This Week in ECAC Hockey: Nov. 13, 2008

Playing Dumb

“We’re early in the season, and we have to do a better job of being a smarter road team,” began Crimson coach Ted Donato.

Harvard dropped both Capital District games for the first time ever last weekend, falling 3-2 at Rensselaer and 3-1 at Union. Donato isn’t sweating the scoring, the special teams, or the goaltending; he just wants his players to think hockey the way they think quantum mechanics or macroeconomics. Because right now, they’re just not playing smart hockey.

“We can’t take as many penalties as we did and expect the results that we want,” he stated.

“We’ve talked about how to make changes in practice, maybe calling penalties” to reinforce how the games are being called. The Crimson average over 20 penalty minutes a game in four contests (all ECAC) so far.

“It’s even amounts of both” ignorance and poor discipline, explained the NHL veteran. “On top of that, we have to do a better job with discipline, understanding how the game is being called,” referencing the oft-cited stick infractions.

Donato noted that his squad has only given up one even-strength goal, “and that was while we were pressing” for the equalizer at Union.

Fortunately, one player has been behaving brilliantly thus far: first-year goaltender Matt Hoyle. Filling in for temporarily departed Dryden-defending Kyle Richter, Hoyle “has played very solidly for us,” praised his coach.

“We don’t feel at this point … that goaltending is not allowing us to win games,” Donato added.

Self-Improvement in Troy

At 2-6-1, Rensselaer Polytechnic’s men’s ice hockey team is off to an undesirable start. It opened the year with four straight losses (five, if you count the exhibition game), but has since begun to grind away at its numerous rough edges.

Since an embarrassing 6-0 loss to UMass on October 21, at the Houston Field House no less, the ‘Tute has steadied itself to an even 2-2-1, allowing a reasonable 12 goals while scoring nine. It’s not perfect, but it’s a start.

Last week, the Engineers played a trifecta: a Tuesday-Friday home-and-home with Harvard, and the Saturday nightcap against Dartmouth. The Red dropped the Election Day game in Cambridge 3-1, but bounced back with a big 3-2 Black Friday win (jersey pics here and here). Dartmouth ripped RPI 5-2 on Saturday.

“There were some positives from the week,” began third-year head coach Seth Appert. “We put ourselves in a position to win in the third period … but some decisions … are coming back to bite us. It’s not just the penalties. It’s puck-possession [too].”

Regarding the final frames, Rensselaer trailed 1-0 Tuesday, led 2-1 Friday and was down 3-2 Saturday entering the third period. They were therefore outscored 5-2 in the games’ last 20 minutes. The scoring has been tough to come by this year on the whole, but what has been especially detrimental to RPI’s cause has been its special teams.

“I give credit to Dartmouth, but we didn’t make them earn their goals,” Appert stated, citing “mental breakdowns,” specifically on the penalty kill. The Big Green scored their second, third and fourth goals on the advantage, and the fifth was into an empty net.

As for the eight power plays themselves, Appert has no quarrel with the stripes.

“I have no problem with the officiating. We need to be more disciplined … we’re taking too many ‘stick calls’. It’s one thing to stick a guy to prevent a scoring chance; it’s another thing 150 feet from your net,” he said, echoing similar comments from coaches around the league.

Despite the Saturday setback, there is reason to believe that there is some resilience wearing the red. A lot of it shone bright in the Blackout.

“I really enjoy playing the same team two games in a row,” said the coach vis-a-vis Harvard.

“The fans enjoy it, the animosity between the teams builds up. You have to make adjustments … the players know each other very well … and there’s no place to hide.

“We have one of the better fan bases in the country, and definitely one of the best in our league,” Appert said, praising Puckman’s supporters for their weekend fervor.

On the whole, the Engineers have a lot of work to do … but at least there are stirring signs of life. While RPI’s power play has come through barely 10 percent of the time overall, its success rate is at 21.1 percent in three league game so far. The penalty kill units have successfully held the fort on 52 of 59 penalties, and both goalies, Mathias Lange and Allen York, are over Appert’s .910 save percentage standard.

It’s been a while since RPI was relevant on a national scale (last NCAA appearance: 1994-95). But if AC/DC can make a comeback, why not the (much younger) ‘Tute? Might I recommend a theme song, from one to the other? (What a great freakin’ song.)

Building Blocks

Brown doesn’t get much respect from most of the college hockey world, in large part because they haven’t found a way to take it. That might be changing, thanks to a fortuitously timed surge in special-team skill.

“I was pleased with our efforts from the very start of the game,” said head coach Roger Grillo of last weekend’s North Country performance (3-1 loss to Clarkson, 2-2 draw with SLU).

“We developed enough scoring chances, now we just have to finish them. We’re getting there, creating chances … [‘finishing’] is not an exact science; if it were, everyone would be doing it.”

The power play, which I’ll touch on later, has started nearly as hot as the refs’ whistles, and the penalty kill did its part to keep up. The defense tightened up as well, limiting the workload for goaltender Dan Rosen, the true foundation of the Bears.

“That first weekend we allowed way too many scoring chances, way too many shots,” the coach continued.

While Rosen and Brown tattered two weeks ago in front of 38 Princeton salvos and 41 from Yale, this week was more reasonable: Rosen stopped 24 of 26 from the Golden Knights, and denied 35 of 37 in the overtime contest against the Saints.

Cease Fire!

When have you ever heard a coach complaining about too many shots on net? There’s a first time for everything, apparently: just ask Union’s Nate Leaman.

The Dutchmen plowed 49 pucks toward Dartmouth ‘keeper Jody O’Neill on Friday, but finished with only two goals to show for it. Leaman says it was a matter of impatience, and wishes his charges had played with better poise in the offensive zone.

“We had 50 shots on goal. I’m not concerned about our offense … [but] sometimes it gets too impatient; feels it has to score every shift. [We were] over-pressing,” he explained.

As everyone tries to jump up, it creates massive vulnerabilities to counter-attacks. “Those are the situations where you get in trouble,” he said.

Ithaca Calling

Cornell is finally underway, and was the nation’s last D-I program to record a decision.

It appears the offense might still be in summer hibernation.

“We didn’t capitalize around the net,” understated head coach Mike Schafer, whose team engaged in a couple goalie duels over the weekend. “We started playing with more composure and more poise” as Saturday’s game at Quinnipiac progressed, he said.

The power play was 0-13, but given the team’s freshness, Schafer remains unconcerned.

“The power play generated chances but didn’t capitalize,” he assessed.

A big proponent of physical play last year, Schafer made clear that he would always emphasize strength and stamina with his teams.

“It’s always going to be important to play physically. That could mean playing strong on the puck, getting yourself to the net, playing hard along the boards, finishing checks … it comes in all shapes and forms.”

Union Assistant Passes Away

Union Dutchwomen’s volunteer assistant coach George Morrison died Wednesday afternoon at the age of 59. Morrison joined the program midway through last season, but discovered a brain tumor prior to this season.

The former University of Denver star scored 70 goals in 64 career games with the Pioneers, and won a national championship in 1969. He continued his career with the St. Louis Blues (NHL), Minnesota Fighting Saints and Calgary Cowboys (both WHA) before retiring in 1977.

“It’s a sad day for Union College and hockey at every level from the collegiate to professional ranks,” said Union College Director of Athletics Jim McLaughlin. “While George’s time at Union was short, his impact on our department and in particular the women’s hockey team was immeasurable. He was a first-class person who taught much more than the game of hockey to our student-athletes.”

“He was everything to our team; a leader, a mentor, a teacher, a father figure and a coach. Every player and our staff loved George,” said Dutchwomen head coach Claudia Asano. “I know our team will miss him tremendously, but his impact on our program will be felt for years to come. We play for him.”

The funeral will be held on Saturday at 10 a.m. in the Memorial Chapel on the Union College campus. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the Dutchwomen’s ice hockey team in his name.

Who’s Hot …

• Veteran Goalies

Kyle who? Ben Scrivens and Zane Kalemba are making people forget about last year’s Dryden Award winner in a hurry.

Scrivens somehow has Cornell at 1-0-1 despite scoring one–1, uno, single–goal against Princeton and Quinnipiac. The junior stopped all 68 shots he faced last weekend, and is already halfway to last year’s career-high four shutouts.

“It seemed like it would take a perfect shot to beat either goalie,” Princeton coach Guy Gadowsky said of Cornell’s 1-0 win in ‘Jersey last Friday.

The unlucky loser was Kalemba, who spun some magical saves in Albany last spring to help win the Tigers the league title. Despite surrendering the game’s only goal, the third-year goal guardian maintains a .969 save percentage with a shutout and a goals-against average under 0.75.

Honorable mention: the Saints’ Alex Petizian, Brown’s Dan Rosen and RPI’s Mathias Lange.

Each is having an exceptional start to his season. Each of the 13 goalers who has made a league appearance so far has held a save percentage of .900 or better.

• New Goalies

Charles Long? Nick Pisellini? Matt Hoyle, Jody O’Neill, Paul Karpowich … who are these guys?

Just ECAC Hockey’s next generation of shut-down goaltenders.

Hoyle (Harvard) and Karpowich (Clarkson) both sport .932 save percentages against ECAC foes so far, and that puts them at the bottom of that specific statistical pile. Dartmouth rookie O’Neill sports a .935, Bobcat Pisellini is way up at .961, and first-time starter (albeit as a junior) Long is a hair ahead at .962.

The league has been built upon solid defenses, and–let’s face it–high-profile scorers are hard to acquire for most of the member schools. Thus, the netminders enjoy a circular-logic situation: you need a great goalie to win in this league, but the defenses can be so good as to artificially improve a ‘tender’s profile, too. The crease-cruisers almost can’t lose. Almost.

• Dartmouth’s offense

Ten goals in two games, from the team universally tabbed 11th in the preseason polls? Just look at last year’s numbers, and the scoring should come as no surprise. The Big Green scored nearly three league goals a game last year, finishing third in the conference in that category.

The Green dismantled seemingly stalwart defenses last weekend, dispatching Union and Rensselaer by matching 5-2 scores. Sophomore Scott Fleming has five goals and an assist already. Classmate Adam Estoclet had a goal and five helpers. Frosh Doug Jones has five assists, sophomore defenseman Joe Stejskal has four goals, and all-leaguer Evan Stephens (1-1-2) hasn’t even warmed up yet!

All the lights are Green for this high-speed offense.

• Brown’s power play

Yes, really!

Bruno’s advantage is skimming along at a brisk five-for-22 clip, the best overall rate in the conference. While only scoring twice in 13 league opportunities so far, perhaps the Bears have finally put them in good fortune’s path: with all the penalties being called so far this season, it may give Brown the early boost it needs to stay in the hunt.

“The positives definitely outweighed the negatives for us [last weekend],” remarked coach Roger Grillo. “The special teams were very solid. It was a focus for the week.”

Honorable mention: RPI’s PP unit. Doing double-takes? The Engineers scored four goals in their 19 chances last week.

… and Who’s Not

• Quinnipiac’s offense

The Bobcats were shut out twice last year. They failed to break the goose-egg once in 2006-07, and three times the year prior. The last time QU was blanked in back-to-back games was in January ’04, 1-0 to Ohio State and 3-0 to Canisius; the last time they sustained three regular-season shutouts was 1998-99.

However, the ‘Cats had never been shut out in three straight games. Even in Union’s league-record-setting eight shutout losses in 2004-05, the Dutchmen always managed to pot one after consecutive nothings.

There’s no analysis necessary here; it’s part bad luck, part bad offense (0-23 on the PP), and a big part bad discipline (41 penalties for 90 minutes in those three games). Colgate (1-0 loss Friday), Cornell (0-0 tie Saturday) and Princeton (2-0 loss Tuesday) are all very strong defensive teams with quality goaltending. Smart money–meaning, if QU can get smart–puts the usually potent Bobcats back on track this weekend.

• Yale’s penalty kill

One of the top kills in the country last year isn’t exactly sieve-ing it up out there, but the Bulldogs are nonetheless among the bottom half of the ECAC in both league and overall success rates. Taking nearly 20 minutes in infractions a game won’t make life any easier for the unit, and may demand watering down the top PK in order to create an extra line to compensate for the fatigue factor.

• Officiating

This isn’t even pertaining to the 37 penalty minutes per game being assessed by the refs.

(Yes, that’s an exact number for league games so far.) This “Not” judgment goes against referees Andy O’Brien and Eric Ernst for their inconceivable reversal of this call.

The situation: Harvard is shorthanded, but has the extra skater on in a 3-1 game to bring the sides even at five apiece. The shot you saw was originally ruled a goal, with Harvard forward Doug Rogers to take an after-the-fact interference penalty for his contact with Union goalie Corey Milan.

Yet somehow the orange-banded men saw something in the tape that convinced them–beyond a shadow of a doubt–that Rogers touched Milan before the puck was in the net. I could understand reaching that decision out-of-context, but when you’ve already ruled it a goal, how can you overturn that call on such a remarkably close play?

Harvard coach Ted Donato hit the ceiling after the call, earning himself a bench minor and an early trip to the showers (do coaches shower?), but this week told me that the issue had been addressed with the league, and he wasn’t concerned about it anymore.

With under 40 seconds on the clock, already shorthanded and about to be more so, it’s highly unlikely that the Crimson could’ve drawn the game even … but then, unlikely isn’t impossible. Officials will make errors of judgment; it’s only human … but this is a tough error to swallow.

Get it Right

… how to sound educated and, let’s face it, a bit elitist at the rink.

Quick team pronunciation guides (Brown through Cornell in last week’s column):

Goggin–GAH-gen … Estoclet–ESS-toe-clay … Mattila–ma-TILL-la … Owsiak– OWE-zee-ack … Reber–REE-burr … Schussler–SHOE-slur … Stejskal–STAY-skull … Wolter–WALL-ter

Biega–bee-EGG-uh … Bozoian–boh-ZOY-in … Coassin–CO-ah-sin … Kroshus–CROW-shuss … Morin–MORE-in … Michaud–mee-SHOW … Rolacek–ROLL-ah-check … Starrett–STAIR-it … Tallett–TAL-it

Schroeder–SHRAY-der … Fedun–fuh-DUNE … Lohry–Laurie … Kushniruk–kush-NEAR-Uck … Sychterz–SICK-tersh

Sorteberg–SORT-uh-berg … Liimatainen–LEE-muh-TIE-nin … Beaudoin–BO-dwahn … Lampe–LAMP-ee … Bui–BOO-ee … Heichman–HIKE-man … Bouharevich–boo-HAIR-a-vitch … Arduin–AHR-doo-in

The final four are next week.