This Week in the ECAC: Jan. 10, 2002

With a full slate of ECAC games on the schedule this weekend, the Iron Columnists are back. Our brief sojourn during the holiday season has really gotten the juices flowing — and why not?

This time of year is arguably the most exciting for ECAC fans. They have watched their teams get a taste of league action, while fine-tuning (or not) their play against a wide range of nonconference opponents.

Debate rages on how this league fares against others, but that’s not what we are here to focus on this week. Regardless of what the talk may be about at-large bids and PairWise Rankings, the ECAC has a national tournament bid up for grabs and as always, the race will be tight heading down the stretch. Here’s where they stand now, and what we see as the major factors heading into March.

Harvard (7-2-2) With seven league wins and 16 total points already, the Crimson is well ahead of the pack. Per usual, the team has as few as one and as many as six games on its opponents. Factors that will surely affect the Crimson’s standing heading into March include: exam break, the Beanpot and a brutal second-half schedule.

Yale (4-4-2) Another team that has games on the rest of the league, the Bulldogs have looked good thus far. Aside from a disappointing stretch of nonleague games, the team will benefit from the return of Chris Higgins. Endurance and injury-free play are paramount to any success.

Cornell (4-1-1) One of the most dangerous teams in the league, the Big Red has yet to play its best hockey. With a full complement of ECAC games remaining on its schedule and Matt Underhill beginning to take on a more dominant role, expect Cornell to inch its way to the top of the standings.

Dartmouth (4-2-1) The revolving door in net will determine the Big Green’s future. With seven points amassed already, Dartmouth is still very much in the hunt.

Princeton (4-6-0) Some have said that the Tigers have already overachieved this season. With four wins already, the Tigers are unpredictable. A team that can get blown out one night and then win the next will cause some ripples for the top contenders.

Clarkson (3-0-2) The only ECAC team without a league loss, the Golden Knights are beginning to show signs of strength. Impressive offensive performances against New Hampshire and Mercyhurst lead us to believe that it’s only a matter of time before Clarkson surges to the top.

Brown (3-5-2) Three early league victories have helped the Bears’ cause, but it may prove to be a long last half of the season. The team will hit the road for its three longest and hardest road trips of the year.

Rensselaer (2-3-2) Is Matt Murley healthy and ready to lead this team? That may be the determining factor for the Engineers, who are desperately seeking to emerge from the midsection of the league — a place they are not used to being.

Vermont (2-3-1) The good news is that the team’s only two wins this season have come against league opponents. The Catamounts need to find a spark — someplace, anyplace — or it will be a hard-battle for the final playoff spot.

Union (2-4-1) This isn’t your father’s Union team. This Dutchman squad is younger, faster and better. Now, gelling for the second half is what is the key. They’ve shown a good promise with wins over Brown and Northeastern and a tough one-goal loss to Harvard this second half already.

Colgate (2-4-0) The Raiders are trying to put it together, and there really is nowhere to go but up right now. A young team hopes that the first half of the season has put it in a good position for the second half.

St. Lawrence (1-4-0) This team will not hold last place for very long. A true work in progress, the Saints have worked out some of the kinks and (luckily for them) still have 17 league games to inch their way out of the league cellar.

As we head into the final half, the stage is set for another down-to-the-wire battle. Jockeying for playoff position will be the name of the game once again for the ECAC. And if the Iron Columnists had to put their money where their pens were … well, we’ll just keep you in suspense for a little longer.

In the meanwhile, here is what’s on tap for this weekend — the first full weekend of ECAC action since mid-November.

All In The Name

Call them cardiac kids. Call them lucky. Call them whatever you want, but the bottom line is that Harvard is well ahead of the pack in the league with 16 points and seven wins. A sweep of Rensselaer and Union last weekend gave the team a much-needed boost heading into this weekend’s series against Princeton and Yale — the final ECAC weekend before exam break.

Most significant is the fact that Harvard has continually battled back from early deficits. Beginning with two last-second thrillers against St. Lawrence and Clarkson earlier this season, the Crimson has demonstrated the poise of seasoned competitor.

“We’ve shown a good ability that we can come from behind and get victories,” said Harvard head coach Mark Mazzoleni, whose team rebounded once again from early-game deficits for victories against Union and RPI last weekend. “We’ve playing hard and we’re sticking to our systems.

“In Denver, we were down; we didn’t press and we didn’t get flustered, which is a sign of maturation. We’re doing a good job getting after the puck and then shutting down their options.”

How long this team can battle back is the real question. Although situations like that create a sense of confidence through the ranks, there are only so many games that can be won in that fashion. It also becomes more difficult to find that last bit of strength as the season wears on.

The best news for Harvard is the emergence of its second and third lines. The Tyler Kolarik-Dom Moore-Rob Freid trio is one of the most potent and dangerous lines in the league, but the Crimson is beginning to show depth with strong performances from guys like Brett Nowak and Dennis Packard — two players who have already surpassed their point totals from last year — and freshman Tom Cavanaugh, who notched two goals against RPI on Saturday night.

“We thought we got a good player when he came,” said Mazzoleni of Cavanaugh. “His game is coming into form and he’s got great skill.”

“We’re starting to get a chemistry with three lines,” Mazzoleni continued. “We’ve got three lines that are working on the road. That Cavanaugh line [which also features last year’s ECAC Rookie of the Year Tim Pettit] can go out there and neutralize while the first two lines can generate the offense.”

Although the success of the first half of the season is impressive, it was also desperately necessary for the Crimson. Following the disruption caused by exams and the Beanpot, Harvard will jump into the toughest part of its season with two road trips up north and one to Princeton and Yale — traditionally a tough set of games for the team from Cambridge.

Speaking of Harvard’s two Ivy League rivals, the most highly-anticipated game of the weekend is surely the Crimson’s battle with Yale set for Saturday night. The Bulldogs are welcoming (with open arms) the return of freshman Chris Higgins who returns to the Yale lineup after flying across seas to compete with the U.S. World Junior team.

After turning heads in the ECAC during the first half of the season, Higgins did much the same abroad. The leading candidate for ECAC Rookie of the Year netted the game-winning goal in overtime in the fifth-place game against Sweden, led the U.S. team with four goals and six points and was named one of the top three U.S. players in the tournament.

In addition to Higgins’ return, Yale has a bit of momentum coming into this game, competing in a tough battle with New Hampshire and then Boston College. Following the 5-3 loss to the Wildcats, Yale head coach Tim Taylor was able to take away at least one positive.

“I thought we played hard. One of the things we’ve really tried to work on is to have a 60-minute effort. We got that,” said Taylor, who was able to put Higgins’ absence in perspective. “It’s a big loss. He’s our [UNH star Darren] Haydar out there, especially on the power play. But I do think it’s a great honor to have him playing for the U.S. team.”

One interesting note: Harvard owns a 20-1-3 mark against the Elis at the Bright Hockey Center since it opened in the 1979-80 season. The lone Bulldog victory came back in the 1997-98 season, 3-1, the year the Eli won the ECAC regular-season title.

Facing Princeton will also be an interesting experience for the Crimson. On Friday night, the Princeton Tigers enter Bright Hockey Center for their first tilt of the season. Princeton is coming off a weekend split with Bowling Green, a contest which saw the Tigers end a frustrating 0-for-14 stint on the power play. Freshman netminder Trevor Clay stopped a game-high 33 shots in the second contest, but it was not enough for the victory.

“Trevor gave us a great effort and stopped a number of point-blank shots,” said Quesnelle. “We didn’t execute the little things that are necessary to win close games.”

A key to this contest will no doubt be special teams. While Princeton has struggled on its power play and after giving up three power-play goals to Bowling Green last weekend, the team will have to find a way to contain Harvard’s special team’s unit, especially its shorthanded unit which is the best in the league at this point.

Another factor this weekend will be the propensity for both Harvard and Brown to play better in their own rinks. After managing just one point last weekend, the Bears are itching to turn things around.

“The fact that we’re in a decent spot is good,” said Brown head coach Roger Grillo. “These next games for us are critical because we get out of the league before we hit the stretch run. I’m somewhat pleased and I like our team, I like our attitude and I like our character. We just have to tighten things up a little bit.”

Yann Danis has been the starter for Brown since relieving starter Brian Eklund during the disastrous third period against New Hampshire two weeks ago. Danis looked solid against Union and RPI, collecting 63 saves in the two games.

“Danis has been playing some good hockey for us and I have no complaints about our goaltending right now,” said Grillo. “We’re playing much better hockey at this early past of the season since I have been at Brown. The hard part is that people don’t realize that because we’re an Ivy school we get the late start and with Harvard and their exams, we play 11 league games right up front. We don’t have a lot of time to screw around and see what’s what. Sometimes it takes us half those games to figure out if we have a freshman that’s pretty good or if we have a goaltender that’s hot, you can’t fool around with that because you’re in league play.”

Buckle Down In Central N.Y.

Colgate has had a tough first half, but head into league play for the rest of the season with a stirring comeback overtime win over Iona last Sunday. With the new season, head coach Don Vaughan has tried to take a different tact to bring his team together.

“We tried to be a little more aggressive,” he said. “Earlier on the season we were playing a little more conservatively. Tonight, we tried to go up-tempo and tried to go aggressive on the forecheck. We’re trying to get some confidence in some guys and I think the only way to do it is to let the reins off at times.”

It didn’t seem to work at the beginning of games against UMass-Lowell and Iona, as the Raiders fell behind early in each, but came back at the end of each game, making a run at the River Hawks, and defeating the Gaels.

“We’re a young team. When you get behind, especially like we have this year, there is a tendency for them to let down a little bit,” said Vaughan. “Our older guys took over the locker room in between the second and third periods.”

Meanwhile, Cornell had a strong first half, but went down to Florida and lost in double overtime to Northern Michigan and then dropped a game to Ohio State.

“It was our worst performance of the year,” said Schafer of the 2-0 loss to Ohio State. “And it will be our last bad performance of the year.

“The first game was an excellent college hockey game. And then having to play two overtime games and coming back the next day was just something we weren’t up to.”

Two weeks have elapsed since the Everblades College Hockey Classic, and that is good, according to Schafer.

“This break was like a little mini-training camp for us in getting back to the basics, which is something that we did very, very well in the first half of the season,” he said. “We don’t have room for another bad game from here until the end of the season.”

If it’s any indication, there haven’t been many bad games for the Big Red. In fact, through 13 games this year, the team has allowed only 24 goals.

“Getting through the nonconference part of our schedule with a lot of the better teams in the country and being where we are, I think we have a chance to better those numbers,” said Schafer. “It’s always been a staple of ours, we have to play great defensively through the rest of the season. Both our goaltenders are playing very well as are our special teams, but all those things need to continue to keep happening for us to keep the goals down, but again we need to fill the net. You only win by scoring goals.

“We’re fine tuning things right now and we’re physically in good shape, so we look at this weekend as a gauge to see how the second half is going to go.”

Dartmouth is a hard team to figure out at times. A solid win over Vermont last weekend propels them into the rest of the season, but the rest of the season is not what is on the mind of head coach Bob Gaudet.

“Each night, we’re just trying to establish dominance that night,” he said. “We can’t look at an 11- or 12-game stretch. We just need to get the job done, shift in and shift out, and the rest will take care of itself.”

After the win over Vermont, the Big Green lost in Portland to Maine, and there, it was a little bit of a struggle, mainly because of injuries and other factors. Pete Summerfelt has been playing with a bad ankle, Dan Casella is hurting with a shoulder injury and Kent Gillings came down with food poisoning. Add that to Craig Lund and Halsey Coughlin leaving the Big Green, and it was a rough weekend.

“I like the fact that we’re able to compete with different guys coming into the lineup,” Gaudet said after the Maine game. “It gives the players some valuable experience. Later on when we get healthy, it’s going to be the guys who compete the hardest who get their chance to play.

“Our kids played a pretty solid game considering who we have out of the lineup. I think it speaks to our depth that different guys can step in and make a real impact.”

Vermont is another team that is hard to figure out, but in the ECAC, that seems to be the norm. The Cats are happy that league play is all that is left, as the only two Catamount victories this season have come over ECAC opponents. The nonleague schedule was really not kind to the Cats, as they did not win a single game out of conference.

Vermont was doing well against Dartmouth last weekend, but in the third period, the game slipped away, as Dartmouth broke the tie and went on to handily take down the Cats.

“It looked like the team of the last couple of months after that goal,” said UVM head coach Mike Gilligan. “That goal is the one that really slowed us down, and I think they started gaining momentum.”

The Cats need to get momentum of their own going as they have only league games left, and room to catch up. If they are going to do so, it has to start this weekend in Central N.Y.

North Country Battles

The only unbeaten team in ECAC league play is Clarkson, which has some catching up to do. The Golden Knights have only played five of 22 league games, and this is the start of an important stretch as they host Rensselaer and Union.

Many people talk about games in hand, and this is it for the Knights. It’s league play from here on in and it starts at home and a good weekend is important for the Knights to start off the second half of the season.

“We are playing two very good hockey teams,” said head coach Mark Morris. “RPI is noted for their top end skill players, guys like Murley and Cavosie and strong goaltenders in Marsters and Kurk. Year in and year out it is a great rivalry.

“Union is playing very well this year. Right from the outset they proved they were going to be contenders by sweeping Notre Dame on the road and they carried through with real solid play throughout the first half. Year in and year out they are one of the grittier teams that we play. Kevin Sneddon and his staff have added a few skill guys to help their specialty teams. I think they are an underrated team. They are definitely a dangerous team. We will have to be playing our ‘A’ game to come out on top this weekend.”

St. Lawrence is back in action after a 27-day layoff, not having played since getting swept by North Dakota at Appleton. The Saints had a long time to think about seven straight losses and the 3-12-0 mark they hold coming into this game.

“Time off is the best thing that could happen right now,” said Saint head coach Joe Marsh. “The guys can get some rest and take their minds off hockey for a bit. Some of them are battling bumps and bruises and those will have time to heal.”

The Saints are also in the position of only playing five ECAC games, and with 17 to go, this is where things start. Last season the Saints were 3-7-3 heading into the second half and went 17-6-1 the rest of the way.

So a precedent has been set, but it will still be tough.

“It was a frustrating first half, but we aren’t going to blame anyone and we aren’t going to make any excuses,” said Marsh. “This is a great group of guys and I really like their attitude, chemistry and work ethic. We are in every game, but we have to find a way to take the next step and finish some of them off. I think I lead the league in team meetings so far this year, but talking isn’t the answer … we’ve got to find a way to get it done.

“There is a fine line between winning and losing and whatever ‘it’ is that gets us going isn’t going to come all at once. We’re seeing some progress in a lot of areas, and I think we will continue to see that. We’ll get back at it in early January, have a little fun and see if we can get on the track we want to be on.”

The Dutchmen of Union are coming off a split last weekend, dropping a game to Harvard, but defeating Brown to come away with two points.

“I think that it was a fantastic weekend,” said head coach Kevin Sneddon. “I’m not looking at the points, I’m looking at how the team is developing. The kind of way we played with the discipline is getting us ready for the next month of hockey.

“We’ve played some pretty good hockey since the break and I really like our team.”

The Dutchmen will visit the site of their last two playoffs exits this Friday, as they take on the Saints in Canton.

“We have the utmost respect for St. Lawrence,” said Sneddon. “They’ve handed it to us in recent years in the playoffs and the regular season. We’re certainly focusing on them since we play them first, but then we play a really hot Clarkson team. It’s a great opportunity for our kids to see how we’ll head into the rest of the season.”

Rensselaer took one point last weekend in a 2-2 tie with Brown, and it was a disappointing weekend, but also good in that Matt Murley returned after a month long absence due to mononucleosis.

The Engineers head on the road and know that this is an important weekend in the North Country.

“We just have to realize that these games on the road become more important,” said head coach Dan Fridgen after the loss to Harvard. “We have to take care of the things right now that keep us from winning these games and turnovers are one of them.

“If we stick to our game plan and keep turnovers down, we’ll be okay.”

If It’s So Easy, You Try It

The Iron Columnists are back. And this week, we decided to take on a duo who think they can take down the Iron Columnists. Ha! So, John Beaber and Lisa McGill, bring your skills to the chopping block!

The competition thus far:

Vic Brzozowksi t. The Iron Columnists — 7-2-1
The Iron Columnists d. Vic Brzozowksi8-3-1 to 7-4-1
Ben Flickinger d. The Iron Columnists — 11-4-2 to 10-5-2
The Iron Columnists d. Ben Flickinger5-1-4 to 4-2-4

John and Lisa, bring your finest prognostication skills to USCHO Stadium and let’s see what you have. How will the Iron Columnists defend? Whose picks will reign supreme?

The Picks

Friday, Jan. 11

Yale at Brown
John and Lisa’s Pick — It’s a better Brown, but it is still Brown… Yale 4, Brown 2
Becky and JaysonYale 5, Brown 2

Princeton at Harvard
John and Lisa’s Pick — Painful to admit, but Harvard takes this one. Harvard 4, Princeton 1
Becky and JaysonHarvard 4, Princeton 2

Vermont at Cornell
John and Lisa’s Pick — The Big Red continue to dominate at home. Cornell 5, Vermont 2
Becky and JaysonCornell 5, Vermont 1

Dartmouth at Colgate
John and Lisa’s Pick — Colgate wants Weder back. Dartmouth 5, Colgate 3
Becky and JaysonDartmouth 6, Colgate 2

Rensselaer at Clarkson
John and Lisa’s Pick — Clarkson handles RPI at home. Clarkson 3, Rensselaer 2
Becky and JaysonClarkson 4, Rensselaer 3

Union at St. Lawrence
John and Lisa’s Pick — The Dutchmen steal two. Union 3, St. Lawrence 1
Becky and JaysonSt. Lawrence 4, Union 2

Saturday, Jan. 12

Yale at Harvard
John and Lisa’s Pick — Some revenge for The Game. Yale 2, Harvard 2, ot
Becky and JaysonHarvard 4, Yale 3

Princeton at Brown
John and Lisa’s Pick — A rare bone for the Brown fans. Brown 3, Princeton 2
Becky and JaysonBrown 5, Princeton 3

Vermont at Colgate
John and Lisa’s Pick — Vermont and Colgate come away from the weekend with one point. Vermont 3, Colgate 3, ot
Becky and JaysonVermont 3, Colgate 1

Dartmouth at Cornell
John and Lisa’s Pick — A four-point weekend for the Lynah Faithful. Cornell 3, Dartmouth 2
Becky and JaysonCornell 2, Dartmouth 1

Rensselaer at St. Lawrence
John and Lisa’s Pick — RPI gets two points on the road. Rensselaer 3, St. Lawrence 2
Becky and JaysonRensselaer 3, St. Lawrence 2

Union at Clarkson
John and Lisa’s Pick — Clarkson dominates the teams from the Capital District. Clarkson 4, Union 2
Becky and JaysonUnion 3, Clarkson 1

Wednesday, Jan. 16

Rensselaer at Union
John and Lisa’s Pick — Tough to call; therefore, we won’t. Rensselaer 2, Union 2, ot
Becky and JaysonUnion 3, Rensselaer 1

And remember that if you are interested in putting your money where your mouth is, drop us an email to be eligible when John and Lisa bite the dust.

Anthony Mastantuoni contributed to this column this week.