ECAC Hockey Special: Dec. 11, 2008

Well now, this is a little more like it! After romping to a darned near 67 percent accuracy rate with my predictions, I was beginning to wonder if the league was becoming … well, predictable. Good to see that ECAC Hockey is still as schizophrenic as ever.

This is the last column of 2008, though there will be tournament previews in a couple of weeks. Happy holidays to all, and as my uncle always said, “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do … but if you do, take pictures.”

He’s an interesting fellow.

Ahead: one of the league’s top goalies could be gone for the rest of the season, why you shouldn’t overlook Yale, how Quinnipiac left its coach unsatisfied through the first semester, what to make of Union’s poor start, Harvard’s new view, and TV announcers who inspire innovation.

Bullish on Yale

As I’ve made perfectly clear over the first 10 weeks of the season, I like Yale’s chances for home ice this year. The team has loads of experienced talent and good depth at every position. They’re 7-3-0 overall and 4-2-0 in league with three players at a point-per-game or better (Mark Arcobello and Broc Little have 12 points, and Sean Backman has 10).

“I really like our group; the guys come to practice [hard] every day,” said coach Keith Allain. “This is the most balanced team we’ve had since I’ve been here.”

The offense is especially potent, lighting it up three and a half times a game both overall and against the league. Arcobello, Little, Backman and Denny Kearney (1-7-8) lead the pack once more, but the Eli also boast 14 goal-scorers already; only seven regular skaters haven’t billowed the netting.

“We’ve got more than one line that can score, and that makes it a little more difficult for teams to key in on [our top] guys,” said Allain.

In net, senior Alec Richards is back at the reins with six starts after appearing in only 11 contests last season. Junior Billy Blase, who earned most of the starts last year, has started a pair of games, as has sophomore Ryan Rondeau.

The trio is hovering around the .900 line in save percentage, but with three goalies battling for time, it seems likely that one will eventually assert himself as the strongest option. Another factor affecting the goaltending figures is the team defense, which stands to improve a bit in Allain’s eyes.

“We can be better in our own end,” he said. “We can do a better job identifying backcheckers off the rush, and we can do a better job staying out of the box.”

Much on Dutch

Union has struggled in the early going, now 2-4-0 in the ECAC entering the winter break despite an 8-5-1 record overall. How did this happen to a team scoring three goals a game, and even more overall? Well, allowing four goals a game won’t help.

“I thought we played well enough to win at Brown,” said coach Nate Leaman of his team’s 5-4 Friday loss in Providence. “They were more opportunistic on their shots … and when we were up 3-2, [Dan] Rosen made some really key saves.”

The Dutchmen threw 41 shots Rosen’s way, but it was the five goals on 23 shots that sank Schenectady’s side. Brown mustered three of its goals on the power play as well, aiding in Union’s drop to 80 percent on the penalty kill this year.

“For going on the road, and only giving up 20 shots … ultimately we weren’t good enough,” said the coach.

The squad’s strike force has also been hobbled lately by injuries, affecting junior Jason Walters (who will hopefully return healthy in January), sophomore Andrew Buote (missed two of the last three games), and junior John Simpson (played sparingly against American International). None of these players is among the team’s top scorers, but when the roster gets shallow, everyone feels the extra burden.

In the crease, Corey Milan has performed well if not brilliantly. His .911 save rate and 2.61 goals-against could stand improvement, but it’s a progression that is inexorably tied to the strengthening of the defense around him.

“I’m pleased with Corey; as a sophomore, we’re asking a lot of him,” said Leaman.

The coach indicated that when the season starts out rough, playing fewer league games than most can put a lot of pressure on a club. On the other hand, there’s no reason why the time off can’t help to refocus the Dutchmen, and maybe slow down the hot hands in Princeton, Hanover and Ithaca.

The team plays two at Maine this weekend; if it can adopt a nothing-to-lose mentality, it could end the first semester on a real high note.

On the Q Tip

Are the Q-Cats happy with their 7-6-1 (4-3-1 ECAC), fifth-place performance through the first two and a half months of the season? Not quite.

“I thought we were just OK,” said head coach Rand Pecknold.

The team scored nearly three goals a game overall, and over two and a half in league play. The Bobcats have held opponents to about two goals a game, and even less against ECAC Hockey foes. So what’s not to like?

“We’ve gotta balance the lineup out a bit … get more production out of the [Brandon] Wong/[Jean-Marc] Beaudoin line.” The David Marshall/Bryan Leitch combo has been great, though, praised the coach.

One area of focus this season has been a stronger team-wide sense of defensive responsibility, and that has been a point of pride for Pecknold’s pack in the early going. After earning a reputation in the past couple years as a run-and-gun squad, now QU can play shut-down defense, too.

“We’ve been a much better defensive team; the penalty kill has greatly improved,” asserted Pecknold. “On the flip side, we’re not scoring as much.”

That much is true — this isn’t the three-and-a-half goal party posse of four years ago — but this is still a formidable opponent with increasingly stubborn determination in its own end. Defense keeps you competitive in this league, plain and simple.

The ‘Cats have also benefited from top-notch goaltending in the form of denial duo Bud Fisher and Nick Pisellini. Pisellini has played 11 games, taking the majority role from former workhorse Fisher.

But now the Bobcats are stuck in a painful wait-and-see with stellar freshman goaltender Pisellini. The goalie with the .948 save percentage and 1.38 goals against average is finishing up finals at Quinnipiac this week, then returning home indefinitely to spend time with his ailing father. There is no timetable for his return, as the elder Pisellini is in grave condition and reportedly in need of a transplant.

Whether Pisellini returns for the second semester, or not until next year, Pecknold has long desired a look at classmate Dan Clarke, who was injured in preseason workouts. Senior Fisher is always ready to start, as he has 106 times already at QU, and sophomore Pat McGann is also waiting in the wings.

Getting Lighter at Bright

The season’s suddenly looking up for the Crimson.

The clever folks at Harvard found a way to make sure their fans always have their chins up, and that the Bright Hockey Center lives up to its name. The new four-screen Daktronics video board that hangs over center ice is the first video board in the league, and let me tell you, having second looks at the big moments in a game really enhances the experience.

North Dakota wasn’t exactly gracious in warming up Harvard’s newest toy, but at least they put it to good use: 18 combined goals in last weekend’s UND sweep made for plenty of replay material.

Not That Anyone Asked …

… but it’s my column, so I have a bit of latitude in my topics.

Maybe for you it’s Joe Buck, Tim McCarver or Dick Vitale. For me, it’s Jack Edwards.

The outspoken, hyper-caffeinated, homer-tastic play-by-play announcer for the Boston Bruins on their home New England Sports Network has simply become too much to bear. He’s loud when the Bruins score, he’s loud when they don’t, he’s loud on each and every check, he’s loud when they ice the puck sometimes. I bet he shouts at the waitstaff when he goes out to eat.

Now, play-by-play is tough to do … spotting numbers, remembering who’s where on the ice, and preparing for 20 new name-and-number combos every game. I couldn’t do it. But that said, this guy worked hockey games for ESPN; shouldn’t that say enough? (Tangential explanation: I hate ESPN, by and large for its lack of hockey coverage/knowledge. I highly recommend adding www.TSN.ca to your bookmarks instead.) Nothing in Edwards’ bios has indicated that he ever played hockey, and let me tell you, if you’ve never played the game, you’ll never fully comprehend the game’s nuances. That may be true in every sport, but I know it’s true in hockey.

So my proposed Hack Countermeasure is comparable to the Spanish-language SAP function on your remote: I want a Voice Muter … an option that cancels out the announcers, but preserves the sounds of the crowd and the game. This can’t be an original thought, and geez, wouldn’t it be grand? So many people have expansive HD sets that flat-out advertise that watching one is the next best thing to being there. Well if you were there, you wouldn’t want or need all that bombastic blustering in your ears, would you? If there’s a situation that you don’t understand, un-mute the announcers and see if they can figure it out before you can.

I never understood why they insist on talking so much anyhow. Let the fans be fans; TV isn’t radio. I even love watching hockey on CBC and TSN (Center Ice package) for the mere fact that they show the player introductions and anthems. Sports, for me, are about the atmosphere … why dampen it, distract from it, kill it with non-stop talk? It doesn’t make sense to me.

So the next time you’re watching a game and you realize that Joe Beninati or Chip Caray hasn’t had an original thought since the Carter Administration, just think how sweet it would be to do your own ignorant, babbling play-by-play for a change.

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