This Week in the ECAC West

Back On Top

With a pair of wins this past weekend over Lebanon Valley,
Manhattanville has re-staked its claim to the top of the league in the ECAC West. But getting past the Flying Dutchmen certainly wasn’t a cakewalk for the Valiants.

Friday night pretty much went by Manhattanville’s game plan. The
Valiants played a steady game and Andrew McShea sandwiched a pair of goals around a Lebanon Valley tally in the second period to give the Valiants the lead. Then all Manhattanville had to do was stick with the game plan in the third period to take a 3-1 victory.

But Saturday’s game was completely different. Despite being outshot
32-15 in the first two periods, Lebanon Valley built a 6-4 lead during that span paced by a pair of shorthanded goals by Justin Todd. The pesky Flying Dutchmen weren’t about to just roll over for the Valiants.

“I was impressed with Lebanon Valley,” said Manhattanville coach Keith
Levinthal. “They competed hard and played with a lot of confidence.
They took advantage of our mistakes in the second game. I was pleased with the way our team battled back. It was one of those games where we controlled the play and dominated the play, but would make a stupid mistake and they would make us pay.”

Coach Levinthal called his timeout at 17:07 of the second period, right after Chris Finnerty scored Lebanon Valley’s sixth goal, and Levinthal switched goaltenders inserting Jay Chrapala in net. The ploy worked as the Valiants scored three goals in the first seven minutes of the third period on the way to a wild 9-6 win.

“It was kind of a crazy game where there weren’t a lot of saves made,” said Levinthal. “It seemed like every shot was going in. I don’t think we ever hit the panic button, but we made some mistakes and to their credit they did an excellent job of capitalizing on them.”

Switching goaltenders in the middle of a game has become an unwanted habit for coach Levinthal. He has made the switch three times since the holiday break. Twice (Potsdam and Lebanon Valley), the strategy has worked to spur the Valiants to come back from multi-goal deficits to win the game. It failed to help against St. Thomas at the Times-Argus Invitational.

“We haven’t had a choice,” said Levinthal. “We have done it three times since the break because we had no other option. Given how strong our goaltending was in the first half, it is certainly a concern. We have had to switch some things in how we run our practices to better prepare them. We’ll see how it works out in the next couple weeks.”

Manhattanville will certainly need steady goaltending down the stretch to be successful. Andrew Gallant carried most of the load in net in the first half of the season because of the extra dimension his puck handling skills added on special teams. Gallant has helped to keep the Valiants penalty killing percentage hovering near ninety percent all season.

“A lot of the credit goes to Andrew Gallant,” said Levinthal. “He handles the puck so well that he creates issues for other team’s power plays. They can’t dump the puck, so they have to skate it in and are forced to over think things. The way things are called these days, you can’t spend enough time on special teams in practice.”

Helping to get the Valiants back to the top of the heap has been their offensive first line of Jason Murfitt, Jordan Menzies and Tyler Resch.
This line has tallied 85 of the teams 241 points, with Murfitt leading the team with fourteen goals and twenty-two assists in eighteen games.

“That line got off to a tremendous start, but have struggled for the last couple of weeks,” said Levinthal. “When [Jason Murfitt] plays like a power forward, and keeps his game simple, he is on a whole different level than most Division III hockey players. He is a big strong kid, skates well, and is skilled. If he can just stick to keeping his game simple at times, not trying to do too much and not trying to worry too much, he is absolutely an elite player in the country.”

Being at the top of the league standings-when everyone expects you to be there-can sometimes create mental landmines along the way. Manhattanville almost fell victim to one of those landmines this past weekend by looking past Lebanon Valley. But the Valiants appear to have heeded the wakeup call, and now are focusing more on the near term than the end of the road.

“We are just trying to beat Utica on Friday,” said Levinthal. “We are trying to get away from trying to win a league championship in the end of January. If we can play well against Utica, then that is a great step in the right direction. Part of our problem at the beginning of last weekend was trying to win a championship in the end of January, when we really want to be playing our best hockey in March. We have had to refocus our team a little bit.”

Four Weeks and Counting

With only four week’s remaining in the regular season, Manhattanville is certainly the team with the target on its back. With each team having played eight of fifteen league games, this week affords a good
opportunity to compare, contrast, and see what each needs to do down the stretch to reach the promised land of the playoffs.

I think the magic number of points to make the playoffs will be sixteen. The top four teams in the final standings will extend their season into the playoffs, and sixteen points represents a winning percentage of slightly better than .500. So, given that, let’s take a very quick team by team tour (in current standing order) and see how things are lining up.

With a three point lead, Manhattanville is in the driver’s seat for the regular season title. The Valiants magic number is twelve. Any combination of twelve points in the next seven games would guarantee a title. But with three games against Utica, and two each at Neumann and
Elmira, the road isn’t easy.

A win against Elmira, and garnering one other point in any other game, would clinch at least a playoff spot for the Valiants. But it is the big title that they want, and the quickest way to seal that deal is winning four of the five games against Utica and Neumann.

Utica has struggled of late to play consistently, but still have a great shot at the title. If the Pioneers can sweep the three game set with Manhattanville, then Utica would take over the driver’s seat.

But the Pioneers have the hardest remaining schedule of any contending team. With a pair of games at Manhattanville, another pair at Hobart, and home games against Manhattanville and Lebanon Valley, Utica has a tough row to hoe.

A sweep of the pair with Hobart, and any other win, would clinch a playoff berth for Utica. Or, any other set of three wins, with a little help from others, would most likely put them in the playoffs.

Either way, Utica needs to get off to a good start this weekend against
Manhattanville if they want to make a run at the top.

Neumann probably doesn’t have a realistic shot at the regular season title. The Knights would need to sweep their remaining seven games, including a pair at Manhattanville, and then hope that the Valiants also lose three of their other games. Most likely not going to happen.

But, the picture is much rosier about making their first ever playoffs.
Any combination of three wins would probably be enough to get into the post-season. Or, sweeping two games against Elmira this weekend, combined with any other single loss by Elmira, should do the trick as well.

The Statesmen are the bubble team at the moment, sitting in fourth place four points ahead of Elmira. Hobart has the easiest schedule down the stretch, though, being the only team in contention that does not have to face Manhattanville.

Any four wins would probably be enough to make the post season dance, but the one remaining game against Elmira on February 18th looms the largest on the calendar. The teams have split their two meetings so far this season.

The Soaring Eagles are not mathematically eliminated from the hunt for the regular season title, but for all practical purposes they are out of it. Elmira needs to concentrate simply on climbing back into the playoff picture.

Winning six of their seven remaining games would give Elmira a strong chance of making the playoffs. It is mathematically possible that five victories might do the trick, but Elmira would need to ensure that wins against Hobart and Neumann are included in that tally.

Lebanon Valley
While the Flying Dutchmen have shown improvement this season, and will almost certainly make some noise in the near future, the remainder of this season will be spent playing the role of spoiler. If they can continue to play as well as they did last weekend against
Manhattanville, Lebanon Valley could end up being the decider in the race to the finish line by the other teams.

And Finally

I just couldn’t let Neumann making this week’s USCHO poll go without a mention. What tremendous kudos for coach Dennis Williams and all of the players at Neumann. They have vastly exceeded everyone’s expectations this season, playing well in both conference and non-conference games to amass an astounding thirteen victories so far this season.

As a writer, I am supposed to stay neutral from one team to another in the ECAC West. I always cheer for the ECAC West teams against non-conference opponents, especially against the SUNYAC, but for the most part I don’t really have a preference when it comes to league standings.

However, in this one case, because Neumann has struggled for so long, I am quietly pulling for the Knights to continue to rack up wins during the last few weeks of this magical season.