This Week in the ECAC: March 13, 2003

Did we have some fun last weekend, or what?

Two road upsets and almost a third, a situation much different from last season, when all five home teams advanced to Lake Placid.

The upsets produced some interesting matchups for the ECAC quarterfinals. We head to Ithaca, Cambridge, Hanover and New Haven to see who will advance to Albany.

No. 5 Brown (14-11-5, 10-8-4) at No. 4 Yale (17-12-0, 13-9-0)

This Season: @Yale 4, Brown 3; @Brown 6, Yale 4

Playoff Meetings:
1993 Quarterfinals: @Brown; No. 4 Brown over No. 5 Yale 3-3, 5-3
1991 First Round: @Brown; No. 9 Yale 2, No. 8 Brown 1

After just missing an opportunity for a bye week, fifth-place Brown had its hands full knocking off 12th-seeded Princeton in the first round. In an offensively stingy battle, the Bears scored all five of their goals in the third period to advance to a quarterfinal showdown with Yale in New Haven.

“As coaches we voted to put 12 teams in the playoffs for a reason,” said Brown head coach Roger Grillo. “[Princeton] isn’t a bad team by any means, and we emphasized that all week to the guys. Our guys handled it well. We played tentatively at times. We played nervous at times, and it showed early in the games last weekend. The fact that they were tough games and close games makes us that much more prepared for this series.”

Despite their lower seed, the Bears have to feel comfortable with the draw considering that Brown and Yale have split their two games this season. In the first contest in New Haven, Yale’s Chris Higgins’ hat trick helped propel the Bulldogs to a 4-3 win. The second time these two teams met, it was a shootout as Brown pulled out the 6-4 win to even the regular-season series.

Grillo, for one, feels that his team has an advantage in that it gained momentum from last weekend’s victories. Heading into the first round of playoffs, the Bears had been winless in their previous three games.

“I think that our guys looked good this week and have a jump in their step because of the confidence gained in the series,” said Grillo. “We feel good about having that series under our belts. We are missing two guys right now and everybody is banged up at this time of the year. Our depth is key, and we do have a large group of quality players.”

While netminder Yann Danis was solid once again — he stopped 72 of 74 shots in the two games — Brown received offensive contributions from an unlikely source in Chris Swon. Heading into the Princeton series, Swon had registered just two goals and four assists on the year. The sophomore forward came up huge when it counted, delivering the game-tying tally on Friday night and then following up with the game winner on Saturday.

“We are pretty confident going into this weekend, and it will come down to which team imposes its game plan and who executes,” said Grillo. “This is a situation where it comes down to what we have done thus far. The focus this week has been on us. We need to play to our strengths and just be real solid defensively. We need to play with confidence and energy. That is critical for our team.”

Defensive strength is no doubt a critical factor for Brown considering the fact that Yale hasn’t had much trouble scoring against the Bears this year. Only Clarkson scored as many goals (eight) against Brown during the regular season.

“As good as Danis is, we managed to get four goals against them in the first game and in the one we lost, we were held to four goals and gave up six,” said Yale head coach Tim Taylor. “Common sense tells me that four goals should win a hockey game, and shame on us for giving up six goals. Brown is a very patient team and a blue-collar team. They’ve got balance in their lineup and they play a lot of different players each night. They play a very responsible system.”

After earning a fourth place finish in the ECAC with a 13-9 record — its highest finish in the conference since winning the 1997-98 title — Yale was the team most in need of a week off following a tough final stretch. After two straight road series, the Bulldogs finished off with a pair of home games against Cornell and a very motivated Colgate squad.

Yet Taylor would have rather had his kids on the ice playing through the three-game losing streak.

“If we had our druthers, we would play right through the bye,” said Taylor. “As a coaching staff, we’ve done some things to keep it loose and make them want to come to the rink. We gave them a couple days off so that they would be well rested, but you always worry this time a year. Everyone wants to play games. Having a layoff leads to an accumulation of a certain amount of rust and you can lose your momentum. You can’t always imitate what game intensity is required.”

This weekend will mark the postseason debut of freshman goaltender Josh Gartner, who took over the role as starter midway through the season. The once-backup netminder now ranks 15th in the country in save percentage (.916) and 16th in winning percentage (.667).

While Gartner provides stability on the defensive side of the ice, Yale will need to assert itself offensively early. To date the Bulldogs are 17-6 when they score first, winless when opponents do. As a result, attention will focus on Yale’s top two lines, specifically Higgins. The All-American candidate finished the regular season with 38 points, which translates into a league best 1.52 points per game.

That top line of Higgins, Nick Deschenes and Vin Hellemeyer will be shadowed by Brown’s strong checking lines.

“Korbl and his linemates do a great job of shutting down the other team’s top lines,” said Taylor. “We need to see if we can work around that. Danis has the best save percentage and is a proven winner and we are going to have to work hard to get our points. It could very well come down to goaltending.”

Prediction — Home ice will be key in this series. Unlike other teams, the Bulldogs aren’t intimidated by Brown’s defensive reputation and will utilize their own depth offensively. If Gartner can hold tight in net, Yale should advance to Albany in two. Yale 5-3, 3-1

No. 8 Colgate (14-16-4, 9-10-3) at No. 3 Dartmouth (17-11-1, 13-9-0)

This Season: @Dartmouth 6, Colgate 2; @Colgate 2, Dartmouth 1, ot

Playoff Meetings:
2002 First Round: @Dartmouth; No. 4 Dartmouth over No. 7 Colgate 5-4 (2ot), 4-1
1993 Preliminary Game: @Dartmouth; No. 9 Colgate 4, No. 8 Dartmouth 3 (2ot)

The Raiders took three games to down St. Lawrence and with some upsets in the playoffs, the Raiders wind up facing Dartmouth in the quarterfinals, instead of heading to Cornell or Harvard.

“We’re just happy to be playing,” said coach Don Vaughan. “We were prepared to go to Lynah or Bright, but we’re just thrilled to be still playing after a real tough weekend here at home. Just the fact that we’re going to be lacing them up next weekend is great for us.”

The Raiders and the Big Green meet once again in Hanover, just one year removed from a series that could have gone either way in the first game. The Big Green won game one in double overtime, leading to a sweep of the Raiders and advancement to Lake Placid.

“I’m not sure revenge will factor into it,” said Vaughan. “That was last year, and this is a whole new season. This team has matured a little bit, and we know that Dartmouth has as well. Dartmouth’s a very deserving team of earning one of the byes this year.”

The Big Green have been idle since the end of the regular season, the prize for having a solid regular season. So what do you do with the week off? Is it beneficial?

“It’s the first time that I’ve been involved with something like this where you play really hard and then have a break like this,” said coach Bob Gaudet. “We want to stay in shape and we can have good quality practices, short, but intense, and get enough rest and not overdo it. We can really have high energy, short duration practices to keep the guys sharp so the break won’t affect us adversely without us playing.”

“It’s been a fun year for me because it’s such a young team and we have some veteran players. I’m pleased with the older guys for bringing in the younger guys and assimilating them into what we’re trying to do. They’ve been focused and matured as the season went on. We’ve played some good hockey, there are some games that we want back and now we play at home, which is something that we wanted to do and the bye is a bonus. We have a chance to heal and to get through exams.”

But is the bye an advantage or not?

“The bye can really help you. If you’re banged up and sore the rest is really great,” Vaughan said. “If you’re playing well and on a roll, however, you want to keep playing. I would think that as the series unfolds, all that will be a wash. I am fully expecting Dartmouth to be prepared and ready to play.”

The Big Green have gotten offense and solid goaltending from Nick Boucher to take them to the bye as the season ended.

“Goaltending is where you have a stretch that you seem focused and the puck is hitting you and that’s what happened with Nick,” said Gaudet. “He’s a game player and he’s a winner. But he’s kept it in perspective because all that matters is playing well and coming up with the performance in each individual game. His focus is on each puck and how to stop it, not what’s in the past and what’s in the future, and that’s helped him.

“The team has played well in front of him and they’ve clamped down. We’ll make mistakes, but I like the way the team is playing. Our defensive corps has done a nice job back there.”

The Big Green will face an advantage at home in the confines of Thompson Arena where the Big Green are 12-3-0, with losses to Vermont, Union and Harvard.

“It’s nice to be playing at home, especially given our history this year,” said Gaudet. “I’m confident our team will play hard. Our guys understand that we have to have our ‘A’ game or else we’ll get what we deserve.”

“We know what to expect,” said Vaughan. “I have a lot of respect for their team. They’re tough at home, so we’ve got our hands full. But we’ve got to stick to our game and get our energy level back up to where it needs to be. It’s tough on the road, and we know that, but it’s playoff hockey.”

Prediction — No doubt, the Big Green are a different team at home. The Raiders will hang tough, but the Big Green advance to Albany. Dartmouth 5-3, 4-2

No. 10 Vermont (13-18-3, 8-14-0) at No. 2 Harvard (19-8-2, 17-4-1)

This Season: @Harvard 4, Vermont 2; Harvard 5, @Vermont 2
Playoff Meetings:
1996 Semifinal: No. 6 Harvard 4, No. 1 Vermont 3
1989 Semifinal: No. 6 Vermont 3, No. 1 Harvard 2, ot
1988 Consolation: No. 1 Harvard 7, No. 4 Vermont 1

Harvard has taken both games from Vermont this year, once back in November and the other as recently as late February. It has also been nearly two decades since the Catamounts have defeated Harvard in a playoff situation. So with that said, why is this such an intriguing matchup?

The answer has to do in part with styles of play. On one hand, Harvard has been extremely successful this season with team speed and counterattacks. Meanwhile, the Catamounts have made a strong late-season run due in part to the team’s ability to maintain pressure on its opponents and capitalize on extra-man advantages.

“They play hard both ways and they give us a lot of trouble,” said Harvard head coach Mark Mazzoleni. “One thing that UVM has is a tremendous home-ice advantage when they play [in Burlington]. They get a lot of momentum and it starts to snowball. I was very pleased with the way we played in the third period of that game up there. We played well defensively and we were able to counter the charge they made at us.”

In that particular contest at Gutterson Fieldhouse, Harvard jumped out to a 3-0 advantage, sustained a two-goal second-period rush by the Catamounts and then secured the victory with two empty-net goals in the final two minutes of play. It wasn’t a blowout by any means and the memory of that close contest is not far from the thoughts of the Crimson coaching staff.

“We need to play well defensively. They have been able to generate a lot of odd man rushes on us,” explained Mazzoleni. “We have to make sure that we make good decisions. If we don’t, they are a good at countering that. They play a system where they have a forward back at all times. If you don’t get through or make a mistake, they counter down your throats.”

The Crimson will be bolstered by its bye week, which has allowed many of its players to recover from nagging injuries. Aside from Brendan Bernakevitch, who is doubtful for this weekend, the team should be intact on Friday night.

“I think the good side [of the bye weekend] is the chance to heal injuries, and we had our share at the time. That’s a positive,” said Mazzoleni. “You also get to address some things that you don’t normally get to practice so you can refine some areas in case you need to use them. On the other end, [Thursday] will be our eighth practice in a row. We need to play games.”

The team has also focused attention on honing its penalty kill. The man-down situations will be a key in this series since Vermont heads into the contest tied for third in the league with a 20.2 percent power-play mark and has scored at least one power-play goal in four straight games.

“If we aren’t disciplined and take penalties, they’ll make them count,” said Mazzoleni. “They play a very up-tempo style of play where they are continuously coming at you. You have to play good team defense against them. The game they would like to play is back and forth, where we like to play hard defensively and then counterattack as quickly as we can and catch them in transition.”

While Harvard weighs its game plan for this weekend, Vermont is still basking in yet another strong playoff victory at Cheel Arena. The team entered last weekend’s series with the league’s best playoff record against Clarkson and continued its dominance. Vermont has won four of five postseason games against Clarkson in the last three seasons. This time around, the Catamounts clung to a tentative 2-1 lead in the waning moments, then iced the game with a bizarre Jaime Sifers goal with 52 seconds left.

The freshman defenseman, who earned ECAC Rookie of the Week honors after scoring a goal in each of the two games last weekend, wristed a 160-foot shot towards the net just as Mike Walsh was trying to get off the ice. The puck found its way through several Clarkson defenders before hitting the back of the net. The Catamounts then used that first-game momentum to cruise to a 6-1 win the next night.

“The guys had more juice in practice this week,” said Vermont head coach Mike Gilligan. “It was a great ride home after beating a Clarkson team that, on a good night, could beat anyone. They have had some problems this year with losing their coach early on. They probably weren’t the same Clarkson team as we have seen in the past and we took advantage of that.”

In that second game against Clarkson, it’s important to note that Shawn Conschafter came up with 23 saves in the first 40 minutes to help set the stage for the five-goal third period by the Catamounts. In addition to strong goaltending, Vermont has relied heavily on its special teams play. While it has been successful with an extra man, its penalty kill unit has been spotty at best. This fact becomes all the more important considering Harvard is coming off a stretch of six games where it has scored nine power-play goals in 27 attempts.

“We have been stressing the fact that we need to stay out of the box,” said Gilligan. “Our penalty kill is one thing that has worried me. It’s been decent lately, but it was just awful during the first half of the year.”

Although without home-ice advantage, the Catamounts expect their fans to travel to Boston for this ECAC playoff showdown.

“We are excited to come to Boston. We usually play well down there,” said Gilligan. “We think that we’ll have a few hundred fans down there. There are a lot of alums in the area and a lot of family ties there as well. The kids like to play well in front of their families.”

Gilligan realizes that his team will need a strong fan base to take on the second-ranked Crimson.

“They are a highly skilled team and if you give them room, they are tough to beat.”

Prediction — Playing after a long stretch of being idle is nothing new for Harvard. Since the Crimson battled well following the January exam break, expect Harvard to come out strong in this series. Vermont will keep it close at times, but Harvard will continue its dominance at home. Harvard 4-2, 5-2

No. 11 Rensselaer (12-23-3, 4-15-3) at No. 1 Cornell (24-4-1, 19-2-1)

This Season: Cornell 3, @Rensselaer 2; @Cornell 5, Rensselaer 0

Playoff Meetings:
2002 Semifinal: No. 1 Cornell 3, No. 5 Rensselaer 0
1998 First Round: @Rensselaer; No. 8 Cornell over No. 3 Rensselaer 5-4, 0-3, 5-4
1997 Semifinal: No. 2 Cornell 5, No. 4 Rensselaer 3
1990 Semifinal: No. 2 Rensselaer 3, No. 3 Cornell 2
1985 Semifinal: No. 1 Rensselaer 5, No. 4 Cornell 1
1977 Quarterfinal: No. 3 Cornell 7, No. 6 Rensselaer 5
1974 Third Place: No. 4 Cornell 8, No. 8 Rensselaer 2
1973 Quarterfinal: No. 1 Cornell 9, No. 8 Rensselaer 3

Cornell probably didn’t think it would have to prepare for another series with RPI. Yet, after the Engineers delivered the biggest upset of the first round, the Big Red will have to open its barn to the league’s 11th seed.

“We played them just a couple of weeks ago here, and we have a pretty good feel for who their players are,” Cornell head coach Mike Schafer told the Albany Times-Union. “They’ve got some pretty good players with [Danny] Eberly and Scott Basiuk back on defense and a good goaltender in Nathan Marsters. They’ve got some good, solid forwards. And obviously, they’re playing well right now.”

RPI indeed saved its best hockey for the end. It has been one of those years for the Engineers in which the bounces never seemed to come their way. Heading into last weekend’s playoff series against Union, the Engineers had won just one of their last 15 games and had sunk to 11th place in the league.

If you’re head coach Dan Fridgen, that’s the time when you thank the 12 ECAC coaches for revising the playoff system to give you one last chance.

With that last breath of life, RPI took advantage of its unique home-away-from-home series against travel partner Union by demonstrating its most disciplined and opportunistic hockey of the season. On Friday night, the Engineers scored on two breakaways midway through the game and then rode the back of Marsters to the end.

“I thought it was a very well played game on both ends. It was wide open at times and tight checking at times,” said Fridgen. “We ran the gamut of every situation there was in that game. We got a couple of goals up on them and held the lead, did a great job of keeping the shots to the outside and playing defensively. When we did give up some gap and some opportunities, Nate [Marsters] was there to make the saves for us.”

The following night, the Engineers relied on downright wackiness to close out the series. Who would have thought that a team that had earned only 11 league points during the regular season could notch two shorthanded tallies to send Union packing?

“It’s a funny game,” said Fridgen Saturday night. “You can almost call it a false sense of security when you go on the power play midway through a period with a 2-1 lead, and it just goes to show how quickly a game can turn around. We were fortunate to get a couple of bounces.”

That “couple of bounces” came off the stick of junior Ben Barr, who had been held scoreless in three straight games heading into Saturday night. Another star of the weekend was Marsters, who ended up with 37 saves on Friday and another 29 on Saturday. To put those stats into perspective, Kris Mayotte of Union made a total of 21 saves over two games.

Few would disagree that the Engineers will need a few bounces and a lot more shots on net if they are to take out league giant and national power Cornell.

The Big Red cruised to the regular-season title, finishing with a weekend sweep of Princeton and Yale. There were very few blemishes on the Big Red’s league schedule, so the question is, what kind of a threat can RPI present?

Despite the fact that Cornell crushed RPI, 5-0, in their last meeting, the Engineers have a way of getting under the Big Red’s skin … and Schafer knows that.

“Fortunately or unfortunately, games aren’t played on paper,” said the 2002 ECAC Coach of the year. “They’re 3-2 against WCHA teams, beating Wisconsin, St. Cloud and Minnesota-Duluth. They’re a young team, so they’re much better at the end of the year than they would be at the start.”

More than the other three host teams, Cornell has the biggest home-ice advantage. The Lynah fans will be loud and will be a factor. Put that together with the fact that the players have had an extra week to prepare for this series and you have one of the most formidable teams in college hockey right now.

“We’ve got a bunch of guys healthy,” said Schafer. “I think that what’s kind of been missing in our game a little big is a little emotion for the last few weeks. We’ve got a great jump back in our stride as far as some guys have really got their legs back under them. It’s been a great bye week for us to get prepared.”

When the puck drops in Ithaca on Friday night, the story will unfold. Will RPI take on the role of Cinderella, or will Cornell begin paving its way towards Buffalo?

Prediction — No matter how you slice it, you can’t think that the Engineers have much of a chance in this series. All the odds are stacked against them and for good reason. The Big Red are too strong. Cornell 4-1, 3-1

Thanks to Alex Clark and Adam Wodon for their contributions this week.