This Week in ECAC Hockey: March 6, 2008

The ECAC Hockey first-round playoff series sat down at their respective computers the other day, and — following a rather protracted visit to — proceeded to update their Facebook* pages, as intangible collegiate sporting events are known to do.

After signing up for Scrabulous, leaving the “Back in my day, Pluto was still a planet” group, and exchanging quips from the bumper-sticker application, the procrastinatory foursome (as midterms are on the horizon) stumbled across some of those pervasive and mindless “Which [blank] are you?” quizzes.

Needless to say, studying was further delayed.

*If you are over 30 and don’t have teen- to college-aged kids, skip ahead to the series as Facebook references are meaningless to you. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200.

No. 12 Dartmouth @ No. 5 Cornell

Which pop-star siblings are you? Mark and Donnie Wahlberg.

The senior Donnie (Dartmouth) hasn’t had it quite as good as Mark, generally speaking, but he’s still living comfortably, right? This is definitely a subtle sibling rivalry here: even though the love is there, the Bros. Wahlberg are probably still sending each other photocopies of their latest paychecks and box office figures with the Christmas cards. Mark … er, Cornell … has the upper hand now, hosting Donnie this time, but when the next Lieutenant Lipton role comes around, look out for the elder Wahlberg.

Maybe these two Ivies didn’t grow up on the rough streets of Dorchester, Mass., but neither one’s afraid to play things a bit physical, either. In fact, Cornell coach Mike Schafer may as well have tattooed the word on each of his players’ chests last fall.

“We want to force the issue and play physical, for the whole course of the playoffs,” he said, as he has said of every weekend this season. “We’ve done a very solid job [playing physically] this year.”

The Big Red pounded on the Big Green at Lynah last weekend to the tune of 6-0. Schafer isn’t reading too much into the outcome, however, and doesn’t feel the need to discuss the lopsided score with his team one way or the other.

“Last game, we capitalized on the power play [three for four] and on some turnovers. The thing about the playoffs is, everybody’s 0-0, everybody’s on equal footing. The guys are familiar with their players, and they’ve got some great offensive players.”

“[Dartmouth’s] a good team. You look at their record, and it’s a little misleading,” Schafer said, noting the Green’s strong out-of-conference results.

Despite having the upper hand with the home-ice advantage, Cornell is in a curious spot as well, having never missed an available bye week. (The last time the Red finished lower than fourth was 1998-99, before the institution of bye-weeks.) Like the younger Wahlberg can rarely go a day without being called “Marky Mark,” Cornell can scarcely play a season without a top-four finish.

“We’ve never been in the first round before,” said Schafer of the current playoff format. “We’ve always had the bye. It’s strange as far as the program’s concerned.”

The Red finished the regular season by winning three of five, despite the Senior Night loss to hated Harvard. Ben Scrivens is having one of the best seasons in the nation, and boasts a 1.87 GAA and .932 SvP in league play. Riley Nash is going to get major consideration for the Rookie of the Year honors with eight goals and 12 assists in ECAC Hockey, and second-year Ithacan Colin Greening scored all 12 of his goals this season against league foes.

As a whole, Cornell finished second in the league in team defense (43 goals against) and fifth in offense (60 goals for).

For Dartmouth, the season has been a frustration. Big non-con wins over Vermont, Boston University and New Hampshire were effectively countered by a last-place league finish, and the club’s youth was conspicuous in the defensive end.

As Donnie’s New Kids on the Block outsold Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch way back in the day, the Green actually scored more goals this season than Cornell, finishing third with 64 league tallies. The defense and goaltending were horrific, however, allowing 78: nine more goals than Rensselaer’s 11th-ranked D-corps.

Despite the Lynah lumping, Bob Gaudet’s boys still won two of their final three, and in doing so demonstrated at least a passing comprehension of team defense. In wins over Yale (7-2) and Colgate (5-2), the rearguard was strong, giving up only two five-on-five scores … and one of those was a garbage-goal with 31 seconds remaining in what was a 5-1 lead over the Raiders.

Seniors Nick Johnson and J.T. Wyman are invariably the engines powering the Green, with classmate Mike Devine serving as the underappreciated but crucial Pennzoil and/or antifreeze (is there such thing as a name-brand antifreeze?) back between the pipes.

The senior trio combined for 17 goals and 44 points in league play (though Devine was held scoreless by tenacious opposition), and the netminder did his part as best he could, pitching two shutouts and keeping his head above the .900 save mark in the face of more than 34 shots against per game.

The Green face a serious incline on the way to the second round. Beating Cornell would require Dartmouth to do something that has not come easily to it this year: putting in 60 minutes’ effort — or more — in two games out of three, at least. While anyone who knows anything will tell you that anything can happen in the ECAC, it’s pretty likely that Lynah Rink will feel nothing but Good Vibrations this weekend.

No. 11 Brown @ No. 6 Quinnipiac

Which 90’s sitcom cast are you? Saved by the Bell.

(For the record, Cornell would be Degrassi.)

This here’s a matchup of two struggling teams, and we might even go so far as to say that they’re going in opposite directions.

Brown (Dennis Haskins as Mr. Belding, Dustin Diamond as Screech, Lark Voorhies as Lisa Turtle, and/or Leanna Creel as Tori Scott) is finally looking ready to challenge the rest of the league following a catastrophic start to the season.

“We’ve played some pretty good hockey this past month and a half,” said coach Roger Grillo, “and anybody can beat anybody in this league; I think that’s been proven.”

One key to Bruno’s nifty little three-of-five run to end the season has been greatly improved special teams. In those last five regular-season contests, the Bears scored seven power play goals in 24 opportunities — including at least one each game — and only allowed two in 30 penalty-kill situations.

“That’s one of our areas of big improvement,” said Grillo, who also pointed to goalie Dan Rosen as another major contributor to the turnaround.

Rosen finished the ECAC Hockey regular season with a .916 save percentage and a respectable 2.80 goals against average, in spite of a 33-shot-per-game average. He’s a Lisa at least: overshadowed by the Kelly Kapowskis of the league, but putting in a solid day’s work nonetheless.

“He played well early, then there was a period where he wasn’t as sharp. Not bad, just not as sharp … and now he’s playing as well as he has in a year,” praised the coach.

The Bears didn’t blow anyone out of the water with their offense this season, totaling only 50 goals (in league, of course), but at least the scoring was balanced: Jeff Prough and Devin Timberlake each scored a half-dozen times, and Ryan Garbutt put eight home through the course of league play.

One thing Brown is not afraid to do is hit. Make a soft-scoring joke about Screech if you must, but did you see what that white-fro’ed squealer did to Horshack on Celebrity Boxing? The Rhode Island rowdies love to play the body, but the penalty killing unit will have to stay strong to support such a style.

Quinnipiac is trying hard to buff its fading-star status. A popular number-two pick in the preseason polls, the Bobcats were among the top of the heap before suffering a late-season slide that dropped them all the way to number six.

The ‘Cats lost six straight to end the regular season, which ironically came on the heels of a home sweep of Yale and Brown. The much-vaunted offense (fourth in the league, 62 goals scored) only put up a field goal once in that stretch, while the defense allowed two touchdowns (the first with a PAT, the second with a two-point conversion) in games at either end of the slump.

“We went from early October into early February losing seven games and being ranked nationally as high as no. 12,” said head coach Rand Pecknold, played by Mark-Paul Gosselaar. (It seems like he’s been around forever, yet he’s still so young ) “Then we lost six games in 16 days. We played well enough to win in half those losses, but we ran into some hot goalies and we’ve struggled defensively. We need to compete harder, focus on playing defense and attack adversity in a positive manner when it comes our way.”

QU fits the mold of SbtB‘s star characters, but without former all-everything defenseman Reid Cashman, the team’s focus has been drifting off in questionable directions.

The list of “usual suspects” to make appearances on the scoresheet may be longer than any other team’s in the league, but when the offense (like Tiffani-Amber … oh, no Amber anymore? Thiessen’s career) is sputtering, the backchecking, goaltending, and defense have got to be there to pick you up. This has not been the case of late, finishing eighth in the league in team defense with 67 goals against.

Oddly enough, the special teams (played by frequent cameo Mario Lopez) haven’t been the biggest problem. Over the course of those half-dozen games, the Bobcats scored a half-dozen power play goals in 27 chances, while the opposition scored seven in 34 tries. Granted, Pecknold would prefer to see a couple fewer goals against and a lot fewer penalties, but the fact of the matter is that the man-up unit scored at a better-than-20 percent clip, and had a better rate than the oppositions’ PP units.

This series could turn out to be a barn-burner, as Brown can certainly play low-scoring hockey with the best of ‘em. The Bobcats’ offense clearly needs to wake up, and fast, in order to make another run at Albany.

It may not look like much of a matchup on its face, but you probably thought the same of Screech’s girlfriend Violet, didn’t you?

No. 10 Rensselaer @ No. 7 Yale

Which esoteric European land war are you? The Second Schleswig War.

The Engineers head south to tangle with the Bulldogs this weekend, in yet another quietly tantalizing matchup.

The massed red army of the ‘Tute is looking to exact a bit of respect in the fragile Yale-held territory of south-central Connecticut, while the Eli fight to hold their ground against the invading forces and the allure of nearby Quinnipiac’s program alike.

RPI finished the “first season” with a pair of splits, which is a far cry better than the 1-14-1 disaster that had preceded them. The Engineers’ last game, however, was a 3-0 loss at Yale.

“We had two good games with them this year, and had four good games [against Yale] since I’ve been here,” said ‘Tute head coach Seth Appert. “They’ve been fast, intense, physical games.”

The Engineers have been executing poorly on the attack all year long, as Appert just doesn’t have a regiment of snipers at the ready. That said, the general on the bench is pleased with what he’s seen of his troops of late.

“We’ve seen some signs of life and offensive creativity in recent games,” he said.

Tyler Helfrich, with 27 overall points and 15 in league play, will certainly be in the running for Rookie honors this year as well.

The infringing side has strength in the back lines as well, as Mathias Lange has been tabbed as the starter for Friday night. In 14 league games, Lange held firm with a .910 save rate and a 2.65 goals against average.

Like Prussian general Friedrich Graf von Wrangle, Appert plans to play an aggressive style to lay siege to the Yale defense, just as the Germanic forces once brought Dybøl to its knees.

“We’ll try to get after them on the forecheck,” said Appert. “We’ll use two forwards, and use the speed of the forwards to put pressure on their defense.”

But unlike the war, RPI is not at a numerical or power advantage, unless you count the fan base. In fact, if the defending Danes had possessed the advanced artillery and breech-loading Dreyse “needle-guns” that Yale metaphorically has, maybe Schleswig-Holstein would’ve ended up under Prince Christian of Glücksburg’s control after all.

Where the Danes did fail, Yale may triumph.

The Bulldogs lost three of four to end the regular season, but holds more offensive potential than the encroaching Engineers. Sophomore Sean Backman picked up where he left off last season, scoring 13 league goals and 17 overall to lead the club. Classmates Marc Arcobello and Thomas Dignard have served as the supporting reserves, along with frosh Broc Little: each tallied double-digit assists against ECAC opposition.

Billy Blase was a sensation for a while a couple months ago, but has settled into acceptable-if-uninspiring numbers going into the playoffs. The defense in front of him has been hit-and-miss lately, for while the Bulldogs successfully shut down Clarkson, Rensselaer and Union (only two goals and 17 shots in a loss), they also coughed up a six-spot at Harvard and seven at Dartmouth. If RPI can manage to put another 13-goal weekend on Yale … even in a three-game set … the ‘Dogs’ days could be numbered.

Can RPI turn it up, and swing a small-scale land dispute into a full-scale Franco-Prussian title-grab? Hey, at least neither of these programs has to be embodied by France. What losers.

No. 9 St. Lawrence @ No. 8 Colgate

Which Jon Lovitz character are you? Jimmie Moore, from The Wedding Singer

The institutions of St. Lawrence and Colgate Universities are frequently and easily overlooked by the nation at large. With ice hockey as a primary sport — which is treated like Lovitz’s career already, an enjoyable supporting actor/sport — Saints and Raiders hockey is like Jimmie Moore. They occasionally pop into the greater consciousness in moments of great success and entertainment, only to disappear, without so much as a credited role or character bio.

At least they get some primo lines every once in a while. Like the ones delivered by Robin Carruthers, or more recently by Mark Dekanich, or the classic: “He’s losing his mind … And I’m reaping all the benefits … ”

It’s another old ECAC matchup, so it should come as no surprise that these teams have butted helmets (and way back, bare scalps) 134 times already, with the Saints holding a slim 62-59-3 lead. (Yep, that close, and still only three ties. Go figure.) The Raiders swept the Saints in all three games (including the non-con Governor’s Cup) this season, and earned the privilege of hosting for their troubles.

The ‘Gate, when winning, is getting timely scoring by the likes of Tyler Burton, and getting consistently stellar defense and goaltending from Dryden candidate Mark Dekanich. While the defensive wheels fell off a bit over the last four games, the Raiders still boasted the fourth-best team defense in the league after all 22 were in the books, and “Dex” had a career-best season, if incrementally.

Burton is the superstar up front, with 13 goals and 24 points in the 22 games. Jesse Winchester hit the 20-point plateau as well, mostly on the strength of his 15 assists.

SLU, as everyone knows, is suffering a downer kinda year after last season’s regular season championship. That said, the Saints beat Quinnipiac and Princeton at Appleton last weekend, and — at least for a week — managed to reverse the goal differential.

St. Lawrence hasn’t been getting blown out or shut out; it’s a matter of accumulating close-game losses, much in the way that Colgate suffered through them last year. While scoring a mediocre 58 goals, the Saints at least managed to spread them out. No one hit double-digits in league goals, but 16 different Saints can brag about their goals in the plural form.

The team was also wracked with injuries, from the goal on out. Stalwart Justin Pesony missed a bunch of time mid-season, and it was the same story from the crease to the red line. Team chemistry on the ice suffered accordingly, and the defense was inconsistent for large chunks of time.

John Hallas and Pesony have been splitting the ‘tending time for the last month or more, with decent results. Each has about a 2.65 GAA in league play, and Pesony’s .915 SvP edges Hallas’ .910.

This looks to be a grinding series, as neither coach is likely to put his team’s season entirely on the back of his respective offense. Could be a goaltending clinic as well, given the combatants. I hope these teams draw the crowd that the age-old rivals deserve; Jimmie Moore can shake it, but can Starr get shaking as well?

Coaches’ Corner

It’s a long column already, so straight to the point: who are the frontrunners for Coach, Player, and Goaltender of the Year so far?

Lee Jubinville is practically a shoo-in for the Player honors, leading the surprising Tigers’ offense all year long. Steve Zalewski had votes, however, and who knows how the full panel will decide in the end.

Harvard’s Kyle Richter is getting the most votes for Goalie of the Year at this point, but there are a number of other names in the hat, including Zane Kalemba from Princeton, Ben Scrivens at Cornell, defending award-winner David Leggio at Clarkson, and of course Colgate’s Mark Dekanich. It will be quite the race; voting should be extremely tight, unless by some chance everyone’s coins flip the same way.

As for Coach of the Year, the straw poll has Guy Gadowsky ahead, with Nate Leaman a step behind. It’s a tough call, as the voters will have to decide their own criteria for the award: is it Leaman, for how much better Union did than expected? Or Gadowsky, for so dramatically revitalizing an until-recently stagnant program?

Let the message-board debates rage on.