This Week in ECAC Hockey: Feb. 12, 2009

Less than a month until the playoffs? Already? That’s not fair; I only just realized that “ECAC” is an abbreviation and not an acronym. Referring to “E-Kack Hockey” was getting me a lot of weird looks, and now I know why.

What We Know

With three weekends to play in the regular season, we take a look at potential playoff situations.

• Yale and Cornell have locked themselves into top-nine finishes.
• Princeton will finish at 10th or better.
• Dartmouth won’t finish last.
• The following teams can finish anywhere from first to last: Quinnipiac, Clarkson, St. Lawrence, Union, and Harvard.
• Rensselaer can finish as high as third.
• Colgate is technically still in the hunt for a first-round bye, but only barely: the Raiders can’t hope to finish better than fourth.
• Brown cannot finish higher than fifth.

Relevant tiebreakers thus far, all of the head-to-head variety:

• Yale beats Brown, Harvard and Dartmouth.
• Cornell beats Colgate, Clarkson and Quinnipiac.
• Princeton beats Colgate and Quinnipiac.
• Dartmouth beats Brown, Rensselaer and Union.
• Quinnipiac beats Rensselaer.
• Clarkson beats Brown and St. Lawrence.
• St. Lawrence beats Brown, Colgate and Yale.
• Union beats Rensselaer.
• Harvard beats Dartmouth.
• Rensselaer holds no advantages.
• Colgate beats Quinnipiac and Clarkson.
• Brown holds no advantages.

QU’s Goals on a Gurney

What was for a moment one of the hottest teams in the country in January is now a squad struggling to overcome the loss of its top two threats. Quinnipiac has seen junior centers Brandon Wong and Eric Lampe each take a seat due to injury, costing the Bobcats their fourth- and fifth-highest scorers … but worse than that, hurting the team’s general sense of balance and chemistry.

“We had good life after Christmas, we were playing well,” said head coach Rand Pecknold. “We won four games in six days, and you never play four games in six days, let alone win four. We were rolling, things were going good, and we kind of fought it a bit after that. Then Wong got hurt and since Brandon’s been hurt we’re 1-4. And now Lampe’s out, and we’re 0-2 without him. So the injury bug’s kinda whacked us a little bit, so that’s been a setback.”

Wong — once deemed a goal-happy, one-way player in his first year or two — has matured into a dependable two-way minute machine, filling practically any role a forward can play for the ‘Cats this season.

“Lampe’s been playing well, but Wong does everything. He’s power play, five-on-three, three-on-five, four-on-four, he plays more minutes than anyone on the team, so like I said, since we lost him we’re 1-4,” sighed Pecknold.

Unfortunately, Wong’s outlook vis-a-vis the remainder of the season is not optimistic.

“If we’re lucky, we’ll get him back for the playoffs. We’re hoping to get him back for the playoffs, but it’s not likely.”

As for classmate Lampe, the 10-goal, 10-assist Wisconsin native should be returning to game form a bit sooner.

“I think he’ll be out this week, we should have him back the following weekend. He’s just short-term [loss … but those are] my first- and second-line centers. We’re a different team [without] them.”

Since losing its top pivots, the Hamden Six haven’t been hopelessly lost, just challenged. The Bobcats dropped both games last weekend, but the deuce was on the road, and the Blue & Gold took the New Yorkers to overtime both nights.

“We played a little bit different against Cornell on Friday and I thought it was effective. We’re certainly a lot more thin with those two kids out of the lineup, but I thought both nights we competed hard, we outshot Cornell, we outshot Colgate. Not that shots are everything but we were definitely in both games. We could’ve won either game, we could’ve gotten a tie in either game, or we could’ve lost, and we were on the wrong end of the stick both nights.”

Adding insult to injury, both game-winners last weekend came with Bobcats in the box.

“I can’t comment on the officiating,” he laughed sardonically.

Senior crease-fixture Bud Fisher and freshman Dan Clarke have been battling for time lately, with the rookie earning six of the last seven starts. He’s allowed 19 goals in seven straight appearances (relieving Fisher in QU’s 8-5 loss to Robert Morris on Jan. 24), and while he may appear to have won the starting role, Pecknold isn’t so sure.

“Like I said, we’re 1-4 in our last five, so I’m looking for either one of them to step up and win some hockey games. I don’t really know how it’s going to play out the rest of the year, I’m just hoping one of them can get hot. ‘Clarkie’ has [started] the last four, and you know, he’s been solid. We just need to win games. Ultimately I don’t know if that’s going to be Clarke or Fisher, but I’m waiting for one of them to kinda step up and take the one slot. It’s wide open right now.”

While the coach is now accepting applications for consistent goaltending and a few top-flight centers, the team plays on, searching for its ultimate identity.

Five Minutes from Freedom

That’s how close Rensselaer was to ditching its albatross: five minutes. Well, 4:36, to be exact. The frustrated Engineers finally looked ready, willing, and able to make a run at it, to give this season the ol’ college try. Then Shea Guthrie happened.

“We were close to kinda turning the corner,” described RPI head coach Seth Appert. “We were within a game of .500 in the league, and we’re leading Clarkson with under five minutes to go on the road, and playing very good. Then Clarkson made a nice play to tie it, and got an overtime goal, and for whatever reason that’s kind of jolted our young men’s confidence and we haven’t maybe played with the same swagger since.”

The loss, 4-3 at Cheel Arena on Jan. 24, was the first of four straight defeats for Appert’s team. It came on the heels of a wild and wooly 7-6 OT win over St. Lawrence the night prior, in which the Engineers came back from 2-1 and 5-3 deficits (the latter in the third period), but also blew 3-2 and 6-5 leads. (SLU’s game-tying goal came with 11 seconds left in regulation, but only 38 ticks after RPI had gone ahead.)

RPI’s survival skills in Canton were meant to breed confidence and energy, and the Saturday tilt against Clarkson in Potsdam was destined to be the proof that the Engineers were a team to be reckoned with … that Friday was no fluke. Alas, the best-laid plans, and all that.

“We’ve played adequately well since, in the three losses, but we’ve made some mistakes in critical junctures of the three games, where we weren’t making as many of those when we were playing well in Quinnipiac, Princeton, Colgate, Cornell, St. Lawrence and Clarkson,” said Appert. “I think those are the games where we played real good hockey. We put ourselves in position to win every one of those games. [Now] our psyche is not quite as strong and our belief in how to play in those big situations has kinda been a little bewildered and we just need to get back to that.

“We’ve had nine games in league since Christmas, and in every one of those games we’ve put ourselves in a real good position to win. We haven’t won, you know, we’re 3-5-1, but the first half of the season we were getting out-shot dramatically in a lot of games. In the second half of the season, we’ve out-shot our opponents in a majority of the games, or if we haven’t, it’s been pretty close in the shots-on-goal. We’re making good strides in our overall team play, but there’s some critical moments and some special-team moments where our maturity or our poise under fire comes unglued a little bit.”

The current problem facing the program is a decided lack of offense. Apart from the lunacy at St. Lawrence, the Engineers have only scored six goals in five of their last six games.

“There’s no tangible changes [to be made],” he said. “I think we’re playing pretty good hockey. Union’s averaging 35 or 36 shots a game in league play this year, and we held them to 39 shots on the weekend. So we’re doing a lot of good things, but from an offensive perspective, I think we need to get back to being a little bit better in transition, and attacking the net better. We just have not attacked as well, we haven’t been as good on the rush or on the transition and that’s usually a strength of ours when we’re playing pretty good hockey.

“On top of that our power play had been a lot better in the six games leading up to these last three and this weekend our power play was ineffective, so we need to do a better job of teaching and preparing and getting our young men in position to have success on the power play.”

The coach doesn’t feel that wholesale changes are necessary to get the ‘Tute back on track. The problem, he believes, is the same kind of issue that most individuals struggle with every day: balance.

“I think if you wait around life passes you by, and success passes you by. By no means are we pleased with where we’re at; if we look at our second half, I think we should be 5-3-1, instead of 3-5-1, minimum. A couple tough overtime losses to Union, to Clarkson, in games that we played very well … you know, we’re down 3-2 to Dartmouth with 10 minutes to go in the third period, we make some mistakes that let the game slip away from us. We outshoot Union by a 2-1 margin at home, yet we take too many penalties in the second period.

“So it’s not just sitting around and letting things happen, but we need to come back to practice this week, try to regain a little bit of the confidence and that swagger and understanding of when we play our best, we do these things. And for us, its definitely being a fast, physical, attacking team, both from an offensive and defensive perspective. I think we’re doing those things more often defensively right now, but it’s an interesting balance on our team right now.

“Sometimes when we’re very good offensively, we’re loose defensively and when we’re real good defensively we seem to focus on defense and maybe don’t create enough [offense]. As we move through these last six games and into the playoffs, we need to find that balance of being a great defensive team like we were five-on-five this weekend. And then also being an aggressive, attacking offensive team at the same time, and we can do both, but we’ve got to keep working to find the balance between the two.”

One topic that the coach and I discussed a bit was the generally held belief that “you make your own luck”. That is, how the hot teams, the good teams, always appear to have that extra shot of good fortune, whereas the struggling squads can simply never seem to get a break.

“We have not made our own luck,” began Appert. “We still take too many penalties at critical junctures. Our systematic discipline has been very good, but for whatever reason … maturity, inexperience, lack of accountability to each other in the room … we take too many penalties at critical moments. A lot of them are well-intentioned, but maybe a little hyper or a little over-aggressive or what it might be and those are things we need to get out of our game, because that’s how you create your own luck: by making opponents earn what they get.

“Credit to Union, their special teams were outstanding on Friday night, but we gave ’em two five-on-threes, and long five-on-threes — one was a two-minute, the other was 1:45. We gave them two opportunities to score in five-on-threes, and they capitalized on them. Their other goal was a five-on-four.

“That’s how you don’t create your own luck. That’s a very key element for us, because right now we’re a very good five-on-five team that seems to at least play with, if not out-play, our opponents five-on-five, but we definitely need to improve our special teams.”

Losing plays into bad luck in some ways, but most of what at first glance appears to be general misfortune is in fact a lack of confidence, according to Appert.

“A lot of it’s belief, a lot of it’s confidence. I think we had more odd-man rushes than Union on Saturday night, but when you’re struggling, when your confidence is down a little bit, we had probably three odd-man rushes and three or four plays on the power play with talented players having the puck, that had plays to be made: either back-door plays or two-on-ones where we hold it and be a little too methodical with it where we probably could’ve scored. Credit to Union for defending them properly, but also I believe that whenever you’re struggling, for whatever reason, sometimes your confidence with the puck is the first thing to go. So now instead of just playing an aggressive, instinctive game, sometimes you can become hesitant on the ice, and I think we saw that from an offensive perspective on Saturday.”

It’s about players having the patience and confidence to find the subtle, developing plays, instead of just “blasting it into the shinpads,” he said.

On the plus side, the fourth-year Trojan is very pleased with how his team is maturing physically.

“We’re becoming very physical, and that’s good, that’s where we need to be. It was like a Steelers-Ravens football game on Saturday; it was a war. It wasn’t a pretty hockey game, but in terms of physical intensity, that game was outstanding. And so I think you create your own luck by doing those things and by not giving your opponents easy goals, easy opportunities, and situations where they don’t have to work for their chances.”

“I’ve never put a definition on ‘earning your own luck’, but I guess when you play disciplined and play aggressive and physical and you’re a tough team to play against, usually good things follow you,” he figured.

Stejskal Suspended

Dartmouth’s Joe Stejskal has been suspended for Friday’s home game against Cornell. The sophomore defenseman hit Yale’s Sean Backman into the end boards following Backman’s empty-net goal in the Bulldogs’ 3-1 win last Saturday, setting off a fierce 10-man melee that resulted in 46 penalty minutes.


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