This Week in the ECAC: Oct. 30, 2003

We’re one week closer to a full slate of ECAC games, but in the meantime, we have plenty of action ahead of us this weekend. Highlighting the schedule is the first league game of the year as Harvard and Brown renew their traditional rivalry. So, without further ado, let’s jump right into the fray.

And They’re Off …

The exhibition games are in the rear-view mirror.

The scrimmages are complete.

When Harvard and Brown hit the ice Saturday at Bright Hockey Center, everything counts — the goals, the assists, the wins and the losses.

“This is a big game for us,” said Brown coach Roger Grillo. “It is our first real game, our first Ivy League game and the first ECAC game.”

The Bears, who have not lost to the Crimson in this traditional opener since 2000, enter the contest after posting an exhibition win over Trois-Rivieres (4-0) that has served as their only game action to date.

“I thought it was the perfect type of game for us,” said Grillo. “They skated well and were a skilled team. We were good considering we only had a week of practice.

“We had some nice creativity with the puck. We were solid defensively and made adjustments pretty quickly.”

The Crimson, meanwhile, find themselves in the same situation, having played in just one contest, an 8-0 exhibition win over Guelph that was less competitive than even the score implies.

“It was nice to get it in before the start (of the season),” said Harvard coach Mark Mazzoleni. “I thought we played progressively better, but were really flat for the first period and a half.

“The only way to get better is to play.”

And play they will.

The annual ECAC opener pits more than just travel partners. It’s a matchup of the preseason favorite, Harvard, and a program that Grillo has rejuvenated — one that, with All-America goaltender Yann Danis in place, has a realistic chance to be sitting in first place come February 28.

“We’re a quick team,” said Grillo, “with good speed up front. The games are a grind these days, but we’ll be better offensively and solid defensively.”

Last year’s edition made it to the ECAC semifinals, an accomplishment that surprised many, but didn’t satisfy Grillo and the Bears.

“Some parts of last season were positive,” he explained, “but we left Albany upset with the way we played. It left a bitter taste in some guys’ mouths and they worked hard all summer to get back.”

That extra motivation is something opponents will get a quick sense of this season and Mazzoleni knows what to expect.

“Brown is a hard-working, disciplined hockey team,” he said. “They’ll try to outwork you and they have Danis.”

Grillo, too, knows what his club will be up against on the first day of November.

“They are not the preseason favorites for no reason,” he said. “They have a lot of guys back, are skilled at every position and have good depth.

“Work ethic and intensity will be key for us. This early in the season, making the fewest mistakes is key. We’ll need to take care of the puck.”

Another big challenge for the Bears will be making up for the loss of Les Haggett, who remains sidelined for another week, possibly two, after getting his knee scoped. The junior was Brown’s second-leading scorer (13 goals, 33 points) last season and his absence will make competing with Harvard’s firepower more difficult.

Of course, the Bears do have a great equalizer between the pipes in Danis, who will start Saturday and still conjures images of his 66-save, double-overtime performance at Bright in the 2002 ECAC playoffs.

“No surprise there,” said Grillo in reference to who his goalie will be this weekend. Danis also posted a season-opening shutout against Harvard (4-0) last season in Providence.

And despite wanting to give sophomore John Daigneau more action this season, Mazzoleni will counter Saturday with junior Dov Grumet-Morris.

“I’m the kind of coach who will always give the key opportunities to the older kids,” said Mazzoleni, stressing the importance of the experience his Crimson leaders possess. Even so, he notes, expect to see Daigneau play the following week at either Dartmouth or Vermont.

The Roll Continues

It may still be early in the season, but the Union Dutchmen are gathering wins and confidence at a record pace. Continuing the best start in its Division I history (4-0-1), Union notched a win and a tie at Bowling Green last weekend.

“I was happy with it,” said Dutchmen head coach Nate Leaman. “We faced some good adversity on the road. Bowling Green’s record (1-4-1) says nothing about how good they are.

“We went down a defenseman on the second shift of the first game and we had to play with just the five. On the second night, we had to kill off lots of penalties, but it was the best (game) we’ve played all year.”

They’ll need to keep up that pace, especially against their Friday opponents, No. 3 New Hampshire.

“They have a lot of team speed,” said Leaman about the Wildcats, “and a great transition game. I’m glad we’ve faced good opponents on the road already because we know what to expect on the road.”

Leaman also stressed the importance of not making many adjustments going into the contest, despite the larger ice surface at UNH, but instead simply playing the type of game that has gotten Union to this point.

“They have an advantage,” he said in reference to the larger sheet, “and they spread you out and split their defense well. We have to be sound defensively and stay together on the ice. And stay disciplined.”

UNH has been excellent on specialty teams, scoring 10 power-play goals in just four games. In addition, both of junior Sean Collins’ tallies have come shorthanded.

If that wasn’t enough to keep Leaman up nights, there’s also the little issue of senior netminder Mike Ayers.

“We have to get to him,” said the coach, “somehow. He is as good as they get in net and he certainly showed that in the national tournament last year.”

Ayers is 2-1-0 with a 2.01 goals against average (GAA) and .910 save percentage this season. He has a career mark of 43-12-7 and last season posted seven shutouts with a 2.18 GAA and .926 save percentage.

Union’s other opponent this weekend, Bentley, isn’t the same type of foe, but Leaman says the Dutchmen still need to be focused if they expect to win.

“We need to be good,” he said, “and concentrate on our game. When we played (Atlantic Hockey member) AIC, we were not real sharp mentally.”

Despite being named ECAC Goaltender of the Week and having a 0.97 GAA and .967 save percentage, sophomore Kris Mayotte isn’t set in stone as the starter this weekend.

“We’re evaluating it day-by-day,” Leaman explained, “and practice-by-practice. We’re letting them (Mayotte and classmate Tim Roth) battle it out and compete in practice. We’ll see who is the sharpest and then decide.”

Health-wise, sophomore defenseman Scott Wheeler’s injured knee makes him day-to-day, while senior Glenn Sanders will be out with a shoulder injury.

Pack Your Bags, Ivies

Princeton and Yale each open their seasons this weekend with tough road trips out West. The Tigers travel to St. Cloud for a pair of games against the No. 13 Huskies, while the Bulldogs face an even tougher challenge in Grand Forks against No. 2 North Dakota.

Princeton, like its fellow Ivies, has a few weeks of practice and one exhibition game under its belt as it faces more game-tested opponents. In this case, the Tigers, who struggled in the early going against Guelph before rebounding to win (6-4), will be looking to slow up undefeated St. Cloud State (3-0-1).

“After digging ourselves a hole in the first five minutes,” said Princeton coach Len Quesnelle about allowing three goals in the first 6:31 to Guelph, “we battled back.

“But we were not prepared and just didn’t go.”

It’ll be tougher to come back against St. Cloud, he recognizes, and as a result, the Tigers need to be ready from the start.

“They are quick up front and that’s important since they play on a big surface,” said Quesnelle about the Olympic-sized ice the Huskies call home. “We need to have smart play away from the puck and be patient. When we don’t have possession, we need to have good positioning and when we do have the puck, we need to use the extra space to our advantage.”

Sophomore Eric Leroux, who was 0-9-0 with a 4.30 GAA and .884 save percentage last season, has been announced as the starter between the pipes for the Tigers on Friday. Junior Trevor Clay, who was 3-8-0 with a 4.73 GAA and .879 save percentage in 2002-03, will serve as the backup.

On the injury front, Princeton will be without sophomore defenseman Seamus Young (two goals, nine points last year) while classmate Mark Masters remains questionable.

The Eli, who flew out to North Dakota Thursday afternoon, didn’t get quite as much out of their exhibition game.

“I was pleased with the result,” said Yale head coach Tim Taylor. “We played well after we knocked some of the kinks out. Unfortunately, (Guelph) was not a very challenging opponent. We had the puck most of the night and didn’t get to test ourselves defensively, without the puck.”

They will most certainly be tested in Grand Forks, were Yale will be looking for a measure of revenge after last season’s 7-3 home-opening loss in a fight-filled contest against North Dakota.

That night, as Taylor explained, “we were down 2-1 (going into the third period) before the roof caved in.”

The cave-in came in the form of five third-period Sioux goals, including a trio of tallies in the first 5:06 of the final stanza.

That same potential explosiveness exists with this year’s North Dakota squad, but unlike a season ago, when the Bulldogs were driven by their offense, coming back from large margins may not be quite so easy in 2003-04.

“They are a strong offensive team,” said Taylor, “and they will have the puck a lot. We have youngsters on defense, it isn’t our strength, but we got away with being an offensive team (last year).

“This year, with graduations and the loss of Chris Higgins, we’re a different team … more defensive.”

The Eli will be without Higgins’ 20 goals and 41 points, Evan Wax’s 18 goals and 37 points and Nick Deschenes’ 19 points. As a result, they’ll need to play a tighter game and will rely heavily on a defensive unit that is not only without graduates Stacey Bauman, Greg Boucher and Bryan Freeman (who each played more than 30 games last year), but boasts only two upperclassmen — senior Jeff Dwyer and junior Joe Callahan.

What the Yale players do have this season, however, is added motivation to prove critics wrong.

“We’re looking forward to this year,” said Taylor. “We’ve been bombarded with all the questions about what we’re going to do without Higgins and our players are sick of hearing about it. Tired of others thinking we can’t win without him. The players want to prove something.

“We’ve told them all along, we don’t replace him with one guy, we do it as a team.”

A large factor in whether the added motivation and the new look can surprise the league, as last year’s edition did, lies squarely between the pipes with the continued development of sophomore Josh Gartner.

Playing in 20 games last season, he posted an 11-7-0 record with a 2.54 GAA and .917 save percentage. Splitting time with him was Peter Cohen, who played in the Sioux game and finished the year at 7-6-0, but with a considerably higher 3.78 GAA and .865 save percentage.

A strong start by Gartner will provide a boost to Yale and may solve one of the club’s question marks.

“He’s the incumbent, so he’ll start Friday,” said Taylor. Cohen may play as well, explained the coach, but that’s a decision he’ll make after the first game in the series.

Taylor is also high on rookie Matt Modelski, who will not make the trip out West.

“He will get an opportunity. He’s too good not to play.”

Staying Put

Cornell and Dartmouth also open their seasons this weekend, but each remains at home after exhibition contests that had different results.

The Big Red, 7-2 winners over the U.S. Under-18 Team, host Western Michigan, a program with close ties to all three members of the Cornell coaching staff.

Head coach Mike Schafer was an assistant under Bill Wilkinson before returning to Cornell. Assistant Scott Garrow, in his second stint with the Big Red, is a 1992 graduate of WMU and was an assistant with the Broncos for the last four seasons. Cornell assistant Brent Brekke graduated from Western Michigan in 1994.

Given all the connections, is there an extra incentive for the Cornell crew when playing the Broncos?

“I have great feelings for the hockey program,” said Schafer, “but I have bad feelings for the University. Western Michigan did a lot for me and a lot of my feelings are for Bill Wilkinson. He was a boss and a mentor.

“I was disappointed with how the University dealt with him, a guy that started the program. I still hold a grudge against the school. I was very disappointed … I’m still disappointed.”

Wilkinson is now head coach at Wayne State, a program he’s took from six wins in 1999-2000 to yearly totals of 18, 21 and 21 since then.

But we digress …

Last season, the Big Red swept a December weekend series in Kalamazoo by 6-1 and 3-2 (ot) scores. This year, the Broncos, having already played six games (2-3-1) will have the upper hand in terms of game-experience.

“Early in the season,” said Schafer, “there are lots of details that take a while to sort out. The effort and determination has been good, but we are still a long way away. We made lots of turnovers (in the exhibition game).

Against WMU, Schafer continued, “we need to limit the turnovers in the neutral zone, especially early, and limit their chances. We also need to play very physical, something we didn’t do last year.

“They have a talented group of forwards up front and good team speed. They are a great opponent for us to start off the season.”

Both senior Todd Marr, 2-2-0 with a 1.76 GAA and .932 save percentage last year, and rookie David McKee played in the exhibition game last weekend. Schafer has yet to decide, however, on who will start Friday.

Meanwhile, in Hanover, Dartmouth will look to bounce back from their exhibition loss to a strong St. Francis Xavier club as they open the season against Holy Cross.

“We played a good team,” said Dartmouth coach Bob Gaudet, “and we got exactly what we wanted. We were able to see our young guys in key situations. The kids did a good job and gained some experience. We treated it like a regular game and it was a good trial run.”

Many thought the Big Green had a good shot at sneaking by Harvard and Cornell to capture the ECAC Tournament title last season. Disappointed in losing in the semifinals to the Crimson, Dartmouth will be looking to make a championship a reality this year. With, arguably, the best collection of young talent in the league, they could do just that.

This year’s squad is hurt by some key losses both up front and on defense, where workhorses Pete Summerfelt (2-28-30 in 2002-03), Trevor Byrne (8-16-24) and P.J. Martin (2-11-13) will need to be replaced. That trio of blueliners, instrumental in the resurgence of the program, logged a considerable amount of ice time.

“Byrne and Summerfelt played about 30 minutes a game,” explained Gaudet, “and P.J. played a lot of the remainder.”

The names everyone focuses on with this club, however, are up front.

A year ago, Lee Stempniak scored 21 goals and notched 29 points. Mike Ouellette posted 14 tallies and 35 points. Hugh Jessiman picked up 23 goals and 47 points.

They are all back, Stempniak as a junior and Ouellette and Jessiman entering their sophomore seasons.

“Jessiman and Stempniak came back stronger,” said Gaudet. “We expect them to continue on in their development. Last year, Jessiman skated at about 195 (pounds), this year’s he’s up to a solid 215.

“Everyone seems stronger. Even (sophomore Eric) Przepiorka, who isn’t a big guy (5-9), is stronger on his feet.”

They’ll be put to the test against Holy Cross this Saturday before Dartmouth opens ECAC play against Brown on November 7. Like other Ivy opponents this weekend, the Big Green will be facing a better-tested opponent.

“It’s more frustrating than it used to be,” said Gaudet. “It used to be that just some teams played earlier. Now, all the teams are playing more. Initially, it is tough and you have to be patient, but after a few weeks, it settles out.”

In the meantime, the Big Green will need to perform well in a few days, not weeks.

“They are a good team,” said Gaudet about a Crusaders (2-2-1) club coached by Paul Pearl, a former assistant of his at Brown. “They have a lot of games under their belts already and we have a lot of holes to fill. The only way to tell where we are is to play.

“They will challenge us, but we have to be consistent. We’ll need to limit turnovers and unforced errors coming out of our zone or odd-man rushes that result from trying to force things in the offensive zone.

“We need to play smart and disciplined and only try to control the things we can control. We probably have some rust, but you can’t duplicate game situations in practice.”

Another question that remains unanswered for Dartmouth, thanks to the graduation of Nick Boucher, is who will play in goal.

“I’m at a bit of a quandary with what to do,” admitted Gaudet, a stellar netminder in his own right when he played for the Big Green.

“Dan Yacey (1-1-1, 2.15, .932 in 2002-03) has been there when called upon. Darren Gastrock (2-3-0, 3.62, .867 last year) has done a good job for us and played some big games. And Sean Samuel is young, but has shown good signs of being very solid.

“I just hope I make the right call on the goalies,” Gaudet joked. “Sometimes I wish I had a crystal ball.”

For now, Gaudet said he isn’t sure whom he’ll start, but senses it will be Yacey against Holy Cross.

One Point for the North Country

When two nationally-ranked teams, Colorado College and Maine, skated into the North Country last weekend, they faced tougher competition than they likely expected, but still managed to leave with three wins and a tie. It wasn’t exactly the dreaded North Country road trip most teams have grown accustomed to.

Clarkson hosted the No. 8 Tigers in their home opener only to blow two late-game leads and a pair of potential victories. Last Friday, the Knights led 2-0 midway through the second period and 2-1 heading into the third, only to allow the game-winner with less than three minutes left. The next night, Clarkson was up 4-3 with less than eight minutes to go, but surrendered the game-tying tally with again less than three minutes in the contest.

A week earlier, the Knights also lost a late lead when Bemidji salvaged a 1-1 tie with a goal with 1:39 to play. One would think there is a disturbing trend brewing in Potsdam.

“It’s discouraging on one hand,” said coach George Roll, “but the guys competed hard against a top club. We’ll get better.

“I thought we played our best game of the year (Saturday). The effort was there and that’s all the matters. We will grow as a team … and we’ll learn to win those games before this year is over.”

They’ll have their chance this weekend in a pair of games against Findlay (Friday) and Sacred Heart (Saturday) before opening the ECAC slate against Rensselaer.

“We need to get the team prepared so that they come ready to work both nights,” said Roll. “We are not the type of team that can take off a night and still win.

“Our special teams play needs to continue. We’re not bad on our power play, better than I thought we’d be so far and our penalty killing has been excellent. But we do need to generate more offense, get to the net and do a better job down low.”

Clarkson will be without a pair of freshman defensemen. Matt Curley remains out, while Michael Grenzy joins him watching from the press box with a bone bruise.

Down Route 11 about 10 miles, the Saints head back on the road this weekend with a pair at Lake Superior. St. Lawrence will look to bounce back from getting swept at Appleton Arena by No. 1 Maine.

The Saints held a 2-1 lead going into the third period against the Black Bears last Friday, but an early goal tied it up and Maine’s final tally with less than five minutes to play ended St. Lawrence’s upset bid.

“That was probably the best we have played thus far this season,” said Saints’ coach Joe Marsh. “This (was) an excellent Maine team, but I think we found that we can play at the level we need to play to compete.”

Unfortunately, SLU fell into the trap that Marsh had feared on Saturday (7-2 loss), giving Maine far too many power play opportunities.

“We had hoped to play the same way we did the (first night),” said Marsh, “but you can’t get into a specialty teams contest with a team with Maine’s ability. We hurt ourselves with the penalties.”

Maine was 3-8 with the man-advantage after SLU’s successful 2-5 power play performance the night before. The Saints will need to continue to receive contributions from their power play, an area Marsh said will make a difference for SLU the more confidence the units get.

Along those lines, a weekend slate against the Lakers may be just what the doctor ordered.

Lake Superior (1-2-1), swept last weekend by Miami, the club SLU opened the season with a win over, allowed an amazing four power-play goals on five chances by the RedHawks. The Lakers managed to kill only three of eight shorthanded situations on the weekend.

The Saints will also be looking to reverse some history on their road trip as they look to improve upon a 1-5-0 all-time record in Sault Ste. Marie. Another key for the Saints to reverse that trend will be the ongoing excellent play of the Rich Peverley-T.J. Trevelyan-John Zeiler line.

The combo has accounted for eight of the Saints’ 13 goals on the season. The unit has played together for 15 consecutive games and 16 overall dating back to the 2002-03 season. Over that span, they’ve accounted for a mighty impressive 21 goals and 56 points.

Finally, A Real Road Trip

Having played its lone road game thus far in neighboring New Hampshire, Kevin Sneddon is excited about having his Vermont Catamounts hit the road this weekend for a pair at Michigan Tech. We’ll see what he thinks after the airplane food settles into his stomach.

“I’m really looking forward to getting away with the team,” said the Cats’ coach. “It’ll be interesting to see how the guys interact with one another and to see how we play in back-to-back games.”

According to Sneddon, the bonding time players get on extended road trips is essential.

“They need more time together away from the rink.”

They get it, especially in two weeks when UVM begins a six game road trip. In the meantime, Sneddon will also be looking carefully to see how some of his key guys play out West.

“I was very pleased with how the team performed (against St. Francis Xavier (a 4-3 loss)),” he explained, “but some of our key players didn’t and I was disappointed with that. I thought we could have walked away with the game after going up 2-1, but we didn’t.

“We need our full team and the same work ethic from all.”

A fact that underscores what it will take from the Cats in order to notch the seasons’ first win. Against Michigan Tech, Vermont will be tested once again, granted not to the level they were while facing three Top-10 teams.

“They are a much improved team,” said Sneddon about the Huskies (1-2-1). “They’ve played some good hockey to date and they are dangerous on the transition. Chris Conner and Colin Murphy are two of the top three scorers in the CCHA.”

Conner, in four games, has notched nine goals and 11 points to go along with Murphy’s six tallies and 10 points.

“We’re making progress,” Sneddon said. “We’ve definitely taken steps forward since playing Boston College. The team is getting used to me and me to them. We need to keep playing smart for 60 minutes.”

On the injury front, senior defenseman and team captain Oriel McHugh will be out a couple of weeks as well fellow blueliner Gerard Miller.

One Shot Deals

Both Rensselaer and Colgate play just one game this weekend as they inch closer to ECAC play. The Engineers head back to New England for a Saturday game at Merrimack, while the Raiders play host to Findlay on the same evening.

Rensselaer earned its first win of the season last week with a 6-0 blanking of Army.

“We played well special teams-wise,” said Engineers head coach Dan Fridgen, whose Engineers went 1-6 on the power play and scored two shorthanded goals. Rensselaer also killed off all six Army man-advantages.

“We spread the scoring around too,” he continued. “We had 13 different players with a point and Nathan (Marsters) played well when we needed him to.”

Looking ahead to Merrimack, Fridgen knows that it’ll be another test for his sextet.

“They are a solid team,” he explained, “from the goaltender out. The forwards can create things offensively and it is a team that will put you to the test.

“We need to keep the game simple, as we would anyway since we are on the road. We need to play a smart game and do the little things off the faceoff or in our own zone.”

In Hamilton, N.Y., the Raiders are looking to get back into the swing after a weekend off.

“The conditioning level stayed high while we were off,” said Colgate’s interim head coach Stan Moore, “we made sure of that. We gave them an academic day off, but then put them through some high-tempo practices.”

Colgate will take on Findlay this Saturday, a club that shocked Michigan State in its first regular season game.

“They’ve had some other big games too,” said Moore about the Raiders’ opponent. “We played them tight at their rink last season and we were fortunate to get out of there with a win.

“We need to be as prepared as we can be, ready for battle, and make sure we are physically and mentally prepared.”

Physically, however, the Raiders will be without junior defenseman Justin Spencer again as he recovers from taking a shot to the throat earlier this year. He’ll be ready to practice again on Monday. Rookie Dustin Gililanders remains out with a broken foot as he looks to suit up for the first time as a Raider.

In goal, health isn’t an issue, but Moore has yet to decide who will start, choosing to wait until late in the week before he makes the call.

“It helps with the focus of the goaltenders,” he explained, “not knowing until Thursday. We also want input from the players. They don’t make the decision, but we want their opinions.”

ECAC Award Winners

Three new faces highlight the ECAC awards landscape. Clarkson junior Chris Blight was named Player of the Week thanks to his four-point weekend performance against Colorado College.

ECAC Rookie of the Week honors went to the Engineers’ Tommy Green, who scored his first two goals in the college ranks.

“He played real well,” said Fridgen. “He has good offensive capabilities, and as he gains more experience he’ll get better in his own zone. Right now, he’s deadly below the circles.”

Union’s Kris Mayotte was named ECAC Goaltender of the Week to round out the hardware. The sophomore made 30-plus saves each night as the Dutchmen continued their undefeated season. He leads all league goaltenders in overall GAA (0.97) and save percentage (.967).

(Players named to the ECAC Weekly Honor Roll are listed in the sidebar.)