This Week in ECAC Hockey: March 13, 2008

Welcome to the second round … the quarterfinals, if you will. By this time Monday morning, we’ll have our Albany brackets, and I’ll have my hotel room.

A couple of strange things happened while writing this week’s column. For starters, I was a perfect eight-for-eight on contacting coaches. This never happens. Second, each and every one of the coaches spoke of playing hard, aggressive, assertive hockey, be they on the road or sleeping in their own beds Friday night.

A couple of things strike me about that. First off, that this is the ECAC, which translates as Every Contest’s A Close [one]. (Formerly “Each Contest’s A Crapshoot.”) This is a defensive league with a half-dozen national-caliber goaltenders and only half that many big-time snipers.

The second thing is that this is the playoffs. If ever a team should strive to play the perfect road game — tight checking, perfect defense, and just one or two opportunistic goals — shouldn’t this be that time?

But hey, I’m just a writer. I’ll make more of a fuss with another 20 years and half-dozen titles under my belt.

No. 8 Colgate @ No. 1 Clarkson

• Season series: 0-0-2; 0-0 @ Clarkson (2/9), 1-1 @ Colgate (1/18)
• Last two seasons: 1-0-3, Clarkson
• Last four meetings at Clarkson: 0-0-4

There aren’t many teams who would be unhappy with taking two points from the Golden Knights this year. Earning those points without suffering a loss was a nice little bonus, too.

For one reason or another, the Raiders have played some of their tightest defensive hockey against Clarkson over the past few years … and when the defense hasn’t been so hot (as in their contest at Starr this season), goalie Mark Dekanich has been simply en fuego.

“Obviously, our goaltender played very well — as did theirs — the last few games,” said Raiders head coach Don Vaughan, but while he said “the scores would be indicative of [a good match-up]” for Colgate, he doesn’t buy into the regular-season results much these days.

The Raiders rebounded from a Game 1 setback to St. Lawrence in the first round of the playoffs, knocking off the visiting Saints 3-2 and 3-1 to advance to the quarterfinals. The hosts scored two big power-play goals and only allowed one in nine chances for SLU in the wins.

“Last weekend, we got caught standing around in the second period Friday night … but I’m very happy with how our guys responded,” said Vaughan. “Our penalty-killing was better. The kill took a slide at the end of the regular season, and we had to refocus there.”

The Raiders have been hard-pressed for timely scoring all year long, so you’ll have to excuse the Colgate faithful if the consecutive three-goal games are embraced as a veritable overabundance. In fact, the offense seems to be blossoming at just the right time: in their nine games since Valentine’s Day, the Raiders have potted 31 goals.

Clarkson’s counterpart George Roll is equally mindful of what the Raiders bring to the table. Citing a resurgent power play, legitimate scoring threats, Dekanich, and talented defense, Roll sees “a lot of things” to be wary of in the Raiders’ locker room.

That said, Clarkson’s firepower has laid waste to many an opponent’s best-laid defensive strategies.

“We have a lot of respect for their team,” Vaughan continued. “We’ll have to gap quickly, and not give them a lot of room.”

Despite their regular-season title, the Golden Knights have not been as blessed on the scoreboard as they had originally anticipated. While Steve Zalewski has made a convincing argument to challenge Lee Jubinville for MVP honors, teammates David Cayer and Nick Dodge saw their numbers fall off precipitously from last year’s totals.

“We thought we’d score a lot more this year,” said Roll. Of Dodge, “Last year it came easy. This year it’s been a bit of a struggle for him.”

Roll specifically cited a diminished power-play unit as a reason for Dodge’s relative lack of returns: nine of his 18 overall goals were scored on the PP last season, compared to only four of 11 this time around.

While this offense may not be as malicious as its predecessor, Roll sees a very distinct silver lining, in that the Knights are now very accustomed to playing — and winning — in tight contests. David Leggio has followed up his Dryden-winning junior campaign with a stellar senior year as well, holding a 2.06 GAA in league play to match a .926 save percentage.

“We’re not going to go out and change our style” at this point in the year, Roll said.

As though I need to say it, Clarkson hasn’t lost a league game at home since November 11, 2006, a span of 22 games. Will it matter that school is on spring break this week? Maybe a little bit. What will matter more is the fact that Colgate clearly refuses to be bullied on Cheel ice.

“If history is any indication … and not just this year, but whenever we play them … it’s [going to be] a tight game,” summed Roll.

No. 7 Yale @ No. 2 Princeton

• Season series: 3-0-0, Princeton; 6-2 @ Yale (10/26, nc), 4-3 @ Yale (1/11), 4-2 @ Princeton (2/9)
• Last two seasons: 3-2-0, Princeton
• Last four meetings at Princeton: 2-2-0

Princeton is in a unique position, having never weathered one of those finicky bye weeks. The Tigers weren’t exactly purring along last time we caught up with them; they had just dropped both North Country games, surrendering their shot at the regular-season title, but escaped to the Garden State with second place all the same.

In regards to the week off, coach Guy Gadowsky — the odds-on Coach of the Year — said “you can never really tell until you get going” how your team will perform. “I haven’t figured out the formula yet,” he quipped.

The aforementioned junior Jubinville will probably take Player of the Year honors as well, having led his surprising squad with 10 goals and 21 assists against the rest of the league. Classmate Brett Wilson actually led the Stripes in goals, however, with 13 league goals in the full complement of games.

Senior Mike Moore has been everything Gadowsky could ever hope for in a defenseman and a captain, leading his younger D-corps by example with four goals and 16 ECAC points and absolutely shut-down play in his own end.

Zane Kalemba emerged as Princeton’s number-one netminder this year. The sophomore played in 19 league games and posted a 2.43 GAA with a .913 save percentage.

While the two Ivies have evolved since they last ran into each other over a month ago, Gadowsky still values the game tape from their previous matchups.

“We can always learn from looking at it,” he said.

Up the coast, Yale is building a bit of momentum following three straight wins over Rensselaer — a 3-0 shutout to conclude the First Season (as it were), followed by consecutive 3-2 overtime playoff wins.

The sandwiched game, the first of the playoffs, was especially encouraging to coach Keith Allain and the Blue.

“One of the untold stories [of that triple-OT win] is that we had enough depth to roll four lines” deep into the extra sessions, said Allain.

Against an overmatched Engineers team, the Bulldogs effectively stifled what little offensive potential RPI had available. The ‘Tute only got 68 shots — in over 230 minutes — on Yale goalie Alec Richards.

“The last two weekends, we’ve done really well defensively,” confirmed the former Eli ‘keeper Allain.

Flying beneath the radar of popular consciousness are Yale freshmen Broc Little and Denny Kearney. The tandem combined for 11 goals and 17 assists in league play, while second-year forwards Sean Backman and Mark Arcobello have attracted much of the oppositions’ focus after stellar freshman campaigns. The sophs haven’t slowed up much despite the attention, scoring 19 and 16 EC’ points, respectively.

Richards has suddenly taken the reins in New Haven, or so it appears. After Billy Blase started 20 league games in the regular season, Richards has now played three straight. Perhaps Allain likes Richards’ playoff experience, maybe Blase has had a mid-practice meltdown, who knows. It wouldn’t surprise me much if Blase started in ‘Jersey Friday night.

In the second round of the playoffs, with both teams needing to advance to continue their seasons, there is still more here to stir the pot. When it comes to Princeton, Harvard, and Yale, there are massive intangible quantities of Ivy pride at stake. This isn’t lost on these coaches, even a relative outsider like Gadowsky.

“It’s ECAC playoffs for sure, but every time the Ivies match up, there’s a little something extra in the air. It’s unspoken, but it’s there.”

No. 6 Quinnipiac @ No. 3 Harvard

• Season series: 1-0-1, Harvard; 3-3 @ QU (1/4), 4-1 @ Harvard (2/16)
• Last two seasons: 2-0-2, Harvard
• Last three meetings at Harvard: 3-0-0, Harvard

The Harvard Crimson positively flew into the bye week as one of the hottest teams in the nation, having won seven of nine (with one tie) and eight of 11. All of this came immediately following a nine-game winless grind, and catapulted the Cambridge club into third place with 22 in the books.

But will the bye week be a boon or a boondoggle for Ted Donato’s troops? That may be the key factor in this series.

“It can be a little bit of a dangerous spot, not having played in two weeks,” Donato admitted.

Even with the week off, forwards Steve Rolecek and Alex Meintel are no better than questionable for this weekend’s series. Meintel specifically scored three goals with five assists in 16 league games, and demonstrated a keen affinity for crease-adjacent dirty work last year.

Harvard’s most consistent asset, as it so often is in this league, was its goaltending. Sophomore Kyle Richter is a likely candidate for the Dryden Award following a 1.82/.935 league season, including three shutouts and only nine goals allowed in his last half-dozen games.

On offense, the Cantabs (FYI, that’s short for “Cantabridgians” … which is what people from Cambridge are called) are fairly well-balanced, with six contributors of a dozen or more points against league foes. Freshman Michael Biega and seniors Jon Pelle and Mike Taylor scored six goals each, while sophomore Doug Rogers led the team with eight in ECAC play.

The home team plays a strong two-way game, preferring an aggressive forecheck and smart, tight defense around an elite goaltender.

“They run an aggressive 1-2-2 — if we can move the pucks quickly, they won’t be able to send that second guy [on the forecheck],”said Quinnipiac head coach Rand Pecknold. “Harvard does a nice job cycling the puck when they can bottle you up.”

“They’re a very good team; they’re in the top 20 for a reason. Richter’s one of the best … if not the best … goalie in the league. They play a tight checking game like Cornell … they force the issue.”

The Ivy has had the better of the league newcomers in most of their matches, but QU has played well enough — and opportunistically enough — to come away with a few ties in recent meetings.

“This time of year, all the matches are pretty tough,” said Donato. “[Quinnipiac] played for the ECAC championship last year. They’re a dangerous team, and we’re very aware of their firepower.”

The Bobcats are praying that a 14-goal windfall last weekend will mark the rebirth of a ferocious and multifaceted attack.

The ‘Cats eviscerated Brown’s defense last weekend, winning an absolutely loony 7-6 overtime panic-attack of a game on Friday before throttling Bruno 7-1 on Saturday. Whereas Richter gave up only nine goals in Harvard’s last six, so too did Quinnipiac score a mere nine times in its final half-dozen regular season games.

“Obviously, we scored 14 goals on the weekend, so that helped,” said Pecknold. “I think we’ll be aggressive, it’s what we’re good at.”

Sophomore Brandon Wong took off with the team scoring title with seven goals and 17 assists in league play, but the ‘Cats had other claws, as eight additional players had at least 10 points against familiar competition. QU has developed a reputation as a high-octane, high-scoring program under Pecknold, but the fact of the matter is that the team has only scored three more league goals than Harvard, and finished a solid-but-not-spectacular fourth in the conference in offense.

It’s no secret that Quinnipiac’s strategy has been forced to change with the graduation of superstar point man Reid Cashman. The offense is a bit less stable, and the defense is also weaker for the loss.

In goal, Bud Fisher has played practically every game he was healthy for in his three years on campus (98 games and counting). One of the hardest-working netminders in the league, he is often overlooked for lack of the gaudy Richter/Dekanich/Scrivens-quality numbers.

“Bud’s a very good goalie, but if he wants to get up to that level, he’s gotta play more consistently in the regular season,” said Pecknold, alluding to the .920 save percentage Fisher held at one point this year.

Adding to the expected difficulty of Cashman’s departure was the unforeseen season-ending injury to captain Matt Sorteberg. The senior defenseman was a rock and a workhorse on the blueline, and even following his final game way back on November 24, the line for the trainer’s office never lightened up.

When asked if his team had any injuries to report entering the weekend, Pecknold responded curtly: “Too many.”

All things considered, Pecknold and the Q-Cats can afford to skate the Bright Center ice with nothing to lose. A lower seed, a younger team, a streaky season, an anonymous goalie and no precedent against Harvard? May as well go for broke.

“They’re the ones with all the pressure on them, in my opinion,” said the coach. “It’s rare for a top-four seed to not advance to Albany.”

No. 5 Cornell @ No. 4 Union

• Season series: 2-0-0, Union; 2-1 @ Union (1/12), 3-2 @ Cornell (2/15)
• Last two seasons: 2-1-1, Union
• Last four meetings at Union: 2-1-1, Cornell

This series is like Bizarro-world: Cornell’s on the road (gasp). Union’s at home (wha?). It’s the second round (how?).

These teams are in uncharted territory, at least as far as their programs’ histories are concerned. Cornell had never missed a bye-week opportunity, Union had never failed to miss one, and the Dutch had never played in the second round. The fact that such historically disparate clubs are meeting in the quarterfinals … on Messa’s ice, no less … is a true philosophical puzzlement.

“The regular season means nothing now,” said Cornell bench boss Mike Schafer. “The team’s starting to play better and better, [and] we’re very healthy.”

The Big Red advanced by knocking off Ivy rival Dartmouth in three sets. Following a 3-2 victory on Friday night at Lynah, the Red were then shocked on Saturday in a 5-3 defeat. The hosts regrouped and threw a knockout blow in Game 3, blasting the Green 6-0.

“It was a hard-fought series,” said Schafer, “indicative of the strength of our league.”

Cornell’s biggest star is probably goaltender Ben Scrivens, who has spent much of the season making cameos on the list of the nation’s top goaltenders. His .932 league save rate is only two-thousandths of a point higher than his overall SvP, and his ECAC goals-against average is a paltry 1.88. Colin Greening’s dozen goals led the Red, but Riley Nash (eight) and Topher Scott (seven) also made significant contributions on the scoreboard.

Cornell enters the second round 5-3-0 in its last eight games, with three wins over Dartmouth (with the one loss), victories against Rensselaer and at Quinnipiac, and losses to Harvard and Princeton as well.

The coach doesn’t care much that he’ll be sidling up and down the visitors’ bench.

“The pressure is squarely on their shoulders,” he assessed, saying that they need to win, or their whole season spent earning home-ice will be worth nothing. The Big Red are happy to play as underdogs, he added.

“We have a good skating team, but we’re definitely going to play physical,” Schafer stated.

For their part, the Dutch feel pretty good about this weekend as well.

The bye week “was something I felt was very useful for us,” said head coach Nate Leaman, and “we’re not going to play too differently from how we played them before.”

While both coaches admit that their games this year were close, it’s not surprising that Leaman considers his approach “ain’t broke.” With that in mind, he insisted on keeping his cards close to the vest in some aspects.

“[Freshman goaltender Corey] Milan has had an excellent second half,” he said, even though it was senior Justin Mrazek who pitched both complete-game victories over Cornell this year.

Union didn’t come up with any big-time guns this year, as junior Matt Cook was the only player on the roster to score 10 goals overall. All the same, the offense had to come from somewhere, and it’s the breadth and dispersal of talent that has made Union a viable threat: eight different players finished with double-digit points in league play this season.

“[We’re feeling] no pressure at all,” Leaman said of his team’s unique opportunity to play win-or-go-home hockey in front of a friendly crowd for once. “We’re just excited to play. After last season, after losing our top scorer, we were picked to finish last … we’re out to prove people wrong.”

Milan has indeed played well this season, so much so as to eclipse Mrazek’s numbers in league games. Freshman Adam Presizniuk finished the regular season atop the team’s scoring charts in both ECAC and overall categories, with five goals and 11 helpers in league play. It may be classmate Stephane Boileau who ends up making the difference, though, as the Blainville, Que., native notched all four of his league goals this year on the power play.

This matchup could be a beauty. Schafer expects Union to “play a very low-scoring game” with great patience, while Leaman sums things up a bit more broadly.

“Both games we played against each other were in the second half,” so the players know each other pretty well. “Both were very tight games, and they could’ve gone either way. I’m expecting very good hockey games” this weekend.