This Week in ECAC Hockey: Feb. 28, 2008

What We Know, Vol. III

Two games left, four points up for grabs. What does it mean to your team? Let’s find out.

Clarkson and Princeton are assured of finishing in the top two, but the order is yet to be determined, with the Knights only a solitary point ahead of the Tigers. Can’t wait Friday night’s showdown, I can say that much!

Harvard is in third, but only a point ahead of Union and Cornell. To control their own destiny, the least the Crimson have to do to win a first-round bye is beat the Big Red at Lynah on Saturday. Piece of cake, right? Should Harvard defeat Colgate on Friday, a tie on Saturday will also earn the Cantabs a week off.

If Union sweeps, it’ll have a bye week. If the Dutch end up tied for fourth with Cornell, they’re in as well, as they swept the Red in the regular season — their first series win against CU since 1997-98. Cornell can sweep to assure itself of a top-four finish. Anything less, however, and the Red will need some help.

Quinnipiac needs at least two points to have a shot at the bye week, but the Bobcats need help to get there, no matter how well they may fare this weekend.

Colgate, three points out of fourth, needs to sweep the weekend to have a prayer. Obviously, the Raiders would need the Dutch and Red to go pointless and QU to earn one, max. It’s a bit of a longshot, as they say. Ditto for Yale.

Fortunately for the aforementioned teams, home ice in the first round is the worst they can do. Brown, Dartmouth, Rensselaer and St. Lawrence are all hitting the road next weekend; that much has been assured. Where they’re headed, however, is still up in the air. (What are the odds that SLU might actually prefer the short drive to Cheel in the second round? Ok, ok, I’m getting ahead of myself.)

And now more of what we know.

Relevant head-to-head tiebreakers:
HH = Head-to-Head; W = Wins

• Clarkson has no relevant tiebreakers
• Princeton beats Harvard (W)
• Harvard beats Union (HH), Quinnipiac (HH) and Yale (HH)
• Union beats Cornell (HH) and Quinnipiac (HH)
• Cornell beats Quinnipiac (HH), Colgate (HH) and Yale (HH)
• Quinnipiac beats Yale (HH)
• Yale beats Colgate (HH)
• Colgate beats Quinnipiac (HH)
• Brown beats St. Lawrence (HH) and Dartmouth (HH)
• Rensselaer beats Dartmouth (HH) and St. Lawrence (HH)
• Dartmouth does not hold a head-to-head tiebreaker so far.
• St. Lawrence does not hold a head-to-head tiebreaker so far.

Eye on the Tiger

It’s been nearly a decade since opposing coaches have had cause to circle the Princeton game on their schedules.

That’s because 1998-99 was the last time the Tigers finished with a winning record. In the eight complete seasons since, the Garden State Ivy had gone 72-138-20 under the tutelage of three different head coaches, without ever so much as attaining .500 by season’s end. It’s been the longest sub-par drought in the league.

Princeton racked up 20 losses and finished 10th in the ECAC as recently as 2004-05, in Guy Gadowsky’s first season. This came on the heels of a 24-loss ’03-04 (with a last-place finish) … and a program-high 26 losses in ’02-03 (also last).

Calling this season a “surprise” is like calling Ronaldinho “unattractive.” How’d they do it?

Since Gadowsky arrived from Alaska, the Orange and Black have been steadily climbing the standings, from the 10th-place finish in ’04-05, to ninth the following season, to a strong sixth last year — the program’s best finish since ’01-02.

“From our standpoint, maybe the most important thing that we [the coaching staff] do is stay out of the way,” said Gadowsky.

The Tigers are assured of a top-two finish — their highest ever — and a first-round bye for the first time in the program’s history. (The league didn’t have byes in ’98-99, when the Tigers finished fourth.) Not bad for a team picked eighth by the coaches and media, and seventh by yours truly, in the preseason polls.

Gadowsky honors the Tigers’ young blue line and goalie Zane Kalemba with most of the credit.

“The transition of our young defensemen [has been key]… I credit Mike Moore. He really is a leader out there; he’s such a great leader by example.”

Moore has earned heavy ice time in 26 games this season, and the senior captain has been one of Gadowsky’s most valuable players both on and off the ice. His 16 points are already a career high, with at least four more games yet to play.

Kalemba has played in 22 of the team’s 27 games, and is 15-7-0 with a goals against average right around 2.5. While his overall save percentage is an unremarkable .910, his rate in league games is a more respectable .916. His most important stat, however, is that 68 percent winning percentage.

“He wins,” the coach stated flatly. “He finds a way to win. He plays his best when it’s a tight, one-goal game; pressure just doesn’t get to him.”

The stalwart play of Kalemba & Co. in the defensive end has encouraged some snazzy play 200 feet down the ice, as well. The highest-scoring team in the league doesn’t skate at Cheel, Lynah or the TD Banknorth Sports Center; it hangs its gear within the stone confines of the Hobey Baker Rink.

“Obviously, we’re a team that takes a lot of chances. We play to score … and the guys love that,” Gadowsky said. “Sometimes offense — as well as the power play — is like putting,” he mused. “One day you can knock down everything within 20 feet, and the next day miss everything within four.”

“For us right now, the putts are dropping.”

Gadowsky has been a great asset to the struggling program thus far, and he feels nothing but reciprocal privilege in roaming the halls and courtyards of Princeton University.

“I keep waiting for the time when I take it for granted, walking around campus,” he said. “The other coaches and I, we’ll take a walk around the campus and never stop smiling. It’s just an honor to be here,” he intoned in the most genuine of manners.

There’s no doubt at all that Princeton feels honored to have Gadowsky roaming its grounds as well.

The Silver Lining

It’s no secret that the Saints have had a rough go of it this year. Following in the footsteps of a title-winning team is hard to do, but no one thought things would be this hard for snake-bit SLU.

The Saints are wrestling with Brown, Rensselaer and Dartmouth at the bottom of the standings, but longtime head coach Joe Marsh isn’t out to make excuses for his team.

“There’s no such thing as a good, s****y team,” coach Joe Marsh stated bluntly. “It’s easy to go from first to worst … we’ve had injuries, but everybody has injuries. We out-shot Union two-to-one [last Saturday] and people came up to me and said, ‘You deserved to win.’ And I said, no we didn’t. [Union] made the plays, they did what they had to do to win.”

The Saints have had numerous injuries indeed, including losing starting goaltender Justin Pesony for the middle portion of the season. That said, Marsh doesn’t believe in excuses.

“In some ways, I should’ve done some things early on that I didn’t do,” Marsh admitted. “I should’ve sat some guys” for taking ill-advised penalties, he said.

At this point, St. Lawrence knows it is going on the road in the playoffs.

“We’re gonna travel. I don’t care where we go or who we’re playing, just how we’re playing,” said the coach.

The Saints have taken lump after frustrating lump this year, but have a shimmering corona fringing their overcast season.

“I think the big thing is getting a fresh start,” said Marsh. “After this weekend, everyone’s tied.”

Also working in their favor has been the triumphant return of Pesony to the fold.

“He’s just a guy whose leadership is quiet, an example of what a student-athlete is meant to be,” said his coach. “He’s an unbelievable kid. I’ve never seen a kid who’s more positive, more resilient … he’s extremely respected, by his teammates, the coaches, everyone.”

Pesony and the Saints tangle with Quinnipiac and Princeton at Appleton this weekend.

The Silver Lining, Part II

Rensselaer isn’t where it hoped it would be by this point in the season, either. The Engineers were tabbed low by the voters during the preseason, but the ‘Tute played tight with high-end competition early on and looked poised to build on those season-opening experiences.

Alas, ’twas not to be. The Engineers just kept coming up short against admittedly powerful opposition and now find themselves scuffling with the other bottom-dwellers, fighting for positioning, pride, and consistency.

“We’re starting to build to put ourselves in a position to go out and win a road playoff series,” said head coach Seth Appert. “That hasn’t been done here in far too long.” (The last time was early 2003 — following an eight-year drought — sweeping Union at Messa.)

RPI’s offense has struggled this season, having only manufactured back-to-back three-goal games thrice, and not once since early December.

“We don’t have natural goal-scoring depth in our lineup,” stated Appert. “We can win that way, but it’ll have to be low-scoring games. We haven’t shown any ability to score five goals on three straight nights.”

“We try to do the things we have the ability to do,” he continued. “We have speed, a good transition game … we need to try to get tips, screens, rebounds, maybe get a few easy ones,” he said of his offense.

Appert expressed a strong displeasure for the state of his power play, which has been flatlining at best all year long.

“The penalty kill is good. The power play is not good enough. At times, yes, [it has been improving,] but not enough.”

Going up against Brown and Yale this weekend, Rensselaer is completely focused on the big tasks ahead.

“We’re treating [Brown] like a playoff game. If we win, we get the tiebreaker.”

With RPI a road team regardless, Appert expressed no preference in opponent, no matter how close (Union, Colgate, Cornell) or far (Yale, Quinnipiac, Harvard) they may be.

“We don’t have that far to drive wherever we go,” he said.

Standings aside, the coach offered some evidence to support a few RPI-favoring upsets come playoff time.

“Outside of our last [road] weekend, we’ve played pretty well on the road this year. Maybe it’s the youth … getting away from campus and the distractions. Our goaltending will be extremely good in the playoffs,” he predicted. “[Mathias Lange and Jordan Alford] played very well last weekend, and we played two very good offensive teams” in SLU and Clarkson.

RPI has been on the wrong side of the bounces all year long, that much can certainly be said. The Engineers may not be a threat to Clarkson or Princeton on a daily basis, but come playoff time, it can take as few as 60 minutes to undo an entire season of joy or misery.

Raiding Party

“Obviously, it starts with Dekanich. He’s played the best hockey of his career at Colgate this year.”

Couldn’t have said it better than Don Vaughan.

Colgate rode a Dex-ceptional hot streak to a 3-0-1 stretch, followed by a split last weekend against Quinnipiac (win) and Princeton (not so much). That puts the Raiders at 4-1-1 in their last half-dozen, with Harvard and Dartmouth visiting this weekend.

Building off Dekanich’s three consecutive shutouts, the offense began to broaden and found some success at the back of the net.

“Once we started to spread it around,” the offense picked up, said Vaughan. “But it’s a tough league, and you’ve gotta bring it every shift.”

The goal-starved Raiders could do little to pick up their stellar goalkeeper through most of the season, but Vaughan made an admission that few coaches ever do.

“Honestly, I think it is puck luck,” he said. “It seems the chances have been there, it seems that’s the way it’s been going.

“All those cliches — holding the stick too tight, forcing the play — you know, it happens.”

The veteran coach is still worried about the state of his power play, however.

“I’m really concerned about our power play. It’s been spurty at best … it’s something we have to continue to work on. We have to.”

Assessing Friday’s opponent, Vaughan compared the Crimson to high-flying Princeton.

“They’re playing very well, had some great games. They come at you hard, the forwards can really skate. [Head coach] Teddy [Donato] has done a great job, and been able to keep them focused.”

With 18 goals in their last four games, the Raiders appear poised to play strength-on-strength with the bye-eyeing Crimson at Starr.


The Brown Bears fought their way out of a monumental slump with a home sweep of Harvard and Dartmouth to open February. Since then, Bruno may be 2-4-0, but that’s a mite bit better than the 0-13-2 catastrophe-coaster they had been riding prior.

“Yeah, I mean, it’s not even close,” said head coach Roger Grillo of his team’s play nowadays. “Things are a little bit easier for us now. The [recent losing] games, we had chances; we just didn’t finish on them. We’re creating chances now … we had some great opportunities against Harvard [last Saturday],” he explained.

“Every team goes through a period where it’s not playing well, and ours was too long, too vast.”

This weekend, Brown is far more concerned with its own play than with that of Rensselaer and Union.

“We just want our team to play solid hockey, making ourselves a real dangerous team for the playoffs,” said Grillo. “It’s very difficult in our league to squeak out a win when you don’t play well.”

The man’s speaking from experience. With a rejuvenated Dan Rosen between the pipes, and an offense that has rediscovered what color the goal light is, Brown is setting up to be more than just a stepping-stone to the second round.

Brown is once again a threat.

Game of the Week

If you don’t know which one it should be, then you probably find yourself outsmarted by plates of cole slaw on a regular basis.

Crucial Weekend

Union: @ Yale & Brown

The Dutchmen have never finished higher than fifth, and that happened once, in 1996-97. Fourth place, and a first-ever bye week, is theirs for the taking … or theirs to lose.

Clarkson may have a more exciting weekend on the schedule, and Harvard and Princeton may have more challenging road trips. But this one’s for Union, which was 3-7-2 at one point and hit Christmas with a 1-3-2 league record.

For the first time in the program’s history, the Skating Dutchmen might live to see the second round.