This Week in the ECAC: Feb. 13, 2003

We’re all even. Everyone’s got six left before the Big Dance begins. Who will go where, who will stay home — who will have a week off? It’s all riding on 36 games. Buckle up, folks.

The Rumble In Beantown And Other Musings

Oh, baby.

It’s setting up nicely, isn’t it? Saturday night at the Bright Hockey Center could mean a whole lot. It’s Cornell at Harvard, one versus two, the heavyweights of the ECAC, and heavyweights nationally. The anticipation is building, the place is sold out and it’s going to be one great battle.

But wait. There’s Friday night. That’s when Harvard hosts Colgate and Cornell visits Brown.

“Our guys aren’t looking past Brown,” said Big Red coach Mike Schafer. “They know they’re very, very tough at home, they have a great goaltender, and they’re very well coached with Roger Grillo. So we have our hands full Friday night.”

Indeed the Big Red do. The Bears are coming off of a heartbreaker to Rensselaer last Saturday night. The Bears lost in overtime when a pass from the corner ended up behind Yann Danis after it kicked off of Tye Korbl. So instead of being in a fourth-place tie with Union, the Bears are in a fifth-place tie with Clarkson.

“We were disappointed with our overall effort on Saturday, and as for that goal, that’s something you can’t do anything about,” said coach Roger Grillo. “If you dwell on those things it becomes a mess, if you move on you’re better, and we’ve moved on.

“Down the stretch none of the games are easy; we’re just hoping to play solid hockey. One of the things that has screwed us up is that last weekend was the first time that we’ve played back-to-back games in more than a month, which is not easy because of Harvard’s exam schedule.”

Despite some setbacks, Grillo thinks the Bears are getting there.

“I think we’re very close to getting on a roll,” he said. “We won a hard-fought game at Union and we’ve had some emotional losses lately. We lost to Merrimack, Providence and Harvard in games in which I thought we played really well. It’s just a matter of fine-tuning things and when we do that, we can do well. We did that against Union on Friday night.”

The Big Red come in firing on all cylinders, proving to all that it is indeed a national-championship contender. A weekend sweep of Dartmouth and Vermont was dominating.

“I think those guys have learned their lesson very, very well,” said Schafer. “Especially this weekend, we were very thorough, and we were very disciplined.”

The only downside of the weekend was that Greg Hornby was given a game disqualification for punching against Vermont on Saturday, leading to him sitting out Friday.

“It’s too bad we lost Hornby for Brown because they have a solid team and we expect them to come out strong,” said Big Red defenseman Mark McRae. “We’re going to have to come out strong, but we’re playing well now.”

“Well” also describes how Colgate is playing. Steve Silverthorn was named the ECAC Goaltender of the Week for the second week in a row and has been pivotal in the Raiders’ rise. Silverthorn made 21 and 25 saves, respectively, in wins over Vermont and Dartmouth.

“We needed the points and we’re doing what we need to do to win games,” said Colgate coach Don Vaughan. “When you have a guy back there playing like that with confidence it brings up the confidence of the entire team. It also allows guys to take some risks with the puck and that’s helped to elevate our play.

“We also realize that we’re playing two pretty good teams this coming weekend. Harvard has outscored us badly this season, and they’re one of the best teams in the country and their goaltender is one of the best in our league.

“We were fortunate against Brown in our building and we got a great performance from our other goalie, David Cann, that night. We know we have our hands full. but it’s better going into these games this weekend with a couple of wins under us.”

The Raiders currently hold the last home-ice spot in the ECAC playoff race.

“Our initial goal was to work for a home-ice spot and that continues to be our goal,” said Vaughan. “We may have an outside shot at a bye. Considering where we were two weeks ago, that’s great, and as you know, so much can happen in this league in the span of three weeks.”

The Raiders will start at Harvard on Friday before taking on Brown. Crimson head coach Mark Mazzoleni is well aware of what his team faces.

“[Colgate’s] playing as confidently and as well as they have all year,” he said.

But then again, the Crimson are also playing well. Despite an ugly game on Friday at Rensselaer, the Crimson shone in the second period and put it to the Engineers. Harvard followed that up with a Beanpot consolation win over Northeastern, and things look good for the Crimson heading into the final three weeks.

Which brings us to Saturday and the Battle at Bright, or as Cornell fans like to say, “Lynah East.”

“It’s special for a number of reasons,” said Mazzoleni. “It’s special for Cornell, it’s special for us, and it’s special for the ECAC to have such a big game. This has been a long time coming.

“Last year in the ECAC tournament, we might’ve been Cinderella, but we’re not Cinderella anymore. We’ve got expectations just like Cornell, and both teams have lived up to those expectations so far.”

And Up North

The Clarkson Golden Knights and the St. Lawrence Saints each took two points on the road this past weekend, both against Princeton. They head home looking for different things — the Knights for movement towards a first-round bye and the Saints to gain home ice for the first round of the playoffs.

“I thought we played very well in both games,” said Clarkson coach Fred Parker. “Unfortunately, we did not get the results we wanted. Everyone came to play 60 minutes in both games. We had a lot of nice offensive plays and we had some good defensive ones too. I thought we skated with Yale for the full 60 minutes. We just had a bad minute in there that cost us the game.”

The Knights and Saints host two teams that were swept on the road last weekend in Dartmouth and Vermont.

“This weekend, we have a got a couple of real scary teams, to be honest with you,” said Parker. “Vermont is coming off a bad game against Cornell. They will obviously be hungry to get back into the win column. They are a very hard-working team and they will be in our face for the entire game.

“Dartmouth is having trouble finding their ways on the road, but at home they are a pretty tough team to beat. They have lots of skill and some size to go with it. So we will have our hands full this weekend.”

No one has to underscore how important the weekends become with only three left.

“With just six games left every period is a big one in terms of playoff positioning,” said Saint coach Joe Marsh. “We have a chance to make a move upward in the standings, but we are going to need six solid periods of hockey to do it.”

The rematch of Green versus Red was slated as the game of the weekend. Cornell-killer Dartmouth was looking for a one-of-a-kind season sweep of the No. 3 Big Red, but that was not in the cards. The crushing 6-1 loss on Friday paved the way for a disappointing pair of road losses for the Big Green — this coming off a positive weekend sweep one week earlier.

“The one in Hanover was in Hanover. That’s the biggest difference,” said Dartmouth head coach Bob Gaudet following the Cornell loss. “It didn’t look it [on Friday], but we’re a better team than we were in Hanover earlier in the year.”

Unpredictability has plagued Dartmouth all season long as solid wins have been overshadowed by bad losses. And just when Nick Boucher was starting to dominate, helping his team to a much-needed three-game winning streak, he was stopped by a testy Lynah crowd. Boucher gave up four goals in two periods in Ithaca and watched the final stanza from the bench.

“It’s more what they did, rather than what we didn’t do,” Gaudet continued. “I wish we had a little bit more defensive intensity and posture in our end, a little more poise with the puck. We’ve had very few games, even in our losses, where we didn’t have that, and again, I think that’s more a credit to them.”

The Big Green faces a tall order over the next three weekends as its record against its final six opponents is 1-5. The good news is that two out of the three series will be played at Thompson Arena where the team has posted a 9-2-0.

While Dartmouth still holds out hope for a home playoff berth, road partner Vermont is looking to reverse a recent 1-4 slide. Much like the Big Green, the Catamounts were overwhelmed by Colgate and Cornell and find themselves in a tie with St. Lawrence with 12 league points.

That fact makes this weekend extremely important for playoff position.

“This is a pivotal weekend for every school involved in this series, none more than St. Lawrence and Vermont,” said Vermont head coach Mike Gilligan. “We are both working to get home ice for the playoffs, and this weekend will go a long way toward determining that. After the first series with St. Lawrence and Clarkson up in the North Country, I think this should be a very competitive weekend with two excellent games.”

As everyone will remember, Vermont pulled out two points during its trip to the North Country earlier in the season. Following a 4-1 win over the Saints, the Catamounts dropped a 1-0 heartbreaker against Clarkson.

What should we expect from Vermont? The trip to Cornell and Colgate was an experience last weekend as the fight between Hornby and Sifers broke out. As opposed to Hornby, Sifers was not hit with a disqualification and will be in the lineup Friday night against St. Lawrence.

Offensively, Gilligan is hoping that it can continue to see improved production from the line of Brady Leisenring, Tim Plant and Ben Driver. The all-Vermont line, which has registered a total of 32 points, has been spearheaded of late by Plant who has notched a tally in seven of the last nine games.

On The Track?

Taking on Princeton on Friday night represents a real challenge for RPI, the only team in the league to drop two games to the Tigers this year. Both contests were decided by one goal, but it appears that Princeton is an albatross around RPI’s neck — which is just fine with the Tigers.

Following the second win against the Engineers, Princeton coach Len Quesnelle tried to discount the mystery element in hopes of finding a tangible secret to success.

“I don’t know if it’s magic against RPI, but it has a lot to do with playing aggressive and competing,” he said.

Unfortunately for Princeton, that victory didn’t serve as a steppingstone, as it has been a struggle all year for the Tigers. Following a major upset of Harvard a few weeks ago, there was hope that Princeton would come through with a second-half run much like the past two years. But no such winning streak has followed. Since the Harvard victory, the Tigers have dropped four straight league games by an average of three goals and now find themselves in last place.

The good news is that throughout the season Princeton has been experimenting with its lines and testing out its younger corps. The team’s top eight scorers are underclassmen, including three freshmen. Freshmen Dustin Sproat and Mark Masters have seen consistent playing time as linemates this season, while sophomore Chris Owen has been the lone offensive spark with 18 total points, including four power-play tallies.

Although it appears unlikely that Princeton will exit its last-place position, the team does have several things going for it. The first bonus for the Tigers is the revamped playoff system which will allow the team to have one last hope for a Cinderella run.

The second is the emergence of Yale and the precarious playoff positions of five of its last six opponents. With teams like St. Lawrence, Clarkson, Union and Colgate looking for a better playoff spot, Princeton could steal a few victories while heads are turned towards Yale — a seemingly more formidable obstacle for these teams.

Speaking of Yale, that is a team on the opposite end of the spectrum from Princeton. Tim Taylor’s team has been going through a tale of three seasons. After storming out of the gates with seven wins in their first 10 games, the Bulldogs hit a skid and suffered tough losses against several nonconference foes as well to league opponents such as Harvard (twice) and Brown. A midseason trip to Notre Dame turned out to be just what the doctor ordered.

“We had that very tough weekend where we lost to both Harvard and Brown and gave up 12 goals,” said Taylor. “At Notre Dame, the team shaped up and we worked a lot on defense during that week. Against Notre Dame we were tough on both sides of the ice. It was a turnaround weekend for us in that we were able to take on a CCHA team in their own building and get two very solid wins.”

While in the Midwest, the team found a steady goaltender and also figured out how to score consistently. Freshman Josh Gartner, after wowing a Minnesota crowd with strong play at the Mariucci Classic, took over between the pipes during the Brown loss back in mid-January and has since collected six wins in his last seven starts.

“We’ve had two runs here in terms of putting wins together,” said Taylor. “In the beginning of the season, Peter Cohen was in net and did a great job as a sophomore goalie with not a lot of experience. And then when he struggled, Josh Gartner came in and has done an equally good job of solidifying play from the goaltender position.

“We have some holes on defense and we are a little on the small size so teams can spend a lot of time in our end against us. When that happens we are definitely prone to bend but not break because we have confidence to do some things in front of the goal. The puck may stay in our end but knowing that we will get saves made creates a certain degree of confidence.”

That level of confidence has extended to the offensive side of the ice; Yale has been able to spread the wealth across three and sometimes four lines. Through 23 games, the Bulldogs have five players with 20 or more points, including leading scorer Evan Wax, who already has 30. Prior to this season, Wax had not posted more than 20 points through an entire year.

Yet with as much attention that has been lavished on the top players such as Wax, Chris Higgins and Nick Deschenes, the real key to Yale’s success this year has been the contribution of the “others” — guys like Dennis Nam and freshmen Christian Jensen and Joe Zappala have produced solid numbers throughout this year.

Many have asked why last year’s ECAC All-Rookie Team member Jeff Dwyer hasn’t been as dominating this year. If you take a closer look at this year’s team, it has less defensive depth which has forced Dwyer to take on a new role — a more defensive-minded role. Still, the sophomore has quietly collected 14 points, including one shortie, along the blue line.

“At the beginning of the year we felt confident that we had two lines that could score. The Steeves and Higgins lines have been the main go-to lines this year and have essentially given us the most production five-on-five,” said Taylor. “The big surprise as a team has been the way the third and fourth lines have chipped in on a regular basis… Guys are finding a way to give quality shifts and chip in with a goal here or there.

“When I’m at my happiest and when the team is at its best is when we get even scoring production.”

The road to the end will not be an easy one, however. After running into red-hot Union on Friday and then RPI on Saturday, the Bulldogs face two daunting weekends — an away series at Clarkson and St. Lawrence and a regular season-ending pair of games at home against Colgate and Cornell.

“We looked at the two home weekends in a row against Vermont/Dartmouth and then St. Lawrence/Clarkson as a chance for eight points,” said Taylor. “We got six out of eight points to earn that winning record on the homestand. We are shooting for the same thing on the road. We are looking at coming out of the (next two weekends) with a winning record and letting the Cornell game just sit out there.”

Union came into last weekend in position for a first-round bye and despite a loss to Brown, the Dutchmen still remain there. The loss might have brought back a little bit of a deja vu from last season, as the Dutchmen faltered down the stretch and fell out of the playoff race after being so close to home ice.

“We’re definitely ready [for the stretch run] — we’re not thinking of it in those terms, though. We’re doing a job of focusing on one game at a time, we learned our lesson last year the hard way,” said coach Kevin Sneddon. “The guys felt a lot of pressure on the standings and focused on the end result versus the process of it and that’s what we can control.

“You can drive yourself crazy right now, because if you look at it, it will be totally different by the time it ends. We can only focus on what we’re capable of doing. Our guys have a mission. We established in the fall and they’ve been pretty good at getting there and focusing on it, and I’m confident that they can achieve it.”

The Dutchmen hold court to Yale and Princeton this weekend. A win over Yale would help to solidify first-round bye status, but it’s no easy task, nor is Yale’s travel partner Princeton, which the Dutchmen play Saturday.

“Timmy’s got his team playing very well right now, and they have some of the elite players in the league on that team, we’ll need our team defense and we’ll need Kris [Mayotte] to have a big game in net for us, because he will be challenged by some good offensive weapons in Higgins, Deschenes, Wax and Jensen,” said Sneddon. “But we’re looking forward to the challenge and we feel we’re playing pretty good hockey as of late and that gives us an opportunity to win the games that we play.

“We’re not really focused on Princeton right now, because we’re preparing for Yale, but as soon as that’s over we know that we’ve got a hungry Tiger team, those guys are aching for a win, they have played some good hockey and don’t have much to show for it.”

The difference on Friday could be the absence of captain Nathan Gillies, Scott Seney and Jason Kean, all of whom received game disqualifications against Brown for fighting.

“It’s a challenge — a little bit of adversity is what we’re looking at,” said Sneddon. “The way the guys are looking at it is that those guys stuck up for each other at the end of the game, as a team they’re rallying for each other and they feel that we have three guys out, we have to bear down and get the job done for those guys.”

The Dutchmen will replace Gillies and Seney with Matt Blabac and Chris Konnick on Friday. Konnick had been injured and is now ready for play once again. Sneddon has yet decide who will replace Kean on Friday.

The Rensselaer Engineers got a win when they needed one. At the Big Red Freakout, the Engineers got a fluke bounce off of Tye Korbl and broke their seven-game losing streak and nine-game winless streak with a 4-3 win in overtime on Ryan Shields’ goal.

“Everybody was just elated in the fact that we got a bounce and the puck went into the net at a time when we needed a victory,” said coach Dan Fridgen. “That’s a testament to the guys in the locker room, there’s been times when we’ve come out on the short end of the stick and that’s just the way it’s been going. Hopefully this bounce will have things go [our] way.

“You’ve got guys that are learning and mistakes are going to be made, but you just tell them to keep working hard, stay positive and have a high energy.”

The Engineers are looking from the bottom up at the standings and hope that it continues for the next three weeks.

“We don’t want to lose the taste that we have in our mouths right now and hope it continues into next weekend,” said Fridgen. “What I see is the chemistry starting to develop.”

The Engineers also scored four goals in each game this weekend, in a sign that their offense has awakened.

“We had four lines going good this weekend, we had different guys stepping up and hopefully this will keep the snowball rolling,” said Shields. “We can get some more offense and get back to the defense that we were playing at the beginning of the year and I think our offense has turned the corner.”

Quick Hits

Fox, bring Frenchie back … Trista and Evan choose this week … Faith is back in three weeks…Do people care about Survivor any more? … The U.S. portion of the Bounce Tour started this week, see you there!

Thanks to Jon Paul Morosi and Adam Wodon for their contributions this week.