This Week in the ECAC West: March 3, 2005

It Wasn’t Easy

Right from the very beginning, it just seemed like this season was destined to come down to the wire to determine a regular season champion for the ECAC West. At various points in the season, three different teams laid claim to the first-place spot, but no one seemed like they wanted to hang onto it for very long.

Finally, Utica exerted itself over the last three weeks and was crowned the regular season champion on Saturday, after handing Manhattanville its first league defeat in Playland Ice Casino since March 1, 2002.

But the Pioneers almost stumbled Friday night against Neumann. After building a 4-0 lead in the first period, Utica stopped skating and watched the Knights storm back into the game. Neil Trimm tallied three goals and two assists to lead Neumann to a 6-6 tie against Utica.

While this game was a great statement of the potential future for the youthful players at Neumann, it put some doubts in the minds of Utica and their fans, especially since they were facing such an important game against Manhattanville on Saturday.

Those doubts were put to rest in the first five minutes of Saturday’s game. Ryan Dolan and John Murphy ripped off two quick goals for the Pioneers in the opening 4:57 of the contest, and it was off to the races for the Pioneers. Three Utica goals in the third period sealed the eventual 5-1 win, clinching the regular season title and home ice in the friendly confines of The Aud for the Pioneers in the playoffs.

After such a wild ride through the regular season, the playoffs this weekend at The Aud promise more of the same.

Oddities and Honesty

With the final standings now determined, several oddities in how things worked out have become apparent. For the second year in a row … the prior year’s regular season champion (Hobart) finished fifth and missed the playoffs. Last year that fate fell to Elmira. … a team (Utica) wins its first ever regular season title. Last year, Hobart rose to the top to win its first regular season, and eventually playoff, title. … the regular season champion rode a second half winning streak to the title. Last year, Hobart went 8-2-2 in its last twelve games of the regular season. This year, Utica went 7-1-4 for the second half of the season, and a remarkable 13-1-6 since early November. … Manhattanville held its fate, and the regular season title, in its own hands entering the final game of the regular season, and lost the game to finish second.

It is also time to come clean, and see how my preseason prognostications compare against the final results. In my preview column way back in October, I predicted the final order of finish for the regular season to be:

1. Hobart
2. Manhattanville
3. RIT
4. Elmira
5. Utica
6. Lebanon Valley
7. Neumann

After a tough, thrilling, and event-filled season, the actual final regular season standings are:

1. Utica
2. Manhattanville
3. RIT
4. Elmira
5. Hobart
6. Neumann
7. Lebanon Valley

Well, at least I got the #2, #3, and #4 seeds right. Obviously, I overestimated the momentum that Hobart would be able to carry over in to this year, and underestimated the roll that Utica would get on. Superior coaching, the emergence of solid goaltending, and the drive of a large senior class put the Pioneers over the top this season.

Given the adversity that Neumann faced this season, who would have thought the Knights would have finished with five league points and in sixth place? Congrats to coach Dennis [nl]Williams on keeping his team together, and bringing in some real promising talent mid-season.

Playoff Preview

#2 Manhattanville vs. #3 RIT (3:00pm)

The Utica Memorial Auditorium, host facility for the ECAC West playoffs.

The Utica Memorial Auditorium, host facility for the ECAC West playoffs.

Manhattanville defeated RIT twice during the regular season, both times by one-goal margins, with the second of those games decided in overtime. The Valiants played a physical, up-tempo style and tried to dictate the way the games were played. Goaltender Andrew Gallant returned for the second semester and has been a solid addition down the stretch for Manhattanville.

RIT, on the other hand, has been relying on the speed and puck-handling abilities of its forwards this season for its success. A big question mark for the Tigers is in goal. RIT’s season long starting netminder George Eliopoulos went down with a groin injury early in the Tigers’ last game, which happened to be against Manhattanville. Backup goaltender David Wrisley came in and did a good job in relief, but still gave up two power play goals late to lose the contest, 2-1.

Whether Eliopoulos will be healthy enough to play this weekend is unknown. And what adjustments RIT will need to make if Wrisley starts is also unknown.

Given the outcome of the prior two games, and the RIT goaltender situation, the pre-game advantage has to be given to Manhattanville. But if the Tigers rally around the challenges thrown their way, they could be a dangerous team to play against.

Both teams are coming off losses in their final regular season contest. However, it has been two weeks since the Tigers last played a game, while Manhattanville got a good workout in a pair of games last weekend. Was the time off a benefit that allowed RIT to heal up, or a time to let the rust accumulate on the team?

#1 Utica vs. #4 Elmira (7:00pm)

The first meeting between Elmira and Utica this season was a good old-fashioned shootout. The two teams just couldn’t stop scoring, eventually ending up with Utica fending off a wild comeback by Elmira to take the 9-8 win.

The second meeting in early December wasn’t quite as dramatic. Utica scored two shorthanded goals during the same penalty kill midway through the second period, and eventually skated off with a 6-2 victory.

This early sweep of Elmira started the Pioneers on their season long roll. But the Soaring Eagles have gotten on a roll of their own towards the end of the season, going 4-2-1 over their last seven games.

Utica has put the pieces of the puzzle together during this season. From solid goaltending, to opportune goal scoring, and a successful power play unit, the Pioneers have one of the most well rounded teams in the league.

Elmira, like Utica, has been relying on its seniors even more heavily down the stretch run. The top four scorers are all seniors, and have accounted for almost fifty percent of the Soaring Eagles goals during the season. Elmira was the only team in the league to score more than one hundred goals this season, ending the regular season with 116.