouth — The Bulldogs are starting to see the light at the top of the ECAC standings. With four very winnable games left on its regular-season schedule, Yale is in a perfect position to move up firmly into home-ice territory. Yale 4, Dartmouth 2 Yale at Vermont — When Yale and Vermont match up on Saturday night, the tale of the tape will be the Catamount defense. If they can contain the Bulldogs’ first line, then that gives the offense a chance to ice a crucial game in the 1998-99 Gutterson Fieldhouse finale. Unfortunately, there is very little chance that Hamilton & Co. will be contained two nights in a row. Yale 4, Vermont 1

The final weekend is now upon us. Who lives to play another week, and who goes home? It’s time to get ready for Lake Placid and the battle for the Whitelaw Trophy.

Friday, March 5 Clarkson at Colgate St. Lawrence at Cornell Rensselaer at Princeton Union at Yale Vermont at Harvard Dartmouth at Brown

Saturday, March 6 Clarkson at Cornell St. Lawrence at Colgate Rensselaer at Yale Union at Princeton Vermont at Brown Dartmouth at Harvard

Thanks to Michael Sharp, Steve Marsi, David Sherzer and Scott Esposito for their contributions to this preview.

All photographs used by permission of the appropriate Sports Information Departments. Any reproduction without authorization is prohibited.

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

Copyright 1999 Becky Blaeser and Jayson Moy. All rights reserved.