ECAC West: Wrapping Up, Looking Forward

Another exciting season of ECAC West Division III college hockey has come to a close. It was a season of ups and downs, trials and travails, peaks and valleys. It was also a season of growth and of optimistic hope of a bright future for the league.

Season is Review — First Half

Expansion was the name of the game as the season began. After two seasons of only having four teams in the league, the ECAC West finally started to crawl away from the brink of dissolution. Utica and Neumann joined the league, and all long-time ECAC West fans were happy to see them.

Elmira and RIT both started off the season on rolls. The Soaring Eagles split their opening series with Wisconsin-Stevens Point, but then ripped off four straight wins. Two of those wins were against top-ranked Plattsburgh and St. Norbert.

This set up a trend for Elmira that would last most of the season. The Soaring Eagles were a team of emotion; they could get up for the big games, and then ride that emotional energy to a big win. But against unranked teams, Elmira struggled to find that spark and lost too many games to lesser opponents.

RIT’s stumble came in late November. The Tigers traveled out to Wisconsin to take on Eau Claire over the Thanksgiving holiday, and while there, the team broke some of coach Wayne Wilson’s rules. Wilson didn’t find out about it until about a week later, at which point he suspended the entire team for one game.

It would have been unfair to RIT’s next opponents to just forfeit a game, so Wilson extended the suspensions over two games. Wentworth took advantage of the short RIT bench, and defeated RIT 4-3 on Dec. 1 to hand the Tigers their first loss of the season, and first regular-season loss in almost two years.

Manhattanville also started out on a roll, winning its first four contests. The Valiants had RIT on the ropes in early November, leading 4-3 with less than two minutes to go, when a brain-freeze too many men on the ice penalty allowed RIT to tie the game and eventually win it. This mental breakdown sent Manhattanville on a bit of a tailspin; it went 1-2-1 over its next four games. But the Valiants dug out of their funk, and ripped off a 9-1-2 record from Nov. 30-Feb. 5.

Photo by Thomas E. Safran

Photo by Thomas E. Safran

Tenacity was the best way to describe a resurgent Hobart during the first half of the season. Coach Mark Taylor was able to recruit an outstanding freshman goaltender in Adam Lavelle and instill a belief in the team, and the Statesmen rode that to a 6-6 midseason record.

Utica surprised everyone early in the season. For a first-year team, the Pioneers started off on a roll and continued it throughout the season. Utica defeated ECAC Northeast powers Lebanon Valley, Johnson & Wales, and UMass-Dartmouth on the way to a 4-5-2 record by the holiday break.

Neumann struggled throughout the season, as it tried to step up from an independent schedule into the ECAC West grind. The Knights were competitive for much of the first half of the season, taking UMass-Dartmouth down to the wire, and defeating Nichols. But those were the only high points of what would turn out to be a very long season.

Season in Review — Second Half

The race for the regular-season title came down to Elmira and RIT. Elmira went to the head of the class at the end of January, when the Soaring Eagles defeated RIT, 4-2, at the Thunderdomes.

This setup a thrilling game at RIT in the middle of February for the title. Elmira controlled the first two periods of play, building a 3-1 lead. But a power-play goal early in the third period got RIT rolling. The Tigers scored the game-winning goal with only two seconds remaining to win both the game and the regular-season title.

The middle of the pack was also a tight race as the season wound down. Manhattanville almost tanked at the end of the season, with an embarrassing 7-0 loss to Hobart. But the Valiants were able to get it together before the end and finish in third place.

Utica was also nipping at Hobart’s heals for that fourth and final playoff spot. That race came down to a Feb. 13 meeting between the two teams, and Hobart secured the playoff position with a 4-2 victory.

More thrilling games occurred in the playoffs. Elmira squeaked by Manhattanville, 4-3, in one semifinal contest, scoring the game-winning goal midway through the third period after being down 2-0 early. RIT rolled by Hobart in the other semifinal game.

Photo by Russel Jaslow

Photo by Russel Jaslow

The semifinal results set up what everyone knew would be a titanic struggle between RIT and Elmira for the championship. The two teams struggled back and forth through the first two periods of play. Opportunities were about even, but RIT was able to convert its chances to build a 2-0 lead. Elmira poured on the pressure in the third period, outshooting RIT 13-4, and closing the score to 2-1.

A late Tiger penalty, and a pulled goalie, gave Elmira one last chance to tie the game as the clock wound down. But the puck crossed the goal line just a second after the buzzer sounded, and RIT won the ECAC West Championship for the fourth straight year.

Offseason Losses

Looking forward to next season, some teams will be hit harder than others from to losing players to graduation. Tops on the list are RIT and Elmira.

RIT loses seven seniors, and by far the biggest one is AHCA Player of the Year Jerry Galway. Galway has been the steadying force on the RIT team this year with stellar play on the ice and strong leadership off the ice. The Tigers also lose a host of role players that have carried the team through many clutch situations over the past four years.

Elmira gets hit hard with graduations also, losing seven seniors of its own. Goaltender Rob Ligas will be missed in net. Ligas had that knack of being able to play huge in the big game, and could put the entire team on his back and carry them. Elmira team will also miss Steve Kaye, an emotional captain this season whose strong will would just not let the Soaring Eagles lose games. The other seniors will all be hard for coach Tim Ceglarski to replace.

Hobart and Manhattanville each only lose one senior. Hobart loses Dan Bush and Manhattanville loses Vincent Reilly. With the core of both teams returning, the Statesmen and the Valiants will be tough teams to compete against next season.

As one of the newbies in the league, Utica doesn’t have any seniors yet.

But Neumann does, since it was an independent team for three years before joining the ECAC West. This is the first senior class that coach Nick Russo will graduate at Neumann, so they hold a special place for him. Eight Knights graduate this year, but the good news is that the top scorers are all returning.

Looking Ahead

There are no big changes imminent for the ECAC West next season. As much as everyone would like a seventh team to enter the league, and allow the ECAC West to qualify for a NCAA automatic bid, there is nothing on the horizon in this area.

One change being talked about is the playoff format. Several different proposals have been discussed among the coaches. The two main options being discussed are:

  • Four teams make the playoffs, but it is split over a two-weekend affair. The two top seeds host the first weekend, with either a one-game or two-game series. Then the two winners proceed to the top remaining seed the second weekend to duke it out.

    This proposal has two main problems. First, all of the other leagues are moving towards a Final Four playoff format, so the ECAC West would be going against that grain.

    The second problem is specific to RIT. With the quarter-based academic system there, final exams for the winter quarter usually fall on the last week of February. Historically, RIT has not scheduled any games during that week so the players can concentrate on their finals. Going to a two-weekend playoff means RIT would have to play games during final exam week.

  • All six teams make the playoffs. No. 3 through No. 6 seeds play the first weekend. This could be at the two highest seeds, with either a one-game or two-game series. Or it could be a mini-final four format at the No. 3. Then, the two surviving teams join the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds at the host school for a traditional final four weekend.

    The biggest advantage to this proposal is that teams that normally would not be able to host a playoff contest now would. Exposing the fans of the No. 3 and No. 4 teams to playoff hockey can only help to grow those programs within their base of support.

    The downside is that the proposal ‘cheapens’ the regular season by allowing all teams into the playoff. In this proposal, the teams are only playing for a bye and/or home-rink advantage in the playoffs.

    Then again, the ECAC West athletic directors may decide to leave well enough alone and keep the existing playoff format as is.

    Thanks Yous

    Another year of columns and recaps comes to a close for me. As is traditional, I will use the last few words here to pass around Thank Yous.

    Coaches and the players have to be at the top of the list. I sincerely appreciate all of the assistance that these folks provide me during the year. Their honesty, forthrightness, and accessibility all make my job very enjoyable.

    You, the faithful readers and fans, can’t be far behind. If you weren’t reading this, there wouldn’t be much point in doing it.

    And we can’t forget about the sports information directors. They tirelessly promote their programs and do many of the behind-the-scenes activities that keep the athletics machine running smoothly. They are a great resource to utilize for background information about teams that is greatly under-appreciated.

    That wraps it up. See you all next fall for another exciting season of ECAC West hockey.