This Week in the ECAC West: Feb. 3, 2005

It Finally Happened

The New Year is shaping up to be a banner one for the Neumann hockey program. Not only have they won three of their last four games, they also earned their first ECAC West league victory this past weekend when they defeated Hobart 2-0.

“It was good for the guys and for the school,” said Neumann coach Dennis Williams. “They kind of got that monkey off their back with that first conference win ever.”

With twelve freshmen on the team, the Neumann players really didn’t know what to expect at Hobart’s outdoor rink when they arrived for the game. But Williams had seen the facilities when he was an assistant coach at Utica, so had an idea of how to get his players ready.

“A lot of our guys are freshmen, and had never been to Hobart’s rink,” said Williams. “They had heard that it was an outdoor rink. I told them not to put on any extra layers of clothing. We are just going out there to play our game. I said don’t worry, because with only two lines, going every other shift, you are going to be warm anyways.”

The game was a hard-fought affair that was territorially controlled by Hobart, which out shot Neumann 23-4 in the first period and 52-19 for the game. But, as has become the norm this season, Neumann’s freshman goaltender Mike Collichio kept his team in the game. Collichio earned his first collegiate shutout.

“It was obvious that [Neumann’s] goaltender had a huge factor in the game, but I thought [Neumann] did a great job of sticking to a game plan, keeping us off the board and capitalizing on the opportunities they had,” Hobart coach Mark Taylor said. “That’s the way it goes and my hat is off to them.”

Newcomer Dayne Bihn scored midway through the second period to give Neumann the lead. Bihn has been on a tear since joining the Knights, scoring four goals in the five games he has played, and at tallying at least one in each of Neumann’s wins.

“Every kid fits in with teams differently,” said Williams. “He has taken this opportunity and is putting the puck in the net for us. He is a good, gritty hockey player. He won’t go end to end for you, but he will get his nose dirty, for a little guy, and he pays the price out in front of the net. He has been a great pick up for us.”

Another New Year addition, Jeff Nuttal, scored a power play goal with under two minutes remaining in the game to seal the landmark win for Neumann.

“All of our new guys have put some points on the board for us,” said Williams. “Some of them haven’t played in a few months. Our new guys have definitely helped up out, and given us a bit of that scoring touch that we need.”

The victory, coming against a strong opponent, sent a jubilant rush throughout the Neumann campus.

“Hobart is a great team, and to get a win against such a high caliber team like that was just incredible from our standpoint,” said Williams. “They battled hard. We got good goaltending, and scored on the couple of opportunities that we had. That is the way the puck bounces sometimes.”

It is right back to the grind for Neumann this weekend, as league play continues from here on out to the end of the season. The Knights host RIT on Friday and Elmira on Saturday.

“I talked to [RIT coach] Wayne [Wilson] earlier this week, who coached me for three years at Bowling Green,” said Williams. “I tried a little reverse psychology on him, saying to take it easy on us Friday. He laughed and said that as we just took Hobart, there would be none of that.”

Rounding the Turn

With four weekends to go in the regular season, the seven teams of the ECAC West are rounding the turn in to the home stretch. Only Lebanon Valley has non-conference games remaining. All other scheduled games are against league opponents, and every one of them has title implications.

Utica and RIT are currently tied for the lead in the league. Of those two, RIT has perhaps a slightly easier remaining schedule. The Tigers have a pair of games remaining against Lebanon Valley, and a road game at Neumann, although we have seen that those games aren’t necessarily the easy points they used to be. RIT’s most difficult road game is at Utica on February 11th, and they must still host Elmira and Manhattanville.

Utica’s path is only slightly more difficult. The Pioneers still have a pair of games against Manhattanville, host Hobart, and that critical game against RIT on their schedule, plus single games against Neumann and Lebanon Valley.

Manhattanville’s recent stumble has seen them drop from a commanding position in the league race to third place. But the Valiants have played the least league games of any team, and can make up the deficit by getting back on the winning track. Each of the top three teams has identical one loss-one tie records.

Manhattanville has the fewest road games remaining of any team. The Valiants only need to travel to RIT and Utica in the closing weeks of the season, while hosting everyone but the Tigers once. The home ice of Playland Casino has certainly been an advantage for the Valiants in the past, and could prove to be the deciding factor down the stretch.

Despite stumbling along, Elmira continues to hang on to a playoff position. Their tie against Manhattanville last Saturday earned the Soaring Eagles an important point that kept them in a tie for third place.

The bad news for Elmira is that only one of its remaining five games is at home, against Hobart on the last weekend of the season.

Hobart’s hopes of repeating as regular season champions appear to be dashed after last weekend’s stumble against Neumann. The Statesmen are currently fifth in the standings, and are on the outside of the playoffs looking in with only a 2-2-2 league record.

With only two remaining games at home in The Cooler, Hobart will need to run the table on the road to have a shot at the title.

All season, everyone including myself has dismissed Lebanon Valley and Neumann from playoff considerations as they concentrate on building for the future. The feeling was that those two teams would split their games to gain league victories, but would be unable to influence the playoff race much beyond that.

Neumann’s victory over Hobart certainly has changed those dynamics. Both teams have the ability to play the role of spoiler, or even to sneak in to the playoffs if one of the other teams has a major stumble. Neither Neumann nor Lebanon Valley can be taken for granted as pushovers any longer.

I think a team will need to earn around twelve points in league play to finish in the top four spots and make the playoffs this year. RIT and Utica appear to be almost locks at this point. Elmira, Hobart, and Manhattanville are floating right on the bubble.

As for who will finish first and host the league playoffs? That is still yet to be decided.