This Week in the ECAC: March 13, 2002

The little village nestled in the Adirondack Mountains where miracles have been known to occur: that’s where we’re headed.

It’s time for Lake Placid.

Bracket One

Play-In Game
Rensselaer vs. Dartmouth

This Season
01/26/02 – Dartmouth 3, @ Rensselaer 2
02/01/02 – Rensselaer 2, @ Dartmouth 2, ot

Playoff Matchups
1980 ECAC Quarterfinal – @Dartmouth 8, Rensselaer 0
1996 ECAC Preliminary Round – @Rensselaer 5, Dartmouth 4, ot
2000 ECAC First Round – @Rensselaer, 7-2, 3-2, ot
2001 ECAC First Round – @Dartmouth, 4-2, 5-1

It isn’t often that two teams meet for three consecutive years in the playoffs in the ECAC. The ECAC isn’t, after all, the model of consistency in terms of where teams place. But for the third straight year, Rensselaer and Dartmouth will do just that.

The last two years it has been in the first round, with the Engineers winning two years ago and Dartmouth last year, each on home ice. The rubber match will be in Lake Placid.

“We have a little bit of history with them the past couple of years,” said Dartmouth head coach Bob Gaudet.

Over the past three seasons the teams have played ten times with the Big Green gaining the advantage, 5-4-1.

This season on back-to-back weekends they faced each other, with Dartmouth coming from behind to beat Rensselaer and then rallying to tie.

After that, Rensselaer went on a tear, going 9-2-0 and rising from last place to a tie for third in the standings.

“What was important when they beat us here was that we were able to play them the following Friday at Dartmouth,” said Engineer head coach Dan Fridgen. “To have them as our next game helped because we could try to redeem ourselves — we’re ahead by two and they chip away and we were able to hold them off, that was a difficult game. And that gave us some confidence, whereas the weekend before they snuck up on us and stung us.”

The Engineers have spread it around offensively since then, getting scoring from everyone, not just the two leading scorers in the ECAC, Marc Cavosie and Matt Murley.

“That’s a situation where early on they were the ones getting the goals for us and I had them on a line at one point. It was tough breaking them up because they were the only ones producing,” said Fridgen. “We weren’t scoring many goals and that’s a tribute to the team where we’re getting offense from a number of guys; that’s what you need any time.”

“They’re potentially the hottest team in the league. They’re doing a great job and they are spreading it around, so they’re solid offensively,” said Gaudet. “But I don’t think you can underestimate their defensive ability.”

Meanwhile, Dartmouth also got hot after that series, going 3-0-1, but then faltered to a 0-3-1 stretch before rebounding with a series sweep of Colgate in the ECAC First Round.

The Big Green did not have momentum, and those looking at records are reminded of this by Fridgen.

“When you look at all five teams going into the tournament, everyone has got momentum from winning their series and I don’t think we’re any different from that perspective.”

The spin of this game naturally turns to Cavosie and Murley, and how Dartmouth will stop them.

“You can’t keep those guys off the board. Our strategy is that we have to be smart with the puck and we can’t be giving them opportunities in the neutral zone to have outnumbered rushes,” said Gaudet. “We have to be with smart with the puck and limit their opportunities because you can’t keep them off the board.”

But Gaudet is quick to point out that it should not matter who the opponent is.

“We have to prepare for RPI, but our whole mentality is to play good hockey and I don’t think it makes a difference who we play against,” he said. “We’re not a team that’s a juggernaut — we have to play sound hockey.”

For the Engineers, it will take something they haven’t done this season to advance.

“We’ve got our work cut out again for us against Dartmouth,” said Engineer head coach Dan Fridgen. “They’re a team we haven’t beaten this year.”

The Pick – Dartmouth seems to have the touch back with the weekend sweep. Dartmouth 3, Rensselaer 2

ECAC Semifinal
Play-In Winner vs. Cornell

This Season
11/10/01 – @Cornell 4, Rensselaer 1
03/01/02 – Cornell 2, @Rensselaer 1
01/12/02 – Dartmouth 5, @Cornell 3
02/15/02 – @Dartmouth 1, Cornell 0, ot

Playoff Matchups w/ Dartmouth
1980 NCAA Consolation – Dartmouth 8, Cornell 4
1980 ECAC Championship – Cornell 5, Dartmouth 1

Recent Playoff Matchups w/ Rensselaer
1985 ECAC Semifinal – Rensselaer 5, Cornell 1
1990 ECAC Semifinal – Rensselaer 3, Cornell 2
1997 ECAC Semifinal – Cornell 5, Rensselaer 3
1998 ECAC Quarterfinals – @Rensselaer, Cornell wins 5-4, 0-3, 5-4

Fact or fiction: The Big Red are slow.

Fact or fiction: The Big Red will have trouble on the Olympic ice sheet because they are slow.

Fact or fiction: Someone is making this all up

The first two are fiction, the last is fact. And that’s a fact.

“We’re just going to go up there and play the same game,” said Big Red head coach Mike Schafer. “One of our best games was at Vermont and from our standpoint, if you’re good defensively, you’re good defensively no matter what size of the ice. We’re going to go up there and play the same game and make no adjustments for the big sheet.

“We’ve got to be aware that guys have more room to maneuver, but they have to come to the net, which is the same on every ice sheet. It cracks me up that the comments that this team is slow and that we’ll be affected by the big ice, and if we were slow we would have had more trouble than we had all year.”

Those who think the first two statements were fact have not seen the Big Red play this year.

The biggest misconception, as it has been for the entire Schafer era, is that because the team is defensive-minded, that is physical and likes to wear down opponents, that it is a slow team. That couldn’t be any further from the truth.

It takes quickness to forecheck, it takes quickness to force turnovers, be successful on special teams and win games. The Big Red have done all that and more in their Cleary Cup run.

And it’s all about the defense.

“I think defense works for the whole season, not just the playoffs,” said Schafer. “We’ve been fortunate that our team has matured all season. Defense has been our staple all season long. To win hockey games I’ve always believed that you have to be strong defensively and be defensive to be offensively successful.

“As the season has progressed we’ve been getting stingier, and it will have to continue because there’s some great offensive players we’ll be facing.”

There isn’t much more you can say about the Big Red except that they have put together and unbelievable season and with two wins this weekend, the Big Red will take a huge step towards a bye in the NCAA Tournament.

But either Dartmouth or Rensselaer will come at them on Friday evening.

“They’re both good hockey teams and they both present different problems,” said Schafer. “If you asked our guys who they would want, they would probably say Dartmouth. That’s probably the athlete saying that they would want revenge.

“But, there are a lot of teams that would want to play us for redemption.”

The Pick – The Big Red don’t want to leave without the Whitelaw Trophy. Cornell 4, Dartmouth 2 or Cornell 2, Rensselaer 1

Bracket Two

ECAC Semifinal
Harvard vs. Clarkson

This Season
12/01/01 – Clarkson 2, @Harvard 2, ot
02/15/02 – @Clarkson 4, Harvard 1

Recent Playoff Matchups
1985 ECAC Semifinal – Harvard 2, Clarkson 1
1986 ECAC Semifinal – Clarkson 4, Harvard 2
1988 ECAC Semifinal – Clarkson 6, Harvard 4
1991 ECAC Semifinal – Clarkson 3, Harvard 2
1998 ECAC Semifinal – Clarkson 6, Harvard 2

This would have been a classic playoff battle back in November when both teams were picked to lead the way for the ECAC. More than four months later, a lot of hockey has been played and opinions about both teams have shifted, but it doesn’t change the fact that when Clarkson and Harvard take to the ice in the first semifinal contest, it will be one heck of a game.

When you break it all down, no other teams play such similar games and no two teams mirror each other so well in the way they approach each game.

Both teams prefer an up-tempo game that hinges on the speed and agility of their forwards. Both teams feature goaltenders who have the potential to steal a game, and also give one away.

Both teams have marquee players who consistently garner league attention, yet they also play three and four lines deep. Both teams are led by fiery coaches who rarely hold back their words.

Both teams have had seasons that fell below expectations, and both feel that they have a lot to prove Friday night.

“I think we match up pretty well,” said Harvard head coach Mark Mazzoleni, who will be making his second straight appearance in Lake Placid since he took over the Crimson in 1999. “The game [against Clarkson] that was here was a very evenly played game. When we went up there the biggest difference was that we got out-goaltended.”

In many respects, those games against the Golden Knights were played by two very different Harvard teams. Back in December, the Crimson was in the midst of an ECAC run that hit an apex at the holiday break mark. In early December, the Crimson stormed back from a deficit against the Golden Knights and delivered a crushing blow with just three seconds remaining in regulation to salvage a tie.

Time would prove that the league cushion created early in the season by Harvard was its very lifeboat. The Crimson never really recovered from exam break and — prior to its quarterfinal sweep of Brown — had posted only three wins since January 12 (one a 5-2 exhibition win over the U.S. Under-18 team).

One of those eight losses came at Cheel, where Harvard was easily disposed of by a three-goal margin. Nearly two months later, Harvard finally found the spark that buoyed it to a strong first half of the season and knocked off Brown last weekend to earn a repeat trip to Lake Placid.

For anyone who has watched this team over the course of the year, the reason for Harvard’s schizophrenia isn’t such an enigma. Back in the first half of the season, the Crimson was boosted by strong goaltending from sophomore Will Crothers, who appeared poised to take over the regular starting position.

When Crothers began to falter after exam break, however, the goalie swapping charade began and it didn’t end until recently when freshman Dov Grumet-Morris rose to the top and took over full-time netminding duty.

(An interesting factoid is that Grumet-Morris — whose numbers are less than eye-popping with an 8-7-1 record and a 2.96 goals-against-average — has earned more league accolades than any other player, including five ECAC Rookie of the Weeks, and one ECAC Goaltender of the Week, yet will almost surely walk away from the ECAC Awards banquet on Thursday with no hardware.)

“We didn’t play as bad as people think going down the stretch,” contends Mazzoleni. “A number of our games we outshot people, we had more quality scoring chances, but we just didn’t get very good goaltending which we had at the beginning of the year. When we went into Yale, blew a lead and lost, I thought Grumet-Morris played well. And when we lost 3-0 to Princeton, he played well again. That solidified our goaltending position because it had been part of our fast start and a part of our demise over the last ten games.

“We match up well with them and the thing that will be more our biggest challenge will be experience going in,” Mazzoleni continued. “We don’t play a lot of people that have been through this before where Clarkson does have much more of a history on that.”

On paper, Clarkson is the more experienced and more consistent team. Despite being riddled with injuries throughout the year — capped off by the loss of Rob McFeeters for six weeks earlier this month — the Golden Knights plugged away all year long in a workmanlike manner to earn a chance at the Cleary Cup. And despite league domination in the modern era and despite the fact that Clarkson holds a 4-1 record against Harvard in ECAC semifinal action, head coach Mark Morris continues to deny the advantage heading into this weekend.

“We weren’t there last year and we’re not as experienced as some people think,” said Morris. “Our seniors had a good experience when we won in 1999, but other than that, we’re just like everybody else. Some of our guys will be wide-eyed and taking in the experience. Our track record of getting there is one thing, the other thing is if we can finish this thing we have going on the last couple of weeks.”

A strong ECAC quarterfinal series against St. Lawrence capped off a four-game winning streak to end the season for Clarkson. It also marked one of the first times that this team has played with a full complement of players.

“I’m pleased that we have the opportunity to be back in Lake Placid and last season was humbling for us. Lately we’ve been playing hungry hockey and we look forward to going back,” said Morris. “We’ve learned a lot about ourselves this season, with all the injuries that we’ve had. This is the first time that we’ve been healthy and we’re looking forward to seeing what we have under the hood.”

Both coaches feel like their teams have the advantage of momentum. Now it’s time to see who has the real edge come Friday night on the Olympic sheet.

“I like our chances,” said Mazzoleni. “And I’m sure Mark likes his chances.”

The Pick – The Golden Knights are peaking at the right time, and despite what Morris contends, championship experience will make a difference. Clarkson 5, Harvard 3

The Final Day

So who do we think wins it all?

The Pick – The Big Red are headed to the NCAA Tournament, perhaps with a bye. Cornell 4, Clarkson 3

A big thank-you goes to all the coaches and student-athletes in the ECAC, who took the time to be as gracious as they were with us all season long.

Another big thank-you to the Sports Information Directors of the ECAC. Without them this could not exist.

See you next year!