This Week in the ECACHL: March 1, 2007

There’s nothing more to say about the regular season; bygones are bygones and now it’s playoffs all the way.

All the coaching cliches have come out. It’s time for the ever-popular “lower-body injuries,” that it’s anyone’s game, and goodness knows no team holds any specific advantage over another any more. Every opponent is rife with strengths, but the term “weaknesses” has ostensibly disappeared from every reference dictionary between the Canadian border and the District of Columbia.

Without further ado, let’s cut to the chase.

Handicapping the first round

No. 9 Rensselaer 6-11-5 (10-16-8) @ No. 8 Colgate 7-12-3 (13-19-4)

Head-to-head Split the league series 1-1-0, Rensselaer wins season series 2-1-0.
Rensselaer on the road 3-5-3 (4-7-3 overall)
Colgate at home 5-5-1 (7-6-1 overall)
Special teams power play: RPI, 10th — 13.8% (15.4) Colgate, 11th — 13.5% (14) penalty kill: RPI, 12th — 78.1% (79.5) Colgate, 4th — 85.3% (84.6)
Team offense RPI, 10th — 2.50 (2.53) Colgate, 12th — 2.41 (2.53)
Team defense RPI, 12th — 3.82 (3.62) Colgate, 4th — 2.73 (2.56)
Key matchup Colgate’s first line versus RPI’s defense.

The Engineers won the Governor’s Cup back at the end of October with a 2-1 win over the Raiders. The ‘Gate won their league home game over RPI 3-2 on December 2, but the ‘Tute drew even on February 9 with a 3-2 overtime win at the Houston Field House. Despite Seth Appert’s favored two-goalie approach at Rensselaer, the three games between these teams have all been Mathias Lange-Mark Dekanich showdowns.

Rensselaer started the Appert Era on the right foot, out of the gate with a 4-1-3 record including a win over Denver, the Governor’s Cup, and a tie against Boston University. Since then, however, the team has gone 6-15-5, and has only put together back-to-back wins twice all season … not the best sign entering a best-of-three series.

The Engineers are hardly rolling over, though; the team has fought for 12 points from its last 13 games, and has split its last seven road games with a 3-3-1 record. Lange has played in each of Rensselaer’s last seven games, but was replaced in the season finale against Yale and came in to try to get the Engineers into the game in a loss to St. Lawrence on February 16.

Overall, this is a team that has a very good chance of winning the close games, but can get lit up when the defense is forced to push the envelope facing a deficit.

Colgate’s story has been well-documented: the Raiders have not won a single game this season in which they’ve surrendered three or more goals. In 15 such contests, the team is 0-14-1. But look at the bright side: in the remaining games, the squad is 13-5-3, and 7-4-2 in ECACHL play.

The tormented team has fallen prey to the three-goal curse six times in 17 games since the conclusion of winter break, and sports a 6-9-2 record over that period. In what should come as no surprise, but still seems ironically fitting, the Raiders were 6-0-0 in that same time when scoring three-plus in a game.

Colgate has the horses to play the tight, low-scoring games — the Raiders have won four games and tied three others when maxing out at three goals’ production — and they have scorers, too: three players averaging a point-per-game overall, and two more with a dozen goals apiece in league (Tyler Burton and Jesse Winchester). Mark Dekanich is still the reigning Dryden Award winner, last time I checked, and finished the season with the ECACHL’s second-best save percentage, .923.

The Red Raiders have been a snakebitten team this season, in that the offense just hasn’t connected with the frequency necessary to contend for a title. Dekanich, the defense, and the penalty kill have been stellar. But when your team’s top scorers in league earn 28, 25, 19, 11, and eight points, you’d darn well better have a top-notch D-corps. When Colgate has lost, it’s primarily been by losing the third period, and decisively so. The Raiders have been outscored 10-1 in the final frame of those last six three-goal-plus losses.

I think Colgate has an edge overall in this series, regardless of the results from their matchups earlier (which didn’t demonstrate much in the first place). Colgate won’t be tested much by an up-tempo but sniper-deficient Engineer offense, and the youth and inexperience on RPI’s blue line — not to mention Colgate getting the last change — will probably give the Raiders enough opportunities to earn the ever-important third-period lead.

No. 12 Union 7-14-1 (14-17-3) @ No. 5 Quinnipiac 10-8-4 (16-13-5)

Head-to-head Quinnipiac, 2-0-0, 3-0-0 overall.
Union on the road 3-8-0 (6-9-0 overall)
Quinnipiac at home 5-4-2 (10-5-2 overall)
Special teams power play: Union, seventh — 15.9% (17.9) QU, fourth — 19.3% (19.6) penalty kill: Union, eighth — 81% (81.1) QU, fifth — 84.6% (86.4)
Team offense Union, 11th — 2.45 (2.88) QU, first — 3.36 (3.59)
Team defense Union, 11th — 3.36 (3.26) QU, sixth — 2.86 (2.79)
Key matchup Union power play versus Quinnipiac penalty kill.

In three meetings between these teams, including a tilt in the Governor’s Cup consolation round, the Bobcats have trounced the Dutch by a deceptive 20-9 aggregate. The December 9 contest at the late, great Northford Ice Pavilion in Hamden was the closest of the three games, as QU doubled up the visitors 4-2 on the strength of a late power-play goal (Bryan Leitch’s second goal of the game) and a Brandon Wong empty-netter. However, the 8-5 QU win in the Cup was a 5-5 game halfway through the third, and Union was unequivocally dominant in the first period of the second game.

Bud Fisher started in net for each of the three games for the ‘Cats, while Rich Sillery and Justin Mrazek effectively split time for the Dutchmen. Sillery played the Gov’s Cup game and relieved Mrazek halfway through the next night’s rematch at the Achilles, while Mrazek finished what he started in the last game between the schools.

While the aforementioned facts look grim for Union, it should be noted that the Northford contest was the last time these sides saw each other. A lot can happen in three months.

Union is saddled, of course, with the well-known fact that the program has never won a playoff series. The Dutchmen got swept by Yale in the first round last year, including the NCAA-record five-overtime game to close out the series. Maybe it’s an omen of sorts, however, that David Meckler — he who scored the third and final goal of that game — is no longer playing college hockey. (He’s now a London Knight in the Ontario Hockey League.)

But outside of the history, Union has plenty of current issues to grapple with. The team strung together three straight wins between January 20 and 27, including a home win over Clarkson and two road wins at Brown and Yale. But since then, the Dutch are 1-6-1, and are seriously struggling to find the back of the net (16 goals in eight games).

Union may have surrendered 28 goals over that same period, but half those games saw only three pucks beat the Dutch goalies, and a fifth game — the only win — was an impressive 3-0 shutout of Yale. Three of the 28 were empty-net goals, as well.

Union has the ability to put up big numbers when the offense is clicking. The team has scored five or more in a game six times this season, and has seven double-digit scorers on the league charts alone.

Senior forward Olivier Bouchard leads the team with four ECACHL power-play goals, but is only sixth on the team in league scoring (and seventh overall with a team-high six PPGs). The team’s top six scorers in league games (and top five overall) each have more assists than goals. These are signs of a potent offense that has merely lost its mojo. Union will be a demon to handle if the sticks get hot again.

Quinnipiac exploded off the blocks at the beginning of the year, and held first place in the league for most of the season. But the Bobcats appeared to lose some steam just before the winter break, and won nine of 22 games between Thanksgiving and last weekend.

The results of the last few weeks have been as wildly inconsistent as QU’s opponents. An 8-1 home win over American International was preceded by a 2-0 loss at Cornell. The Bobcats surrendered two goals apiece to Harvard, Cornell and Colgate, but allowed six to Brown, five to Dartmouth, and four each to Yale, St. Lawrence, and Clarkson.

It’s understandable in some ways to slip Holy Cross, AIC and Bentley into the late-season mix; it’s a welcome change from the abrasive and persistent grind of ECACHL play. However, did the 7-0, 6-1 and 8-1 victories, respectively, help or hurt the team’s overall attitude? The goals never came so easy, and they assuredly will not again for this year’s team.

Bud Fisher has been the team’s Clydesdale again this season, playing just short of 2,000 minutes, second only to Dekanich for overall minutes played. (His 1304:58 was second to Dartmouth’s Mike Devine in league minutes, by 27:46.) He’s had a handful of games that he’d probably like to replay in the last month or two, but given his heavy load last year as a freshman, fatigue is doubtfully a cause for concern.

Everyone knows how incendiary QU’s offense is, led by super-frosh Brandon Wong (league-leading 14 goals) and junior Jamie Bates up front, and fed by captain and All-American defenseman Reid Cashman. Wong, Bates, and sophomore David Marshall each scored at least 10 league goals this year, and Cashman led the league with 21 assists. Despite seeing more Ls than Ws on the scoreboard of late, the Q-Cats have still mustered plenty of opportunities, outshooting and out-chancing opponents in most of their recent games. Sometimes goalies can flat-out win a game.

So how can Union keep up? It will probably have to start with the special teams. If the Dutch can jumpstart the mediocre power play, the five-on-five offense will follow. Fisher is beatable, and the Bobcats aren’t invincible at home any more.

But if Union’s defense blinks, if Mrazek is average or worse, or the power play remains stuck in neutral, QU will roll. For what it’s worth, I find Quinnipiac’s various advantages to heavily outweigh the more intangible factors in this series. But that’s why they play the games … to make analysts like me look dumb.

No. 11 Brown 6-12-4 (10-13-6) @ No. 6 Princeton 10-10-2 (13-13-3)

Head-to-head Princeton, 1-0-1.
Brown on the road 3-7-1 (3-7-2 overall)
Princeton at home 6-5-0 (8-7-1 overall)
Special teams power play: Brown, ninth — 14% (13.9) Princeton, third — 20.4% (19.8) penalty kill: Brown, 11th — 80% (79.1) Princeton, third — 86% (82.8)
Team offense Brown, seventh — 2.95 (3.03) Princeton, fourth — 3.14 (3.07)
Team defense Brown, ninth — 3.14 (2.97) Princeton, sixth — 2.86 (2.86)
Key matchup Princeton forwards versus Brown defense and Dan Rosen.

Brown has had a busy year, reeling off five of six late in the fall after an 0-2-2 start. An up-and-down December on both sides of the break was followed by what was apparently the offense and defense deciding to alternate games. The Bears have had their notable discoveries, like remarkable freshman goalie Dan Rosen and the resurgent offense, but have been plagued by inconsistency since New Year’s.

For example, Bruno has scored three or more goals in nine of its last 11 games … but has only a 3-6-2 record to show for it. Brown beat Cornell and Harvard on the road this year, yet only won only three home games. (But they beat Quinnipiac and St. Lawrence at home, and tied Harvard in Providence too … what gives?) Roger Grillo’s club is playing competitive hockey, despite what the record might suggest, but the games in which both the offense and defense come to play have been scarce.

Brown’s offense was led by three juniors during the regular season. Jeff Prough, Brian McNary and Sean Hurley posted 32, 23, and 22 overall points, respectively, and accumulated 31 goals and 46 assists among them. Sean Dersch represented the senior class up front, with four goals and six assists in 17 league games, and second-year forwards Ryan Garbutt and Matt Vokes contributed six and five league goals, respectively. Hurley requires special note, among those mentioned, for finishing as the team’s third-highest scorer, and scoring seven power-play goals (five in league) as a defenseman.

Rosen went 6-2-1 in his first nine collegiate starts, and led the nation in goals-against average and save percentage toward the end of the first half of the season. However, defensive and personal lapses brought the ‘keeper’s stats back down to Earth a bit, and he finished the regular season with a .912 save percentage and 3.02 goals-against mark in league.

The Princeton Tigers haven’t finished this high in the standings since 2001-02, when they also finished in sixth at 10-10-2. In fact, they haven’t finished higher than sixth since ’98-’99, either. Guy Gadowsky coached the program to a five-point upswing from last season, and an eight-point difference since his initial campaign in ’04-05. This weekend also marks the first Hobey-hosted playoff series in five years … a home-ice advantage that has led the Tigers to victory over St. Lawrence, Clarkson (both last weekend), Dartmouth, Union, Rensselaer, and last but not least, Brown.

The Stripes aren’t big on superstars, but what they lack in big-name marketability they make up for in sheer depth. Princeton boasts 24 point-scorers this year on a 27-man roster: only nine-game forward Keith Shattenkirk and goaltenders Thomas Sychterz and B.J. Slapsky failed to register a point this season. Even goalie Zane Kalemba notched two assists.

The team also only featured three players who played in all 22 league games, but none of the skaters saw action in fewer than six ECACHL contests. Gadowsky clearly has a lot of faith in his bench from one end to the other, and his charges have not disappointed him.

The biggest thing that the Tigers have developed this year, it seems, is the ability to win the close games. Eight of Princeton’s first nine losses were of the single-goal variety, and the squad has only dropped two real lousy games, where the contest was decided before the final horn (8-4 at Cornell, despite outshooting the hosts 41-29, and 6-3 at Yale … Princeton outshot the Eli there, too).

The Ivy ‘Cats are barreling into the playoffs winners of four of five, and 6-3-0 in their last nine league home games. Kalemba is slated to start Friday night, holding a 2.77 goals-against mark in 14 league games. Slapsky is expected to go on Saturday, with his .912 save percentage and 2.45 goals-against average against ECACHL opposition.

Princeton carries the momentum into this matchup, and carries the season-long numbers as well. The Bears’ offense is dangerous but not intimidating, whereas the Tigers can downright eviscerate you if your containment is lackadaisical.

Brown can win this series, absolutely, but odds are it won’t be by blowing out the hosts. It will be by playing Brown Bear playoff hockey: big-time goaltending and timely offense. Rosen will need to be immense, and the forwards will probably have to back him up with three goals a night for Brown to advance to the quarterfinals.

No. 10 Yale 8-13-1 (11-15-3) @ No. 7 Harvard 10-10-2 (12-15-2)

Head-to-head Yale, 2-0-0.
Yale on the road 4-6-1 (5-7-2 overall)
Harvard at home 6-5-0 (7-6-0 overall)
Special teams power play: Yale, eighth — 15.4% (14.6) Harvard, first — 23.4% (20.2) penalty kill: Yale, sixth — 83% (83.7) Harvard, ninth — 80.7% (80.9)
Team offense Yale, ninth — 2.55 (2.59) Harvard, sixth — 3.05 (2.76)
Team defense Yale, 10th — 3.27 (3.14) Harvard, eighth — 2.95 (2.83)
Key matchup Harvard power play versus Yale penalty kill.

It’s true, Yale swept the season series between these ancient rivals, and by a 10-3 margin, too. In both games, Alec Richards tended the ‘twine for Yale, and Kyle Richter started for Harvard. (Richter was yanked during the second intermission of game two, which Yale won 5-1.) The Bulldogs started the season powerfully, 6-1-0 overall and 3-1-0 after handing Harvard its sixth early-season loss.

But then the wheels fell off, and the ‘Dogs didn’t manage a single win between that November 18 game and the January 6 victory over Brown. The seven-game winless skid was interrupted by consecutive wins, starting with Brown, and finishing at Princeton the following weekend. Then it was back downhill for another half-dozen games, and Yale laced up for its second game of February on a 2-10-3 downer.

But Yale clawed back for three wins in its last seven contests, and caught glimmers of offensive success in the process with six goals against Princeton, five versus Harvard and four at Rensselaer.

Sean Backman finished tied with fellow freshman Wong for the title of ECACHL’s top goal-scorer with 14, and had 18 on the season overall. His totals nearly doubled up Yale’s second-highest goal-scorer, Mark Arcobello, who finished with eight in league and 10 overall. While the stats are unimpressive on their face, the fact that four of Yale’s top five scorers are freshmen bodes well for the program’s future. Backman, Arcobello, Chris Cahill and Thomas Dignard (a defenseman, no less) combined for 39 goals and 45 assists overall this season, and each of them fulfilled the full 29-game courseload.

Sophomore Richards played in 25 of those games, and had a slightly worse year statistically than last. However, the drop was incremental at best, and he still finished with one more win (nine) and one fewer loss (14) than he had his rookie year. On average, Richards faced between 25 and 30 shots a game this season, saving 89 percent. He will be key to shutting down Harvard’s magnificent power play.

The Crimson had kind of a Yale year-in-reverse. Dreadfully slow start, but solid returns by season’s end. Harvard wasn’t a bad team early on per se, but key ingredients in the recipe for success were missing.

Over time, head coach Ted Donato instilled in his players the strength and desire to crash the net and pay that price to get big goals. No one exemplified that tenacity more than junior forward Alex Meintel, who led the team in league (10) and overall (13) goals scored … many of which he not so much saw as felt, as they bounced off his stick, knee, or back before billowing the netting.

Seniors Ryan Maki and Kevin Du were also integral parts of the Crimson offensive machine. Maki scored 10 league goals as well, potting seven of those on the league’s best power play. Du dished out 18 assists this season, and 14 in league play to lead the team.

Just as it appeared that Richter had secured the number-one designation in Harvard’s crease, he faltered, opening the door once more for senior Justin Tobe. They each earned five ECACHL wins, but Tobe’s GAA was nearly 90 points better than Richter’s, and his save rate was 20 points better as well. They are both extremely capable goaltenders, but Tobe only surrendered two goals on 50 shots against Colgate and Cornell last weekend. Practice performance aside, he’s got to be getting the nod for game one.

These appear to be two teams accelerating in different directions. However, the last time these two teams played was as recently as February 16 … things haven’t changed quite that dramatically in two weeks. Harvard’s offense is triggered by its power play, while Yale basically wins by shock and awe: goal lights on, opponent’s lights out.

Harvard is the prohibitive favorite here, all things considered, and Yale’s best shot to move on is to keep Harvard’s offense off the board. If Richards can play up to his potential when necessary (and believe me, it will be necessary frequently) and the Eli blueliners can sufficiently bruise and batter Meintel & Co., the series could easily swing to the visitors. You know, if.