This Week in the ECAC: March 16, 2000

Making Hilary and Rudy Proud If we had only known that the key to ECAC prognostication heaven was geographic in nature, our overall prediction record would have been much improved. After 21 weeks, 147 days or 3,528 hours — however you choose to look at it — the league race is down to only five teams, and all of them are from New York State. Who would have thought?

“Being the only New York State resident (by birth), over time, Lake Placid has proven to be a great venue for any hockey and to see all five New York teams is huge,” said Clarkson head coach Mark Morris. “It instills the pride we have in our hockey in this area. It’s become a real place to identify with our league.”

League symbolism aside, the real benefit may have more to do with the odometer. In the words of St. Lawrence head coach Joe Marsh:

“[Having] all New York teams means everyone can get there.”

Three weeks ago, no one really knew who was going to make the playoffs, let alone earn a free ticket to Lake Placid. Then it all fell into place. A sweep here, an upset there …

After a turbulent, unpredictable regular season, it was rather an ironic ending. In what has become an anomaly in recent ECAC history, all five teams en route to Lake Placid this weekend were the favorites heading into the quarterfinals. Granted, St. Lawrence, Rensselaer, Colgate, Clarkson and Cornell all had their share of scary moments last weekend, but in the end all five teams managed to walk away from their home rink on Saturday night with dreams of an ECAC championship in their heads.

Regardless of how the five teams got here, this is what we have been waiting for all season long. The Olympic Center ice has been prepped and the tickets have been sold. It’s time to write the final chapter of the 1999-2000 ECAC season.

ECAC Preliminary Game #5 Clarkson (17-14-3) vs. #4 Cornell (15-12-2) Thursday, 7:30 ET, 1980 Olympic Arena, Lake Placid, NY Earlier this season: Nov. 20, 1999 @Cornell 10, Clarkson 4; Feb. 11, 2000 Cornell 8, @ Clarkson 3 Last Playoff Meeting: 1997 ECAC Championship Cornell 2, Clarkson 1

Thursday’s game will be an interesting matchup, between two teams that looked like they might not have gotten there as recently as three weeks ago.

After a Sunday loss to Dartmouth headed into the final weekend, Cornell was eighth in the ECAC and wondering about its positioning. Clarkson was also out of home ice after getting swept by Cornell and Colgate and wondering if it would be at home heading into that same weekend.

Last weekend, both teams were at home, and both have now moved on to Lake Placid.

Clarkson defeated Princeton in two games, 3-2 and 2-1. Both nights, the Golden Knights trailed in the middle of the second period. Comebacks sent the Knights to Lake Placid — the only team to ever make an appearance at Lake Placid every year the ECAC championships have been held there. But it sure didn’t seem likely to turn out that way after an 0-4-3 ECAC start.

“We had a real gritty performance against Princeton this weekend and we’re playing some of our best hockey right now,” said Morris. “We’re delighted to have the opportunity to get back to Lake Placid after a pretty dismal start. We’re on equal footing with the field and it’s nice to see all New York teams make the field.”

The dismal start was erased with a 9-4-0 stretch ECAC run. Morris points to one reason above all others for the turnaround.

“It’s called goaltending,” he stated. “For much of the first half of the season we were around 85 percent [save percentage], and now we’re up around 90. It’s tough to play with confidence when we’re not getting good goaltending. You have to marvel at how well the goaltending has been around the league, and any team that is struggling or any team that didn’t make it, you can attribute it to the fact that they were vulnerable there.”

Karl Mattson joined the Knights in January and has since taken over the number-one spot from last year’s ECAC championship goaltender, Shawn Grant. Mattson has gone 10-4-0 with a .905 save percentage and a 2.60 GAA since joining the Knights.

Morris also mentioned some other items.

“Most people realized that we weren’t the team we expected to be and we lost three players that were all gritty players and everyone had to take on new roles with our team,” he said. “It’s a process and for the majority of the first half of the season we had three freshman defensemen.”

Cornell was sitting at 4-7-0 at the start of the ECAC season when things started to gel for the Big Red. The stretch was kind to the Big Red as they went 6-2-1 in the league, wound up at home for the playoffs and took out Harvard by 4-3 scores in a two-game sweep.

“I’m happy to be back at Lake Placid. It’s pretty boring to go up there as a coach and to watch everyone else play,” said head coach Mike Schafer. “We had a great series with Harvard and they played a great series in a hostile environment. We’ve righted the ship and we’re playing well right now. It’s going to be one of the best conference matchups in Lake Placid in a long, long time.”

Two teams that seemed to have things going for them at the right time of the season face a daunting task — winning three games to claim the ECAC title and a chance at the NCAA tournament.

“It’s all new to us,” said Morris about the preliminary-round game. “If I had a preference I would prefer the four teams instead of the five, but I won’t squawk this year. We’ve played everyone tough except Cornell and we’d like the opportunity to show that we are better than we were against them. If your kids can experience what it’s like and they came up short, chances are you’ll be stronger down the stretch.

“We had some disappointments early on but our stretch run has been something that we’ve been trying to grab a hold on, and whether it’s Thursday, Friday or Saturday night, we’ll leave it on the ice.”

“That’s just a fact of life that you go in and play the three games,” said Schafer. “It puts the kids in an unusual position as they haven’t played three games in a row yet, and they have to win those three to win it. I don’t think they should have to play three in order to win it.

“Not a lot differentiated the teams in our league this year and you look at the fourth or fifth seed in an underdog role and you adopt that mentality. You take it one game at a time, and I know it’s the old cliche, and you worry about what happens after that. Fortunately, we’re healthy and we’re going to need that depth.”

In the two previous meetings between the two teams this season, Cornell was the convincing winner in both. The Big Red thrashed the Knights 10-4 and 8-3 this season, and Morris must find a way for his Knight team to avoid the same result this Thursday evening.

“We got out to a real awful start at Cornell, and to their credit they rode the crowd pretty hard — as they always do at Lynah. The momentum was almost unbearable and then we didn’t play well in Cheel either,” he said. “All I know is it’s tough to knock a team out three times in a season, and (Schafer’s) done a great job in building his team; they’re big and strong and we feel that the larger ice surface will help us. We’ll keep our feet moving.”

ECAC Semifinal #3 Rensselaer (21-12-2) vs. #2 Colgate (23-7-2) Friday, 4:00 ET, 1980 Olympic Arena, Lake Placid, NY Earlier this season: Nov. 6, 1999 Colgate 4, @ Rensselaer 2; Feb. 18, 2000 @Colgate 5, Rensselaer 4 Last Playoff Meeting: 1995 ECAC Semifinal Rensselaer 2, Colgate 1

These two combatants have not met for five years in the ECAC playoffs. Back in 1995, Kelly Askew scored the game-winning goal for Rensselaer as the Engineers won their first ECAC title since 1985. Colgate is looking for its first title since 1990, when the Red Raiders beat these selfsame Engineers in the ECAC championship game. Perhaps this year, the winner of this game will take the title, as was the case in the last two final-round meetings between the two.

The Engineers come off of a sweep against Dartmouth this past weekend, winning, 7-2, and then coming back to win 3-2 in overtime after scoring the tying goal with six seconds left to play.

“We’re happy to be back in the field,” said head coach Dan Fridgen. “That was a good Dartmouth team that took us to task this past weekend. It took all we could to tie the game up and then win it in overtime.”

The Engineers got 10 goals from 10 different players last weekend, a good sign for the Engineer offense. They will face off against another solid offensive club in Colgate.

The Red Raiders had to go to overtime on Friday evening to win 5-4 after trailing 3-0 midway through the second period against Yale. Tied at two in the third period on Saturday, the Red Raiders got the game-winning goal and an empty-netter to send them to Lake Placid.

“We’re coming off two very good games at home against Yale,” said head coach Don Vaughan. “They were both very close games and we had to come back on Friday. Our team showed a lot of character in battling back. We were fortunate to have the 2-1 lead after two periods in game two, but Andy McDonald was there as he has been.

“(Yale) came in here three years ago and beat us 1-0 in the preliminary game, and that’s what I was thinking about when it was 3-0. When we got that first goal, we started feeling it and we started to play our game.”

The Red Raiders took the two earlier meetings between the two teams, 4-2, in Troy, and then, 5-4, in Hamilton just a few weeks ago. So, winning two games gives a team and edge and can be the key to this semifinal. Right?

“The first thing we’ve talked about is to wipe the slate clean and not take any stock in what has happened,” said Vaughan about the season sweep. “RPI is playing a lot better now than when we faced off a month ago. On the big ice surface and with an experienced team, I think we’re the underdog in this one.”

“I don’t think there is any one key,” said Fridgen. “I disagree with the fact that Colgate is the underdog. I think that we will have to come out and play better than we did. You’re going to see two teams that are very similar in terms of forward speed and goaltending.”

But there are keys you can look for in this game. One is scoring the first goal, and then holding a lead.

“Any time you fall behind in a hockey game it’s very, very difficult, and what we have to do better is handle that frustration,” said Fridgen. “Instead of playing smart we tend to get frustrated and end up taking needless penalties. We need to handle playing come from behind hockey better because I am sure that no matter whether we’re ahead or behind we have to play 60 full minutes. We learned that against Union (a 3-2 overtime loss after leading 2-1 with under three minutes to play). That come-from-behind win over Dartmouth will give us confidence.”

Secondly, the bigger ice surface will make a difference.

“What we need to do is to make the ice surface as small as possible, be physical and try to slow down some of their better players and try not to get into a wide-open game,” said Vaughan. “Even though we have some guys that can do that, I don’t think it plays into our hands to do that. We have to find a way to slow them down and maybe get into their faces.”

Third could be special teams. Colgate’s power play is working at a 25% clip on the power play, that to go with an 82.6% penalty kill. Rensselaer’s power play is converting at 20%, and its penalty kill is working at a rate of 85.1%.

“That group has been together for two years and that has a lot to do with it,” said Vaughan about his ECAC-best power-play unit. “You can have all the Xs and Os that you want, but if you don’t execute then it doesn’t matter. It’s not about putting guys in a certain spot — it’s about finding players and knowing where they are. When you put a group like we have together, they’re all pretty creative guys and we allow them to be that way.

“When they have all the creativity that they have, defensively it’s a lot of hard work by stopping and starting and getting into shooting lanes and getting into passing lanes,” added Fridgen. “Hopefully the goaltender can come up with the save because he will see some shots.”

And speaking of goaltenders, the fourth key could be a sharp Shep Harder (.915 save percentage, 2.46 GAA) and a healthy Joel Laing (.947 save percentage, 1.85 GAA) in the nets for the Engineers. The last time the two teams met, Laing had just gotten over a major illness and was playing his first game in two weeks.

“I think Laing had an off night in our building and I don’t think that will happen again, so when we get our chances we had better make the best of them,” said Vaughan.

ECAC Semifinal #5 Clarkson (17-14-3)/#4 Cornell (15-12-2)vs. #1 St. Lawrence (24-7-2) Friday, 7:00 ET, 1980 Olympic Arena, Lake Placid, NY Earlier this season: Dec. 4, 1999 St. Lawrence 1, @Clarkson 1, ot; Jan. 21, 2000 @St. Lawrence 7, Clarkson 3; Nov. 19, 1999 @Cornell 4, St. Lawrence 0; Feb. 12, 2000 @St. Lawrence 3, Cornell 1 Last Playoff Meeting: 1999 ECAC Championship Clarkson 3, St. Lawrence 2; 1995 ECAC Preliminary Round Cornell 6, St. Lawrence 2

What do you get for capturing the regular-season title and then knocking off your quarterfinal opponent in two games? You get a week of uncertainty.

After squeaking past a pesky Union squad last weekend, St. Lawrence was forced to endure a week of practice without knowing who it would meet in the semifinals. As the number-one seed, the Saints will take on the winner of Thursday night’s contest between No. 4 Clarkson and No. 5 Cornell.

What St. Lawrence knows for sure, however, is that both Clarkson and Cornell will try to play a physical game coming off solid quarterfinal performances. With that in mind, the Saints are content to sit back and allow the two teams to battle it out on Thursday. Marsh & Co. have their sights set on the bigger goal — one which painfully eluded them last season.

“We have to get back to the finals and we have to take it one step at a time,” said Marsh, whose team was forced to stand on the Olympic ice last year and watch Clarkson hoist the championship trophy following a 3-2 victory over the Saints. “The two teams will be a tough test to get to the final game. We’re not thinking the final game — you think of the next period, or next shift. We have to stay on an agenda and not get off, and the guys have bought into that.”

St. Lawrence has been one of the only consistent teams in the league this season. While the rankings flip-flopped week in and week out, the Saints were able to look down from above as they maintained a grasp on the league’s top spot. A late-season rush by Colgate aside, St. Lawrence was able to cruise to a conference-best 16-3-1 record and a .825 winning percentage.

The solid goaltending kept the Saints alive during the earlier stages when the offense was struggling to find a rhythm. By the latter stages of the season, the forward corps had become one of the most dangerous in the nation, averaging 4.54 goals per game in its final 13 ECAC games. In its quarterfinal series with Union, St. Lawrence collected 12 goals in just two games. It was that offensive explosiveness which propelled the Saints past a dangerous Skating Dutchmen team.

“Our series was a great series,” said Marsh. “The first night, that 8-4 score was misleading. The next night [a 4-3 victory] we were under control and they came out and turned the game around. It was one of the most exciting — well maybe for the fans, as I was practically under the bench at one point.”

Marsh has brought his team from the ECAC cellar to championship status in a few short years. Last year’s title loss to bitter rival Clarkson was a painful experience for the Saint players, but it was also invaluable experience for the upperclassmen.

“You can draw on any type of playoff experience that you can get, and I think that’s one of things that hurt us in the span where we didn’t get to Placid, and the guys were thinking they didn’t know what they were missing,” said Marsh. “We now have the playoff position to draw on, and we have some guys in the room who have played a lot of games since they were freshmen. We hope they can draw on that experience.”

Cornell had St. Lawrence’s number earlier this season, however, as the Ithaca boys handed the Saints their first loss of the season, a 4-0 defeat at Lynah Rink. St. Lawrence bounced back last month to even the regular-season series with a 3-1 win, perhaps buoyed by a Cornell food poisoning bout. The Saints have never faced Clarkson in the semifinal round, but the two teams are 2-2 in championship bouts. St. Lawrence recorded a win and tie against Clarkson this season, but the game which is top of the mind for the Saints occurred almost a year ago, when Clarkson walked away with a championship trophy which the Saints felt could have been theirs.