This Week in the ECAC: March 6, 2003

Here we go, folks, it’s playoff time in the ECAC, starting with the first-round series.

Congratulations to the Cornell Big Red on their second straight Cleary Cup, and congratulations to Harvard, Dartmouth and Yale for earning first-round byes. But the focus this week is on the other eight ECAC teams as they vie for trips to Ithaca, Cambridge, Hanover and New Haven.

Let’s get it on!

No. 12 Princeton (3-24-2, 2-18-2) at No. 5 Brown (12-11-5, 10-8-4)

This Season: Brown 5 @ Princeton 2; @Brown 4, Princeton 0
Last Playoff Meetings:
1998 First Round: @No. 4 Brown; No. 7 Princeton over Brown 3-2, 0-6, 5-3
1996 First Round: @No. 7 Brown 4, No. 10 Princeton 3
1995 Quarterfinals: @No. 2 Brown; No. 7 Princeton over Brown 4-2, 2-3, 3-2 (ot)

Heading into the final weekend of regular season play, the future held possibilities for Brown. The Bears could have ended up with a first-round playoff bye or they could have found themselves on the road this weekend. In the end, Brown will face off against Princeton after finishing in fifth place.

A playoff bye could have been a reality for the Bears had they been able to pull out a weekend sweep. If that had happened, Brown would have finished with 26 points and could have leaped ahead of Dartmouth or Yale on a tiebreaker. Nevertheless, the Bears managed only two ties in their own barn against St. Lawrence and Clarkson. This weekend was a tale of two very different games. On Friday night, Brown looked strong and jumped out to an early 3-1 lead. It quickly fell apart as St. Lawrence stormed back and forced the home team to deposit a late third period goal to salvage one point for a tie. The second night against Clarkson, Brown went down early but found a way to pull out another tie — this one a 3-3 decision.

“I thought we played well at times, and we played so-so at times,” said Brown head coach Roger Grillo. “Both teams are solid teams. St. Lawrence has played well as of late. Clarkson has always given us trouble. I thought especially on Saturday we bounced back well after being down two goals and came up with a hard-fought win.”

Brown has already defeated Princeton twice this season, outscoring the Tigers by a 9-2 margin. Still, in this revamped playoff structure no team is left behind. Winless since January 11, the Tigers have nothing to lose.

Grillo knows that.

“Princeton has a nice group of forwards and they play with a lot of speed,” said Grillo. “They are a good skating team up front and out back. The key at this time of the year is us and what we need to do in order to be successful.”

Many have said that the key to Brown resides between the pipes with Yann Danis. The preseason All-American candidate has shown signs of greatness throughout the year, under pressure many a game. The junior, after all, is averaging nearly 30 saves per game and has seen more than 1,600 minutes of action. He leads the league in both categories. The real key for Brown this weekend, however, will be its ability to eliminate sloppy play. Danis can hold his own, yet defensive breakdowns have proven to be the albatross around the neck of the Bears.

“This time of year you are focusing on what is going to enable your team to be successful,” said Grillo. “We are focusing on getting better defensively and making sure the effort and focus is where it needs to be.

“I think that the bye was something that we tried to shoot for and fell short. … I am sure that the guys are a little disappointed but it’s the first year that this [new playoff structure] was going on. There are pluses and minuses to the bye weekend and we just need to take advantage of our situation.”

While Brown may be disappointed about missing out on a bye weekend, Princeton just happy to be in the playoffs. After finishing the regular season with only two league wins to their credit, the Tigers see this as their only chance for redemption.

Said senior goaltender Nate Nomeland following the team’s loss to Colgate last Saturday night, “We are going to be underdogs for sure, but perhaps that is not such a bad position to be in. We have worked all season to be playing our best hockey right now and we’ll see how we stack up.”

The last victory for the Tigers was nearly one month ago and it came against the second-place team in the league. In that contest, Princeton was able to play relatively mistake-free hockey and successfully knocked the Crimson off its fast-paced, free-styling game plan. Tigers players hugged each other after the game like they had just won the league championship, and a coaching staff saw hope shine for the first time all year long. Unfortunately for them, the trend didn’t continue and the Tigers have struggled since, giving up 4.8 goals per game.

The bright spot for the Tigers was the point that they gained against Colgate on Saturday night. After finding themselves down in the contest heading into the final period, the team pelted Steve Silverthorn with 13 shots and scored two goals in the final stanza to finish at 2-2.

“In the third period, we finally got the puck in the offensive zone and sustained some pressure,” said Princeton head coach Len Quesnelle. “We need balance on our team. If you look at who is receiving ice time, everyone in the lineup, freshman to senior, has to give something for us to win.”

Princeton will be looking for contributions from everyone on the lineup as it looks to pull off the biggest upset of the weekend.

Predictions — Although Princeton will most likely not advance to the next round of playoffs, the Tigers will put up a good fight. Historically the Tigers have shown their true colors when their backs have been up against the wall. Plus, who can forget what happened the last time the ECAC decided to change its playoff format — the underdogs team went on to win the league championship. However, Brown is too strong and will ride the back of Danis. Expect at least one — and maybe two — hard-fought games at Meehan Auditorium.

Brown 2-1 and 4-2

No. 11 Rensselaer (10-23-3, 4-15-3) at No. 6 Union (14-16-4, 10-10-2)

This Season: @Rensselaer 4, Union 2; Rensselaer 3, @Union 3, ot
Last Playoff Meetings:
1997 Quarterfinals: @No. 4 Rensselaer; Rensselaer over No. 5 Union 3-1, 3-1
1994 Quarterfinals: @No. 3 Rensselaer; Rensselaer over No. 6 Union 3-4, 5-1, 8-3

One team’s fate was pretty much sealed, the other up in the air. Rensselaer knew it was going on the road for the playoffs while Union had a chance at a first-round bye. The outcome was a renewal of the Capital District rivalry in the first round of the playoffs.

“We had goals right up until the end to get the bye, but we knew we had home ice,” said Union coach Kevin Sneddon. “We knew that if we had that we could be successful no matter who we played. But that it’s against RPI, it’s great, especially for the Capital District to see two good hockey teams go at it.”

“We were looking at the situation that no matter where we were going, we were going on the road,” said Rensselaer coach Dan Fridgen. “You forget what success you’ve had against them during the regular season, because this is all new now. This is playoff hockey, and you’re not going to get a second chance.”

The two teams have met previously in the playoffs, both times at Rensselaer, both with the Engineers winning. This series gives the Dutchmen their first playoff games at home in their Division I history.

“It’s just fantastic for our fans who deserve to see some home playoff hockey and we apologize that it’s taken this long. They’ve seen this program develop and take some positive strides over the last 10 years,” said Sneddon. “And I’m happy for our seniors, they missed the playoffs last year and have never played in front of their fans. It’s another step in the right direction.”

The Dutchmen come in as the home team and the favorites. Or maybe not?

“Everybody is talking about us as favorites and we don’t buy into that at all,” said Sneddon. “There are no favorites in this league.”

The Dutchmen may have the upper hand in the standings, but Sneddon has a game plan.

“We’re not looking at it like they are the 11th-place team,” said Sneddon. “They won the season series and our guys are very respectful of them and know that they can be very dangerous.

“We have to have patience. RPI plays a good brand of defensive hockey and they have good goaltending. Either one of those guys has the ability to step up and they play a stifling defense at times. If you do something you’re not capable of doing or get out of your game plan they can hurt you. We’ve got have some patience, play with intensity and keep our emotions in check.”

The Engineers are looking at it from the perspective that this is a whole new season.

“The slate is now clean, and we’re looking to build off our last game,” said Fridgen. “I’m sure we won’t have a problem with the motivational part of it.”

The Engineers won their last game, at home, against Vermont to gain some momentum towards the postseason.

“This is the first time in a long time when we’ve played with a lead,” said Fridgen after Saturday’s win over Vermont. “Teams are different when they’re playing with a league. We’ve been playing a lot of catch-up hockey and it’s a different feeling.

“This is a whole new month and that’s the way we’re looking at it.”

The keys to the game will be mistakes, and opening goals. In playoff hockey, those are some of the most important predictors.

Prediction — Union earned the home series and plays tough at home. With two lines buzzing and a good special teams unit the Engineers will have to play their best games of the season in order to advance. The battle in the nets will be a large key; in the end the Dutchmen will prevail.

Union 4-2 and 3-1

No. 10 Vermont (11-18-3, 8-14-0) at No. 7 Clarkson (12-18-3, 9-10-3)

This Season: @Clarkson 1, Vermont 0; @Vermont 6, Clarkson 3
Last Playoff Meetings:
2001 First Round: @No. 1 Clarkson; No. 10 Vermont over Clarkson 5-3, 2-3 (2ot), 3-2 (ot)
1998 First Round: @No. 2 Clarkson; Clarkson over No. 9 Vermont 2-1 (ot), 5-3
1996 Consolation: No. 1 Vermont 3, No. 2 Clarkson 1

Both Clarkson and Vermont were looking for home playoff berths. Both teams are blessed with strong fan followings and intimidating home barns and were looking to take advantage of those facts. But only one team managed to earn home ice this weekend, while the other will have to hope that its fan base will follow on the road.

Despite not earning a victory on the weekend, the Golden Knights will open Cheel Arena to Vermont this Friday night. The Golden Knights fought back from an early-game deficit against Harvard to pull out a 3-3 tie, thanks in part to a career night by goaltender Mike Walsh, who finished with 42 saves in the contest.

“We were a lot better this weekend, but we still have a way to go,” said Clarkson head coach Fred Parker. “I thought we worked pretty hard against Harvard. The game got a little bit scrambled at times, but for the most part we were competing hard and that is one of the things we have not been doing well. We played a good game on the road against one of the best teams in our league.”

The next night the team got a taste of its own medicine by squandering a 3-1 lead against Brown to earn a total of two points on the weekend and finish in seventh place in the league standings.

“It was more of the same for us,” explained Parker. “We played about 45 minutes of real good hockey and then they got a break to get one and then we let them back into the game. We had an opportunity to bury them, but we didn’t.”

Although victories on both nights would have given the Golden Knights a chance to finish higher in the standings, there is no downplaying the significance of the two ties. Heading into the final weekend of regular season play, Clarkson had one only one of its last five games. A mediocre season was not what most envisioned for a program that has advanced to the league playoffs in 41 out of 42 years, including 15 straight home-ice berths.

In order to continue its playoff success, Clarkson will look for production from its veterans and newcomers alike. All eyes will be fixed on Randy Jones, who continues to have a solid season along the blue line. The sophomore has already amassed 31 points this season, including three game winners. He also leads the team in plus/minus at +13, which says a lot considering the ice time logged by the defenseman.

Other contributors as of late have been Kevin O’Flaherty, who is only one point shy of hitting the century mark for career points, and another senior forward Chris Bahen. A late bloomer from a point-production standpoint, Bahen has come alive, dishing out 12 assists over the team’s last eight games.

“It is great to get two points on the weekend and head into the playoffs unbeaten, but we should have had three points,” said Parker. “We’ve shown an improvement in the last three games, at least in our effort, and if we can keep that up and still work on the little things, I think we’ll be all right.”

Also, Parker admits that his team has not had the easiest time facing off against Mike Gilligan’s streaky squad.

“Obviously we are playing against a goaltender that plays in the zone against us as he has shown in his play a couple years ago and in the two games they played us this year,” said Parker. “They seem to be a team that we have trouble playing against. Their style doesn’t seem to be conducive to us so we are going to have to overcome that and find a way to solve Shawn Conschafter. If we can do those things and stay out of the penalty box, I think we’ll be okay.”

While Parker tries to figure out a game plan against Vermont, the Catamounts will look to right some wrongs of their own. Following losses to Union and RPI one week ago, Vermont is now winless in its last four games.

On Friday night, the Catamounts had a 3-1 lead after two periods but allowed Union to storm back with four unanswered goals in the final 20 minutes of play to pull out the 5-3 win. To add insult to injury, the loss to the Skating Dutchmen on Friday night effectively ended all hope for a home ice berth for Vermont. The following saw a similar dismal result against an RPI team that had lost 12 out of its last 16 heading into that contest.

Despite the losses, the Catamounts were not exactly playing with a full squad. Senior Ryan Miller and sophomore Scott Mifsud both sat out the game on Saturday night after suffering injuries the night before and are questionable for this weekend’s action. Mifsud, who is fighting an ailing left knee, is tied for second on the team for points with 5 goals and 19 assists. Miller, who has added 13 points this season, re-injured his shoulder against the Dutchman

The good news for the Catamounts is that they will face off with a Clarkson team that they feel very comfortable playing against. First, Vermont has won more games at Cheel than any other visiting team. Secondly, if one remembers back to the 2001 playoffs, it was Gilligan and his crew that delivered a major upset of the top-ranked Golden Knights. It was the first-ever playoff loss at Cheel Arena.

That year also saw the emergence of netminder Conschafter, who took over the starting role from Andrew Allen. There is no denying Conschafter’s role this time around. Conschafter, who will make his 19th straight start for Vermont, enters the series with a 3.49 goals against average and an .886 save percentage.

Another piece of motivation for the Catamounts is the fact that Gilligan is only four victories shy of becoming the school’s all-time winningest coach. Heading into this weekend’s action, Gilligan has posted 417 career wins in 19 years as head coach of the Catamounts.

Prediction — If there was to be an upset this weekend, you would have to look towards Potsdam. Unfortunately for the Catamounts, the team is banged up right now and will struggle with a physical Clarkson team. There most likely won’t be a repeat of the 2000-2001 season.

Clarkson 4-2 and 6-2

No. 9 St. Lawrence (10-19-5, 7-12-3) at No. 8 Colgate (14-16-4, 9-10-3)

This Season: Colgate 3, @St. Lawrence 3, ot; St. Lawrence 4, @Colgate 4, ot
Only Playoff Meeting:
1994 First Round: @No. 7 Colgate 4, No. 10 St. Lawrence 3

Two young squads, two ties in the regular season. Almost identical records. There’s a lot in common between Colgate and St. Lawrence.

“There couldn’t be two closer matched teams in the league than us and Colgate,” said Saint coach Joe Marsh. “We’re very similar in terms of the youth and the way the season has gone. Both teams have improved considerably over the year and we tied both times this year.”

“We’re expecting a real close series and the teams match up pretty evenly,” said Raider coach Don Vaughan. “If you dive into the numbers even further, we’ve so evenly matched. It should be a great series.”

It’s also interesting that the two head coaches point to the same keys.

“You’ve got to pay attention to a lot of little things,” said Marsh. “You have to stay focused through the peaks and valleys, especially the valleys. The emotional part of it too. You have to be fired up, but not to fired up, you have to stay out of the box because special teams will have a lot to do with this series. We’ve struggled on the power play, but we’re getting better. They’re not where we want them to be, but we’ve worked on it.

“Staying out of the box, staying disciplined and having success on special teams. And then it comes down to goaltending. To gain an edge it will be tough to do, and if you do, the toughest thing will be to maintain that edge.”

“Staying focused will be key for both teams,” agreed Vaughan. “When the game is this close, one mistake can be the difference, so sticking with the game plan is key. When teams are as closely matched the same things keep coming up. Goaltending and special teams, it will be the save at the right moment and taking advantage of your special teams.

“And the maybe just a bounce of the puck. As crazy as it sounds, that just might be what does it.”

Two schools with such storied histories have only met once in ECAC playoff history. Hard to believe.

Prediction — What can you point to in this series? Home ice has to play an important role, and it will.

Colgate 4-3 and 5-4