This Week in the ECAC West: Feb. 7, 2002

Though it’s hard to believe the season has gone by so quickly, there are just three weekends are left in league play in the ECAC West. So let’s take a look at the playoff picture for each team.

As of Thursday, RIT and Elmira are the only teams that have clinched a playoff berth. The Tigers reside in first place in the league and Elmira is a close second, only four points back with three games in hand on the Tigers. All the other teams are still in the playoff hunt.

Points — two for a win and one for a tie — earned during league play are the main criteria to determine final standings in the league. When, inevitably, a tie in points arises, the official tiebreaking criteria are:

1) Head-to-head record
2) Number of conference wins
3) Record vs. common opponents
4) Overall record

The common theme among coaches when answering the question: “What do you need to do to get into the playoffs?” is the expected “just win.” That is the simple answer, and would certainly help each team achieve its goals. As usual, though, there is a lot more to the story than meets the eye.

The ECAC West will follow the same playoff format this season as in recent years — a final-four format on March 1 and 2 at the rink of the regular-season champion.

Here is a team-by-team analysis of the playoff picture. Teams are listed in current order of the standings.

RIT Tigers (19-2 overall, 7-1 league)

Highest Possible Finish: 1st
Lowest Possible Finish: 4th
Most Likely Finish: 1st or 2nd

RIT is No. 2 in the nation according to the poll this week and leads the ECAC West with 14 points. However, RIT has played more league contests than any other team.

The Tigers have only two regular-season games remaining on the schedule, both at home. Neumann makes its first visit to Ritter Arena on Friday, and a showdown with Elmira is on tap for February 16th.

“We want to play as well as we can,” said coach Wayne Wilson. “We’re not changing anything, but we need to cut down on the mistakes. Every game at this point is a single-elimination game. We want to prepare ourselves for those single-elimination games.”

Assuming RIT gets past Neumann, the game with Elmira will be for all the marbles. Elmira beat RIT 4-2 in their meeting on January 26, and may need to win the rematch in order to force a tie in points and send the decision to the tiebreaking criteria.

How? For this discussion, assume that RIT and Elmira both win all their remaining league games except for their game on the 16th, as noted above. That’s nine wins each against league opponents. So each team has a 9-0 record so far. Common opponents outside the league are Geneseo, Amherst, Williams, and Oswego. RIT goes 5-0 against those opponents, while Elmira is 2-2.

Here is how they would compare:

1) Head-to-head record — Tied, 1-1
2) Number of conference wins — Tied at nine apiece.
3) Record vs. common opponents — Edge to RIT: 14-0 vs. Elmira 11-2.

Hence RIT wins the third tiebreaker and takes the regular-season title. But this all hinges on RIT defeating Elmira on the 16th.

Elmira Soaring Eagles (14-6 overall, 5-0 league)

Highest Possible Finish: 1st
Lowest Possible Finish: 4th
Most Likely Finish: 1st or 2nd

Elmira enjoys the only unblemished record remaining in the league and is in the driver’s seat for the regular-season title. With five league games remaining, the Soaring Eagles are also the only team whose playoff prospects are entirely in its own hands. By winning out, Elmira will win the regular season and host the playoffs.

While the showdown with RIT is a key contest, Elmira has to be careful not to look past its other games. Included in those is a dangerous pair against Manhattanville, which took two of three games from Elmira last season. The first of those meetings is this Saturday, when Elmira travels to New Roc City.

Here are various scenarios for Elmira’s playoff picture:

1) Win out — earn the regular season title.
2) Win out, except for tying one team along the way — earn regular season title.
3) Win out, except for losing to RIT (and RIT wins out) — Elmira loses the tiebreaker and finishes second.
4) Lose against Manhattanville or Hobart or Neumann or Utica — Elmira would need to beat RIT to win the regular season.

Elmira needs to take care of business to setup the big match with RIT on the 16th. However, Elmira still has to beat Manhattanville and Hobart the following week to complete the picture.

Win, and Elmira takes the title. Lose, and the Soaring Eagles will most likely finish second in the league. Even with a disastrous collapse, the worst Elmira could finish would be fourth place.

Manhattanville Valiants (13-4-3 overall, 3-2-1 league)

Highest Possible Finish: 1st
Lowest Possible Finish: 6th
Most Likely Finish: 3rd

With four league games remaining (Elmira twice, Hobart, Neumann), Manhattanville is mired in the middle of the pack in third. If RIT and Elmira collapse, the Valiants still have a shot at first. However, realistically, the highest Manhattanville could finish is second. Third is more likely going to be the outcome.

The key contests coming up are the pair of games against Elmira. If Manhattanville can win both, it would jump over Elmira into second place.

But the Valiants can’t put the cart in front of the horse. Manhattanville has not even clinched a playoff berth yet. The Valiants need to earn two points in any combination of wins or ties to clinch.

With those two points, Manhattanville would have nine points. The Valiants own the tiebreaker with Utica (1-1 head to head), and also own the tiebreaker with Hobart currently (1-0 head to head with one game remaining). So nine points is the magic number that the Valiants need to get into the playoffs.

Hobart Statesmen (7-14 overall, 2-4 league)

Highest Possible Finish: 2nd
Lowest Possible Finish: 6th
Most Likely Finish: 4th

Hobart is in the midst of a race for the fourth and final playoff spot with Utica. The Statesmen have four league games remaining, one each against Elmira, Neumann, Manhattanville, and Utica.

Hobart has a leg up on Utica for the fourth playoff spot at the moment. The Statesmen defeated Utica 4-3 on November 3. The rematch is slated for February 13 in the frozen confines of the Geneva Recreation Center. A Hobart win or tie in that game would almost assure the Statesmen a slot in the playoffs.

“Every game is a big game,” said coach Mark Taylor. “It is pretty easy for us. If we can get a point somewhere, that could be the difference.”

There is a chance that Hobart could finish as high as third in the league. If Hobart can take care of business against both Utica and Neumann, and then defeat Manhattanville on February 16, that might be enough to vault Hobart over Manhattanville. Two weeks ago, Hobart lost to Manhattanville, 4-3, in a closely played game.

“All of the guys have gotten better in parts of their game,” said Taylor. “As a team, are we at playoff hockey, doing all the little things you have to do? We’re not there yet.”

Utica Pioneers (9-10-3 overall, 1-5-1 league)

Highest Possible Finish: 3rd
Lowest Possible Finish: 6th
Most Likely Finish: 5th

Coach Gary Heenan’s stated goal all year long has been to get his team into the ECAC West playoffs in its first year of competition. That may have made some hockey fans chuckle a little at the time, but with only three weekends left in the season Utica has a good chance to pull it off.

Utica got a big leg up when the Pioneers tied Manhattanville two weeks ago. That extra point may be crucial as the season winds down.

Utica can earn at most nine points by winning all of its remaining games, against Elmira, Hobart, and Neumann.

The Pioneers’ playoff hopes are not entirely in their own hands, though. Utica needs Hobart to lose both its games against Elmira and Manhattanville to have a shot. And Utica must defeat either Neumann or Elmira.

If those things happen, then Utica’s remaining game against Hobart is for the whole enchilada. Win that game, with the preceding happenings, and Utica makes the playoffs.

It is a testament to the team that Utica has built in its short history to be in this position in only its first year of competition.

Neumann Knights (2-19 overall, 0-6 league)

Highest Possible Finish: 3rd
Lowest Possible Finish: 6th
Most Likely Finish: 6th

It has not been the season that coach Nick Russo had hoped for, as the Knights competed in the ECAC West for the first time. Neumann kept some games competitive, particularly early in the season. But academic problems among the team’s top scorers gutted the offense over the holiday break, and Neumann’s narrowest loss in the second half was by five goals.

Mathematically, Neumann is still in the playoff hunt. The Knights have games against RIT, Hobart, Manhattanville, and Utica remaining, all on the road. Winning three of those four games would probably be enough to sneak into fourth.

Realistically, Neumann doesn’t honestly have the talent to pull off all three of those wins and will not make the playoffs this season. If the Knights can win one of their four remaining games, that alone will give them a positive to build on for next season.

Game of the Week

The most important game this week comes when Utica travels to Hobart on Wednesday. RIT, Elmira, and almost certainly Manhattanville are in the playoffs already. But Hobart and Utica are battling for the last playoff spot; this game will go a long way in determining who earns the last invitation.