This Week in the ECAC West: March 6, 2003

Once again, the season has flown by in a blur and the playoffs are upon us. It has been an interesting season within the ECAC West, with plenty of twists and turns. The first game saw Manhattanville come storming back from a three-goal deficit to earn a 4-4 tie against Geneseo — and the last saw Elmira score the winning goal against that same Manhattanville team with only 1:37 remaining on the clock.

Oh, what a wild ride it has been.

This week’s focus is on the league playoffs, with a glance or two beyond at the NCAA bid process. In this week’s column, we’ll take a look at the twisted path that each of the four playoff teams took to get this far, the matches this weekend, and the NCAA Pool B bid process.

Coming out of the Tank

Elmira’s season was one of high, high peaks and low, low valleys. Entering the season, coach Tim Ceglarski knew that his young defensive corps and unproven goaltending would take some time to gel. That proved to be exactly what happened.

The Soaring Eagles started out with a disappointing 2-3 record, dropping a pair of games at St. Norbert to open the season, and earning only a split with Marian two weeks later.

Then things started to come together, and the victories followed. Elmira strung together an 11-1-1 record over the 13-game span following the loss to Marian, including an eight-game unbeaten streak. Buried within was a 10-1 crushing of Manhattanville. The Soaring Eagles were on top of the mountain in the ECAC West and were also climbing rapidly in the national polls.

The house of cards came tumbling down in a disastrous game on February 7 against Hobart. Elmira was up 4-1 midway through the second period at home, a place where a three-goal lead means almost-certain Soaring Eagle victory. Not only did the wheels come off the Elmira bus, but the transmission dropped out, the engine exploded, and the doors blew into the fields neighboring the Thunderdomes. Hobart came roaring back to win the game 6-5, and Elmira started on a devastating 0-3-1 skid, right in the heart of the league schedule.

Fortunately for Elmira, its next two games were against Neumann and the Soaring Eagles were able to regain some confidence. They fought through a tenacious Manhattanville squad in the final game of the year and are now on a three-game winning streak heading into the playoffs.

Blue Collar Workers

Hobart has been the poster child for hard work getting results this season. The Statesmen aren’t flashy. They don’t have the big scoring forwards or the eye-popping statistics. But they do have an excellent work ethic that has quietly earned results.

Hobart has tallied its first season with a winning record in ten years. In just three short seasons, coach Mark Taylor has taken Hobart from averaging slightly more than six wins per season to 14 victories so far this year. The turnaround is remarkable.

The Statesmen also achieved something this season they have never been able to do before. They defeated Elmira twice, sweeping the regular season.

The keys for Hobart this year have been attitude and work ethic. The players are having fun, enjoying the ride, and that attitude has been never-say-die every game.

Hobart as a team of blue-collar workers? The players bring their lunch boxes and sticks to the ice every day, work hard at their job, and help their teammates along the way.

That kind of an attitude will take this team far.

New Earned Respect

In each of the first three years of the team’s existence, Manhattanville has moved higher and higher in the standings. This year is no exception as the Valiants finished in second place.

Consistency has also been a hallmark of this year’s team, a key ingredient that previous Manhattanville teams have been lacking. The Valiants really only had two bad losses all year long. The 10-1 goaltending meltdown against Elmira was just a disaster from the opening face-off. The 2-1 loss against Lebanon Valley is the only other blight on an otherwise stellar record by Manhattanville this season.

The Valiants also had some big wins that continued to show the growth of this program. Manhattanville thumped RIT 7-2 in December, dominating the Tigers throughout the game. Wins over New England College and Potsdam also standout in the results.

The Valiants have looked a little shaky coming down the stretch, though. In two close games against Utica, Manhattanville needed an overtime, empty-net goal with two tenths of a second left to win one of them and only sneaked away with a narrow 4-3 victory in the other.

In its final regular season game, Manhattanville struggled against Elmira early. The Valiants had dug themselves a 4-1 hole by early in the second period, before charging back to tie the game 4-4. Manhattanville couldn’t finish off the dramatic comeback, gave up a 3-on-5 goal late in the game, and lost the game by a 5-4 final score.

An 18-5-2 record this season has the Valiants on the cusp of greatness.

Only Human?

For the first time in several years, not only is RIT showing vulnerabilities in league play, the Tigers may actually only be human. Some have come to take it for granted that things are usually settled by this time of year, and the ECAC West playoffs were mere formalities for RIT on the way to the NCAAs.

Not so this year, not by a long shot. RIT rattled off eight straight wins to start the season, but astute observers could tell that something was missing from this team. The Tigers ran into a hot Wentworth goaltender in late November, having to score two goals to salvage a come-from-behind tie, and that nagging feeling got even stronger.

The murmurs became shouts in early December when Manhattanville trounced RIT. The doubts grew dramatically. Was this finally the year that RIT faltered?

The middle of the season saw RIT play very well at times, but also struggle at other times. Two losses against the U.S. Under-18 team and another two bad losses against Oswego were sandwiched around wins against teams like Plattsburgh and Fredonia. The Tigers were definitely looking vulnerable.

RIT got on a roll as the league play picked up towards the end of the season. Sweeps of Hobart and Utica, and a win and tie against Elmira, secured the regular season title for the Tigers for the fifth straight year. But none of those victories were easy, and RIT is more vulnerable this season than any in recent memory.

ECAC West Semifinals

The semifinal games this weekend are repeats of the games played last weekend, something that has not happened in recent memory. Both games were close last weekend, and the playoff atmosphere will add to the intensity Friday.

No. 2 Manhattanville vs. No. 3 Elmira (3:30pm)

Elmira swept the regular season games between these two teams. The first, on January 25, was a 10-1 drubbing in which the Valiant goaltenders never got off the bus.

However, last Saturday’s rematch was a different story. Elmira stormed out to a 4-1 lead before Manhattanville came back strongly to tie the game by midway in the third period. Dean Jackson averted the imminent overtime by scoring with 97 ticks left on the clock to win the game for Elmira 5-4.

Elmira holds an 8-3 advantage in the all-time series between these two teams, but each game is a physical war. This is the fourth year in a row that these two teams have met in the semifinal round of the league playoffs. Elmira only holds a slim 2-1 lead in those three previous playoff contests.

No. 1 RIT vs. No. 4 Hobart (7:00pm)

RIT’s power play dominated the first game this season against Hobart on February 1. The special teams unit scored five goals on only eight opportunities as the Tigers rolled to an 8-2 victory.

The second meeting last Friday was much different. Hobart stayed out of the penalty box and the difference was very telling. The Statesmen scored the opening goal of the game, and then tenaciously came back twice from single-goal deficits to tie the game. RIT held a slim 4-3 lead late in the third period, before scoring two empty net goals to make the final score 6-3.

This is the fifth straight year that Hobart and RIT have met in the semifinal round of the playoffs. RIT has easily won each of those previous four meetings. But this is by far the most dangerous team Hobart has entered the playoffs with, and the aura of RIT invulnerability has been shattered.

This semifinal is no longer the easy route to the finals that it once was.

NCAA Pool B Considerations

The race this year for the coveted NCAA Pool B slot is the tightest it has ever been under this pool-based system. Elmira, Manhattanville, and RIT are all very much in the hunt this year, meaning that it all comes down to the ECAC West playoffs.

The criteria this year, as put forth in the NCAA 2003 Division III Men’s Ice Hockey Championship Handbook, are:

1.In region winning percentage
2.In region head to head results
3.In region results against common opponents
4.Strength of schedule as determined by in region opponent’s winning percentage
5.Results against teams already in the tournament

These are the same five criteria as last year, but there is a twist. Last season, the first three criteria were grouped together. That is no longer true. Also, note the following passage from the Handbook:

Note: The committee will review all five criteria in the order listed above. A team may have an excellent winning percentage, however, the strength of schedule and results against teams in the tournament must also be examined.

If criteria one through five are equal, the committee may consider the remainder of the institution’s schedule, including out-of-region play and competition against Division I and II institutions, and non-member institutions.

The gist of these paragraphs is that if two teams are close after the initial examination of all five criteria, contests against other teams not considered before may enter the picture. This may be important for both Elmira and RIT, which played several games against out-of-region and/or non-NCAA teams.

Criteria four and five are very hard to evaluate at this time. Criteria four, Strength of Schedule, can be affected by the games this weekend depending on who matches up against whom. Unfortunately, I don’t have a place to set up a model of the USCHO game database and evaluate the possible what-if scenarios accurately.

Currently, Elmira leads the way in Criteria four, with RIT a little behind, and Manhattanville a bit farther back.

Criteria five may help or hinder each of the three teams here, depending on who wins out in the other leagues. Currently, St. Norbert is in the tournament, and this hurts Elmira, which lost twice to the Green Knights early in the season.

All three teams have played games against Oswego, Plattsburgh, Lebanon Valley, and Wentworth. Which of those teams wins the SUNYAC and ECAC NE playoffs will determine how criteria five works out.

So, given those caveats, let’s look at a few scenarios and see who gets the bid. All matchups given below are for the championship game.

Scenario 1: RIT beats Elmira
Scenario 2: RIT beats Manhattanville

For RIT, it’s “win and you’re in.” Either of these two scenarios result in the Tigers getting the Pool B bid. RIT would own a significant advantage in winning percentage and the common opponents criteria. RIT would also own a head-to-head advantage versus the team it just beat for the championship.

Scenarion 3: Elmira beats RIT

This scenario is a dead heat between Elmira and RIT for the Pool B bid. The two teams would have the same winning percentage and would have split head-to-head. RIT has a slight edge in common opponents, but Elmira would lead in the strength of schedule department.

The determining factor could come down to who wins the SUNYAC tournament. If Oswego wins, the advantage goes to Elmira. A Plattsburgh victory tilts the scale to RIT’s favor.

Scenario 4: Elmira beats Hobart

Elmira would take winning percentage and strength of schedule in this scenario. Head-to-head is a wash and common opponents is a muddled mess with all three teams winning at least one comparison combination.

With the added intangible of winning the conference playoffs, Elmira would most likely get the bid in this scenario.

Scenario 5: Manhattanville beats RIT

This is another scrum. RIT would still be tops in winning percentage and common opponents. Head-to-head is a three-way pile of spaghetti with all three teams winning one comparison. A Valiant victory in this scenario would move the strength of schedule for all three teams very close, but Elmira might still have a slight edge.

A Wentworth victory in the ECAC NE playoffs would dramatically help Manhattanville’s case because they defeated the Leopards while RIT only tied them.

Scenario 6: Manhattanville beats Hobart

This scenario is similar to number five, but Manhattanville comes out on top in winning percentage here. Elmira would be the only clear cut winner in head-to-head records, and common opponents would wash out. Strength of schedule is also very close.

In both these scenarios, Manhattanville can make a claim for the Pool B bid, but it is a little shaky based mainly on the two losses to Elmira during the regular season. The Valiants would have to hope that past trends hold, and the NCAA continues the pattern of never leaving a league champion out of the NCAAs.

Scenario 7: Hobart beats Elmira
Scenario 8: Hobart beats Manhattanville

In the past, even discussing these two scenarios might have made readers chuckle. But not this season, as Hobart has shown that it belongs in the playoffs. However, the Statesmen themselves do not have a legitimate claim on the Pool B bid under any scenario.

In either scenario, RIT would take the winning percentage criteria. Elmira (over Manhattanville) and RIT (over Elmira) would each have a claim on a comparison in the head-to-head category.

Scenario 7 gives RIT and Manhattanville each a claim in the common opponents category. Scenario 8 probably tilts this category in RIT’s favor as the extra loss for Elmira now gives RIT a better record compared to both teams.

A Hobart victory in the championships makes the strength of schedule criteria cloudy. If the Statesmen win, the Selection Committee could have a long night ahead of them.

There are the eight possible scenarios for this coming weekend. Very few provide a clear cut choice for the Pool B bid. The difficulty of evaluating the criteria shows just how close Elmira, Manhattanville, and RIT are this year, and illustrates the shame that the ECAC West isn’t eligible for a second team to get into the NCAAs through a Pool C bid. But we will have to (not so) patiently wait for the 2005-2006 season before that change takes effect.