This Week in ECAC Hockey: Feb. 7, 2008

It’s tough to call this last month “the stretch run,” even though it is undeniably crunch time for every team in the league. After all, there are still eight games remaining on everyone’s schedule (outside of Rensselaer and Harvard, which have seven remaining), and that’s more than a third of the ECAC season.

And yet, when you realize that only four weekends remain in the regular season, it’s hard to feel anything shy of the fiercest intensity every Friday and Saturday night. No one’s fighting for a fifth weekend of play, of course, but let’s face it: there’s not a soul in the conference who wouldn’t leap at a bye week, nor does anyone relish the idea of lacing up in the visitors’ rooms at Cheel, Lynah or the Achilles.

No one’s playing for the fifth weekend. They’re playing for the sixth. The seventh. The ninth.

Whitney War VI

Some may not recognize it as a true rivalry just yet, but I’m going to do my part to pump this baby up.

Quinnipiac and Yale meet at the Bank Friday night for the sixth edition of the Whitney War, with the ‘Cats holding all the cards so far in this series. QU blanked the Eli 3-0 at the Whale back in mid-January to go to 4-1-0 all-time against Yale, and have now outscored the Bulldogs 2-1 (24-12) in the five meetings since the Bobcats joined the ECAC three years ago.

According to numerous reports, the TD Banknorth Sports Center has already been sold out of regular and standing-room tickets for this one.

Square in the games-played column, QU enters the evening one win ahead of the Yalies. Both teams are within a whisper of fourth place and a first-round bye, so every point looms large. The fact that the teams fall asleep five miles from each others’ pillows seems, at this point, only a bonus.

“It’s always nice to be able to skate on our ice in the morning, go play a road game, and fall asleep in our own beds again,” said Yale coach Keith Allain. “We’re playing pretty well right now … we’re starting to get more balance in the offensive game.”

Yale boasts the second-best special teams units in the league: the penalty kill — which spent a good part of the season as the nation’s best — is working at a 91.2 percent efficiency rate in ECAC play. The power play is only a half-point behind Cornell’s, at 19.2 percent.

“When you play Yale, you’ve got to be aware of [Sean] Backman and [Mark] Arcobello,” said QU’s Rand Pecknold. The sophomore tandem has combined for 18 goals (12 of them Backman’s) and 16 assists in 40 combined man-games.

Quinnipiac is bouncing back from the embarrassing Niagara debacle two weeks back, and took a 3-2 decision at RPI last Friday, following it up with a 3-3 draw at Union. Against the Dutch, the Bobcats blew 2-0 and 3-2 leads.

“We played OK on the weekend,” assessed Pecknold. “Against Union, we got very sloppy defensively. We had no killer instinct to put them away.”

Bud Fisher is back to his old self, stopping 57 of 62 shots last weekend, and sophomore Brandon Wong is doing his best to keep up with Yale’s second-year standouts, tallying 26 points in 26 games thus far.

Game of the Week

Cornell @ Clarkson: Friday, 7 p.m.

One and two in the standings. Period.

The Red are on a four-game unbeaten streak, defeating Brown, tying Yale, and sweeping Colgate in last weekend’s home-and-home. In fact, Cornell’s last loss was on January 20, when the Red were doubled up at Lynah by the fellas from Potsdam by a 4-2 score.

Since then, Mike Schafer’s troops have outscored their opponents 11-5, but the offense is still struggling to provide support for some solid defensive efforts: with the exception of the empty-netter at the end of Saturday’s game at Colgate, the Red have been held to two goals in each of their last three games.

Clarkson, on the other hand, looks to rebound after a tough showing out west, where the Knights fell to Colorado College by 5-2 and 6-1 scores. The Golden Knights stumbled badly in the mile-high conditions, on ice that must have felt a mile wide at times.

“We weren’t prepared,” said coach George Roll. “The elevation was certainly a factor on the big sheet.”

Reviews have come back giving Clarkson credit for two well-played games, and Roll was not upset with his team’s performance. The scores, he said, were more indicative of the home-ice (and home-altitude) advantages enjoyed by the Tigers. (The fact that the relatively clean-playing Knights only got three power plays on the weekend — to CC’s 12 — may also hint at a little WCHA home-cooking.)

The Big Red haven’t beaten Clarkson at Cheel since ’04-05, but the visitors look well-equipped to play a solid road game with Ben Scrivens tending the twine. The sophomore is living up to the standards set recently by David LeNeveu and David McKee, holding a .935 save percentage and 1.89 goals-against average in 20 appearances this season.

In backstopping the latest defense-laden quartet of games, Scrivens stopped 106 of 111 shots, at a .955 save rate. Somehow, it’s only his second-hottest four-game stretch of the season: between November 9 and 17, he turned away 109 of 114 for .956.

For the Knights, Cheel’s sense of remote intimidation has been a tremendous asset thus far. Clarkson has only lost at home once all year (to St. Cloud) and has upped its league-leading ECAC home unbeaten streak to 18 games. (Clarkson also currently leads the league for consecutive in-conference home wins, with nine.)

The Knights have given up two goals a game in each of their last four contests at Cheel, and are holding visitors to 23 in a dozen games there thus far.

“This is obviously an important game for both teams, for home ice [concerns],” said Roll, “and for us, for gaining some separation from them.”

Clarkson’s offense is clearly one of the best in the league, but Roll is wary of Cornell’s power play as well: “We’ve always struggled with [the Red’s PP],” he admitted. “We have to do a better job on the penalty-kill rotations,” which is to say, not losing track of opposing forwards.

Something tells me that Cornell won’t take two points out of this one if they only score two goals. However, it also occurs to me that a win will be difficult to attain for Clarkson, should it surrender more than two goals.

This game means big things on the standings right now, and these teams know it.

Crucial Weekend

Harvard: @ Union, vs. Boston College

The Crimson only have two points on the line this weekend, but with an extra game under their belts, every last point is immensely significant. First off, the Dutchmen.

Union enters the fray in fifth place, and even in games played with the four teams ahead of it. The Garnet and White has only lost once in its last 10 games, and it was at Clarkson at that. Harvard pulled a Ronstadt (“Blew By You”) in the teams’ first matchup this season, smothering the Dutch 4-0 at Bright.

The Cantabs are trying to recover from an abysmal midseason tumble in which they dropped nine in a row (not including a humbling 4-3 loss to the U-18 team). Since returning from exams, the Crimson are 2-1, with wins over Dartmouth and Northeastern sandwiching a loss at Brown.

“The Union game is very important,” said head coach Ted Donato. “We’ve given away far too many points in the standings to this point.”

The momentum from a huge first period against NU and a solid week of practice might give Harvard the edge it needs to earn some much-needed separation points up at the Achilles Center. With 14 points, HU is only three ahead of Colgate, and the Raiders — as of this moment — still have a game in hand. Sixteen points by Saturday morning will guarantee the Crimson at least seventh place in the standings next week, and put them a minimum of one win ahead of whomever happens to be in ninth in the rush for home ice.

And then there are the Eagles.

Yes, it’s true, I was a sucker and picked a Beanpot game among my important contests of the weekend. However, this is more than just an opening-round litmus test: this is the tournament championship, a place Hockey East has kept free from Ivy for nearly a decade.

Back on December 12, Harvard must have bought into Emily Post’s writings a bit too enthusiastically. The Crimson proved the most courteous of hosts to crosstown BC and star Nathan Gerbe, as the Eagles trampled Harvard 7-2 … behind four goals and an assist from the diminutive Gerbe, and a four-for-10 Eagles’ power play.

It was the most goals (six) that netminder Kyle Richter has allowed in an otherwise glittering season of work, and proved to be the ultimate defensive meltdown in a system that has consistently exemplified composure and responsibility.

Donato knows that Boston College is Gionta-deep (roughly equivalent to Andrew Alberts’ waist) in speed and skill, and that even half of those 10 penalty-kills will likely spell doom for his squad.

“First and foremost, we can’t afford to take that number of penalties,” he said. “There are some specific areas where we match up favorably,” he added, but as a bit of gamesmanship, didn’t divulge exactly what those specifics were.

Harvard has had a history in recent years of vanquishing its Beantown brethren in non-conference games, but falling flat in Beanpot competition. Could this be the year to reverse the trend? This game is all BC on paper, but expect this to be one piece of literature that the Crimson will allow to pass unread.

Coaches’ Corner

A quick-hitter this week: what is the single most significant statistic in the game?

(I pre-empted the smart-aleck “winning percentage” response by declaring it off-limits and weak.)

Amongst the respondents, save percentage took the majority vote with two-thirds in favor. One coach stated simply, teams with save percentages over .915 tend to win a lot more often than they lose. Not hard to verify that: in league play, the top five SvPs corresponded perfectly to the five best goals-against averages. Scrivens (.942/1.63), Richter (.930/1.94), Colgate’s Mark Dekanich (.929/2.04), Clarkson’s David Leggio (.926/2.13) and Yale’s Billy Blase (.919/2.18) compose said list.

A few coaches also mentioned quality scoring chances, which — as subjective as the category sounds — is a legitimate stat, and will tell you a lot more than mere shots-on-goal ever will.

The “outlier” answer was faceoff play: not only by wins and losses off the draw, but also how successfully the team reacted to each play. One coach said that his team seemed mentally focused when it was doing well on the draws, and vice-versa, so it proves a useful figure in determining his team’s character each game.