We’re a few weeks away from the beginning of the season’s stretch drive. A time when all 12 of the league’s clubs will be in action each weekend, fighting it out for home ice and first round byes.
Until then, though, teams are wrapping up their non-conference slates and some have taken time off for exams. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t important games to be played.
In the Spotlight
This weekend’s marquee battles pit the top three teams in the ECACHL and one of the league’s hottest clubs doing battle in a set of contests that will result in movement atop the standings.
The action heats up on Friday in central New York when Dartmouth (8-7-2, 5-5-0 ECACHL) visits No. 9 Cornell (11-4-2, 7-2-1) and No. 14 Vermont (13-7-3, 7-2-2) travels to No. 8 Colgate (17-5-0, 9-1-0).
The Big Green enter the weekend with two straight victories and a 4-1-1 mark over their last six. As was pointed out in last week’s column, Dartmouth has discovered the goal scoring prowess most expected from the pre-season favorites.
The Big Green were seemingly digging themselves a hole too deep to climb out of and, when they lost 5-1 to UVM on December 19, the Hanover faithful were concerned. But in the month that has elapsed since then, Dartmouth has doubled its season win total and scored 30 of its 52 goals this year.
It appears now that the loss to the Catamounts may have been the bottoming out point in the season.
“We’ve played one bad period of hockey all year,” Gaudet said last week. “I can’t say that about any team I’ve coached in 17 years.”
Last weekend, seventh-place Dartmouth faced the Catamounts in the third contest between the teams thus far. With each team having won one of the previous games, the rubber match was expected to be a battle to the end.
Apparently, someone forgot to tell the participants that.
The Big Green won and did so in convincing fashion, a 5-2 victory powered by 34 shots and a four-goal second period.
“We’re starting to get to the point of having some continuity in our lineup,” explained Gaudet about why his club’s offense has started to click. “A lot of kids are playing well.
“I think we’ve been hardened. A lot of teams don’t face adversity as we have. Others face it later and aren’t prepared.”
Meanwhile, Cornell enters Friday with a two-game winning streak of its own and a 7-2-0 record since suffering through a winless four-game road trip in November. The Big Red are coming off a sweep at Union (10-12-1, 7-5-0) and Rensselaer (9-14-2, 2-9-1), which capped a string of six contests away from Lynah Rink. In fact, this weekend marks the first home games for Cornell since December 4 — a stretch of 48 days.
A year ago, when Cornell struggled at home (7-7-5), it was able to offset the rare performance with an impressive 9-3-1 mark on the road. This season, the tables have turned.
The Big Red, thanks to their recent outcomes have managed to boost their road record to 4-4-2, but the important news for this weekend is the club’s perfect 7-0-0 mark in Ithaca.
To say third-place Cornell has dominated opponents in Lynah is an understatement. Not only have the Big Red averaged 5.3 goals per game, but they have allowed just nine goals combined in those seven contests.
We’re well aware of Cornell’s defensive system and its effectiveness year after year, but when you add sophomore goaltender David McKee to the mix, it’s almost unfair. McKee’s 1.53 goals against average (GAA) is better than last year’s mark and ranks second in the country. His .930 save percentage, also better than a season ago, is fifth nationally.
Up front, junior Matt Moulson leads the team with 11 goals — six better than the next closest teammate — and 19 points. In addition, highlighting the balance of the Big Red, defenseman Dan Glover is the lone player without a point among those who have logged more than two games this season. All other players with more games under their belts have at least three points.
That brings us to the head-to-head matchup between the Ivy rivals.
In November, Cornell dropped an overtime thriller in Hanover when Eric Przepiorka netted the winner after a series of “young mistakes,” as head coach Mike Schafer — who could not be reached this week — explained then.
Also on Friday, first-place Colgate plays host to second-place Vermont. The teams are separated by just two points, with the Raiders having played one less game in the ECACHL.
Colgate comes into the weekend sporting a season’s-best five-game winning streak — all of which came away from Starr Rink. At home, the Raiders have been just as good, with a 9-2-0 record. The two results show just how balanced and consistent head coach Don Vaughan’s sextet really is.
Colgate, which won 22 games in 2003-04, has a chance to reach the 20-win plateau before the season makes it to its stretch drive next month — and this is in a conference that is stronger than a year ago.
Vaughan believes there is a very good reason for this overall improvement and more consistent play.
“Another year of maturity,” Vaughan explained. “Our big nucleus of nine seniors is back from last year. You get a sense of it in the locker room. You can see the sense of purpose and conviction. The team set some high goals and are very focused on attaining them
Vermont, meanwhile, enters the game after a convincing loss to Dartmouth last Saturday. Since its 11-game undefeated streak, the Catamounts are just 4-3-0.
“We are trying to chalk up the Dartmouth loss to two factors,” explained UVM head coach Kevin Sneddon, “[one,] a learning process in that we allowed our emotions to knock us off our game plan and two, Dartmouth played extremely well; very poised and in control of all aspects of their game.
“Dartmouth deserved to win the game convincingly. I think the Big Green are going to be a tough team down the stretch.”
It didn’t take long for the Catamounts to lose their focus. After rookie Torrey Mitchell was whistled for a charge just 82 seconds into the game, it was all downhill. At 9:40 of the first period it all came to a head in a fight between Mitchell and Przepiorka that resulted in six men being sent to the penalty box and the two combatants tossed from the game and disqualified for this Friday’s contest.
Sneddon wasn’t amused and promised to teach his club a few lessons in discipline this week. Only time will tell if the Catamounts were paying attention.
“We need to play very smart road hockey this weekend,” said the coach, “and get back to what made us successful during our last road trip to the Capital District (back-to-back shutout victories).
“Play disciplined, stay composed, play with controlled emotion and play for each other.”
In November, UVM scored three goals within the first 6:35 of the second period to defeat the Raiders. Colgate has lost just once since then.
“Colgate is playing as well as any team in the country right now,” Sneddon said. “Their attention to detail is spectacular, so we cannot allow ourselves to get frustrated by a team that plays near perfect team defense. Starr Rink is a tough place to play, so we have to play an intelligent game on Friday.”
“Vermont is focused,” said Vaughan. “They have all the ingredients that could make them a championship team. It will be a good ECAC battle.”
Saturday night certainly doesn’t offer up a break for the Catamounts as they head into Lynah Rink to play a Cornell team that had shutout UVM three times in the last two seasons.
The Catamounts have not beaten the Big Red since 1998, but did manage a 2-2 tie in November.
“Cornell [is] a great place to play college hockey,” said Sneddon, “and our team has to view it that way. Enjoy the moment versus letting the atmosphere dictate how we play.
“Mike [Schafer]’s team is very similar to Colgate with respect to defense. Again, scoring goals may be at a premium this weekend, but as long as we concentrate on our team defense, we will give ourselves a chance to win both nights.
“We are trying to pursue excellence, not success.”
Finally, Dartmouth and Colgate meet up on Saturday in a battle of a top defense and a high-powered offense. The Raiders, despite firing only 15 shots, defeated the Big Green in Hanover in November on rookie Tyler Burton’s winner with less than 10 minutes left in the game.
Last season, Colgate went 2-0-1 against Dartmouth with a win at home and in the ECAC Tournament’s consolation game in Albany. These are indeed familiar opponents as the clubs also played each other five times in 2002-03 and four times in 2001-02 — that’s a whopping 13 games against one another since January 2002.
“We’ve played both teams,” said Vaughan about this weekend’s opponents. “It’s safe to say they’ve both improved since then.
“We stole the game against Dartmouth. Steve Silverthorn was big for us. They weren’t scoring then. They are a very dangerous hockey club now.”
“We feel we can skate with most teams in the country. What we need to do is clog up the neutral zone and not let teams free-wheel in the middle of the ice. That’s what these types of teams like to do.”
Don’t look now, but the St. Lawrence Saints are making their move.
After a series of impressive non-conference victories, the Saints lost three of four to start November, but have turned things around since then. In addition to posting a 7-3-0 record over their last 10 games, the Saints have won five straight contests.
In its last four games, SLU tallied 23 goals, while allowing 11. In addition, the Saints made a statement last weekend by blitzing Clarkson, 7-2, and sweeping the North Country series by a combined 10-3 score.
“The final margin was a little surprising,” said SLU coach Joe Marsh, “given the way the series has been over the last few seasons. Everyone turned in an excellent effort. We received balanced scoring across the board and made the big plays at the right times.”
The Saints scored three times in both the first and third periods and posted three power play tallies. Six different players scored goals, while defenseman Mike Madill popped two by the Knights’ Kyle McNulty and Dustin Traylen.
On the defensive side of the puck, Mike McKenna made 40 saves, including 21 in the third period and 35 over the final 40 minutes.
“McKenna’s performance might get lost in the score,” said Marsh, “but he really came up with some big saves at key times in the game. He enabled us to feel pretty comfortable … or as comfortable as you can feel in a Clarkson game, when we got into the third period.”
League’s Cup Runneth Over
This cup may not have Stanley’s name attached to it, but it’ll do just fine for a contingent that has emerged from a lengthy non-conference slumber to boast some significant victories against other leagues this season.
During the off-season, the commissioners of the six Division I ice hockey conferences came up with the idea for a Commissioners’ Cup series to add some spice and potential bragging rights for fans during non-conference action.
“The thought process,” explained the ECACHL’s Acting Commissioner Steve Hagwell, “was to create additional interest and publicity for college hockey, as well as create a friendly competition between leagues.”
The series took place over the course of seven pre-selected games per conference, with points awarded for each contest. The conference that amassed the most points over the seven-game stretch would be awarded the Cup.
The ECACHL emerged as the inaugural winner, posting a 6-1-0 record (12 points) compared to second-place Hockey East (4-3-0, eight points). The deciding contest was Dartmouth’s 9-8 comeback win over New Hampshire. College Hockey America, the CCHA and the WCHA each have games remaining in the series, but cannot catch the ECACHL.
“We have not officially completed the first year of the series,” said Hagwell, “so any reviews of the series are premature. I do believe that the Cup series has created some additional publicity, which is a positive. Another positive is the fact that all conferences are involved in the series.”
The ECACHL’s wins in the series came via Rensselaer (5-1 over Army), St. Lawrence (6-4 over Miami), Brown (2-1 over Minnesota-Duluth), Harvard (4-1 over Maine), Union (4-0 over Connecticut) and the Big Green’s recent performance. The lone loss came when Colgate fell to Northeastern, 4-3, in an October overtime contest.
“Performing well in non-league games is the objective of all teams,” Hagwell said, “and winning the Cup means that our teams performed well in those designated games, so it is a plus.”
The Commissioners’ Cup will be presented to the league at the ECACHL Championships in Albany, NY, March 19-20.
Commissioners’ Cup Standings
ECACHL (6-1-0, 12 points)
HE (4-3-0, 10 pts.)
CHA (3-3-0, 6 pts.)
CCHA (2-1-2, 6 pts.)
WCHA (1-2-3, 5 pts.)
AH (1-6-0, 2 pts.)
NHL Volunteerism Continues
Following in the footsteps of his bench boss, Ken Hitchcock, who spent time with Princeton early this season, Philadelphia Flyers netminder Robert Esche has made his way to the ECACHL. A native of Whitesboro in upstate New York, Esche is working with Colgate as a volunteer assistant coach.
“I’ve known Robert for years,” explained Vaughan. “His younger brother and my son played youth hockey together. He had some irons in the fire for a while, but when he didn’t feel that playing in Europe was what he wanted to do, he looked for something to do locally.”
Esche, who has a foundation in central New York to help underprivileged kids, has been in on Colgate practices for a week now and figures to stick around, at least as long as the NHL continues its lockout of players.
“What I admire about Robert,” Vaughan said, “is that he has such great passion for the game, not just about goaltending, but he has such knowledge of the game in general. He’ll really help our younger guys too. We have two freshmen goaltenders.
“I’m really looking forward to picking his brain. Not just about goaltending, but about hockey overall — the things he’s learned from Hitchcock, playing in the NHL and playing in the World Cup.
“He started last week and hasn’t missed a practice yet. He adds input where he feels it is right to do so.”
Esche, who won 21 games and posted a 2.04 goals against average last season, helped lead the Flyers to the Eastern Conference finals before losing to the eventual Stanley Cup champions from Tampa Bay. He was originally drafted and played for the Phoenix Coyotes before joining the Flyers two seasons ago.
In Case You Missed It …
• Brown’s Scott Rowan made his first start since November 12 in the Bears’ 5-2 win over AIC. It was Rowan’s first victory of the season. His teammates, meanwhile, fired 61 shots on goal.
• The Bears’ 0-0 tie against No. 15 Mass.-Lowell was Brown’s second scoreless tie in school history. The last such outcome was over 100 years ago when the Bears knotted Yale, 0-0, on February 18, 1898 — Brown’s fourth game ever.
• Clarkson’s lone senior on defense, Ken Scuderi, has missed the last two games with a shoulder injury.
• The Knights are 0-9-2 when losing after 20 minutes and 1-10-0 when trailing going into the third period.
• With its victories over RPI and Union, Colgate has now earned seven weekend sweeps this season, including four in league play.
• The Raiders ended their six-game road trip at 5-1-0, improving their away mark to 8-3-0.
• After not having scored a shorthanded goal in nearly two seasons, Cornell tallied its fourth shorty this year with the overtime winner against Union.
• Sophomore netminder David McKee needs just five more shutouts to match Ken Dryden for the school record (13).
• Dartmouth has posted nine goals in a game twice this season, the most since it turned the trick three times during the 1982-83 season.
• Rookie Mike Devine saw his first collegiate action in the contest versus UNH and earned the victory with five saves over 34:22 of play.
• After posting 20 or more shots in each of its first 20 games this season, RPI has been held to under 20 in three of its last five contests.
• The Engineers sophomore defenseman Jake Luthi has four goals and six points in his last nine games after being held scoreless through his first 10 games.
• St. Lawrence’s 7-2 victory over Clarkson at Cheel Arena was its largest margin of victory in Potsdam since a 7-0 whitewashing on January 13, 1953.
• Junior John Zeiler played his 100th consecutive game for the Saints on Saturday and has not missed a game in college.
• Union was swept by ranked teams last weekend and now owns a 1-5-0 mark against national Top-15 clubs.
• The shorthanded goal allowed by the Dutchmen versus Cornell was its seventh this year.
• Vermont ranks seventh in the country in penalty killing with an 87.2 percent effectiveness rate.
• Yale’s Matt Modelski made a career-high 49 saves in last week’s loss to Boston College.