This Week in the ECACHL: Oct. 19, 2006

Hi, everybody.

But enough about me, there’s hockey afoot!

The State Of The League

Two weeks into the season, the usual suspects are off and running. The non-foliage-affilated sextet of Clarkson, Colgate, Quinnipiac, RPI, St. Lawrence and Union tumbled — and in some cases stumbled — out of the gate to a collective 10-6-3 record.

The Knights, Dutchmen and Engineers are still unbeaten — yes, Rensselaer’s 0-0-1 record does technically qualify — and each of these half-dozen teams has tasted victory, with the aforementioned exception in Troy.

Harvard, Cornell, Clarkson, Dartmouth and Colgate occupy five of the last eight spots in the Top 20 … and it should be noted that in the previous week’s poll, the Raiders garnered a perplexing first-place vote.

Rensselaer beat both Michigan State and Boston College for home-opener attendance figures, and the Golden Knights’ David Cayer is off to what couldn’t possibly amount to less than a 30-goal, 50-point season after a 4-2–6 line in his first four games … right?

Perhaps we’re getting ahead of ourselves. But then, if you can’t amuse yourself with wildly specious statistical extrapolations from insignificant sample sizes … well, I just feel sorry for you.

Dancing With The Stars

While the respective institutions have taken the league in the right direction to kick off the 2006-07 campaign, a few desirable tasks are yet left unfulfilled.

Quinnipiac dropped two at North Dakota to open the season, Colgate lost to Vermont and Denver in the Ice Breaker Invitational, and RPI ground out a 4-4 draw with visiting Boston University. These games amount to an 0-4-1 EC’ record against currently-ranked opponents. In fact, the league’s half-dozen active teams are a disconcerting 5-6-2 against teams that received any votes at all in the October 16 poll.

As far as top-ranked opposition is concerned, the league has got plenty more rounds left in the clip. ECACHL opponents have 28 more nonconference games scheduled against teams currently among USCHO’s Top 20, not including intraconference matchups, potential tournament draws, or — of course — teams that will break into and drop out of the rankings as the season progresses.

Harvard and St. Lawrence are the most ambitious of the bunch, with five such tilts already on the docket, while Princeton, Union, and (betcha didn’t see this one coming!) Cornell only have one game apiece against top-flight out-of-conference talent.

This one may not come as much of a shocker, however: Brown will reserve its shots at ranked teams exclusively for ECACHL brethren. Its most likely opportunities to play OOC upset-fodder will come against Providence, or in a potential matchup with Denver in the Denver Cup.

New Hampshire and familiar foe Vermont will each cross paths with the EC’ four times this season.

Engineers To Do The DU

Everyone who’s anyone realizes that next weekend’s mile-high Rensselaer-Denver series signifies the reunification of RPI’s first-year head coach Seth Appert with his former charges.

However, it also marks the return of new assistant coach Shawn Kurulak to his alma mater. It may result in the Appert Administration’s first win … or loss. Sharp-minded members of the Trojan (from Troy, get it?) community are hoping for their first-ever win over the Pioneers, too. (The Pios hold a slight 10-0-0 series advantage. Granted, the last time the teams met was during Reagan’s first term in office, in 1982.)

Finally, the Engineers are a four-point weekend from the program’s 900th overall victory.

Bobcats Get Siouxed

It was a rough opening weekend for Quinnipiac. A pair of Ls up in Grand Forks is nothing to be ashamed of, but the passive play of the Bobcat blueliners left head coach Rand Pecknold frustrated.

“We’re a pretty good offensive club,” he stated, “but we need to improve dramatically defensively.”

Pecknold was disappointed in a defense that gave outstanding North Dakota forwards Jonathan Toews and T.J. Oshie “too much respect,” backing way off the attacking forwards, fearful of getting beaten one-on-one.

Toews and Oshie combined for four goals and five assists among the Sioux’s 10 total tallies.

“We struggled with gap control. The whole defense in general. We stress ‘stick-on-stick’ gapping, … but in some cases we were giving Toews and Oshie 20, 30 feet.”

Despite calling the duo “two of the best four or five forwards in the country,” Pecknold insists that his defense is capable of better results.

Out Of The ‘Gate …

As aforementioned, the opening weeks of Colgate hockey were not kind to Raider Nation. Blown out by Vermont. Surrendering nothing but power-play goals in a 3-2 loss to Denver. Squeaking past Niagara 2-1 in front of a very sparse crowd in Rochester, and losing power-play guru and big scorer Jesse Winchester in the process.

Winchester re-aggravated an ankle injury in the first period of the Niagara game, and coach Don Vaughan says he’s out for Tuesday’s game against Canisius.

“It’s something he’s been fighting since training camp,” Vaughan said. “It’s really the biggest thing going on [with the team] right now … we just don’t have the depth up front to lose a guy like Jesse.”

Vaughan is hopeful that Winchester will be healthy by the end of the month, or at least by the time Colgate’s conference schedule commences against Yale on November 3.

Beyond The Basics

Every now and again, I’m going to try to find a technical or strategic topic that I find puzzling or fascinating, talk about it with those who know more than I do, and pass that info along to my insatiable and rabid readers. I’d call the segment “Coaches’ Corner,” but let’s face it, that phrase is played out.

This week’s topic: special teams.

With the well-publicized crackdown on interference, creative stickwork, and clutch-and-grab hockey will come an inevitable adjustment period. In the first two weeks alone, ECACHL teams have played their special-teams units an average of more than 17 times a game — more than 34 minutes of combined power-play and shorthanded situations.

With momentum and the season-opener crowd on its side, RPI drew 15 penalties for 13 man-advantages against Boston University in one game. Clearly, a squad could live or die on the success of its special-teams lines.

Clarkson enjoyed early returns on a sharp power play and a stalwart kill. In four games against Niagara, RIT, Providence and Massachusetts, George Roll’s Knights rolled to a 24% PP success rate (8/33) and killed 30 of 34 penalties, for 88% efficiency.

The Golden Knights’ total for what is called ‘combined special teams’ summed to 38-for-67, meaning that in any given special-teams situation, things went Clarkson’s way 57% of the time. This is a very solid figure, top-five in the country in the early going.

“We put an enormous amount of time into our special teams,” said Roll, “probably more than any other part of the game.”

And when talking to Roll, it’s easy to understand why. At first, it might seem difficult to set up a special-teams strategy against an opponent based on trends, because the other coaches must alter their strategies based on their previous opponents as well, right? So how do you spot a trend?

Well, Roll explains that for starters, some teams are naturally aggressive on the penalty kill, while others are more passive. Some block shots as though it’s their octogenarian grandmother between the pipes; others try to maintain a perimeter, allowing for easier reactions and adjustments to puck movement.

“If a team is blocking, we move the puck more, fake some shots,” said Roll. “If they’re standing up, we’ll shoot it and crash the net.

“We tell our guys not to go down,” he added. “It takes too long to recover.”

And when scouting another side’s power-play unit? Ask the seasoned pro.

“The key is to take away their strengths,” said Harvard head coach and longtime NHL winger Ted Donato. “Take away their key players, or their key plays.”

Generally, teams will roll the same form of power-play strategy game in and game out, assuming it’s generating acceptable results. Whether it’s an umbrella (players at the perimeters of the offensive zone), overload (heavy on one side of the ice) or 2-2-1 (defensemen on the blueline, two forwards at the circles, a forward down low), the aggressive nature of the man-advantage allows teams to challenge the opposition to stop them, rather than overhauling the PP for each new foe.

To match the other team’s preferences, the PK unit can set a degree of aggression and individual attention with a large box, small box, or diamond arrangement (all pretty self-explanatory).

“For us, we really try to move the puck and look for two-on-one opportunities,” said Donato, an approach echoed by Roll.

Executing the two-on-one scenario may as well switch on the little red light, as it opens a player up for a clear scoring opportunity.

Like many other novices, I’m sure, I always used to think of two-on-ones in the scheme of odd-man rushes, because that’s the only time you heard the phrase on game broadcasts. On the power play, however, you’re merely looking to open up that extra bit of space for that extra attacker, unencumbered by the undermanned defense. Spreading the defense out and finding the unmarked man, basically.

And that is a look beyond the special-teams basics.

The Obligatory Self-Indulgent Intro

I can be just as masochistic as the next columnist, so here’s some background info to give the more ravenous fans the early drop on me.

I graduated from the Boston University (thank you Ohio State, for starting that ridiculous trend), and hold season tickets to the Terriers. (This is for Cornell fans, who hate us still, as well as Harvard, RPI, Yale, Dartmouth, and St. Lawrence folks … all of whom may find cause for cursing the Scarlet and White by season’s end.)

I do not have a car of my own just yet — it is unnecessary, if not downright undesirable to drive in Boston, so I think I have a fair excuse for not getting out to Clarkson or Princeton very often. (Easy gripe material for devotees of anyone other than Harvard.)

I played inline hockey for a year with Yale sophomore defender David Inman. (Hence, should he ever find himself accused of any wrongdoing, chances are I’ll have his back.)

When I play — and I assure you, I play whenever I get the chance — I play goal. (Take your shots. All of you. Come on, it’s like a freebie!)

I have been a member of the USCHO Fan Forum since fall of 2001. (Why am I doing this?!? Ya want my home address and phone number too???)

Finally, since I’m a glutton for punishment … and a sucker for feedback … the most extraordinary response of any kind to my glorious premier column will earn mention in next week’s edition, and a special place in my heart. Or on my “list.” Depends on my mood.