This Week in the ECACHL: March 15, 2007

How about that; who in his right mind ever would’ve predicted that for all the parity and competition in the league this year, only one series of eight would go to a third game? Not only that, but there was only one upset in the first two rounds as well, when Quinnipiac upended Cornell at Lynah last weekend. I’ll tell ya — and I’m sure I don’t have to — it’s been a strange, strange year in the ECACHL.

The nation’s second-oldest league can place as many as three teams in the NCAA tournament this year, but as of this moment aren’t guaranteed more than the one. Quinnipiac must win the league title to qualify for the Quest for St. Louis, while Dartmouth is a bubble team that can still make the national tourney without necessarily winning the league. You can get a much more coherent and comprehensive rundown on Jayson Moy’s commendable Bracketology column.

No matter the result of the weekend’s games, we will have a new winner from those of the last five years, as Cornell and Harvard have each bowed out and are full-on into golf season. In fact, it’s the first time since 1999 that neither of the pair has made the semifinals.

St. Lawrence was the previous champion in 2001, and is a six-time tourney titleholder. Clarkson last won the ECACHL tournament in 1999, its fourth. Quinnipiac is seeking its first trophy of the kind in only its second season in the league, while Dartmouth is desperate to beat the Bobcats to it, having yet to win one of its own in 46 years of league membership.

The Game’s Afoot

As with every game, there are myriad variables at work here. But in such an intense environment as the tournament’s final four, many of them are under a lot more scrutiny than usual. What can account for a team winning or losing a single game?

The time-tested wisdom holds that a hot goalie and special teams functioning with Teutonic precision are integral to winning in the playoffs … and who am I to argue with wisdom? But frequently — if not often, even — the cause celebre of postseason results comes from a pool of other sources.

Key injuries can rip the heart right out of a team. Ask Colgate; Mark Dekanich was more than just a stalwart goaltender this season. Cornell captain Byron Bitz didn’t play the second and final game of the quarterfinals against Quinnipiac, and the Red suffered a horrifying sweep at the hands of the league newcomers.

Hot streaks can elevate a team’s confidence, desire and energy in a most ethereal way. A middling team with bulletproof confidence and endless stamina can be as good as the top seed in a short series. Princeton found that out in a hurry, when the Tigers’ modest flame (6-2-0 streak) was trounced by Dartmouth’s 9-1-0 victory inferno. The Bobcats have four wins in a row since the playoffs began, while SLU is on a 10-2-0 roll. Clarkson is 7-1-1 in its last nine. There is not a frustrated squad in the quartet, I assure you.

Good coaching matters, of course. Who makes the best adjustments? Who gives the best speeches or can make the tough calls? Bob Gaudet’s in his 19th season as head coach, and his 10th at Dartmouth. George Roll has also coached for 10 years, but only four at Clarkson. Rand Pecknold has been the boss in Hamden for 13 years, while Joe Marsh holds indisputable seniority with 22 campaigns’ worth of feathers in his cap, each one of them tinged scarlet and brown.

Personnel matters, of course. Even if it’s not a senior captain or the starting goalie, a couple undesirable scratches can put a team at a disadvantage from the get-go. Quinnipiac won’t have defenseman Matt Sorteberg this weekend, the Larries’ Drew Bagnall hurt his hand last weekend as well … everyone is banged up or bruised in some way or another, and there are easily a half-dozen other primary players who are on “wait-and-see” status for their teams.

And then there are all the other little dashes of spice that give the game its final flavor: the unlikely heroes who find the glimmer of space and time to get the game-winner. The big hits and big hitters. Ice conditions, the style of officiating, the boards and glass, the tiniest little oversight or misstep or misplay.

We in the media try to take it all in and untangle it day-in and day-out, but what it all comes down to are two things most journalists hate … a cliche, and a self-disserving one at that:

Games aren’t played on paper.

What’s On Paper

A look at where they’ve been, and what it might indicate about where they’re going.

No. 1 St. Lawrence 16-5-1 (22-12-2)

Special teams power play: fifth — 17.9% (16.6) penalty kill: first — 90.3% (86.9)
Team offense third — 3.32 (3.22)
Team defense second — 2.50 (2.58)
Crucial elements The team’s energy and work ethic; ability of the defense to minimize shots.

The Saints finished three points ahead of Clarkson for first in the league this season and are on a big, though not monumental, 14-4-1 roll entering the semis. They’ve played a lot of tight games already this season — 17 decided by a goal, with or without an empty-netter, including two that weren’t decided at all — and the Larries have represented themselves pretty well therein: 10-5-2 in the nailbiters.

The experience and success enjoyed by the team should’ve given them the boost of calm self-assurance and familiarity that they’d need to win the tooth-and-nail playoff battles. Ironically, the Saints’ quarterfinal series was a laugher, as the hosts outscored visiting Colgate 11-2 in the two-game sweep. The Saints trailed for exactly two minutes and four seconds, early in the first period of Game 1, before ripping off nine straight goals over the next 74:20 of game time.

Granted, the Raiders were without defending Dryden Award-winner Mark Dekanich, or things could have looked decidedly different. But that fact notwithstanding, Casey Parenteau had a first-game hat trick and an assist, Kevin DeVergilio posted two goals and two assists on the weekend, and Mike McKenzie had two goals and a helper as well. It was offense without restraint.

Defensively, things have been pretty dependable for SLU. The skaters haven’t allowed too many shots, and Alex Petizian hasn’t allowed too many goals. The freshman has started every game since the holiday break, and has allowed a goal or fewer in nine of those 19 games. A peculiarity about the defense and goaltending, however, is that the Saints haven’t lost a game in which they held the opposition to fewer than 30 shots since December 5 at Clarkson. However, since Petizian’s starting streak began against Boston University on December 29, the team is 2-4-0 when allowing 30-plus pucks on net.

The Saints have great depth up front, as 14 different players skated at forward last weekend alone. But the true engine keeping the St. Lawrence train in motion is the defensive corps, led by Bagnall, and supported by four strong sophomores and an ice-time-heavy freshman in Derek Keller.

If Bagnall is unable to go this weekend — his hand was significantly swollen at the conclusion of the Colgate series — it could be a double-whammy loss in skill and leadership. The two backup defensemen played six games between them this season, so the team can ill afford another cut or bruise to its blueline without risking a dropoff in ability, to say nothing of experience.

The Saints haven’t won this year because they’re the most talented team on the ice, and they don’t win because they’re the luckiest. They win because they are willing to work the hardest to get every faceoff, every puck, every hit, every pass, and every shot just right. They don’t grind the game to death, either … they take it by the throat, and demand control. That kind of team-wide attitude wins games.

The only thing that can beat the Saints this weekend is themselves. They have played at a consistently high level, with great teamwork and chemistry, and they know what is necessary to win. All that is in their way is execution.

No. 2 Clarkson 13-5-4 (23-8-5)

Special teams power play: second — 21% (22.8) penalty kill: second — 88.4% (86.1)
Team offense first — 3.36 (3.53)
Team defense first — 2.41 (2.39)
Crucial elements Consistency of the defense and special teams.

The Knights are probably the most talented team in the league, top to bottom, but it’s the inconsistencies that keep preventing them from running off with the league title, or a number-one seed in the NCAAs.

They won seven in a row in the middle of the year, and are 9-2-2 in their last 13. But they also went on a four-week stretch without consecutive wins between the two hot streaks. It is a high-potential team, one that won’t be beat when it’s playing its game.

The offense can be a juggernaut, and why shouldn’t it be with Nick Dodge, Shawn Weller and Steve Zalewski each averaging a point per game in league this season? David Leggio played in 34 games this year, with a 2.15 goals-against average and a .931 save percentage overall — 10th in the nation in GAA, fifth in save percentage. Heck, he was 11th in minutes played, too.

The Knights beat St. Lawrence both times they met this year, went 1-0-1 with Dartmouth, and split with Quinnipiac. Nothing to be afraid of, when it comes to the immediate opposition.

George Roll’s charges are incredibly fast and agile, and spookily good at finding each other in space. You have to scroll all the way down to the team’s seventh-place scorer — Chris D’Alvise — to find someone with more goals than assists. The team’s top three lines definitely deserve to be mentioned in a national context.

In taking a glance at Leggio’s portfolio this year, the number of 0s and 1s and 2s among his goals against is enthralling. Twenty-two times, in fact, was Leggio beaten by two pucks or fewer in a full game, including a 12-game stretch between Thanksgiving and January 23 that just begs you to triple-check the count. The junior is quite good. Oh, and a junior.

Matt Curley and Michael Grenzy are the senior patrol on the blueline, while three sophomores and a frosh learn from their elders. Grant Clitsome is the only junior in the back protecting Leggio, but he’s representing his class well with seven goals and 11 assists overall in 35 games.

Clarkson can rip a game out of your hands before you even realize the anthem’s over. The team is frighteningly fast, tantalizingly skilled, and deftly coached. The power play accounted for 51 of the Knights’ 127 total goals, just over 40% of the offense. Therefore, if you want to keep Clarkson down, you’d best keep its power play off the ice. Not since the January 23 game at St. Lawrence has the Knights’ PP unit been kept off the board; that’s a span of 12 games.

If you can keep the play at five-on-five as often as possible, and somehow slow down Clarkson’s offense, thereby controlling the pace, the Knights are beatable. But hey, if you could build a giant tractor beam that was strong enough to move the moon, you could be the Prince of Tides, too.

No. 3 Dartmouth 12-7-3 (18-10-3)

Special teams power play: sixth — 16% (15.6) penalty kill: seventh — 82% (84.6)
Team offense fourth — 3.14 (3.16)
Team defense fourth — 2.73 (2.68)
Crucial elements Defensive ability to control the zone; play of the top five forwards.

The Big Green are a quiet, underappreciated team this year. They’re not making headlines on or getting any Hobey Baker attention, but that hasn’t seemed to concern them in the least.

Gaudet has surreptitiously led his team to third place in the league’s regular season standings, following up a first-place finish last year. He has a 40-point scorer in David Jones and four double-digit goal-scorers in Jones (18), Nick Johnson (13), T.J. Galiardi (12) and J.T. Wyman (11). His goaltender has played all but 60 minutes of the season, and his special teams have put together a figure to rival Clarkson (51.4% overall combined success).

The team is solid, and a contender, but it doesn’t have the flash or superstar gaudiness of the other teams. How’d it happen?

Well, around the first week in January, at the tail end of an 0-4-2 slump, the team woke up and started throwing its prodigious weight around. Starting with a split weekend at Rensselaer and versus New Hampshire, the Green won 13 of 17 to vault ahead of the pack. The power play strung together six consecutive games with a goal early on, but sputtered a bit through the rest of the streak. Mike Devine only surrendered four goals four times, while the offense met that mark or beat it 10 times. Rolling into the semis, the Green are on a six-game win streak and have nine wins in 10.

The Achilles heel on the team is fated to be its penalties. At a shade over 20 minutes a game, the penalty kill isn’t as strong as it will need to be to handle swarming power plays like Clarkson’s (0-1-1 against the Knights this year, who were 5-for-16 on the power play).

However, you can’t overlook a team on a flaming run like this, and Dartmouth does field a team with the size and skating ability necessary to slow down, wear down, beat down faster, lither teams like St. Lawrence or Clarkson or Quinnipiac. It’s a matter of increments, of officiating and moderation. Don’t count out the Green.

No. 5 Quinnipiac 10-8-4 (20-13-5)

Special teams power play: fourth — 19.3% (20.0) penalty kill: fifth — 84.6% (85.8)
Team offense first — 3.36 (3.53)
Team defense sixth — 2.86 (2.68)
Crucial elements Defensive execution; power-play efficiency.

If you look strictly at the schedules, the Bobcats are probably on the least convincing run of any of the remaining teams. But that would be a pretty shallow analysis, wouldn’t it?

The Bobcats have without a doubt missed the contributions of Dan Travis, who suffered a season-ending broken patella a couple months back. The special teams just haven’t been the same. That said, as influential as Travis was on many an outcome, the Bobcats have more than a mere Nerf gun left in the holster.

Freshman Brandon Wong scored nearly a fifth of the Q’s overall goals this year with 26, far and away the most of anyone in the league (eight goals ahead of second-place Sean Backman at Yale, also a freshman). Backman and Wong tied for the league scoring title, with 14 goals apiece.

Senior defenseman Reid Cashman was a solid dozen assists ahead of Clarkson’s David Cayer for the overall lead, and took the ECACHL crown in that category as well with 21 in 22 games. Almost a given, he led the league in defensive scoring as well, adding a single goal to his assists, just for good measure. Not a bad follow-up to a Hobey Baker candidacy campaign in ’06.

Jamie Bates led the league with eight power-play goals, David Marshall was first with four game-winners, and Ben Nelson (15) and Bryan Leitch (11) happened to light the lamp extravagantly as well. Suffice to say, this is a team with a lot of what coaches like to call “upside.”

The downside, however, is that it’s a banged-up team with mediocre special teams in a brand-new environment. No one on the team has been to the NCAA tournament, now that Travis and John Doherty — both transfers from New Hampshire — are gone. The goaltender, Bud Fisher, is a good, strong workhorse, but isn’t made of quite the same stuff as Leggio or Dekanich or Devine … at least, not yet. If there’s any team in the tourney that needs to start strong, score early and ride the special teams to victory, it’s this one.

Rand Pecknold has said that his team has nothing to lose. It’s a mentality, an attitude and a strategy that carried them through the Lynah lion’s den and into Albany. The team has bite, the team has a very dangerous edge, but the Q-Cats will have to leave every last bit of their will and energy on the Times Union Center ice if they hope to return home with a banner … or two.