Hobart is the hottest team in the ECAC West at the moment, riding a four-game winning streak into second place as other teams continue to knock each other off.
The Statesmen snuck out two tough one-goal wins against Utica at The Cooler this past weekend, setting several school records in the progress.
On Friday, it was a battle between the goaltenders as Hobart’s Keith Longo and Utica’s Adam Dekker dueled it out. Dekker stopped 33 of the shots that he faced, but let Robert Wahler sneak a goal through early in the second period that turned out to be the difference in the 1-0 Hobart victory.
At the other end of the ice, Longo was able to stop all 29 shots he faced, including a peppering of 16 shots by Utica in the third period alone. The freshman goaltender earned his third shutout of the season, setting a school shutout mark in both the season and career categories by a Hobart netminder. Remarkably, no other Statesmen goaltender had earned more that two shutouts in either a season or career prior to Longo’s achievement this past weekend.
Currently, Long is second in the nation in save percentage (.942), trailing UMass-Dartmouth’s Jon Dryjowicz-Burek (.943) by one one-thousandth’s of a point.
Also with the win on Friday, Hobart set a school record for wins in a season by earning its 16th victory. This surpassed the previous mark set by both the 1978-79 (15-16-1) and 2003-04 teams (15-8-5).
“It’s nice to set some of those records, but we always want those numbers to get bigger,”
said Hobart coach Mark Taylor.
Utica showcased its stingy defense on Friday night as well. Entering the weekend, the Pioneers had only let in an average of 1.4 goals per game across ten league contests and only 2.2 goals per game across all nineteen total games.
Helping Utica achieve such eye popping numbers is an aggressive penalty killing unit. The Pioneers have the fourth ranked penalty kill in the country, killing off 89 percent of the opponent’s opportunities.
All weekend long, they gave the Hobart power play fits as it tried to move up ice and establish pressure in the offensive zone. Utica limited the Statesmen to only one power play goal across 16 opportunities during the two contests.
Saturday’s game between Utica and Hobart was a completely different affair as the offenses jumped to the forefront. Hobart’s Keith Longo was out of the lineup to attend the funeral of a friend’s mother, so sophomore Dimitri Papaevagelou made the start.
Papaevagelou has struggled to return to last year’s dominate form, but
there are certainly signs that he is coming around. He was called on to make several clutch saves as Hobart held on to a 5-4 victory.
Utica and Hobart traded goals through the first two periods of play on Saturday. Twice, Pioneer goals were quickly answered by the Statesmen, and then once Utica turned the tables by answering a Hobart goal to tie the game 3-3 after two periods. Hobart scored its only power play goal of the weekend early in the third period, and then finally got some
distance from Utica with under three minutes remaining when Jason Merritt tallied to make the score 5-3. Utica pulled goaltender Dekker and narrowed the deficit to one with a minute remaining, but Hobart held off a further Pioneer charge to get the win.
“I was really happy with the whole weekend,” said Taylor. “The guys knew that they had to respond with some good D, and capitalizing on some mistakes. I thought this was the best team hockey of the year.”
To many outsiders, the ECAC West may look like a league struggling to survive because it only has six teams and does not possess the magical NCAA tournament auto-bid. But there have been many signs this season that the league is healthy, strong, and even growing in many areas. I observed two such signs over the last couple of weeks.
Foremost is the competitive level of the league. When the first official NCAA regional rankings were released this past Tuesday, the ECAC West had five teams listed within the top15 in the East Region.
What an eye-opener that is to the level of play occurring within the league. To have the smallest league in the east steal a third of the spots on the list is a stunning accomplishment for the league as a whole.
In addition to the official NCAA rankings, other computer models like the Pairwise and KRACH show the ECAC West teams dominating the top of the list in strength of schedule categories.
The second sign of growth is the number of fans I see traveling to away games across the league. This past weekend I met some students from Utica’s Pioneer Posse while at the Hobart game. Not only has the Utica program done an outstanding job of making home games a community event, their fans are starting to travel in considerable numbers as well.
The volume of Hobart and Elmira fans traveling to away games is steadily increasing. There were even Elmira fans two weekends ago down in Neumann when the Soaring Eagles visited.
The cheering and bantering across arenas between opposing fans adds to the excitement of a game, and having a healthy contingent of fans traveling to away games is a sure sign of growth in the level of interest in the league.
What a Mess
The ECAC West standings continue to be entangled this week as teams knock each other off. Manhattanville and Elmira split their series at the Domes with the Valiants dominating Friday night and Elmira clamping the doors shut on Saturday. The Soaring Eagles’ 1-0 shutout of the Valiants Saturday night was the first time that Manhattanville had been shutout since a 7-0 drubbing by Hobart on February 16, 2002.
The weekend split had two effects on the standings. Most importantly, it gave Elmira a much needed boost of two points in the standings. It pulled the Soaring Eagles to within one point of both Neumann and Utica for the fourth playoff spot, although both of those teams have a game in hand on Elmira.
The split, combined with Hobart’s sweep of Utica, narrowed the margin between first and second place to only one point. But again, because Manhattanville now has a game in hand on Hobart, the Valiants may be able to rebuild their three point advantage this weekend.
Two weeks ago I predicted that a team would need to amass at least 16 points to make the playoffs and it appears that that continues to be the case.
Manhattanville is mathematically assured of a playoff spot having earned 17 points already. Hobart is on the bubble with 16 points, but are in the playoffs barring a complete flop.
Utica with 11 points is struggling. The Pioneers have gone 1-2-2 in their last five league games and appear to be on the verge of self-destructing. Utica desperately needs to sweep Lebanon Valley this weekend to gain some momentum heading to Manhattanville to close the season in two weeks.
For Neumann, it is unknown how being off this past weekend will affect them. Two weeks ago they lost two gut-wrenching one goal games to Elmira before getting a confidence booster from Lebanon Valley. The Knights certainly have the hardest road to the playoffs, as their remaining games are a pair at Manhattanville this weekend and then a pair hosting Hobart next weekend. Neumann needs to at least split both of those weekends to have a hope for the playoffs.
Elmira continues to play “do or die” hockey. The Soaring Eagles can’t afford to lose any more games if they want to extend their season, so it doesn’t do any good to look beyond their next game at Hobart on Saturday. Elmira has split its games against the Statesmen so far this season, losing by a pair of goals at Hobart early in the season and winning by two goals at home three weeks ago. Saturday’s game is at The Cooler and given the frigid forecast Hobart’s home rink advantage should be in full affect.
Elmira will obviously be ready with a lot on the line, but Hobart is looking forward to the game as well. It is the last home game for the Statesmen and Hobart certainly wants to keep their league-leading win streak alive heading towards the playoffs.
“The Elmira game isn’t any different than the last few games,” said Taylor. “You have to win every game and not worry about what can or should happen. That will be a huge game either way. It will be our Senior Night, and they are desperate for points. I’m a believer that you have to play your best hockey to get into the playoffs. Our focus is to make sure that we are playing playoff hockey.”