This Week in the ECACHL: Feb. 8, 2007

Aaaand here they come, around the bend and down the stretch! Saints in the lead by a nose, but the Bobcats are a half-step back. Golden Knights are nipping at the ‘Cats tails, and the Red and Green are neck-and-neck for fourth. It’s like rush hour out there, all jammed between the 23- and 12-point markers!

That’s right, only three weekends left, and 35 ECACHL games to be played. Two points separate first from third, and five points lie between fourth and 12th. Other conferences around the nation have their tight spots in the standings, but none are anywhere close to this.

To update my season-long Visitors @ Hosts obsession … holy cow, it’s as close as the standings. Visitors lead 42-41-14 after a 9-2-1 weekend for the Hosts. It’s about the most lopsided result so far. The North Country teams each stole a win on the road, handing Cornell and Colgate the only home Ls of the weekend.

Travel companions Dartmouth and Harvard each went 2-0 in front of the home crowds, Brown went 1-0-1, and Connecticut comrades Yale and Quinnipiac each won their only league home games of the week.

Money … puck?

Without a doubt, we in the sporting world are elbow-pads deep in the Age of Statistics. With the immense popularity of Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, everyone from the shrewdest GM to that obnoxious guy on the bus who won’t stop talking to you now believes that statistics — and more importantly, their particular interpretation of statistics — hold the key not just to success, but domination.

But how do you attempt to compartmentalize such a fluid sport as hockey, to break it down to arbitrary moments and decisions and actions? Furthermore, is it even worth trying?

“I don’t think you can analyze hockey the same way as baseball or football,” said Rensselaer head coach Seth Appert, who uses the same basic stats that can be found in most comprehensive game notes.

The Engineers, according to their coach, have 10 set objectives for which they strive every game. These include such straightforward goals as winning the third period, blocking more shots (by percentage) than their opponent, winning 55 percent of faceoffs, and winning the special-teams battle.

“I think when we hit six or seven of those, we’re undefeated,” said Appert.

Princeton coach Guy Gadowsky goes a little bit further, tweaking statistics to spot trends and opportunities to improve his team. One particular example is determining faceoff percentages by line rather than by individual. Such a figure may seem like pretty basic stuff to your average stathead, but its application could prove crucial when deciding whom to put on the ice in critical game situations.

Gadowsky was quick to admit, though, that numbers and figures will only take you so far.

“Statistics are like bikinis,” he quipped. “They’ll show a lot, but they don’t show you everything.”

The most ambitious pursuer of advantage-through-analysis was without a doubt Rand Pecknold at Quinnipiac.

The 13th-year director of the school’s hockey program had long dreamed of applying a comprehensive statistical formula to quantify his team, but until two and a half years ago, didn’t have the resources to get the endeavor off the ground.

But with the acquisition of a larger full-time staff, Pecknold was finally able to implement his “Yzerman Chart.”

Self-designed, Pecknold named it for Steve Yzerman as a tribute to the sure-fire Hall of Famer’s strong end-to-end play.

It tracks “a ton of different variables,” said its inventor, including blocked shots, hits, shots on goal, scoring chances for and against.

“You name it,” he said.

The formula is filled in by hand after each game, as opposed to the incredibly complex computer-generated statistics sometimes seen in other sports. The end result is a kind of plus-minus figure for each player, telling the coach how dominant a player has been across the board.

“It’s been a big help,” said Pecknold, who prefers player scores over time, rather than game-by-game, for obvious reasons.

The Yzerman, as he calls it, has indicated before that some players who get a lot of minutes might not be playing as strongly as he thought, and that others who had played more sparingly probably deserved more time based on their scores.

However, the coach does look at individual game results, “especially among our defensemen,” to pick out the best and worst performers of the match.

“Reid Cashman is consistently our number-one defenseman,” said the coach. If that’s the case, the formula must indeed be worth something.

It should go without saying that every coach, in every sport, will have a different perspective on how to get the most out of his players, and how to determine which ones are responding best.

Fans and professionals alike will always attempt to quantify competition, to seek the subtle edges that can put a player or a team over the top in a game, in a season. There is nothing wrong with that … indeed, you can’t even begin to describe a game without the aid of a score, of shot totals, of penalties and power-play goals.

On the other hand, maybe it’s a good thing that hockey is so much more difficult to break down than baseball; in this observer’s opinion, it makes the game that much more enjoyable as a whole to be able to appreciate skill and beauty as a performance, rather than as a number.

First, for now

St. Lawrence sits at the top of the heap in the positively claustrophobic ECACHL. The Saints are 11-4-1 with 23 points in league play, one point ahead of Quinnipiac and with a game in hand. But with six games to go, even 12th-place Union and Rensselaer are mathematically capable of taking over first place. It’s made for a wonderfully exciting season from a fan’s perspective, but the coaches are downright perplexed.

“The fact is, it’s hard to say,” said SLU coach Joe Marsh, when asked how he feels about his team. “Guys have bought into the idea that it’s a long process” to get to the top, he said, “but standings [only] tell you where you’ve been, not where you’re going.”

Other than the perfectly reasonable paranoia currently shared by the top teams in the league, Marsh — in his 22nd season behind the Saints’ bench — is pleased with his players’ communal effort and attitude.

“Everything they’re doing — playing, practicing, everything — has a great sense of purpose,” he said. “The young guys have played with a little more poise than you’d expect from younger players … the goaltending is kind of a team within a team … the captains rank right up there with the top captains we’ve ever had.”

The common theme in Marsh’s comments was the strong leadership and chemistry exhibited by his charges.

“It remains to be seen [where the team will finish], but there are some very solid similarities” between this team and the NCAA tournament teams of ’98-’99, ’99-’00 and ’00-’01, he said. “The leadership and chemistry are comparable to teams we’ve had that have won championships.”

This edition of the Larries features no big-time scorers, no Hobey finalists, and probably no Dryden candidates this season (though when it comes to results, Petizian has been golden). This year’s Saints are winning as a team, as a number of highly-effective units coming together in lethal combinations.

The team is second in the league in offense, third in defense, dead last in penalty minutes (the good kind of last), and second on both the power play (21.3 percent) and penalty kill (90.3 percent).

Marsh said that despite the odds, his team likes to see itself as the underdogs, always pushing for results and perfection. He indicated a desire to further hone the special teams and team consistency (a minus-5 goal differential in the third period).

“Everybody’ll tell ya, it’s all about defense in the playoffs,” he stressed.

The team will still be without freshman sensation Mike McKenzie (groin) and junior Charlie Giffin (concussion) this weekend, though neither appears to be gone for long.

“McKenzie, we’re still evaluating” as to the extent of the problem, said Marsh.

Overall, the coach who has pretty much seen it all up in the North Country stressed the importance of applying lessons already learned.

“This is what we need to concentrate on,” he said.

“There is a sense of excitement, a sense of opportunity and possibility … more than in other years.

“Daydreaming is okay, but that’s all it is,” he concluded.

It’s up to the Saints to decide how many of those dreams will come true in 2007.

More than one Cat in this league

Quinnipiac may be generating a lot of headlines with the new rink, the big scorers and the title-worthy team, but Princeton is quick to remind that in the five-month brawl that is the ECACHL, its Tigers have claws, too.

“There are absolutely no gimme games,” said Gadowsky of the league. “It’s a great league for the fans, and for player development,” if not for national-tournament representation, he proposed.

As for his eighth-place team, “I think we’re doing fine,” he put simply.

“We can’t ever feel good about where we’re at — a bad weekend could put you in last. But we can’t ever feel bad about where we’re at — a good weekend could put you in fourth,” he mused mirthfully.

“We feel like we’ve been playing pretty well all year,” he said. The offense has been more balanced of late than in seasons past, but Gadowsky admits that the team has also leaned pretty hard on its goaltending … specifically that of freshman Zane Kalemba, who will start his 16th game Friday night.

“We’ve relied on goaltending … we’ve gotta focus on defense,” he stressed, saying that Princeton had its worst defensive performance of the year last Saturday in a 6-3 loss at Yale.

In a real test for the up-and-coming Tigers, their final six games — four at home — will all come against programs currently above them in the standings. It will be a make-or-break month to determine whether the P-Cats will play at home, on the road, or even — possibly — not at all in the first round.

Snapshots

According to Appert, senior forward and third-leading scorer Oren Eizenman was a healthy scratch against Harvard last Saturday, and will be available for Friday’s game against Colgate.

Mailbag!

Bad columnist. Between the day job, the Beanpot coverage, and a couple unexpected errands, this hack didn’t send out the weekly Coaches’ Poll questions in time. Hit me with next week’s inquiries! Same rules apply as last week’s. Except this time I’ll send them out. Berate me electronically at [email protected].

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