This Week in the ECAC: Nov. 20, 2003

After two full weeks of league action, nonconference play is back. Even so, a few ECAC games sprinkle the calendar, including a major rivalry and a weekend series involving four of the five lowest-scoring teams in the country: Vermont, Dartmouth, Princeton and Yale.

Sitting atop the league standings, however, are the Brown Bears (4-1-0 overall, 4-1-0 ECAC), who swept Yale (1-5-0, 1-3-0) and Princeton (1-5-0, 1-3-0) at home by a combined score of 11-1. Expected to challenge for another home-ice playoff spot this season, and now emerging as a legitimate title contender, the Bears are an improved team with a balance of scoring and tight defense anchored by the league’s best netminder, Yann Danis. The senior is the ECAC leader with a 0.80 goals against average and a .970 save percentage.

“We’re playing pretty well,” said head coach Roger Grillo. “In three out of our five games we played pretty well. For the most part, it’s been good.

“We still need to work on consistency. There are points in games where we play well and other points where we are just average.”

The Bears are improving with each game and, last weekend, welcomed back the team’s second-leading scorer from a year ago, Les Haggett. He missed the first three games of the season recovering from having his knee scoped and the void in the Bears’ lineup was evident.

Without Haggett, Brown dressed an opening-night lineup that featured nine forwards with fewer than 20 career points, including four rookies. Even so, the Bears played well defensively and received timely scoring to defeat Harvard 2-0.

“The guys that stepped in,” said Grillo, “and stepped up into new roles did a great job.”

A loss to Dartmouth followed, and a win over Vermont, but in the three games the Bears scored only six goals combined.

All of that changed when Haggett returned to the lineup with a bang against the Elis and Tigers. In his first game back, the junior assistant captain scored a power-play goal and assisted on another. One night later, he registered three power-play assists for a five-point weekend.

“He gives us more depth,” explained Grillo, “and more scoring punch, especially on the power play where he can dish it and put it away. He’s a skilled forward and the best part is that he plays with grit as well.”

“I had the surgery about seven weeks ago and was out for about four weeks,” explained Haggett, “but I did some aggressive rehab with our trainer and was given the go-ahead.”

Before last weekend, however, Haggett’s role was that of observer — but by no means a silent one.

“It was definitely frustrating,” he said about the layoff. “More than the games, though, it was the everyday practice that I missed.

“I learned quite a bit from sitting and watching, though. As a leader on the team, I was able to notice the tendencies of some of the guys and tell them about it.”

Despite the two points in his season debut, Haggett was far from sharp.

“I was rusty on Friday,” he explained. “My hands just weren’t there. I’m still not in shape and was just lucky to get some bounces on the power play. Saturday night, I had my legs.”

With his five-point performance, Haggett moved into a tie for second on the team in scoring. Senior Brent Robinson, who was the Bears’ top producer last season (15-23-38), has three tallies and a pair of assists in five games. Rookie Brian Ihnacak, who leads the club with seven points at even strength and six on the power play, has added to the scoring sheet.

“He’s loaded with talent,” said Haggett of the freshman. “He had a lot of expectations and pressure coming in and it must have been tough for him.

“It’s a big jump from junior hockey to this league. As the big guy on his team last year, sometimes you can take a shift off and still get your points, but not here. You need to work hard each shift. I keep telling him that as long as he keeps his feet going out there, he’ll be OK.”

The ECAC Rookie of the Week, Ihnacak (pronounced In-a-chak) posted three goals and three assists in the wins over Yale and Princeton. He’s also making his presence felt on the league’s leaderboard. The ECAC’s top-scoring freshman, he’s tied for second in points and power-play goals (two), and is tied for third in goals (three).

“Our best area has always been defense,” said Grillo, “but now we have an improved offense to provide a good balance.”

The Bears are also excelling on special teams, another key ingredient for success. Brown ranks first in the ECAC in power-play effectiveness at 28.6% (8-28) and in penalty-killing at 94.4% (17-18).

Fit to Be Tied

It has been attributed to many and we’ve all heard it before.

“A tie is like kissing your sister.”

Well, if that’s the case, the Dartmouth Big Green (2-0-3, 1-0-3) are starting to get a little too friendly with their imaginary sibling. You know, in a freakish, Angelina Jolie kind of way.

The season started off well, with a pair of wins, but two weeks, 195 minutes, three opponents and four Dartmouth goals later, the Big Green find themselves with the same two victories and nothing but three ties to show for their efforts against Harvard (2-2-1, 2-2-1), Union (7-2-2, 2-1-1) and Rensselaer (4-3-2, 2-1-1). The last time Dartmouth had three consecutive ties was during the 1997-98 season.

“We’ve actually played great,” said Dartmouth coach Bob Gaudet, “but so have the teams we played. They were typical ECAC games. There are no one-sided affairs.”

In an always-close league, however, that extra point for a win can be critical come March. On the flip side, a point is better than nothing. And in the always-colorful words of baseball Hall of Famer George Brett:

“If a tie is like kissing your sister, losing is like kissing your grandmother with her teeth out.”

Now there’s a visual for you.

“I’m not pleased with the ties,” said Gaudet. “Sometimes you play well and get nothing; at least we were able to get something. I’m OK with that.

“We’ve played well as a team. The goaltending has been outstanding, the defense is playing well and the forwards are working hard. We’re not doing anything different offensively, it’s just not dropping for us right now.”

Coaches often tell their players that ECAC contests are like playoff games because there is so much riding on each outcome. A look at the standings from week to week bears that out, but so does the level of play seen in league rinks each weekend.

“Every game is such a battle,” Gaudet explained. “It’s kind of fun, I enjoy it. And I’m pleased with the way this team’s coming around — the chemistry and the leadership.”

The coach also points to his captain, senior defenseman Brian Van Abel, as one of the big reasons for his club’s development — especially on the blueline, which was an area of concern heading into the season.

“He’s an excellent captain,” praised Gaudet. “He’s so supportive of the other players. In football, he’d be like a lineman. The quarterback may get all the credit, but it’s really the lineman that deserves it. Brian’s the guy. He’s the nuts and bolts of the team and he’s done a great job with our young defensemen.”

The 4-foot-by-6-foot area between the two red pipes was another question mark before the year began, but junior Dan Yacey has been spectacular, posting a 1.14 GAA and a .954 save percentage overall.

“Yacey’s been very solid,” said the coach who was a standout netminder during his playing days with the Big Green. “He’s been workmanlike and is very calm and cool. He takes it one shot at a time and has been a stabilizing force for our team. I’m very happy to see that he was given the ice time and he’s run with it.”

Dartmouth continues its seven-game road trip with games against Yale, Princeton and No. 2 Boston College all within a five-day period. The 2003 portion of the schedule concludes with a holiday tournament in Burlington, adding two more games away from home. In fact, the next time Dartmouth will see home ice for a game will be January 2, and the Big Green doesn’t have back-to-back games in Thompson Arena until the middle of January.

“It’s hard to prepare for it,” said Gaudet. “We’ll know later on in the trip if it will start to wear on us or not. But it’s actually a good thing. It’s good for team building. The guys get to know each other, you get to know them and they get to know the coaches pretty well.

“It’s been good so far. The guys get excited and like hanging out with each other.”

Jokingly asked if so much time together would drive everyone nuts, Gaudet didn’t miss a beat.

“We still like them,” he said, laughing. “I love listening to what they talk about on the bus. I’m getting older, but [the players] get younger.”

So, what exactly is Gaudet learning from eavesdropping on the conversations?

“Nothing I can repeat,” he joked. “It keeps you young, though.”

Saints-Knights, Round One

Every North Country hockey fan has two dates circled on the calendar. The same goes for alumni of St. Lawrence (3-7-3, 2-2-0) and Clarkson (4-3-3, 1-2-1).

Saturday night is circle number one.

Hockey rules in northern New York, where you’ll find fans of both the Saints and Golden Knights all over expansive St. Lawrence County.

The 1999 ECAC Championship game in nearby Lake Placid between these two teams was one of the most intense, thrilling games ever. It may not compare to the “Miracle on Ice” in historical significance, but the electricity and sheer noise were similar to when a certain Boston University grad made hockey history in 1980.

We’re talking about 8,469 passionate fans, many of which made their way to press row and stood over reporters in an attempt to catch a glimpse of the action they couldn’t see from anywhere else.

ECAC attendance records in the Olympic Center are things of the past, but at Cheel Arena, home to this weekend’s battle, the tradition continues. The last two games in Potsdam have produced amazing numbers. In 2001-02, a 7-6 overtime victory for the Knights was witnessed by 4,115. One season later, a Cheel-record 4,125 saw the Saints win 3-2.

Did we mention that Cheel only has 3,000 seats?

“This rivalry means a lot to the area,” said Clarkson coach George Roll. “It’s bragging rights. It’s a game these two towns shut down for. We have not had great crowds this year, but we know we’ll have a sellout Saturday.”

“This is an event in the North Country,” said St. Lawrence bench boss Joe Marsh. “It brings the area together and draws battle lines between Canton and Potsdam, but it is supposed to be fun. It’s a game where people make bets and sometimes it’s family against family. There’s a restaurant up here with a location in both towns and the cousins go at it each year.”

You’ve gotta love rivalries.

By the way, the restaurant Marsh referred to is Sergi’s and if you’re ever in either town, the food is not to be missed. But, back to the game at hand …

“There are not a lot of distractions up here,” continued Marsh. “This is like BU and BC, but down there, there are a million things going on. Here it takes center stage, but you can’t let it distract you. It’s a very emotional game.”

That emotion is something each coach will warn his team about going into the contest. The team that controls and channels its emotion the best will have a significant advantage over the other.

“We have to play with emotion,” said Roll, “but be smart. We had a great start against Colgate but took three penalties in a row and it snowballed on us. That’s been our nemesis all year.”

To emphasize his point, Roll pointed out that when the Knights have allowed more than five power plays in a game, they are 1-3-1. When allowing five extra-man opportunities or fewer, Clarkson is 3-0-2. It also explains why the Knights have struggled recently with only one win in their last four games.

St. Lawrence is moving in the opposite direction, playing its best hockey of the year. One reason for the turnaround has been the performance of junior goaltender Mike McKenna, who has started the last three games, posting a GAA of 1.01 and a .956 save percentage.

“He’s played very well,” said Marsh. “As Kevin [Ackley] before him, Mike got in there and we’re just going with the hot hand. It’s helped Kevin a little too, taking the heat off him. We need both guys going.

“We’ve played better across the board. Every now and then we score some goals and that increases the margin of error that we play with. It makes everyone more confident.

“We are still banged up, though. We can’t seem to get past a few days without something happening. It’ll be nice to get the full squad healthy.”

Sign Here

Just months after Colgate (4-3-1, 2-2-0) announced that it was going to begin offering athletic scholarships, the Raiders wasted no time in making a splash on the recruiting scene. The program announced recently that Tyler Burton has signed a National Letter of Intent to play for the Raiders next season.

“We are very pleased,” said interim head coach Stan Moore, “that we will have a hard worker coming in with great ability to see the ice and create offensively. He plays well at both ends of the ice and he’s very comfortable with the grind of the game.

“He has grit and creativity.”

The 5-9 center is currently playing for the Chilliwack Chiefs of the British Columbia Junior Hockey League and leads the BCJHL in scoring with 12 goals and 33 assists in just 23 games. Burton is a native of Langley, B.C.

He was pursued by a number of teams, including some in the ECAC, but the Raiders won out for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was their recent change in policy.

“He chose Colgate because of academics,” said Moore, “but the fact that we have athletic scholarships now was a factor. The scholarships put us in the race for players like him.”

Back on the ice, Colgate’s win on Saturday not only salvaged a weekend split, but it came on the same Clarkson campus where Moore’s father starred as a prolific scorer for the Knights.

“My father and mother were at both games,” said the Raiders’ coach, “so they were happy with the win. I was also able to walk around with our captain, Rob Brown, and show him the team photos [on the walls of the rink] that included my father.”

It was a special weekend for Moore, whose focus was on the pair of games, and not the personal connections all around him.

“St. Lawrence played well,” he explained. “We did not respond well and I hold myself responsible for that. The response after the lackluster effort was the most impressive part of Saturday.

“Sunday, I thought about everything else.”

ECAC Player of the Week Jon Smyth led Colgate to victory with a career-high four goals that snapped the Raiders’ 0-7-1 skid against the Knights. Smyth, who had two goals all last season, tallied his first career power play and shorthanded markers while becoming the first Colgate player to score four against Clarkson since Rejean Boivin accomplished the feat in 1987.

Unfortunately, Vermont (0-7-2, 0-4-0) wasn’t able to provide coach Kevin Sneddon with a victory in his return to Union. The former Dutchmen coach, who also served five years as an assistant, including two seasons under Moore, watched as his team lost for the seventh time in this campaign.

“I tried to take the emotion out of it,” said Sneddon after the game about his return to Schenectady, which included a TV crew greeting the Vermont bus at the team hotel. “A lot of those players I had strong relationships with and went to battle with, so they will always be important to me, but I tried to focus on what our team was doing.

“I certainly saw a lot of familiar things out there — the creativity of [Joel] Beal and [Jordan] Webb. They have a lot of good young players, and certainly Kris Mayotte continues to be a rock back there [in goal].”

Sneddon was also emotional about his Catamounts and the predicament they find themselves in, admitting that he was “frustrated for our program right now.”

The eight games without a victory is the longest-ever winless start to a Vermont season.

Former Brown Trainer Passes Away

Joe Castro, who served as athletic trainer at Brown for 35 years, passed away after losing a long battle with cancer late Sunday night. Adored and admired by players and coaches alike, Castro retired from the Bears’ staff, where he worked with men’s ice hockey, soccer and lacrosse, in 1999.

“I loved Joe,” said Gaudet, who worked with Castro during his days as Brown’s head coach. “I was blessed to have known him. I cried like a baby at his funeral.

“He was a very, very special person in my life and I stayed close to him after I left. He was as good and as giving a man as I’ve ever known. He made such an impression on my life.”

Castro’s attention to detail and willingness to assume responsibilities outside his formal job description of athletic trainer is legendary at the University.

“He was so much more than a trainer,” Gaudet said. “He was the team psychologist, the social director and someone you could lean on as a coach.”

Current Bears bench boss Roger Grillo agreed.

“He was a class act, a throwback. He would sharpen skates, tighten helmets and tape you up if you needed medical attention. He never had a negative bone in his body and always saw the best in everyone. It is a loss for Rhode Island, Brown University and for those he was closest with, especially the athletes.”

In 1997, the nation’s hockey coaches honored him with the James H. Fullerton Award for service, named after Brown’s famous hockey coach, who Castro worked with at the beginning of his career.

“It is very sad and emotional,” Gaudet added, “but at the same time I can’t help but smile when I think of him. He always had a smile on his face. He was a real good friend, someone I could talk to.

“It’s so sad to see him go. I’ll always remember him fondly. He was the best.”

What’s On Tap

Streaking Rensselaer hosts No. 5 St. Cloud State (8-1-1, 6-1-1 WCHA) at the Houston Field House where the Engineers are 2-0-2 this season. RPI is 4-1-2 in its last seven games while the Huskies are coming off a 2-1 loss to North Dakota that snapped a six-game winning steak. The Engineers are 2-2-0 all-time against St. Cloud, with all of those games having been in Minnesota.

Union remains at home for a two-game series against No. 15 Minnesota-Duluth (5-5-1, 4-2-0 WCHA). The Dutchmen are 3-2-2 since winning their first four games of the season and will go to battle without their captain, Glenn Sanders, who underwent surgery to remove his spleen — lacerated in the game against Dartmouth. He could miss the remainder of the season. UMD, meanwhile, enters the weekend having lost three of its last four games.

Eleventh-ranked Cornell (3-1-2, 3-0-1) and Colgate return home to host a pair of western opponents, Bowling Green (3-5-3, 2-4-2 CCHA) and No. 12 Ohio State (8-5-0, 7-3-0 CCHA). Friday night, the Falcons take on the Big Red with the visitors holding a 4-1-0 all-time series lead. The two clubs have not played since the 1998-99 season and Cornell’s victory came in the initial meeting during the 1977-78 campaign. The next night, the Big Red and Buckeyes line up for their 10th all-time meeting. OSU leads the series 5-4-0

Colgate, meanwhile, has yet to defeat Ohio State, trailing the series 0-3-2, with the Buckeyes winning in Columbus last season, 6-2. The Raiders are also winless all-time against the Falcons having gone 0-4-0 with all the games away from Hamilton. The Bowling Green visit will also be a reunion for assistant coach Ron Fogarty, a former assistant for the Raiders and a captain during his playing days at Colgate.

Vermont pays a visit to Princeton on Friday against which the Catamounts are 34-13-2 all-time, including a pair of wins last season. UVM is 14-6-2 at Hobey Baker Rink, but the Tigers have won three of the last four against the Cats at home. Yale, meanwhile, leads the all-time series against UVM 25-21-4, with two wins a year ago. Vermont is 9-11-2 in the Elis’ home rink, but has not won there since 1998. Dartmouth trails the all-time series against Yale 76-91-12, but leads against Princeton 86-74-11. Last season, the Big Green swept all four games from this weekend’s opponents.

Clarkson holds a 102-53-7 lead in the all-time series against St. Lawrence. Over the past 10 games, however, the Saints are 5-4-1 against the Knights, including a sweep of the season series last year. Clarkson is 12-3-1 against SLU at Cheel Arena.

The action continues on Tuesday, when travel partners Yale and Princeton go at it. This will be the 216th meeting between the two teams dating back to 1901. Princeton leads the series at home 40-38-4, but the Elis have won three in a row overall against the Tigers by a combined score of 19-3.

Vermont hits the ice again that same evening when they travel to face Don Cahoon and Massachusetts (8-2-0, 5-2-0 Hockey East). The Catamounts lead the all-time series 23-7-3 and are 7-5-2 on the road against the Minutemen, but have lost the last two. Cahoon, the former Princeton coach, will first lead his team against Maine on Friday.

Harvard hosts No. 10 Boston University (3-2-2, 2-2-1 Hockey East) on Tuesday looking for its first win against the Terriers since the 2000-01 season. Since that 4-3 victory, the Crimson have lost four straight to BU, including three last season. The Crimson trail 59-70-5 in the all-time series and have not beaten the Terriers at home since the 1982-83 campaign, a span of five games in Bright Hockey Center.

Brown and Providence (6-3-2, 2-3-2 Hockey East) renew their battle for the Mayor’s Cup early next week with the Friars having captured the trophy the last two seasons. Providence will enter the game after a weekend in which the play Boston College and host Maine.

Dartmouth will visit Boston College (6-2-3, 3-0-2 Hockey East), where the Eagles are 2-1-1 on the year. The Big Green are 0-0-2 on the road this season with only two goals combined. Dartmouth defeated the Eagles 5-4 in overtime in the teams’ last meeting almost a year ago to the day of Tuesday’s match-up. In that game, the Big Green battled back from 2-0, 3-1 and 4-3 deficits before Mike Ouellette scored in overtime. Despite the victory, Dartmouth was outshot 40-16 by the Eagles.