This Week in the ECACHL: Feb. 15, 2007

All over the league, it’s the same story and the same mindset: eight points left, get ’em while they’re hot.

And for good reason, no one really has much of anything wrapped up. St. Lawrence and Clarkson will have home ice, at least, and Quinnipiac looks good for it too — Rensselaer is the only bottom-four team in range, but that’s an eight-point difference. (That said, if they do end up tied with 22 points in three weeks, RPI wins the tiebreaker.) But other than the top three, everything else is still very much up in the air: the distance between fourth-place Cornell and the three-way tie at the bottom is a mere seven points.

For what it’s worth, the top four (the bye teams) and middle four (first-round home teams) control their own destinies, as far as maintaining their holds on their respective statuses. That is to say, there is no tie for fourth nor eighth, and everyone in the league has played the same number of games (18).

The clock is winding down in the entirely irrelevant Visitors @ Hosts competition. And, it seems, as goes the league, so goes this fictional matchup: the home teams slapped together a 6-4-1 record this weekend — the first time the Hosts have won back-to-back weekends all season — and for the first time, overtook the Visitors, leading 47-46-15.

The North Country teams each went 2-0, sending Brown and Yale to 0-2 on the road. Princeton and RPI each split at home, Union lost to Colgate and tied Cornell at the Achilles, and Quinnipiac dropped its only home league game of the weekend to Dartmouth on Friday night.

The Saints are a remarkable 8-1-0 at home so far, Quinnipiac is 5-2-2, Colgate is 5-3-1, and Clarkson is 4-2-3. Cornell is a surprisingly mortal 4-3-2 at the revamped James Lynah Rink.

But now that winning on the road has proven incrementally more difficult than winning at home: Clarkson is 7-2-0 on the road, while SLU is 5-3-1. Dartmouth is 4-2-3 away from Thompson, while QU and Cornell are both 4-3-2 away from home.

Streak-busting

It’s early, considering how incomparably tight the standings still are, but here are some facts to consider with four games to play.

Since the expansion of the ECACHL playoffs from 10 teams to 12 in 2002-03, Cornell has yet to play a first-round series. In fact, the Big Red haven’t missed a bye-week since ’94-95, when the format featured seeds one through six earning byes, and seven through 10 played for the final two spots in the second round. (Cornell did play a first-round game in ’98-99, but there were no byes during that period.) That said, the Red aren’t in imminent danger of losing that streak; as aforementioned, they do control their own destiny.

One streak that is looking good for the history books is St. Lawrence’s six-year run of first-round games. It was back in the late winter of 2001 that the Saints last enjoyed a week off entering the playoffs … which was one season removed from their last first-place finish, in ’99-00.

Clarkson, too, has endured first-round tests of late, playing in the opening series in five consecutive seasons. The ’01-02 team was the last to earn a week off.

Finally, on a less optimistic note, Union’s senior class has never played on the road in the first round, and has its work cut out for them to avoid such a fate this year. The program that has never won an ECACHL playoff series hopes to dispense of that tag as well, and would feel much more comfortable doing so from within the Achilles’ friendly confines.

Can’t get no respect

… or, in many cases, satisfaction.

The ECACHL is without a doubt among the top four college hockey leagues, the other three being Hockey East, the WCHA, and the CCHA. Yet, the league consistently places fewer teams in the NCAA tournament than the other leagues, who feature the perennial likes of Michigan, Maine, Minnesota, North Dakota, New Hampshire, Michigan State, Boston University, Boston College, and so on and so forth.

The ECACHL, however, has lately been placing only two, sometimes three programs in the national title hunt; the last time the league featured a quartet of representatives was 1996. (Granted, it was a field of 12 rather than 16 through 2002, so ’96 marked a major accomplishment for the ECAC.) It’s been an issue that has perplexed many pundits in recent years: is the ECACHL a great league that beats itself out of numerical contention, or are the national polls, and more importantly the PairWise Rankings, an accurate reflection of the true status of the league?

At this point in the season, only Clarkson looks to be a serious contender for an at-large bid (if necessary) with the sixth-best mark in the Pairwise — the formula used to determine overall team strength, and decides the 10 at-large bids for the NCAA tournament. St. Lawrence (16), Cornell (tied for 18) and Quinnipiac (tied for 21) are all among the top 25 in the Rankings, but all three are currently on the outside looking in. So what is the explanation behind the league’s lackluster perception on the national scale?

“It definitely hurts our league that we beat up on each other,” said Union coach Nate Leaman. “It’s the most competitive league in the nation,” he said, an observation that is far less impression than fact, echoed many other coaches.

Pointing out that — especially this year — there are no “tiers” in the ECACHL as there are in other leagues, it is very clearly a league that will beat itself up, as the lower teams in the standings actively moderate the league’s leaders’ highs from within.

“I’ve been very impressed with the depth of the league,” agreed Rensselaer’s Seth Appert, a former coach in the WCHA and a newcomer to the ECACHL coaching fraternity.

Appert pointed to the strong non-conference records of teams like Union (7-3-2), Brown (4-1-2) and Yale (3-2-2), who tangled with — and often beat — top teams such as New Hampshire (Yale beat them), Massachusetts (ranked 13 in the USCHO.com/CSTV Poll when Union defeated them in November), Boston University (a 2-1 OT winner over Yale), Northeastern, and St. Cloud State.

These three, currently tied for last in the league (or 10th, optimistically), have among the best non-conference records in the ECACHL. Simply further verification that this season, and this league, sports parity like none other.

Mike Schafer at Cornell believes that his league deserves more credit than it gets.

“This league is very strong,” said the coach, who knows a little something about stiff competition, having guided the Big Red to six NCAA tournaments in 11 seasons.

But what is holding it back, what is preventing this league from truly challenging the other Big Three for superiority?

Of course, there is no straightforward answer. There are the traditional and self-imposed limitations for the Ivies, of course — a maximum of 29 regular-season games, minimum team GPAs (beyond NCAA requirements), and no athletic scholarships. (Union doesn’t offer them, either.)

There is the issue of facilities: the ECACHL doesn’t include a single state school, and in conjunction with the numerous “small-market” programs like SLU, Union, and Colgate, the league’s arenas as a whole are the smallest of the Big Four leagues, and the gross attendance figures reflect as much. This isn’t necessarily hurting any of the league’s teams in the pocketbook, but it is a distinct disadvantage when compared to the quintuple-digit figures at the gate for some of the nation’s biggest programs.

Finally, there is the circular, catch-22-type dilemma of trying to appeal to the schedules of big-time programs. Playing the best teams raises your Pairwise standing, making you a better team in turn, to grossly simplify things. However, those big-time programs don’t want to fill their own, increasingly limited, non-conference schedules with soft teams that will serve no benefit to their own aspirations.

So, what are the possible solutions?

Well, the Ivy League is about as likely to change as our national two-party system, so the recruiting and scheduling limitations are off-limits, as far as this discussion is concerned.

Appert cuts straight to the chase: “Win [national] tournament games … win non-conference games.”

Success breeds success, in his perspective, and sometimes you just have to control the controllable.

“There’s no reason to gripe, there’s no reason to argue about it,” larger venues get the home games, he said.

Dartmouth’s Bob Gaudet sees some light through these clouds, though, in the form of reciprocating schedules. Just as BU played at Dartmouth last season and in a tournament format this year, the Big Green will visit Agganis in 2007-08, and so on and so forth with other opponents. Granted, Hanover is fortuitously located between such big-timers as Maine, New Hampshire, BU, BC and Vermont, but even the more westerly ECACHL schools are within shouting distance of the Hockey East.

“Scheduling is difficult; each school has its own different quirks,” Gaudet said. “We’ve enjoyed having the opportunity to play good teams in our home arena,” he added.

Schafer agreed, noting successful arrangements with BU, North Dakota and New Hampshire in the next few years.

“We could [buy home games], but we attempt to reciprocate,” he said, referring to the commonly practiced art of paying smaller programs to play at your rink.

Schafer feels that Cornell requires “a minimum of 15 or 16 home games” to meet budget requirements, leaving only two or three games open for non-conference road trips.

But like Harvard and Dartmouth, the Big Red are considered significant players on the big scene year-in and year-out, and the other three Ivies (Brown, Princeton and Yale) work hard to schedule as competitive an out-of-conference slate as they can.

So whether it’s an Ivy or not, the key lies in the strength of schedule. More reciprocal agreements will benefit the players, the programs, the fans and the league, and even those teams who can’t secure the premier opponents will benefit by proxy, benefiting indirectly in the PairWise.

It’s no easy task … Gaudet is already polishing his schedule for 2010 … but it’s possible, such diligence will only serve to raise the status of the ECACHL to its rightful place among college hockey’s elite.

Knights feeling golden

Clarkson coach George Roll is pleased with how his team is playing these days.

“We’re playing with a good intensity level; the special teams have been strong,” he said.

“This is probably the deepest [offense I’ve ever coached],” he added. “Nobody’s worried about the individual things … the guys realize that team success is the most important thing.”

The Knights have won three of four, and have only two losses in their last 18 games (13-2-3). The offense also seems to be back on track, after a four-game slump in mid-January with three one-goal performances. For this Roll credited the Shawn Weller-Steve Zalewski-Matt Beca line, which has been “consistent all year”, as well as the Chris D’Alvise-Mike Sullivan-Shea Guthrie trio, which has “really been finding the back of the net now”.

Tough schedule? So what?

Union and Leaman couldn’t be happier about this weekend’s foray into the North Country, home of the league’s top two teams.

“It’s the top two teams, two weeks before the playoffs … I think it’s great,” he proclaimed. “It’s a tremendous challenge. I love our schedule.”

At home in mid-January, the Dutch dropped a one-goal game to the Saints and beat Clarkson in overtime.

The coach clearly thrives on adversity, and proving his team’s mettle against the odds.

“I like our team a lot; I thought we played well enough to win both games last weekend,” said Leaman of his squad’s 3-3 tie with Cornell, and 3-1 loss to Colgate (including an empty-netter).

Just to emphasize his fearlessness and love for the fight, Leaman shrugged off the need for home-ice in the playoffs.

“I think it would make a difference,” he allowed, “but I’m more concerned with how our team is playing. I’m concerned with playing consistent [hockey] two nights in a row.”

The team is young and streaky, but Justin Mrazek has demonstrated his capability for keeping a cold team in the game with a .905 save percentage in 28 games overall.

Big Green alive and kicking

“The team is playing well; we’ve played a good stretch of games,” began Gaudet, “but we’re fighting the injury bug on the blueline, like we have all season.”

Not the way you’d hope to dive into the playoffs, with a back leg flailing, but upon further inspection things aren’t so bad.

In fact, Gaudet thinks that the team — as it’s playing now — is Albany-worthy.

“It’s a good, solid team offensively. J.T. Wyman has a good stretch of games now where he’s been really outstanding,” taking pressure off workhorse forwards David Jones, Nick Johnson and Tanner Glass.

Freshman T.J. Galiardi is fourth on the team in points with eight goals and 12 assists, and “Ben Lovejoy has been really outstanding at defense, but also on the point on the power play.”

Lovejoy leads the Green defensive corps in points by a wide margin, with six goals and nine assists. His five power play goals are even with Johnson’s for the team lead.

With the four games left, Dartmouth still has a very realistic shot at a first-round bye, sitting only one point behind unpredictable Cornell.

“These all seem to be playoff-type games,” said Gaudet.

Should his team play accordingly, the Green will find themselves enjoying not having to play those extra playoff games, after all.

Harvard healthy and heating up

True, the Crimson failed in their Beanpot aspirations, but once the siren cried on Monday evening, it was right back down to business.

“I’m excited about the way we’ve played in league games over the past two months,” said coach Ted Donato. “We’re controlling our own destiny … home ice, a potential bye … that’s a big incentive, as far as getting a week off.”

As opposed to Leaman at Union, Donato definitely values the home-ice advantage.

“Home-ice would be important; I think it’s difficult to continue to travel and find success. It’s very difficult to win on the road in this league,” he said.

As far as this week’s road games, the plan is pretty simple.

“We need to play a complete game. We can’t afford to take a period off, a shift off,” said the coach.

Richter is the likely starter, at least on Friday. The freshman sports a four-game ECACHL unbeaten streak, in which he hasn’t allowed more than two goals in a game.

First-place underdogs

Joe Marsh is dead-set on keeping his Saints humble in the face of great success.

“There is such a fine line [between winning and losing],” he said. “Lots of one-goal games.”

Marsh said that his team carries with it an underdog mentality, and that even more surprisingly, it’s not too hard to instill.

“There’s not a lot of difference between first and 12th this year,” he reasoned. “We got a huge break [against Brown]” after they hit the post, and the Saints’ Drew Bagnall scored the overtime winner on the counter-attack.

“They’re a hard-playing, well-disciplined, well-coached team. They pack it in pretty tightly” and always seem to come up with fantastic goaltending, he said, exemplifying the parity.

With 10 one-goal wins already this season, eight in the league (and effectively five one-goal losses, overall), is Marsh frustrated by his team’s inability to break free?

“We’re fortunate to be where we are,” he conceded, “but you’re not going to blow anyone out in the playoffs.”

These are the games you have to know how to win, he stated.

Fortunately, the Saints have accumulated a little experience in that department.

Snapshots

Brown coach Roger Grillo said sophomore forward Matt Vokes is “likely” to play this weekend against Dartmouth and Harvard. The team leader with three game-winning goals (seven overall) has missed three games so far this season. Senior forwards Sean Dersch and Antonin Roux are questionable; “day-to-day” according to Grillo.

Rensselaer played without injured fourth-leading scorer Oren Eizenman last Saturday, and is questionable for this weekend as well, said Appert.

Dartmouth’s Peter Boldt is back again after a three-month absence due to a broken leg. The freshman defender will be thrown right back into the mix again after playing last weekend, as second-year blueliner John Gibson is out for at least this weekend’s games. Senior forward Dan Shribman is probable for this weekend; he hasn’t played in a month.

St. Lawrence is still without Mike McKenzie and Charlie Giffin, both listed as “day-to-day” by coach Marsh. The Saints lost a third forward as well, as Brock McBride was hurt last weekend and was “extremely limited” in practice this week, including a no-contact stipulation, said Marsh.

Mailbag!

Last week, I got off my butt and sent out that unofficial coaches’ poll.

The questions posed: who is the best-coached team in the league, and what — if any — is the most significant difference between the ECACHL style of play and that of other leagues?

The answers: Joe Marsh’s Saints received a couple votes, but the Schafer-led Big Red claimed half the total votes as the consistently best-coached squad. Not surprising, given Schafer’s impressive track record at a non-scholarship program.

Guy Gadowsky and Brown’s Grillo also received praise from their colleagues for being admirably sharp behind the bench.

As far as a unique identity for the league, the overall parity was a clear winner … no other league even comes close.

Also of note though, the difficulty of the home venues, the officiating, the physical play, and the pure speed and skating demonstrated in the ECACHL merited mention from the league’s coaches. More than one, when asked for the biggest difference, simply responded: none.

What other perspectives would you like brought to the light of day (well, computer monitor) by my amazing connections? Believe in me, and ye shall find the answers.

[email protected].

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