This Week in ECAC Hockey: Jan. 29, 2009

Red Hot

Hey, Ben Scrivens: Ken Dryden called. He wants his stats back.

Just kidding. Dryden’s goals-against was never as low as Scrivens’ is now.

It’s easy to single out the sophomore netminder as the superstar on this edition of the Big Red Machine, but rest assured there’s a little more to this team than goaltending alone. For starters, the Red are scoring 2.7 goals a game, and have potted 15 in their last four outings. They’ve scored three goals or more 11 times, while being held to one goal twice and being shutout (albeit in a 0-0 tie) once.

They may not pour it on too often (five goals is their season high, attained twice), but they know how to hold a lead: the Red are 12-1-0 when scoring first, 8-0-0 when leading after one period, and 13-0-0 when holding a second-intermission advantage. They can even play from behind, as Cornell is 2-1-2 when surrendering the game’s first goal.

That said, there’s a reason why the Ithacan defense is getting so much attention. They make sure that Cornell has a chance to go ahead early, and to hold on late. It’s frustrating as all get-out to anyone on the visitors’ side to watch the Big Red Blueline go to work, but results are results. Don’t like it? Beat it.

“I think we’re good defensively, but the game has changed,” said head coach Mike Schafer. “We’re one of the least penalized teams in the country. The misconception is that you have to clutch and grab and hold [to play shut-down defense], but we’ve been able to play defense without getting into those situations. We’ve stayed out of the penalty box.”

Indeed, the Red are seventh from the bottom in penalty minutes per game, serving barely more than a dozen both overall and in ECAC play. (Princeton is still the pace-setter however, at 9.6 PIM/game overall and 9.2 in league.) Even when Cornell does slip up and lands itself on the penalty kill, it’s all good. It’s the seventh-best kill in the nation (89.7 percent), and it only gets better against familiar foes (94.8 percent in league).

They say that a goalie has to be your best penalty killer, and it’s true, Scrivens has been that and more all year long. The third-year goalkeep possesses the country’s best save percentage (.950) and goals-against average (1.32), and isn’t even allowing a full goal against when facing the rest of the ECAC (0.99 GAA).

“Everybody plays defense,” stated the coach. “It’s a team effort. But there have been some games where he’s made some huge saves for us. He’s much more consistent in his approach this year.”

Working hand-in-hand with his experienced and disciplined defensemen, the unit has put Cornell on the top of the heap in team defense, and even has the squad ranked fourth in scoring differential (+1.32) despite what ultimately stacks up as a bottom-half offense.

But let’s face it, if you’re not allowing more than a goal a game, three goals may as well be 30 to the opposition.

“It’s a matter of scoring one more than your opponent,” summed Schafer. “We don’t go into games thinking we need five, six, seven goals to win. We’ve got to be comfortable in the close games because as the season progresses, they’re all going to be close games.”

Feature Tie-In

A few weeks ago, USCHO published my first major research feature, detailing the true nature of close games: who wins them, how often, and why. I wouldn’t be much of a columnist if I didn’t self-promote, so here’s how my findings apply to ECAC Hockey.

First off, who’s due to improve: really, Cornell is somehow the only team that might bounce up from its current pace. The Big Red are 8-1 in decisive games (DG), and 6-1-3 in close games (CG). That’s not a criminally poor CG record compared to the DGs, but it could see a slight improvement.

There are a handful of teams that are playing at just the right level, whose split records appear compatible. Dartmouth is 6-4 in DGs and 4-3-2 in the tight ones, Princeton is 8-2/6-3-0, Quinnipiac is 9-6/4-3-2, and St. Lawrence is 6-4 in decisive contests, while .500 in the close games (6-6-2).

Unfortunately, the largest of the three packs is that which may be due for a slip. Clarkson is only 1-7 in games decided by two goals or more, and yet the Golden Knights are 6-6-4 in the close games. If that first set of numbers doesn’t start creeping up, it will never deserve such a respectable second set.

Harvard is 2-8 in DGs and 2-3-4 in CGs, which is a relatively large difference. Union’s splits read 6-5/6-3-1, Yale’s are 5-2/8-3-1, and Rensselaer is 2-11 in decisives, 4-6-2 in the nail-biters. That’s no good. Brown and Colgate might see a downturn, but shouldn’t be much of one. The Bears are 1-9 in DGs, 1-4-4 in CGs. The Raiders are 2-7/4-6-5.

Obviously, if you don’t read the feature, you won’t really understand what I’m getting at. So either read it if you’re numerically inclined, or skip ahead. My only additional caveats to this analysis is that there are a lot of factors that could influence these teams’ final results between now and March (team health, strength of schedule, or any number of other intangibles), and that the records thus far constitute very small sample sizes.

I’d be surprised to be wrong about each and every team, but it’s not impossible … as every good statistician knows (and I’m not even a good statistician), the numbers can only predict the likelihood of a given result, not the result itself.

Wicked Possible

Will the NHL soon be pahking its Zambonis in Hahvahd Yahd?

It’s a legitimate possibility.

According to numerous sources, the NHL is looking into majestic Harvard Stadium as a potential site for a future Winter Classic.

The pros are numerous: the turf is artificial, allowing for large machinery, stands, and equipment to be placed on a stable and trustworthy surface. The synthetic material also means that the field itself is not crowned (with a slight rise down the center for drainage, as is common with natural turf), which negates obvious headaches when trying to freeze standing water.

The stands are raised nearly 10 feet above the playing surface in an intimate horseshoe design, which allows for superb sightlines, additional temporary bleachers at the open end zone and along the sidelines, and a capacity of up to (or quite possibly beyond) 30,000.

Not to mention that it’s an easy hometown venue for the Boston Bruins (as Ralph Wilson Stadium was for the Buffalo Sabres two years back, and Wrigley Field for the Blackhawks), and heck, this wouldn’t even be the first time Harvard’s done hockey in The Stadium.

“I think it would be great. I’ve been told that the lack of a crown on a field is really a positive attribute, as far as hosting the game,” said Harvard head coach (and alumnus) Ted Donato. “I think the sightlines would be spectacular, and it really is just a historic, great, traditional venue. I think an outside game in Boston is in the near future, and if it were at Harvard stadium we would certainly be very excited.

“It would be nice to also have some tie-ins, whether it was with college hockey or high school hockey or youth hockey, to make it more of a hockey experience, weekend-wise,” he added. “We had actually even tossed around the idea of us playing North Dakota this year out in Chicago at Wrigley Field, when the NHL was tossing around the (idea) that they might want someone to break in the ice for them the night before. We were licking our chops to be the guinea pig on that one,” he grinned.

For you nay-sayers out there, the odds may not be as slim as you think.

Many believe that if the Winter Classic were going to be held in Boston, the NHL would naturally prefer to host it at the world-famous Fenway Park. (Great for TV, sure, but what awful sightlines. There’s no ideal place to put the rink on a baseball field, as some seats will invariably end up hundreds of feet away from the boards.) However, reports state that Fenway is scheduled to undergo significant renovations during the next two or three winters, and possibly beyond.

If the NHL does deem New England worthy of an outdoor event, my vote’s with The Stadium. How could you lose?

Garden Party

It’s that time of year again. The Northeast is burrowing under its extra blankets, grumbling foggy curses at the ice on its doorstep, and quietly pleading for springtime.

But not in Boston. For the next two Mondays, all puckwatchers’ eyes will be on the TD Banknorth Garden for what the quintessential hockey tournament.

It’s like Monday Night Football for local college players, one of the speakers said at Tuesday’s media luncheon. It’s internationally televised this year, it’s the only game in town (almost literally) since the Patriots are duffing it, and three of the four participants are ranked in the top 11. It’s college hockey prime-time, no doubt about it …

… and it’s Harvard’s turn to play party-crasher. Everyone annually assumes that the Beanpot is Boston University’s for the taking, and doubly so this year: the Terriers are second in the country, and 11-1-1 in their last 13. They draw the Crimson in the early game on Monday, but neither team is about to take this outcome for granted.

“It’s been a struggle, there’s no way around it,” said Crimson coach Ted Donato of the season so far. “We’ve had a little bit of a tough stretch to say the least. We had one similarly last year, but I think we played a very good game against Dartmouth, so hopefully we’ll see the light at the end of the tunnel here and we’ll respond like we did last year.”

Shoulder-deep in a 13-game quagmire (0-9-4), Harvard draws Union on Friday before the big showdown downtown. Donato referred to last season’s similar nine-game slump, which ended with a win at Dartmouth just two games before the Beanpot. The Cambridge club went 8-2-1 to close out the regular season, all starting with the victory in Hanover.

“There are similarities in that in both streaks, we tied some games where we really played pretty well and deserved to win. There are some similarities in that in some [contests] we found a way to lose a game as opposed to finding a way to win a game. But I think there’s differences in that there’s a lot of different characters involved, and that we haven’t had the turnaround yet this year, and that’s the key.”

Harvard rebounded quickly from last year’s skid. The Crimson jumped all over first-round opponent Northeastern, scoring three in the first period and never looking back on its way to a 3-1 victory. The Crimson hung tough with eventual national champion Boston College in a rollicking, roller-coaster finale, which ended in a 6-5 overtime defeat.

“I think that you look at the number of players we lost to graduation [nine], and you add two more players that don’t end up back on the team [defenseman Jack Christian and goaltender Kyle Richter, both likely to return next year] … that’s 11 players, and most nights at least 10 of those guys were in and one of the guys plays the most important position in the sport of hockey,” said the coach, musing on his team’s lackluster results.

“To think there weren’t going to be some growing pains early on just wasn’t very prudent. Having said all that, we know we can play better and should’ve played better early on, but our focus [now] is straight ahead, and we also recognize that if we can continue to grow as a team and improve, that we can be a very tough out toward the end of the season.”

It’s been done before, with an overlapping cast. Do this year’s Crimson have it in ’em?

Stay Tuned

Next week: Pink at the Rink details. Is this a socially conscious league or what!

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here