We’re just one week away from the unofficial beginning of the stretch drive — that final month of the regular season when the standings change nightly and everyone begins to think about how many points it will take to earn a bye or secure home ice in the opening round of the playoffs.
Not surprisingly, last weekend produced a mixed bag of results that included several splits. Two clubs were able to make the most of their opportunities by sweeping their games. Both No. 8 Cornell (13-4-2, 9-2-1 ECACHL) and Rensselaer (11-14-2, 4-9-1) made moves up the standings thanks to well-rounded efforts.
The Big Red’s wins came against red-hot Dartmouth (9-8-2, 6-6-0) and Vermont (13-9-3, 7-4-2) in Lynah Rink. The victories extended Cornell’s perfect home record to 9-0-0, just one season after an atypical 7-7-5 final home mark.
“We were a really young team last year,” said head coach Mike Schafer, “and there was a lot of pressure to win at home. This year, we’re ready for it and now we look forward to it. We’re able to perform.”
Aside from the benefits of home cookin’, the Big Red’s special-teams play has been the difference-maker on most nights. Cornell ranks second in the country with a 25.2 percent success rate with the man-advantage, while standing third in the country on the penalty kill at 88.7 percent.
“You are not going to win in college hockey right now,” said Schafer, “without a special-teams game. You have to rely upon your power play or penalty killing to get victories.”
Heading into this weekend’s action, Cornell has scored at least one power-play goal in each of its last four games, including six markers in its last three contests. For the year, the Big Red have popped 26 power-play goals, accounting for 41 percent of the team’s overall tallies. And while Schafer acknowledges that others feel the Big Red rely too much on their power play, he’s not about to apologize for it.
“Goals are hard to come by,” he said. “If you go up one or two on the power play, there’s no need to open it up when you’re on five-on-five.
“Everybody’s contributing. We’re using different people on the power play in different situations. Regardless of what the other team is doing, we can switch up personnel. We’ve gotten goals down low and one-timers.”
Then there’s that defense thing the Big Red have a handle on. They’ve allowed just four goals in their last five games and have allowed more than two tallies in just three contests all season. It’s a system that has worked extremely well since Schafer brought it to the upstate New York campus in 1995.
“People talk about our system all the time,” said Schafer, “but what we do is get the puck back as fast as possible. We’re an aggressive forechecking team, we’re not a team that sits back and fires the puck down ice.
“The players know that if you want to play professionally, the guys need to learn how to be two-way players. You’re not going to be a pro if you can’t play defense, unless you’re a great goal-scorer, and there are not too many of those in college hockey right now.”
Two Decades Later
Rensselaer snapped a five-game losing streak last weekend with wins at St. Lawrence (3-2) and Clarkson (4-3). It was the first North Country sweep for the Engineers since their 1985 NCAA Championship season.
“We received outstanding goaltending from Andrew Martin,” said RPI head coach Dan Fridgen about the keys to the successful start of the team’s four-game road trip. “It was a solid weekend. We rolled four lines and had key plays from our senior class. They stepped up.”
Against the Saints, Martin posted 32 saves and followed it up with 20 stops the next night against the Golden Knights. The senior, who transferred from Fairfield after the 2002-03 season, has a 6-9-1 record with a 2.96 goals against average (GAA) and an .890 save percentage. The victory over SLU was Martin’s first since defeating Yale on November 19.
Offensively, seniors Vic Pereira and Nick Economakos led the way. Pereira notched a goal and an assist in each of the North Country games — including the game-winner versus the Saints. Economakos, meanwhile, scored twice on the weekend.
“We handled St. Lawrence’s pressure well,” said Fridgen. “In their building they come at you in waves. We call it the ‘SLU Storm.’ If you can weather it, you’ll have a good chance to win the hockey game. It’s the first 10 minutes of the game and portions of the second and third period.”
Not only were the Engineers able to handle SLU’s waves of attack, but they also managed to score the game’s first two goals, which, according to Fridgen, made a big difference in forcing the Saints to adjust.
The scenario was different the next night at Cheel Arena when Clarkson held 1-0 and 2-1 leads.
“In the Clarkson comeback,” explained Fridgen, “we remained composed and Martin made some saves.”
The other key to the weekend were four power-play goals and one shorthander among the seven combined tallies.
“We made a small adjustment with our personnel,” said Fridgen about changes he made to the team’s power play. “We went back to the basics and reacted to how the other teams played against our power play.”
The wins were a welcome change from the Engineers’ recent struggles, which included four straight losses in ECACHL play.
“Teams outscored us 21-3,” said Fridgen. “We were not able to capitalize and score goals. [Last] weekend, we kept it simple.”
The Knight-mare Continues
A year ago, Clarkson, which struggled through a rough regular season, mounted a late run that started with a February win over a reeling Brown, progressed to a shocking playoff series win in Lynah Rink and ended with a heartbreaking loss to Harvard in the ECAC championship game.
Despite the disappointment, the Golden Knights were expected to build upon their run and the young talent that emerged in that month-long ride. No such luck.
“I’m surprised it hasn’t carried over,” said head coach George Roll. “I think too many of us started reading all the things that were being written about our success and [last year’s] freshman class. We started to think it would come easy and forgot what got us there.”
At this point last season, the Knights had a 10-9-5 record, but were on the verge of a 1-6-0 skid that included a six-game losing streak. This year, Clarkson finds itself struggling through an inconsistent and mysterious season with a 7-15-2 record.
At this rate, Roll will likely suffer his first-ever losing season as a head coach, and it will be the Knights’ second under-.500 performance in the last three years. Prior to the 2002-03 campaign, Clarkson had not posted a losing season since 1974-75.
“We don’t respond to adversity well,” said the coach. “The ability is there, but not the consistency. A lot of it is motivation. We haven’t worked at the same level we worked at last year. We haven’t played well.”
Last weekend was a microcosm of what has become a season of frustration for Knights fans and the coaching staff. Clarkson shutout Union on Friday behind two goals by rookie Steve Zalewski — all four assists also came off the sticks of rookies — and 36 saves by junior Dustin Traylen.
The next evening, the Knights held two leads over RPI before losing another game that featured the all-too-familiar series of bad penalties. After his team had pulled to within a goal with 2:30 left in the game, Traylen took an inexcusable roughing penalty that ended any hopes of a comeback.
“We’re a pretty fragile team right now,” said Roll. “We took two penalties that were pretty poor. One when we were on the power play and another on an icing, then Dustin’s penalty with over a minute to go. Those are the types of things we’ve done all year.”
As if that wasn’t enough to give the coaching staff ulcers, Roll kicked junior John Sullivan off the team before the weekend for his second violation of team rules. First-time violators, rookies David Cayer, Ryan Hodkinson and Matt Isbister, as well as senior blueliner Ken Scuderi, were suspended for the Union/RPI series.
“We have to stay the course,” said Roll, who has had frequent conversations with his former coach and current Boston College bench boss Jerry York. Roll played for York and was a junior on Bowling Green’s 1984 national championship squad.
“Jerry reminded me that he had two tough years in his first two seasons at Bowling Green, then won the national title three years later. It took time. I’ve never been through this and I’m certain I did some things wrong that I’d do differently.
“Last week we played one short (due to the suspensions), but if that’s what we have to do to get the message across, then we will.”
After breaking into the Top 15 in the midst of its 8-0-3 run from late October through early December, the Vermont Catamounts now find themselves out of the national rankings. With a 4-5-0 mark since seeing its 11-game unbeaten streak snapped by Harvard last month, UVM dropped 40 points out of the No. 15 spot.
It’s the culmination of three straight losses that also find the Cats in third place, four points behind Colgate with one fewer game left to play against ECACHL opponents.
“I have never had more confidence in our team’s ability than right now,” said head coach Kevin Sneddon. “The only game we have played poorly in was the [last] Dartmouth game. Aside from that, I think our team has played very well, despite having difficulty in the scoring department.”
And that’s been the biggest difference. Leading scorer Scott Mifsud (15-17-32) and rookie sensation Torrey Mitchell (8-13-21) have each scored just once this month. In addition, the power play is just 4-for-40 over its last seven contests.
“Our power play is in a little bit of a funk right now,” Sneddon explained, “but I am confident that the guys will work through it and score some big goals very soon. We played extremely well against Cornell (a 2-1 loss on Saturday), so we are focused on the positives from that game.
“Our team has an incredible ability to focus on the present, not on the past and not on the future. Just like we said when we were on a winning streak, ‘Play in the now.'”
Ostapyk Named Humanitarian Finalist
Earlier this month, Dartmouth senior defenseman John Ostapyk was named a finalist for the 2005 Hockey Humanitarian Award, following in the footsteps of other Big Green finalists Sarah Nelson (1999) and Dan Cassella (2002).
“He’s a wonderful kid,” said Dartmouth head coach Bob Gaudet, “and an unheralded player. He’s a good, selfless player who is just as happy chipping the puck out as he is to score. Off the ice, he really gravitates to helping people.”
According to the Hockey Humanitarian Award Foundation, the award is “given annually to college hockey’s finest citizen and seeks to recognize college hockey players, Divisions I, II or III, male or female, who give back to their community in the true humanitarian spirit. It’s been said of the Hockey Humanitarian Award that we seek not to celebrate Hall of Fame athletes, but rather Hall of Fame human beings.”
“John works on the Children’s Hospital toy drive at Dartmouth,” said Gaudet. “He’s the key person to organize that. This year he even got (classmate) Chris Snizek to dress up like an elf.
“He’s also worked heavily with the Big Green reading program that helps tutor kids that may not have a lot. He’s a popular guy who makes people feel really good and he always has a smile on his face.”
On the ice this season, the modest Ostapyk has a goal and six assists, which bettered his career total of three points in his first three years in Hanover.
“He didn’t want credit for anything he’s done,” said Gaudet. “It took some doing to get him to be okay with this. He’s wonderful to be around and brings out the best in what college athletics and hockey are all about.
“He’s wonderful. I’m going to miss him a lot when he graduates. I try not to think about it.”
The Hockey Humanitarian Award winner will be announced on April 8 during the Frozen Four in Columbus, Ohio.
In Case You Missed It …
• With its Mayor’s Cup victory over Providence on Saturday, Brown wrapped up its non-conference schedule with a 5-1-1 mark. The Bears are 8-2-2 over their last dozen games overall.
• Cornell junior Matt Moulson’s 10 power-play goals are tops among all ECACHL players, while rookie Topher Scott has six points (1-5-6) in his last four contests.
• Dartmouth is 9-1-0 when senior captain Lee Stempniak records a point.
• RPI’s weekend sweep was the first back-to-back wins for the Engineers since October 30-November 5.
• St. Lawrence snapped a five-game losing streak against Union when it posted seven tallies in Saturday’s 7-3 win over the Dutchmen.
• Yale sophomore Brad Mills scored his first career hat trick in the Bulldogs’ win over Connecticut, including two shorthanded goals.