This Week in ECAC Hockey: Feb. 19, 2009

Here’s how I’d analyze my preseason predictions at this juncture:

1. Princeton: not a bad pick, though the Tigers haven’t been as consistently dominant as I’d expected.
2. Cornell: if anything, I may have sold the Big Red short in my mind. They just seemed like Princeton’s default runner-up, when they’ve been anything but.
3. Yale: apparently picking the Bulldogs third wasn’t gutsy enough!
4. Clarkson: which came first, the injuries or the dysfunction? It was tough to see this disappointment coming.
5. Harvard: this team is immensely bipolar, and yet I’m only a spot off somehow.
6. Union: two spots too high for the surprisingly goal-happy Dutchmen. Too bad “goal-happy” refers to a love of all goals, not just their own.
7. Quinnipiac: a +15 league goal differential, and all you have to show for it is a .500 record? The Bobcats ought to be singlehandedly wrecking my poll.
8. St. Lawrence: I’ll confess, I didn’t see the second-most-potent offense in the league when I looked at the Saints last fall.
9. Rensselaer: more or less on target, for whatever that’s worth.
10. Colgate: same.
11. Dartmouth: my single biggest blunder. Not that there’s a lesson to be learned here … unless it’s “don’t doubt Bob Gaudet,” or something like that.
12. Brown: sigh.

On to the insights.

What We Know

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

• Yale has earned a first-round bye.
• Princeton will finish with home ice at worst.
• Cornell and Dartmouth have locked themselves into top-nine finishes.
• St. Lawrence can’t finish worse than 10th, but also can’t finish first.
• Quinnipiac, Harvard and Union are also locked out of first, but won’t finish last either.
• Clarkson can end up anywhere between third and 11th.
• Rensselaer is no longer in the running for a bye week.
• Colgate will finish no higher than seventh.
• Brown cannot finish higher than 10th.

Relevant tiebreakers thus far:
H2H = head-to-head, W = wins

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

My New Third-Favorite Website

Thanks to the USCHO.com Fan Forum, I was clued into the existence of PlayoffStatus.com. I will say right away that I haven’t heard from the site yet regarding how it arrives at its figures, but for the sake of a really cool reference, I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.

Not only does the site compute the odds of a team finishing in any given spot in the standings, but also the chances of each team advancing in the playoffs, or even the games that are most critical to each individual team’s hopes of climbing the standings.

Magic numbers, clinching and elimination situations, all sorts of hypotheticals … I’m not sure how often the site is updated, or to what extent, as the strength-of-schedule page has me skeptical. But regardless, even if it’s not perfect, it’s certainly intriguing. Go ahead, get lost in an hour or two of productivity-sapping theoreticals. I won’t spoil it by telling you how it ends.

‘Gate on the Upswing?

Let’s face it; this isn’t what Colgate had in mind back in October.

The Raiders started the season with three straight wins, and 4-1-0 after five games. Since then, the ‘Gate has been a rusty and unreliable 5-15-5. Hamilton Hockey has more non-conference wins (five) than ECAC victories (four), but with four more games on the table, the Maroon & Gray have the soldering irons out and a couple of industrial-strength locks in hand.

It’s time to build a stronger ‘Gate.

“We could feel pretty good about a win against a very good team at Dartmouth. I thought we played okay at Harvard, so we’re feeling okay about where we are,” said head coach Don Vaughan. “Obviously it’s been disappointing that we haven’t been able to pick up some more points and put ourselves in a little better position to take a run at the bye, or at least assure ourselves of home ice in the first round, but it is what it is. We’ve faced a lot of adversity, and we’re trying to keep things moving forward and keep hope alive.”

The Raiders have already played 12 overtime games, a taxing number on an already burdened squad. Their record stands at 3-4-5 in those extra sessions, and 7-8-5 in all close/one-goal games. With two-thirds of their outcomes in doubt with a minute remaining, Colgate is becoming stronger at playing to the horn and paying attention to the details.

“We have to focus on our game, and continue to take care of the little things because really at the end of the day, that’s what’s hurt us this year. We’ve been in a lot of very close games, and a lot of overtime games, and we haven’t come out on the positive end of enough of those,” said Vaughan. “I think easily, at times, we could’ve felt sorry for ourselves, in some cases maybe thrown in the towel, but we haven’t done that. We’ve continued to battle — and I’ve been pleased with that — and that’s what we have to continue to do here down the stretch.”

Raider Nation may have been surprised to see freshman goalie Bryan Bessette between the pipes recently. After manning the bench door for the first half of the season, Bessette slowly earned some mop-up time in games against Lake Superior State and St. Lawrence in January.

Then, all of a sudden, he’s out there for the drop of the puck against Quinnipiac two Saturdays ago.

“We really tried to shake things up. We were in a position where we really felt we had to try and do something to turn the tables after a tough loss in here against Princeton — again, in a game where I thought we played pretty well,” explained the coach.

“We lost to one of the best teams in the country in overtime, and at that point it was, hey, we’ve gotta try to do something to jolt the team, and get them to focus on something other than maybe another tough loss. Bryan’s worked very hard, hasn’t been given a whole lot of opportunities. He’s well-liked and a positive influence in the locker room and more than anything I was trying to get the guys to rally around him. So we came back with him on Saturday against Quinnipiac and he played great (giving up two goals on 35 shots). He was a little nervous early on, but he got a great overtime win for us, so the feeling in the locker room was that he got a nice win for us in overtime, we should give him another opportunity.”

That opportunity came last Friday, in Colgate’s 3-2 loss at Harvard. Vaughan praised Bessette for his efforts, and certainly didn’t hold the rookie responsible for the loss. However, Colgate’s helmsman played junior Charles Long in Saturday’s follow-up game at Dartmouth.

Going with the team’s only experienced goaltender proved to be the right call, as Long blanked the Big Green on 28 shots … including 14 in the third period of the Raiders’ 1-0 win. As for this weekend’s go-to goalie , Vaughan doesn’t figure there’s much of a debate.

“Charles is coming off probably one the best performances he’s ever had in a Colgate uniform, so I’d say that decision’s pretty easy. We’d love for one of these guys to really step up and put a couple really good games back-to-back, but we’re hoping that Charles — and I expect that he will — will come out and have a good game, and that’ll make my decision easy for Saturday.”

Up front, the Raiders have been led all season long by the dynamic duo of David McIntyre and Austin Smith. They’ve been complemented by a soupçon of Brian Day, and between them they account for 59 percent of Colgate’s goals.

“Those three guys have really carried this team … and on top of that, they’re three very dynamic and very good hockey players. David McIntyre is as good right now as anybody we’ve seen this year; he’s really on top of his game. He’s made a commitment to making himself into a better player,” lauded Vaughan, who specifically noted ‘Mac’s attention to defense and becoming a “more complete player.”

The coach made sure to mention an oft-overlooked forward, who in his third year has been a dependable source of energy for the Raiders. A regular on the penalty-kill, he has been as tenacious for his team as he has been inconspicuous to the fans.

“Ethan Cox has had a very steady year for us, even though he hasn’t put up the big numbers,” Vaughan said.

One of Colgate’s biggest issues this year has been the health — or lack thereof — of its blueline. Sophomore Kevin McNamara has missed the entirety of the campaign (and will be redshirted), and classmate Wade Poplawski blew out his knee in Denver in November, rendering him persona-non-playable as well.

“Defense has really been one area where we’ve probably had to be a little unfair to guys, simply because we don’t have a lot of depth,” sighed the coach, who has had to play forwards like Peter Bogdanich and Nick Prockow on D when the roster wears thin.

Vaughan also stated that he’d prefer to play Nick St. Pierre less, but is forced to ride his minute-munching workhorse in numerous high-leverage situations. Vaughan entertained speculation that perhaps the team is in a chasing-its-tail sort of paradox: the team feels it has to compensate for its defensive shortcomings, thereby short-changing its offense. But while the revamped rearguard is a known problem, the sputtering offense hasn’t gotten a free pass from its coach.

“We still need to do a better job of playing in the high-traffic areas. It’s hard to score goals anymore, but if you’re not willing to get into the slot … or what we call the red zone, those high traffic areas, you’re not going to be very successful offensively. That’s where goals are scored [these days], you’ve got to find a way to get in there and get your nose dirty. And we need to do a better job of that, there’s no ifs, ands, or buts, or any ways around that.”

The odds practically assure that the Raiders will play on the road for as long as they are in the playoffs. With their last two regular season home games coming this weekend, there’s no time like the present for this ‘Gate to prove its mettle.

Got Their Heads On Straight

Paul Stewart is not a man of subtlety. That said, if ECAC Hockey had wanted a demure, democratic head of officiating, it wouldn’t have hired Paul Stewart.

The league is, to the best of my knowledge, the only collegiate conference in the nation to mandate that its on-ice officials wear visors.

“It’s not a rule. It’s a requirement,” stated Stewart.

In light of Scott Hansen’s horrific injury in the Beanpot finals two weeks ago, it simply makes sense. In case you weren’t watching the Hockey East affair, referee Hansen was hit square in the face by a puck that had taken an odd carom off the glass following a slapshot, ’round-the-net clearing attempt.

Hansen went down in a hurry, and was visibly agonizing as he covered his face with his hands. He was taken to Massachusetts General Hospital, where he received 40 stitches and treatment for broken facial bones around his right eye.

Visors won’t protect against everything, but they would’ve likely prevented much, if not all, of Hansen’s injury.

“There’s some curiosity as to how I’m able to do it,” said Stewart, “and it’s, to me, a standard part of equipment. I’m responsible for the work of the officials on the ice, and I also assign the games. So if you choose not to wear a visor, that’s your choice. But I don’t have to assign you, either.”

The decree is new, but not for this season. Stewart enacted his order after friend and former NHL linesman Pat Dapuzzo took an inadvertent skate to the face in a game last year. Stewart, a long-time official (and one-time Penn hockey player and professional tough-guy), played most of his career without even a helmet, much less a visor … but he says that he’d never allow himself to be so vulnerable today.

“A lot of people feel I’m hypocritical because I didn’t wear a helmet. But I’ve been retired since 2003, and in those six years, the game has changed so that players now are using composite sticks, the glass is higher, the whole style of play and what’s coached to the players is such that it’s nearly impossible for an official to remain safe on the ice. So I don’t want to accept the responsibility [of putting] amateur officials on the ice, having them receive grievous injury to their face — potentially even get killed — and not taking what I would assume would be a common-sense approach to what officiating is supposed to be,” he said.

“It was at one time initially considered to be a piece of equipment that demonstrated a lack of courage, and I think we’re well past that attitude. If I was back on the ice officiating, I’d wear a helmet and a visor,” he added.

Not that he could ever be accused of following the crowd, Stewart nonetheless cited higher leagues doing exactly what he did.

“Further, I’m following the lead of the American Hockey League, which has the same attitude about this type of equipment.”

“Two of my very dear friends, both National Hockey League officials, both full-time professional officials with the best medical plans in the world, were nearly killed on the ice. One last year, and one two years ago,” said Stewart, referring to Don Van Massenhoven and the aforementioned Dapuzzo.

“All [the ECAC’s] guys are policemen, and salesmen, and truck drivers … and they all have families and kids. It doesn’t make very good sense to not protect them.”

He’s not always diplomatic, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong. Kudos to Stewart for focusing on what really matters, every single day.

Dutch Gets Buzzed

Another big shout-out goes to Union defenseman Mike Wakita and Dutchwomen head coach Claudia Asano. While the rest of the league dons pink ties, jerseys, scarves or stick-wraps, they went the extra mile to honor lost loved ones, and patients currently battling cancer.

Wakita and Asano donated nearly 10 inches of hair apiece to Pantene Beautiful Lengths on Wednesday. After growing their hair out for months, they finally had much of it cut for the benefit of women who were not only suffering from cancer on the inside, but on the outside as well.

The program will make wigs from the locks, and in turn donate those to the American Cancer Society’s regional chapter. Check out the photo gallery, and be sure to give them each a heartfelt cheer. Even if you are rooting against them on the scoreboard, we should all be solidly with them in our hearts.

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