This Week in the SUNYAC: March 3, 2005

On A Mission

It’s been a long time since I’ve witnessed a team on a mission like the Plattsburgh Cardinals this year. They are taking the second season by the throat and have no intentions of letting up.

It starts with the goalie, and Craig Neilson is playing like the Neilson of last year when he was first team All-SUNYAC. “The goaltending position is a lot like a batter,” Plattsburgh coach Bob Emery said. “I’m comparing Craig Neilson to [Red Sox] leadoff hitter [Johnny] Damon. He was in a slump big time, but when he got out of the slump, the team played well. That’s what’s happening right now with our team.”

In front of Neilson, Emery has come up with unique defensive schemes designed specifically for the opponent at hand. In front of that, they have converted their offensive opportunities when they needed to.

It wasn’t easy, but Plattsburgh’s grit and determination swept Oswego in the Lakers’ barn, 3-2 in overtime and 3-1. Both times, the Cardinals came back from one-goal deficits.

In the first game, Dave Young scored early in the second period to give Plattsburgh the initial lead, but Paul Perrier and C.J. Thompson scored in a three minute span to put Oswego on top. Young scored again with 5:35 left in the game on the power play to tie it up. Then, Dave Friel won it at 2:56 of the extra period. Neilson made 28 saves.

Oswego scored first in the second game on a goal by Thompson after 2:12 of play. Justin Rafferty tied it up later in the first period on the power play. Anthony Leccese put Plattsburgh in the lead midway through the game. After an Oswego third period tying goal was taken back because a cross checking penalty was being called, Ryan Busby scored the clincher. Neilson made 27 saves this time.

“I’m proud of our guys. A lot of teams hadn’t respected us this year,” Emery said.

So what was the defensive scheme this time around? “We did a real good job backchecking, picking up sticks in front,” Emery said. “Most goals now are scored around the net. That’s what we worked on all week.”

Second Chance

Last month when Geneseo beat Oswego, it appeared they were heading for the regular season title. Then came the North Country road trip on the final weekend. However, they now get a second chance at claiming the SUNYAC title, and this time an automatic bid into the NCAA, thanks to a strong second game after tying Fredonia in game one.

The two teams alternated goals all the way in game one with Fredonia scoring first always followed by a Geneseo tally. Matt Zeman, Kyle Bozoian, and Kraig Kuzma scored for Fredonia while Jay Kuczmanski, Chris Tarr, and Michel Bond got the job done for Geneseo. Bond’s goal came on the power play with the goalie pulled with 21 seconds left.

Despite Geneseo outshooting Fredonia in overtime, 6-1, the game ended in a 3-3 tie. Rick Cazares made 21 saves for the Blue Devils and Brett Walker stopped 27 shots.

Thus, game two would decide the series, unless it too ended deadlocked. It did not as Geneseo won it convincingly, 5-1. Kuczmanski got a pair of goals with Mathieu Cyr, Jon Schnepf, and Nick Onody also scoring. It was 4-0 before Fredonia finally got on the scoreboard with a power play goal by Bozoian. Walker made 28 saves.

Over 1800 showed up for the second game. No doubt, that many and perhaps more will be there to see if their Ice Knights can win the SUNYAC championship for only the second time and the first since 1986.

Is Oswego Done?

The cop out answer would be, “I don’t know.” The answer I am going to give is, “I don’t know.”

All of the scenarios and number crunching gives me a headache. I just want to see some hockey. Besides, other people are doing the dirty work for me. Read Chris Lerch’s national column and Ed Trefzger’s updates to stay abreast of who might be in, who might be out, and what has to happen.

The bottom line is, there can be no upsets in any of the other conference tournaments, and even then, Oswego’s chances are tenuous at best.

“Realistically I don’t know where that stands,” Oswego coach Ed Gosek says of his team’s playoff chances. “We need help from other people, obviously. But, we’ll practice and keep sharp.”

The Facts Don’t Lie

Many people hate the mini-game. Personally, I love them, but that’s besides the point. One reason fans do not like them is they believe the team that wins on the second night has the momentum going into the mini-game, and thus an unfair advantage.

However, the facts do not bear that out. In reality, that perception is nothing more than a myth.

The SUNYAC started the mini-game format in 1993. (I am only going to consider the SUNYAC. I did not gather the data from other conferences nor when the NCAA quarterfinal round used this format. I’ll leave that exercise for someone else.) Since that time through this season, there have been ten series that went to the mini-game.

Only one needed the mini-game because both games were tied. That was the famous 1996 finals in which Potsdam and Plattsburgh played to 4-4 and 3-3 ties. Potsdam then won the mini-game, 1-0, to take the title, thus having the distinction of never beating their opponent in a regular game all year, yet still taking the championship. It was that series that also caused the SUNYAC to change the finals to have a full third game, if necessary.

(The only time a three-game final went to the third game because of two ties was in 2002. Plattsburgh and Oswego tied 2-2 and 3-3 before Plattsburgh won the third game, 2-1.)

Therefore, in the other nine mini-game situations, the team that won on the second night to force a mini-game were only able to win that mini-game four times. The losing team in that second game came back to take the mini-game five times.

No momentum advantage for the winner of that second game. Even the thought that the team winning the second game expended themselves trying to tie up the series, and thus had no energy left for the mini-game, doesn’t hold since it’s virtually a split either way.

The home team, however, does have the advantage. The host won the mini-game nine times, with the only loss being in that 1996 finals when the visiting team, Potsdam, won. If you think about it, in the playoffs the home team is the higher seeded team and is therefore, theoretically, the better team, so they should be winning the series.

This weekend, fans who dislike the mini-game won’t have to worry. Though it is still a first to three point format, if the series is tied after two games, they will play a complete game on Sunday. And if need be, that one will be played into overtime for as long as it takes to get a winner.

FINALS PREVIEW

Plattsburgh (7-7-0, 18-11-0) at Geneseo (10-3-1, 16-6-4)

Like I stated in the beginning of this column, Plattsburgh is playing with a grit and determination rarely seen. Bob Emery, after receiving a large dosage of criticism from the bandwagon fans in Plattsburgh, is performing a masterful coaching job.

He came up with the perfect defense to stop Potsdam’s offense, fourth best in the league with the leading scorer and player of the year. Potsdam scored one solitary goal in that series, and it came so late, it was almost a “why bother” goal.

Then, he designed a defensive strategy to stop the number one offense, an offense that averaged five goals a game. Oswego’s first, second, and third lines only scored once. That’s it from players who made up six of the top 12 scorers in the league.

Now, he has to stop Geneseo. Once again it is not an easy task. In conference play, Geneseo averaged a second best 4.64 goals a game. Kuczmanski led the way with nine goals and 12 assists. Mike MacDonald had eleven goals. Three players had five power play goals.

The last time they played, Plattsburgh did stop Geneseo’s offense in a 2-1 victory. However, early in the season, Geneseo won 3-2.

If Neilson continues to play well and Plattsburgh comes up with a defensive scheme to stop Geneseo, does that mean the Ice Knights have no chance?

Not exactly.

“Any time you get to the finals in our league, anything can happen,” Emery said. “You play Geneseo at Geneseo, you got your hands full. They got some really good forwards. Their goalie has played well at home all year.”

That last sentence is the key. For all the success Plattsburgh has had in the last two rounds, the fact is they have not gone up against a hot goalie. They scored ten goals against Potsdam, but they had the weakest goaltending in the league. Against Oswego, Ryan Scott had a miserable series, letting in a slew of soft goals.

If Brett Walker plays like he has been this year, and the way people expected Scott to play, then it will be very interesting to see how Plattsburgh reacts. Geneseo has had defensive breakdowns this year, so that could be a factor.

One other factor is rest. Plattsburgh is playing in their third straight series. Only one other team has ever won the championship with the current playoff format without getting a bye. Of course, that was Plattsburgh. And once again, playing three playoff weekends in a row is one thing Emery is not concerned about.

“I’m not concerned ever about a Plattsburgh State team getting worn out,” Emery said. “I don’t know if people know me, but I kill them. In practice we go hard. We don’t take days off. I think we will be ready three weeks in a row or whatever it takes.”

Whatever it takes seems to be the theme for Plattsburgh this playoff run. Because of that, I wouldn’t bet against them.

It’s Been A Great Year

After a year’s hiatus from writing this column, it’s great to be back. And what a year to come back to. One of the wildest SUNYAC seasons in years with jaw dropping results. The SUNYAC dominates the ECAC West. In fact, they produce a winning record against every conference they went up against. So far a great playoff season.

And all you fans and readers are the icing on the cake. It’s been great meeting you at the rink and reading your emails. Even from overexcited Geneseo fans.

As for this column, I’ll see you all next year. However, I’ll still be around at the rinks and here on USCHO.com. This weekend, I’ll be in Geneseo all three days if necessary, possibly at a NCAA quarterfinal game, and hopefully at the D-III national championships.

There’s still a lot of hockey left. Drop the puck!