We like to call it our happy place — the quaint little town nestled in the Adirondack Mountains known as Lake Placid.
It’s also the happy place right now for the five remaining teams in the ECAC. And by the time five games are over with, one team will walk away with the Whitelaw Trophy.
ECAC Play-In Game
Vermont vs. Dartmouth
It’s never happened before, on a lot of fronts, for these two teams.
The talk of the ECAC this past weekend was the first 10th seed to down a number-one seed in a three-game series in the ECAC playoffs. The Vermont Catamounts did that to the Clarkson Golden Knights this past weekend and advanced to a Thursday date in the ECAC playoffs games, much to the delight of the Cat fans and the Cat team.
“It’s great to see them enjoy themselves with what they’ve gone through over the last year and a half,” said head coach Mike Gilligan.
The Cats have gone through a lot this season, starting out with the cloud of last season’s hazing incident hanging over their heads, and putting that all aside with a hot start.
Then a stretch midseason where the Cats didn’t seem to find their groove, squeezing into the playoffs and then an upset of the number-one seed.
“We feel real happy that we’re still alive,” said Gilligan. “We started off with some great bounces and ended up with some great games.”
Now the Cats are in Placid for the second time, the first since the Martin St. Louis and Eric Perrin days. The teams are different and Gilligan is quick to recognize what has got them here.
“It’s showing a lot of character for this year’s team,” he said. “A lot of the guys could have bailed out of here with last year’s mess going on and the kids stuck together and did a great job and they came in ready to go.
“We had some bumpy stuff in the long part of the middle. They’ve hung in there and it seems to be turning again. I look at the team, we don’t have a Perrin or St. Louis, but we have a nice balanced team and we’ve made a change in our goaltending and this team ranks right up there third or fourth.”
What hasn’t happened before for Dartmouth is playing in Lake Placid. The Big Green become the 11th team to make it Lake Placid (Union is the only team that has not made it there) and the process has been long but definitely worth the wait.
“It’s huge for our team,” said coach Bob Gaudet. “It’s been a long time and what I really want is for our kids to have the experience of being successful. I like the way that our team has played this year and they’ve come to play game in and game out.
“It’s exciting for our team to be involved. We’ve got a great group of kids and we’re excited at home. We worked hard all year to accomplish that.”
The last time the Big Green advanced this far in the ECAC playoffs, the man now behind the bench was the backstop. That was back in 1980.
“I’m not that young, and the last time we won a playoff was when I had the leggings on,” said Gaudet.
This team has taken step after step and Placid is the next one.
“That’s what we were pushing for and I really want to get after them up there,” said Gaudet. “I like our team and they’ve worked so hard. It’s nice for our program to get to that level and that’s what we were shooting for and it’s another step and we’re going to try to win it. We’re in the mix.”
A Vermont-Dartmouth matchup has also never happened in the ECAC playoffs, marking another first for this travel-partner rivalry.
“It’s great with the rivalry that we’ve established,” said Gilligan about the matchup. “The games are all toss-ups and if the kids play hard it will be a great weekend.”
“They’ve got a great skill team as far as speed and it’s a big ice surface, so who knows,” said Gaudet.
“We’ve always had the tournament stuff going back and forth,” said Gilligan. “It may be at a different level right now and they are playing a lot better together, they’ve got scoring, good goaltending. I just know that I’ve never taken Dartmouth lightly in the past 17 years and now the talent level is right there with the other teams in the league. They can have an off-night and clip you. It’s great for hockey around here.”
The two teams played three games in a row against each other, the first at Christmastime and then a home-and-home the following weekend. Vermont won the first game, Dartmouth the second and the two teams tied the third night.
“We’re a bit better team now,” said Gaudet We’ve matured quite a bit and sometimes its just a shake of a puck, but I like the way the team has developed over the second half of the season.
“It’s tough to have a one-way rivalry and we have a much better team now. We don’t take anything for granted, but I think it’s a nice rivalry. Two good hockey teams, both teams skate well. I’m pleased that we’ve got a team now that is capable of playing the way we should play.
“They have a kid in goal that is playing well and we have to play well, that’s all that we can control.”
The loss and tie to Dartmouth started a midseason that bumped the Cats from 5-0 in the ECAC to 10th place.
“I don’t think there was a slide,” said Gilligan. “We got some bounces and calls early on and a lot of things were going right, and then a lot of one goal losses and overtime losses. It’s not rocket science and sometimes it happens.
“We had help from RPI in the last weekend or else we would be sitting right now. We’re playing the same type hockey, but the biggest difference is that we’ve hit upon a real hot goaltender [Shawn Conschafter] right now and he bailed us out in the North Country.”
The winner of this game will have to win three in order to claim the championship and the right to go to the NCAA tournament.
“I just feel that any one of these five teams can advance,” said Gilligan. “We just had three fabulous and exciting games and the fans around Burlington are real pumped up.”
“We’re the type of team that will take it one at a time,” said Gaudet. “I’ve never had a stronger or highly conditioned team. It looks daunting, but we’ll take it one at a time.”
And The Winner Gets …
The Saints are back in the Lake Placid for the third year in a row, and once again downed the Union Skating Dutchmen to advance.
“It was a tough series, they played hard and it was great to get Erik Anderson back,” said coach Joe Marsh. “It was a big lift for us as a team psychologically. It would be nice to be there for the third [championship game] in a row, and it took us a while to get back there, so we don’t take this for granted.”
The Saints did get Anderson back and the ECAC Player of the Year made an immediate impact. In game one he tallied two goals and in game two he added two assists.
“Having Erik back gave us a big boost,” said Marsh. “He’s one of the best in the country, and while we were able to get by with some pretty good performances from other guys without him, his talent and his leadership really make a big difference. You could see it from his first shift on the ice.”
Once again, the Saints can point to experience, as the only team to have reached the semifinals in the last two seasons has been Cornell, the team that they defeated in last year’s semifinals. It certainly helped this past weekend.
“Our older guys have been there and I think the playoff experience showed this weekend,” said Marsh. “We weren’t as disciplined as we would have liked on Friday and took some penalties we shouldn’t have taken, but we corrected that and did a great job in that area on Saturday. Union gave us a tough test, and they play a physical game, but we focused pretty well on what we had to do and the power play came through in a big way.”
Right now the Saints have the Whitelaw Trophy in sight, because they know what it means.
“Our NCAA tournament started with the first game of the playoffs,” said Marsh. “We are treating every game like a championship game — and now we are six periods away from the league championship and a chance to keep on playing.”
The Rivalry Renewed … Again
Cornell vs. Harvard
If Harvard Coach Mark Mazzoleni is trying to rebuild what once was a hockey dynasty, he is taking a huge step this weekend. The Crimson — a team whose very core is comprised of freshmen and sophomores — will be making its first trip to the ECAC semifinals in three long years.
In that span of time, this program has undergone a facelift. Heading into this weekend’s championship, there is a new set of coaches behind the bench, a new group of players suiting up in the Crimson jerseys and most importantly, a fresh attitude about the program’s future.
“In my two years here it was the first time it was fun,” Mazzoleni said. “We set the goals before the season began getting home ice and making it to Lake Placid. Now we’ve achieved those and it’s time for us to go forward.
“We know that we have our work cut out for us. We’re not going to go in with the attitude that we’re just happy to be there because the field is wide-open, and any of our five teams can go in there and advance.”
The matchup with Cornell will be particularly interesting for many reasons, not least for the intense rivalry which exists between the two Ivy League schools.
“It’s always a bonus when you get to play your arch-rival again,” said Cornell coach Mike Schafer. “It’s just going to be a great college game.”
Adding to the excitement will be the contrasting strengths of the two teams. Harvard has had no problems putting points on the board — the team scored 12 goals in two games against Yale — while Cornell has been stifling on defense.
In fact, Cornell is allowing its opponents only 2.2 goals a game. When you flip-flop those strengths, however, you find the weak points for each team. The Crimson have been continually plagued by an unseasoned defense which has resulted in costly defensive lapses. Take a look at the Yale series. Harvard allowed eight goals, but that figure could have been much more had the Bulldogs been able to convert more frequently.
Hundreds of miles away, Cornell was having issues of its own in its home barn as it barely made it past Princeton in the quarterfinals. It took what Schafer sarcastically called “an offensive explosion” of two goals in the second period of the first game and two goals total in the second game to advance.
“We had a tremendous series against Princeton and we were fortunate to come back,” said Schafer. “We were fortunate to win it in overtime and on Saturday it was a great college hockey game.”
The key to this contest will be special teams. If Harvard can stay out of the penalty box and force Cornell to play 5-on-5 hockey, the Crimson players should be able to spread out the offense and use team speed to force the Big Red defenders back on their heels. The Big Red can tap into Harvard’s weaknesses by shutting them down early and utilizing quick transition play to promote odd-man rushes.
“It’s always been a great game against Harvard and that’s why it’s a great rivalry because there are always good players and good teams,” said Schafer. “You don’t build a rivalry if there weren’t great teams.”
Til’ Next Year
Folks, we will see you next year, it’s been fun. See you around the rinks or at a Bon Jovi concert.