This Week in the ECACHL: Dec. 16, 2004

This week’s column comes to you from Gate 16 at New York’s La Guardia Airport, where a flight back to Boston is seriously delayed.

It’s a fitting pair of cities, though, given that the two locales are forever locked in all matters of sport. This week has been an especially interesting one for both areas thanks to a certain pitcher with a familiar last name leaving the Red Sox and signing with the Metropolitans.

But we’re talking hockey in this space and two ECACHL teams with significant victories over ranked opponents lead our weekly observations.

Movin’ On Up

Harvard (9-3-1, 6-3-1 ECACHL), which despite having its main campus in Cambridge, actually plays its hockey in Boston (the Allston neighborhood, to be specific), has been quietly collecting impressive victories against teams in the top 15. Last week was no exception, thanks to a pair of impressive efforts against then-No. 10 Vermont and then-No. 11 Maine.

Earlier in the season, the Crimson bounced two other ranked opponents — Boston College and Boston University. It also means that Harvard is now 3-0-0 against Hockey East teams.

“Certainly, there’s a pride factor when you play not just against Hockey East,” said Crimson coach Ted Donato, “but great programs like Maine, BU and BC.

“It’s a challenge for us, but our guys feel we’re a good team. We want to show that we can play hockey in Cambridge too.”

Last Tuesday, the Crimson ended UVM’s 11-game unbeaten streak and followed up by shutting down a Black Bear squad that itself was unbeaten in six. For their efforts, the Crimson have entered the national rankings at No. 11 this week.

This, of course, is a blessing and a curse.

Many Harvard fans had been wondering who else the team would have to beat to enter the Top 15. But, on the flip side, the Crimson are now a marked team. No more catching opponents by surprise.

At least one member of the squad, however, feels that national rankings are much ado about nothing.

After his team’s win over Maine, which made him only the second Harvard goaltender to post 50 career wins, senior Dov Grumet-Morris explained what the real focus should be for Harvard.

“This isn’t about being a ranked team this year,” he said. “This win gives us the points we need at the end of the year for the NCAAs.”

Such is the mindset for a program that has made the NCAA tournament three straight seasons. Grumet-Morris is a big reason for that success and this season he’s allowed two or fewer goals in eight of his 11 games — including just one goal against in each of his last three contests. His .935 save percentage is second in the nation and his 2.00 goals against average (GAA) is eighth.

In 2002-03, when the Crimson posted a 22-10-2 mark, they finished their pre-holiday tournament schedule at 9-4-1. This season, they enter the same point in the calendar at 9-3-1, their best start since posting the same record through the first 13 games of 1993-94.

Donato is benefiting from a stellar defensive unit as his forwards gradually pick up his up-tempo offensive scheme. On the blueline, the Crimson boast six NHL draft picks, including captain Noah Welch — who never seems to leave the ice.

“Our defense is big and strong,” said Donato, “and they have done a good job. They’ve been keeping things to the outside.”

The six defensemen have given Grumet-Morris the chance to be more aggressive, since they are rarely out of position and are excellent at clearing loose pucks and moving bodies.

But no team can win on defense and goaltending alone. At some point, a club needs to score a goal or two. In Harvard’s case, the consistent offensive production is coming not during five-on-five play, but on the power play.

Clicking at 25 percent, much has been made of the Crimson’s top unit, which features, among others, leading scorer Tom Cavanagh and top rookie point-getter Jon Pelle. But what has impressed Donato has been the play of his second quintet.

“The second unit has done a great job,” said Donato. “They’ve helped us win the last three games and have battled hard.”

Combined with a strong penalty-kill — which held potent UVM and Maine to a combined 2-for-11 on the man-advantage — Harvard is emerging as one of the most well-rounded teams in the country.

“Everyone’s comfortable with the [offensive] system,” explained junior Charlie Johnson. “It’s always nice to score a couple of more goals. That will come in time.”

Knight Time

Meanwhile, about eight hours north of New York City (by car, of course), the Clarkson Golden Knights (4-11-2, 1-5-1) made some noise of their own in frigid upstate. The Knights, who, according to coach George Roll, had been playing better than their record of late, were faced with the challenge of snapping a five-game losing streak against then-No. 8 Ohio State.

The result was an opening night 3-3 tie and a 3-1 victory in Cheel Arena.

“I thought our team was awfully determined this weekend,” said Roll earlier this week. “We competed with the same effort we had over the last couple weekends. We knew things were going to turn around.”

For a team expected to challenge for home ice this season, many were starting to wonder when, or if, they were going to stop the bleeding.

As Roll said just a few weeks ago after losing a heartbreaker to Massachusetts-Lowell, “It’s getting to be a long season here.”

But the performance against OSU included some positive signs.

“We got a couple of good bounces for us,” said Roll, “and we did a lot of little things well. We protected the puck in the defensive zone, blocked shots and took hits to make plays.

“Those are the little things we’ve been going, but for whatever reasons [last] weekend they really seemed to spark our team. From top to bottom we got great efforts … against a pretty good Ohio State team.”

Clarkson’s defense, which since last season has sometimes struggled to hold third-period leads, came up big on Saturday. The Knights limited the Buckeyes to just six shots in the third period — including not allowing a shot until the 12:30 mark — en route to their first victory since November 12.

Instrumental in the three-point weekend was the play of seniors Jay Latulippe and Chris Blight (three points each) and sophomore Mike Sullivan (two points). In addition, rookie blueliner Grant Clitsome contributed at both ends of the ice with his first goal — on the power play — since October 17.

Between the pipes, sophomore Kyle McNulty made 27 saves in the opening tie, but gave way to junior Dustin Traylen the next evening. The Knights’ top netminder from last season made 26 saves in the Saturday victory in his first game since November 27. It was also Traylen’s first victory since defeating Dartmouth on November 12. After posting 15 wins last season, Traylen has a 2-7-1 record thus far with a 2.68 goals against average and .907 save percentage.

“We lost to some pretty good teams during that losing stretch,” explained Roll, “UNH and Harvard, and Lowell has got it going now. So, it wasn’t like we were losing to average teams. They are teams that are doing very well at this stage of the season.”

Picked to battle for home ice, many expected the Knights to be in much better shape at this point in the season — especially with the experience the young team gained in last season’s run to the ECAC championship game.

“I hope this will be a real confidence builder,” said Roll about the three points. “It should really catapult us in the second half of the season and get the guys to believe that when we play the type of hockey that we are capable of, we can play with anyone in the country.

“We have always felt that way even though our record doesn’t show it. When we come to play, we are a pretty good hockey club and, hopefully, this will help us get over the hump.”

Penalty Watch

We’re halfway through a season that began with a constant flow of players into penalty boxes. Referees were calling everything in sight and while the players have finally started to adjust to the new expectations, it also seems as if the officials have loosened their stranglehold a bit.

“We need a happy medium off the faceoff,” said Dartmouth coach Bob Gaudet. “You could call a penalty every shift. Not all of it is outside the rules. Sometimes it will be inadvertent bumping or kids running into each other. It comes down to what’s important.”

And while most of the calls continue to center on enforcing obstruction rules, the league still faces problems with stick infractions and high hits.

“Yes and no,” responded Gaudet when asked if high-sticking is still a major issue. “When I played, players didn’t wear a mask. It was a natural thing. Now, the players have grown up all their lives with masks and there is not that respect. You didn’t want to get hit or hurt someone else.”

But some progress is being made, at least in Gaudet’s eyes.

“There’s less of defensemen standing guys up with their sticks. That happened all the time before. The hit from behind will continue to happen less, hopefully.”

In Case You Missed It …

• Clarkson sophomore Mike Sullivan snapped an 11-game goal drought by scoring his team’s first last weekend.

• Colgate is three wins shy of the program’s 800th victory and leads the ECACHL in winning percentage in league play (.833) and overall (.750).

• Dartmouth senior Lee Stempniak posted a hat trick in his club’s exhibition win over the U.S. National Under-18 team.

• With three points in Princeton’s weekend losses against Merrimack, sophomore Grant Goeckner-Zoeller has five goals and 15 assists for 20 points — his exact total from all of last season.

• Rensselaer’s 4-3 win over Providence was the Engineers’ first one-goal win of the season and marked the first time RPI has come back to win when trailing after 40 minutes.

• At 7-9-1 and with a pair of games in Lake Superior, St. Lawrence will have the chance to post the most wins and its best record for the pre-Christmas portion of its schedule since SLU was 9-4-1 in the 1999-2000 season — when the Saints made it to the Frozen Four.

• Union senior Jordan Webb’s three assists against Wayne State tied him for second in the school’s all-time Division I point totals (104).

• Vermont is 4-1-2 in games against Top 15 teams this season and has matched its 2003-04 win total (nine).

Finally back in Boston … Happy holidays to everyone. Wishing you and yours a healthy and successful 2005. See you all on the other side of the calendar and in a rink near you.