Last weekend in the ECAC: a quadruple-overtime game, two series going to three games, one upset — and a lot of fun heading to Albany this weekend.
Without further ado, here are the last four standing in the ECAC.
The Big Red
Go ahead, you can call Cornell the Big Red Machine. Or the Juggernaut. But what the Big Red would like to be called is “ECAC champion.”
After a weekend sweep of Rensselaer which showed its talent and team strengths, the Big Red continue on to Albany to meet with what many believe is the team’s destiny — a date with Harvard and a chance to exact revenge for the ECAC championship.
The Big Red did show one area in which it needs to improve this weekend — penalties. Cornell gave up numerous man-up opportunities to the Engineers, but the defense, penalty kill and ECAC Co-Player of the Year and Dryden winner David LeNeveu stood tall.
“They’re the most competitive and persistent of any hockey athletes that I have coached,” said Schafer about Stephen Baby and Doug Murray. “They take as pride in blocking shots as they do in scoring goals. They’ll also seniors and they’re making that kind of sacrifice, you know they’re going to have a good kind of team.
“David’s done it in so many different ways. There’s been games where he’s had relatively nothing to do and then there’s some nights where he’s had more to do when we’ve been sleepwalking in games,” said Schafer. “He’s done it both ways.”
The Big Red’s matchup on Friday with Brown could become a goaltenders’ duel. If so, it will come down to special teams and opportunities.
“We need patience and determination and being focused,” said Schafer. “This is their first time here and we hope to capitalize on their inexperience. Maybe the excitement of being here. From our standpoint, we have to be focused, do what we do well and be patient. We have to limit their scoring chances and capitalize on our opportunities.”
And then, if the Big Red get by the Bears, perhaps Harvard awaits.
“We talked about giving ourselves an opportunity, and it’s been a long haul in getting back here to give us that opportunity,” said Schafer. “It’s easy to say that we should be back in that game with the talent that we have, but it’s a totally different aspect to get back there.”
Cornell knows that it is going to the Big Dance, but the Big Red wants to do it as a number-one seed and with the title of ECAC champion.
Brown will have a few things to say about those Big Red ambitions, however. After playing themselves out of a first-round home-ice berth, the Bears have stormed back with two straight series wins, first against Princeton and then versus a very talented Yale squad.
“The first series we played competitive. This group of guys had not won a series and I thought we played tentative and very well,” said coach Roger Grillo. “To get through that series was a key for us because it gained us a ton of confidence.
“The three games against Yale were some of the best games that I have every coached in. The pace was up and down and it was great college hockey. To win that was a big boost, especially the way we won it in the third game because we lost a close game on Saturday and the guys could have been down and upset. But we played great in the third game and the guys are feeling great about what we have accomplished this year.”
The Bulldogs scores only five goals over three games as Brown netminder Yann Danis finished the weekend with a remarkable 110 saves. Just as important was the fact that the three-game series featured seven different Brown scorers. Depth of his roster was one of things that Grillo felt was a huge benefit for his team, especially down the stretch.
“If you look at all the teams that are here, there are certainly offensive guys, but … reality-wise, for all four teams it’s defense,” said Grillo. “Teams that win championships are great defensively and we feel great about our chances here.”
For the ride to continue for the Bears, they will have to get past one of the best teams in the country. After losing to Cornell earlier in the season, 5-0, and then fighting for a 2-2 stalemate back in February, the Bears are hoping that the third time’s the charm.
“You can’t let them force you into situations and you can’t turn the puck over,” said Grillo. “They force you to put the puck in a bad spot and make you pay for it. We have to be smart and we haven’t forced situations. The last couple of games we’ve won in the last 10 minutes so we’re poised for this style of hockey now.
“We’ve taken a lot of lumps along the way, but I felt all along that we were moving the right direction.”
The Big Green
It seemed like a replay of 2002. Game 1 of the quarterfinal series between Colgate and Dartmouth went into overtime — except this one went further than anyone expected before Colgate reversed last year’s decision and came up with the win.
But just like in 2002, the Big Green won game two, then went on to take out the upstart Raiders in Game 3 with four unanswered goals to erase a 2-1 Colgate lead.
“That overtime game seemed to go on and on and then Colgate scored a pretty goal,” said coach Bob Gaudet. “It was a series that every inch of ice was contested for and it was a shame that someone had to lose that series.”
The Big Green now head to Albany, a place few expected Dartmouth to be. After all, the ECAC head coaches had pegged the Big Green to finish in ninth place this season.
The team’s journey has not been a smooth one, including speculation about goaltending, a crazy home-ice run that featured huge wins over Boston College and Cornell and finally the remarkable comeback victory over Colgate to advance to the semifinals.
“We’ve got a young team and the seniors have taken the shoulder and led,” said Gaudet. “They’ve brought the young players together and found a way to get better and better as the season went on.
“We were picked to finish ninth and I was proud of the way the team matured. I was hoping that we would be playing our best hockey as the season went on and that’s what we’re doing right now.”
The Big Green have gotten massive contributions from players who had some experience and came through this year, such as Lee Stempniak, who was named honorable mention all-ECAC. Then there are freshman contributions, from ECAC Rookie of the Year Hugh Jessiman and reigning Rookie of the Week Mike Ouellette.
“They’ve just been great,” said Gaudet. “They became not-rookies after Christmas time. There was no class structure and we needed their involvement and production in order for us to be a solid team this year.
“I can’t say enough about the whole group of freshmen. Jessiman, there’s no question there, and Ouellette has been great not only offensively, but defensively.”
But backstopping the Big Green, the keys to success in Albany will be determined by the defense and Nick Boucher.
“He’s been real solid and he’s had a great year,” said Gaudet. “Everyone always seems to look at numbers, but as I told him, it’s about wins. He’s really put together a good string. He’s a real competitor and the most competitive goalie I’ve ever had.”
Can the Big Green do it? Realistically, the Big Green need to win it all to go to the Big Dance. And here’s an interesting note about this Ivy League showdown. Although the two teams have faced off nearly 175 times in history, this weekend marks only the second time they have met in postseason action.
“They’re an outstanding team and we have a lot of respect for them,” said Gaudet. “They’re strong, physical, they have a great goalie and we have to find some answers. They beat us fair and square the last time and they were better than us.
“But, I like our team and we’re ready to battle.”
Second-seeded Harvard is coming off a strong two-game victory over Vermont. In one of the most dominating quarterfinal performances, the Crimson combined an explosive offense with solid goaltending to cruise into Albany.
Surprisingly, the dominating figure for Harvard was Dennis Packard. The junior forward, who earlier this year suffered a broken hand, scored his first career hat trick on Friday to set the pace for his team.
The Crimson will look for another strong offensive performance from lines one through four in hopes of placing constant pressure on Boucher and the Big Green defense.
“What helped us last year in the tournament we had the opportunity to move up during the TV timeouts,” joked coach Mark Mazzoleni. “As much as you don’t want to say that, there were six per period, so it was like playing our fourth line.
“Last year we only played three lines and we only played five defenseman and this year we were able to add another class that was able to help us a lot. We had a much more competitive environment this season where people needed to be pushed.”
Often overshadowed by his team’s offensive strength and some of the other more highly-touted netminders such as LeNeveu and Danis, Grumet-Morris has been a stabilizing force for the team this season. The sophomore ranks second nationally in save percentage (.930) and is third in goals against average (2.19).
“He’s been our key and I think that’s been overlooked at times,” said Mazzoleni about Grumet-Morris. “We’re a good defensive team, but not a great defensive team, but he has made us a good defensive team and he gets overlooked even in our own league.”
Regardless of how this championship goes for the Crimson, the team has already made a statement to the league and to its followers. This season marks the first time that the team has boasted two 40-point scorers (Tim Pettit and Dom Moore) since 1994, and its 21 victories are the most by a Harvard squad since 1994.
“We’re going to have to play our best to beat Dartmouth,” said Mazzoleni. “Our kids respect Dartmouth and that’s why we played well against them. They’re very good in goal and they can score goals. We’re going to have to play our best.”
Could this be the return of the Harvard of old? This weekend will surely give us an answer.
The two semifinals seem to be opposites — one will be heavily defensive and the other will be up-and-down.
The Cornell-Brown affair should be a battle of goaltenders and come down to special teams. Dartmouth-Harvard will see plenty of chances.
Cornell defeats Brown, 2-0
Harvard defeats Dartmouth, 5-3
Consolation and Championship
Third Place: Dartmouth 4, Brown 2
Championship: in a rematch of last year, the Big Red come through to take the crown. Cornell 3, Harvard 2
A Fond Adieu
Loyal readers, thank you very much for sticking with us through a difficult year for both of us. We appreciate all the feedback, good and bad, and we want you to know that we very much appreciate you for coming back each week to check us out. So thank you again.
We do have to hand our thanks out to those that make this possible. If it were not for the time, patience and generosity of the coaches and student-athletes of the ECAC, this column would not be possible, nor would this league be so great.
Also, a big thank you to all the Sports Information Directors in the ECAC for being so kind, generous, and all-knowing about the league and their teams. Without them, this truly could not be accomplished.
A fond adieu until next season.