Greetings from Albany, where we’re hours away from the beginning of what should be the most competitive final four the league has seen in some time. The top four seeds heading into the postseason have each advanced to the semifinals. In addition, all four squads have 20 or more victories going into Friday’s action — the first time that’s happened since Clarkson (25), St. Lawrence (23), Rensselaer (23) and Princeton (20) turned the trick in 1999.
Cornell, Harvard, Colgate and Vermont also have the NCAA tourney in their sights. The Big Red and Crimson are locks to make it, while the Raiders likely need at least one win this weekend and the Catamounts may need to earn the automatic bid by capturing the ECACHL tourney title. Then, if all the needed stars align, Dartmouth sits on the bubble with an outside chance as well.
“Absolutely, I believe we deserve two, maybe more than that,” said Colgate head coach Don Vaughan about the league’s prospects for the NCAA tourney. “I think we could get four teams in this year.”
The conference also has its best chance in years to have a representative in the Frozen Four in Columbus. The Catamounts made it in 1996, followed by the Saints in 2000 and Cornell in 2003. Following the same mathematical pattern, 2005 is next in line for an ECACHL team to make it to the Frozen Four. But maybe this reporter is just a bit of a hopeful nerd.
“The league is poised to send a good crop to the NCAAs,” said Vaughan, “but all four teams will want to go through the championship first.”
Ok, so we’re all getting ahead of ourselves. Leave it to a coach to bring us back down to earth. But, in this case, that’s a good thing as there’s an exceptional weekend of hockey before us. Here’s a look at the final four teams left standing in New York’s Capital Region.
No. 1 Cornell Big Red (24-4-3, 18-2-2 ECACHL)
Vital Statistics: 102 goals for (GF), 40 goals against (GA); 24.8 percent PP, 89.3 percent PK
Neutral Ice Record: 1-1-0
Record in One-Goal Games: 7-2-0
Between the Pipes: David McKee, So., 31 GP, 24-4-3, 1.24, .945, 9 SHO
Top Five Scorers:
Matt Moulson, Jr., F, 30 GP, 21-16-37, 11 PPG, 4 GWG
Shane Hynes, Jr., F, 29 GP, 7-20-27, 4 PPG
Mike Knoepfli, Sr., F, 31 GP, 12-12-24, 5 PPG, 4 GWG, 2 SHO
Topher Scott, Fr., F, 31 GP, 4-17-21, 3 PPG
Daniel Pegoraro, Jr., F, 31 GP, 7-13-20, 4 PPG, 3 GWG
After a year away from the ECACHL final four, the regular-season champs return to Albany as the third-ranked team in the country. The Big Red enjoyed a first-round bye, then swept Clarkson in last weekend’s quarterfinals to reach the semifinals against fourth-seeded Vermont.
“We’re prepared going into the championships,” said Cornell head coach and ECACHL Coach of the Year Mike Schafer, who guided the Big Red to tournament titles in 1996, 1997 and 2003.
“Clarkson … prepared us with more adversity in terms of preparation. The second night, too many things reminded us of the year before. The important thing was not getting them stuck in our minds.
“Last year’s loss was the most disappointing in my 10 years. Maybe we took [advancing] for granted in the past.”
Not this season, which is why the Big Red had extra motivation to end up back in New York’s capital. As has been the case with this program throughout Schafer’s tenure, a balanced effort drives the Cornell machine — in goal, on the blueline and up front.
Last Saturday, it was diminutive rookie Topher Scott’s turn.
“Size is all in the person,” Schafer said about his five-foot-six forward. “There are a lot of guys out there that are 6’3″ and play like they are 5’4”.
“He’s a tough kid with great intelligence. He gets hammered once in a while because of his size, but he loves to compete and has great hockey sense. He’s a gamer.
“The bigger the game, the better he plays.”
If that’s this case, Scott’s OT winner may have just been a warm-up act.
Assisting him in Cornell’s quest for a title are, among others, juniors Matt Moulson and Shane Hynes, as well as senior Mike Knoepfli. The balanced offense of the Big Red is what makes the team so dangerous. It’s one thing if you have a strong defensive system, but struggle offensively. It’s another if you can also throw the nation’s best power play — and penalty killing — onto the ice as your lead weapon.
Cornell has also been able to end games early. It’s similar to a baseball team with a tremendous bullpen. That team’s offense knows that if they get an early lead, and are winning after six innings, the game is over.
The Big Red has worked this formula into its third 20+ win season in the last four years and enters Albany with a nation’s best 15-0-1 winning streak. For the year, Cornell has outscored its opponents 33-13 in first periods and a ridiculous 43-9 in second periods. In all, it is 19-0-2 when notching the game’s first goal.
On defense, Charlie Cook leads blueliners in scoring with 19 points and four power-play goals, while sophomore Ryan O’Byrne and freshman Sasha Pokulok — each six-foot-five — set the tone with their size.
Then there’s ECACHL Player of the Year and Dryden Award winner David McKee.
He’s followed-up a 16-win season with 24 this year, including nine shutouts, which ties him for the school and ECACHL single-season record with the man he replaced, David LeNeveu. His combined 14 career shutouts is a Cornell record, an achievement he’s accomplished while still playing his sophomore campaign.
McKee also leads the nation in goals against average (1.24) and shutouts, while ranking second in save percentage (.945).
“After last year, we took a look at McKee’s statistics,” said Schafer, “and challenged him to cut down on the type of goals he was giving up. By Christmas time, he had taken that step to be in the elite category of goaltenders in college hockey. He’s not giving up soft goals anymore.”
McKee’s numbers taken with those of LeNeveu’s and Matt Underhill’s before him often raise the question: Are the goaltenders really this good or is it Cornell’s stifling defensive play that leads to such statistics?
“It’s no secret that you’re not going to put these numbers up without the combination of the two,” explained Schafer. “[And] you’re not going to be that good defensively without a good goaltender.”
If it is both, then what is it that attracts this level of talent between the pipes to the Ithaca campus? Is Ken Dryden’s legacy still a factor?
“You’ve got to be lucky,” Schafer said. “A lot of young guys don’t really know Dryden other than from his books.”
Instead, it seems that what Cornell has is a great example of what winning will do for recruiting. It is how successful programs remain in that status for long periods of time.
No. 2 Harvard Crimson (20-8-3, 15-5-2)
Vital Statistics: 91 GF, 55 GA; 22.7 PP, 83.3 PK
Neutral Ice Record: 0-3-1
Record in One-Goal Games: 6-2-0
Between the Pipes: Dov Grumet-Morris, Sr., 28 GP, 18-7-3, 1.53, .949, 6 SHO
Top Five Scorers:
Tom Cavanagh, Sr., C, 31 GP, 9-17-26, 3 GWG
Jon Pelle, Fr., F, 31 GP, 8-16-24, 4 PPG
Andrew Lederman, Sr., C, 25 GP, 6-13-19, 4 PPG
Ryan Maki, So., RW, 27 GP, 9-9-18, 3 PPG
Kevin Du, So., C, 28 GP, 8-10-18, 3 GWG
Defending ECACHL tournament champions, Harvard returns to Albany seeking its third title in four seasons. No Crimson squad has ever won back-to-back titles.
“It’s a tremendous accomplishment to be where we are now,” said first-year Harvard coach Ted Donato. “The ECACHL has as good a top end teams as any [conference] in the country right now.”
They started their playoff run with a first-round bye and then earned a physically grueling quarterfinal sweep of St. Lawrence last weekend.
“I hope [it] will toughen us up for this weekend,” Donato said.
“It’s not an easy accomplishment to make the [ECACHL] final four. All four teams are capable of winning this thing. I hear so much about Hockey East, but for my money the coaches in this league … are among the best in the country.”
The most experienced team of the quartet, the Crimson is led by a battle-tested senior class, which is 15-1-0 in ECACHL tournament play.
“Regardless of this weekend,” said Donato, “they will graduate as the greatest class in Harvard history. I’m just along for the ride.”
Forwards Tom Cavanagh — who started Harvard’s comeback in last year’s title game — and Brendan Bernakevitch had off-years, statistically, but are the 1-2 punch the Crimson will lean on this weekend. Cavanagh has 17 points in 16 career ECACHL tourney games, while Bernakevitch has 16 over the same stretch.
Cavanagh, for whom increased scoring totals were expected this season, has taken on a different role. While still leading the club in points, he’s been a critical defensive presence against opponents’ top players. For his efforts, he was named ECACHL Defensive Forward of the Year.
Classmate Andrew Lederman has had a breakout season, but has been a healthy scratch in four of the last five games. Meanwhile, Rob Flynn has been a steady presence on Harvard’s fourth line.
On the blueline, captain Noah Welch and Ryan Lannon have been stalwarts since day one. Welch, the team’s leader on and off the ice, uses his size and strength to fend off opponents while also adding an element of offense.
Lannon, easily one of the best defensive defensemen in the league, doesn’t get the attention — or venom from opposing fans — that Welch garners, but the Crimson is a weaker team without him in the lineup. He set the physical tone for Harvard against the Saints with huge hits to open Game 1 and is +23 for the season.
“Their experience is something I’ve relied on since day one,” admitted Donato about this year’s graduates. “I sat down with the seniors on my first day and said ‘this is your team. I’m not here to rebuild.’
“They’ve made my job easier. I’m lucky and blessed to start my college hockey [coaching] career with this group, not just as hockey players, but as character guys.”
The final senior in the group is netminder Dov Grumet-Morris, who enters this weekend as the ECACHL tournament’s winningest goalie. He holds the single-season win record (six in 2004) and the career victory mark (15). In addition, he leads the nation in save percentage (.948) and is second in goals against average (1.53).
“He’s a no-brainer Hobey Baker finalist,” boasted Donato. “It is a great comfort to me that every night we will get great goaltending. He’s been so consistent all year. You take that for granted as a coach.”
Grumet-Morris has been even better this season than in years past. At times over the last three seasons, he’s had a moment in games where he might misplay a puck or get caught out of position. This year, however, he’s eliminated those instances and has been rock solid since opening night at Brown.
“It’s single elimination now,” said Grumet-Morris. “We’ve made it to Albany and this team’s ready to play.”
No. 3 Colgate Raiders (24-9-3, 14-5-3)
Vital Statistics: 98 GF, 67 GA; 19.6 PP, 85.7 PK
Neutral Ice Record: 1-1-0
Record in One-Goal Games: 8-4-0
Between the Pipes: Steve Silverthorn, Sr., 34 GP, 23-8-3, 1.76, .923, 5 SHO
Top Five Scorers
Tyler Burton, Fr., C, 34 GP, 18-14-32, 7 PPG, 4 GWG
Jon Smyth, Jr., W, 36 GP, 14-16-30, 6 PPG, 6 GWG
Adam Mitchell, Sr., F, 36 GP, 11-17-28, 3 SHG
Darryl McKinnon, Sr., C, 36 GP, 7-14-21, 3 PPG, 3 GWG
Kyle Wilson, Jr., C, 27 GP, 5-16-21, 3 PPG
Back behind the bench after a year as interim athletic director, head coach Don Vaughan has led his Raiders to back-to-back 20-win seasons for the first time in program history.
Colgate enjoyed a first-round bye before ousting Brown in two straight in the quarterfinals last weekend. The series victory has the club back to where it had its biggest disappointment in 2004 — the ECACHL semifinals.
Last March, the regular season champs dropped their semifinal contest to a streaking Clarkson team. The loss, added to some early-season non-conference defeats, cost the Raiders a chance to play in the NCAA tournament.
“Our team used that game against Clarkson to motivate them for this year,” said Vaughan. “There was a lot of disappointment leaving Albany. They’ve been looking ahead to this year.
“It’s been on their minds. They didn’t feel they played their best game. Maybe it was nerves over being there for the first time.”
That shouldn’t be the case on Friday. Like Harvard, the Raiders are a veteran team led by its senior class.
“I like our team a lot,” said Vaughan. “We have great leadership with our nine seniors.”
Each member of the class of 2005 has played a significant role this season. The five forwards in the group — Adam Mitchell, Darryl McKinnon, Dave Thomas, Anthony Masotto and Dmitry Yashin — have combined for 31 goals and 76 points this year. The first three in the group also serve as tri-captains.
Defensemen Joey Mormina, Justin Spencer and Eamon DelGiacco have been rocks on the blueline, each logging significant ice time.
“We have quality on defense,” explained Vaughan, “but have used a handful of guys a lot back there.”
Mormina, one of the most underrated players in the league, has contributed at both ends of the ice while providing Vaughan with a reliable, steadying force he’s leaned on throughout the year. Spencer has skated in a career-high 35 games heading into the semifinals and is a quiet force in front of goaltender Steve Silverthorn.
DelGiacco is the most interesting story in the class, having transferred to Colgate after Fairfield folded its hockey program at the end of the 2002-03 campaign.
“Eamon added more to the team than anyone will ever imagine,” said Vaughan. “We didn’t expect him to play as many minutes as he did last year. He had a great summer. He worked on things that he felt he needed to improve on.
“Obviously, you never want to see a Division I program canceled, but we have certainly reaped the benefits. He’s a quiet a guy, but is a really big part of our team.”
This weekend, DelGiacco will also have the benefit of playing in front of friends and family, having grown up in nearby Saratoga Springs.
The ninth member of the senior class is the man in goal, Silverthorn. The Owen Sound, Ontario native has improved in each of his years at Colgate, from a 13-win sophomore season to his 18 victories last year and now to 23 win leading up to Friday’s game.
He ranks fifth in the country in goals against average (1.76) and is tenth in save percentage at .923. He’s also posted a career-best five shutouts — good for fourth in the nation.
“Folks coming to Albany will see four of the best goaltenders in the country,” Vaughan said.
Offensively, the Raiders are led by rookie Tyler Burton and junior Jon Smyth, a pair of 30-point players. Mitchell, with 11 tallies, joins them as the Raiders’ lone double-digit goal scorers. But despite the addition of Burton and the contributions of his fellow forwards, Vaughan knows that his team’s spotlight needs to be on their end of the ice.
“We need to pride ourselves on defense,” said the bench boss. “We’re not going to be in many 7-6 shootouts.
“I thought we played well defensively against Brown. If not for a couple of great saves on the power play, we’d have been playing on Sunday.”
Like Cornell, the Raiders look to get the early lead on teams and then clamp down into their defensive system. They are 10-1-1 when leading after the first period, 18-1-1 when ahead after 40 minutes. More impressively, Colgate is 21-1-1 when scoring first.
No. 4 Vermont Catamounts (21-12-4, 13-6-3)
Vital Statistics: 107 GF, 80 GA; 18.9 PP, 87.4 PK
Neutral Ice Record: 1-0-0
Record in One-Goal Games: 7-4-0
Between the Pipes: Joe Fallon, Fr., 30 GP, 17-8-4, 1.95, .922, 5 SHO
Top Five Scorers:
Scott Mifsud, Sr., F, 37 GP, 21-27-48, 12 PPG, 4 GWG
Jeff Corey, Jr., F, 35 GP, 17-16-33, 4 PPG, 3 GWG
Torrey Mitchell, 36 GP, 11-19-30, 4 GWG
Kenny Macaulay, So., D, 37 GP, 4-17-21, 3 PPG
Chris Myers, So., F, 36 GP, 12-8-20, 6 PPG
OK, admit it, you didn’t think Vermont would be in the position either. Picked to finish in the lower third of the conference, the Catamounts battled to the last day of the regular season and emerged with a first round bye and its first home playoff series since 1996-97.
With that opportunity, UVM fought back to survive a three-game quarterfinal series against rival Dartmouth by pulling out a 2-1 victory last Sunday. Now, Vermont finds itself as one of the final four teams in line for what would be its first-ever conference tournament title. Cornell is the first obstacle.
“We’re proud to go to Albany,” said head coach Kevin Sneddon. “It’s a big step for our program and a big step for our guys and their confidence.”
Usually, when a team comes together and outfoxes the experts, a combination of things has to fall into place. So it did for the Catamounts, skating in their final ECACHL season.
First is UVM’s leading scorer Scott Mifsud. The senior led all league players in overall scoring and his 21 goals coming into this weekend are nearly double the amount he put up in his junior campaign.
Junior Jeff Corey’s 17 goals are more than his combined total from his first two seasons and he has 14 points in his last 12 games. Sophomore Kenny Macaulay, a transfer from Finlay, has added a new dimension to the defense, thanks to his 17 assists and 21 points. While freshman Torrey Mitchell has been as advertised and has been a big reason for Mifsud standout season.
Then there’s the emergence of ECACHL Rookie of the Year Joe Fallon, who helped turn the season around with a huge — and that’s an understatement — victory at Minnesota-Duluth just as his team was at its lowest point. The freshman ranks eight in the nation with a 1.95 GAA and is tied for fourth with five shutouts.
Add that to the phenomenal leadership of junior captain and ECACHL Defensive Defenseman of the Year Jaime Sifers and UVM’s senior class and you have the right ingredients for Vermont surge.
“I’m just so pleased for our seniors,” Sneddon said. “They’ve never played in a home playoff game or competed for a championship.
“I’ve been a spectator one too many times [in Albany]. It’s nice to bring a team down to compete for a championship. It’s been a tremendous season … the leadership has been fantastic.”
If you’d seen the stretch drive last season, when UVM won five straight from February 13-27, you would have noticed some positive signs from a hard-working squad that were sure to carry over into this year.
“I think we started to see some things turn around last year when the team decided to have Sifers become captain. He exuded everything we thought was important. He’s a perfect role model for the players as our staff was trying to turn the culture around.
“The second half success spilled over to our off-season training. It takes a little bit of time to implement your style and culture for what you want for your program.”
Sneddon also points to one particular weekend early in the 2004-05 campaign as the most critical, and it’s probably not the one you’re thinking of.
“The most important weekend of the season was being swept at home by Niagara,” he said. “We learned about the little things we didn’t do and then did them next week at [then-]number one Minnesota-Duluth.
“It gave us a lot of confidence. It gave us the confidence to play with anyone.”
Confidence is one thing, but will the Catamounts be nervous again — as they were last Friday against the Big Green?
“I don’t know if we’ll be any more nervous than showing up to play Cornell at Lynah,” Sneddon responded. “They are tough to play anywhere.
“We were nervous against Dartmouth in Game 1. The nerves are out of us now. There may be extra butterflies playing at the Pepsi Arena. Maybe the first five minutes, but we’ll be better than last weekend.”
(Note: The recent playoff history category only includes games since the ECAC split.)
No. 3 Colgate vs. No. 2 Harvard
Colgate swept series, winning 4-1 at home (11/6/04) and 3-1 at Harvard (1/7/05).
Recent Playoff History
1985 Quarterfinals at Harvard: Crimson over Raiders 4-2, 10-2
1986 Quarterfinals at Harvard: Crimson over Raiders 2-0, 6-4
1998 First Round at Harvard: Crimson over Raiders 5-4, 4-2
Colgate’s Don Vaughan: “I admire the way [Harvard] plays the game. We have a lot of respect for Grumet-Morris. He’s one of the premier goaltenders in the country, not just this year, but last year and the year before. It seems like he’s on the seven-year plan.
“They’re great on the transition and keep skating. I watched the film of our games against them and they had the better part of the play. That’s the trouble we’ve had this year … too much play in our own end.”
Harvard’s Ted Donato: “We’re certainly not ashamed of [losing twice]. We’ll have our hands full. If I had to pick a team, I’d pick Donnie’s. It’s a match-up of two of the best goalies in the league. It’s two teams that have been at the top of goals for and goals against all year.
“Colgate presents a problem with their speed up front. We’re playing a team that I believe is very hungry. They won the league last year and obviously have talent.”
Prediction: Harvard over Colgate, 2-1
No. 4 Vermont at No. 1 Cornell
Cornell won the season series, 1-0-1, tying 2-2 in Burlington (11/19/04) and winning 2-1 at home (1/22/05).
Recent Playoff History
1986 Quarterfinals at Cornell: Big Red over Catamounts 8-3, 3-3
Vermont’s Kevin Sneddon: “This has been a great year for the ECACHL. All four teams have had a great season and some will go on to represent the league well. We have a more monumental task in going up against, in my opinion, the number one team in the country.”
Cornell’s Mike Schafer: “I’m very proud of the teams in this league. It helps us all. Look at the national rankings. I get tired of listening to other teams talk about their leagues. Our opponents show the depth of our league this year.”
Prediction: Cornell over Vermont, 3-1
Playoff TV and Webcasts
If you can’t make it to Albany for this weekend’s games, you can catch them on television and on the Internet. Here’s the schedule for each game.
Vermont vs. Cornell
Friday, March 18, 4:30 p.m.
• Live on Adelphia Cable (Hanover, N.H. and Burlington, Vt.) and Time Warner Syracuse (Ithaca, Syracuse and North Country)
• Tape delayed on CSTV (10 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m. Saturday), Cox Cable (noon Saturday) and Time Warner Albany (TBA)
Colgate vs. Harvard
Friday, March 18, 7:30 p.m.
• Live on CSTV, Adelphia Cable (Hanover and Burlington) and Time Warner Syracuse (Ithaca, Syracuse and North Country)
• Tape delayed on Cox Cable (2:30 p.m. Saturday) and Time Warner Albany (TBA)
Saturday, March 19, 8 p.m.
• Live on CSTV, Adelphia Cable (Hanover and Burlington) and Time Warner Syracuse (Ithaca, Syracuse and North Country)
• Tape delayed on Cox Cable (3 p.m. Saturday) and Time Warner Albany (TBA)
The ECACHL will also provide free video webcasts of the semifinals. The games can be viewed by going to www.XMIevents.com. In addition, all four games can be heard on the Internet on the ECACHL radio network. The games, free to all, are courtesy of WEOS in Geneva, N.Y., and can be found at www.weos.org.
Congratulations to Steve Hagwell, who had the “Acting” removed from his Commissioner title this week and signed a three-year deal to lead the ECACHL. Steve has been a tireless worker and an excellent leader for a league that, for many years, probably didn’t deserve someone of his talents. This week’s announcement was long overdue for a strong, modest commissioner.
A big “thank you” goes out to all of the players, coaches and sports information staffs of the 12 teams in the conference for their cooperation all season. Their candor and hard work is greatly appreciated. And, of course, the most important “thank you” is for reserved for all of you, the readers of this column.
It has been my goal since I took over this space last season to shed some light on all 12 teams, not just a select few. I hope I’ve been able to bring you the kind of information and coverage of this league that has added to your enjoyment of the on-ice action. Thank you for the compliments and criticisms all year long. I’ve enjoyed them all.
Finally, best of luck to the Vermont Catamounts as they move over to Hockey East next season. This conference will not be the same without regular trips to Burlington and Gutterson Fieldhouse.