This Week in ECAC Hockey: Feb. 26, 2009

Those of you who put Yale above Princeton and Cornell in your preseason picks, please raise your hands.

The rest of you: look around for anyone with his or her hand up; don’t bother asking them to watch your house while you’re on vacation.

What We Know

With only four points left on the table, here’s what the teams are playing for.

• Yale, Princeton and Cornell have locked up top-three finishes.
• St. Lawrence and Dartmouth will finish between fourth and eighth.
• Harvard and Quinnipiac may end up anywhere between fourth and ninth.
• Union will land in a fifth through ninth seed.
• Clarkson has six options, finishing between fifth and 10th.
• Colgate will finish no higher than ninth, but won’t finish last.
• Rensselaer is destined to finish 10th or 11th.
• Brown will be the 12th seed.

Relevant tiebreakers thus far:
H2H = head-to-head, W = wins, T4 = versus top four

• Yale holds no pertinent advantages.
• Princeton holds no pertinent advantages.
• Cornell holds no pertinent advantages.
• Dartmouth beats Union (HH) and Clarkson (W).
• St. Lawrence beats Quinnipiac (T4).
• Harvard beats Dartmouth (HH), St. Lawrence (HH), Clarkson (HH).
• Quinnipiac beats Clarkson (HH).
• Union beats Colgate (HH).
• Clarkson beats St. Lawrence (HH).
• Colgate beats Clarkson (HH).
• Rensselaer holds no pertinent advantages.
• Brown is stuck in 12th.

Meaningless Numbers

Looking once more at PlayoffStatus.com, we see who controls their own destiny and who needs a little help. In the first edition of this week’s column, I erroneously reported that neither St. Lawrence nor Dartmouth controlled its own fate in the hunt for fourth … however, an astute reader (with my cell phone number) pointed out that I’m in the wrong on that one.

The actual oddity is that the site appears to be incorrect, giving neither team the green-tinted percentage for the final first-round bye, when in fact it should go to Dartmouth.

This is because while the teams split the season series, if the Big Green win out they will finish with 12 wins, while the Saints can only max out at 11. They could easily end up deadlocked at 24 points, with identical 10-8-4 records,however. The tiebreaker that usually ends the need for further tiebreakers, in that case, is to compare records against ECAC Hockey’s top four regular season teams. Just FYI, St. Lawrence is 3-2-1 against the top trio of Yale, Princeton and Cornell. Dartmouth is 2-3-0 and playing Princeton on Friday, but even a win there wouldn’t be enough to send the tandem into a fourth-tiebreak scenario (record versus the top eight). So while Dartmouth has the edge for now, St. Lawrence still holds an edge should the Green fail to win both games this weekend.

According to the site, the team with the most variability is Quinnipiac. That makes sense, since the Bobcats could theoretically be passed by two teams currently beneath them, or likewise leapfrog three teams ahead of them. Harvard would appear to be in a similar purgatory, until you recall the tiebreakers: of the five teams QU could end up tied with in points, they hold a single advantage. For the Crimson, however, ties wouldn’t be so bad: they hold three key tiebreakers, giving them a potential push up in the final standings, should they need it.

And Speaking of Quinnipiac …

… the Hamden Six have had a trying winter, and it’s only getting tougher in the absence of Mr. Everything Brandon Wong. Rumors circulated earlier this week about the jack-of-all-trade junior’s impending return for the first round of the playoffs, but alas, the scuttlebutt only went to prove that you can’t believe everything that you read.

“I wish that were true, but as of right now, we don’t know,” said head coach Rand Pecknold. “He will not play this weekend. I think if we make it to the second round, we’ll get him back. I’d say right now, my guess would be — and I’m just guessing — that he’s not going to play in the first round.”

The team that started the year a bit sluggish, only winning two of its first seven, woke up in a hurry in mid-November. Quinnipiac went 9-2-1 between November 14 and January 9, upending St. Lawrence, Dartmouth and Air Force along the way. The ‘Cats then won a couple more, but also lost a couple.

Then Wong got hurt.

“I wouldn’t agree that we’ve been all over the map all year,” assessed Pecknold. “I think we’ve been inconsistent at times during the year — we’ve had good stretches and bad stretches. Since the Wong injury we’re 2-6-1, and it’s been a train wreck, but I don’t think the whole year’s been like that. I think there’s no question that we’re in trouble since Brandon Wong went down. [We’ve won] two games out of nine, and we were pretty good before that. We are a markedly better team with Wong in the lineup. We’ve struggled; it’s been frustrating.

“We’re trying different things, but obviously it’s not working. It’s hurt our power play, it’s hurt our scoring; because you’ve got to move kids up to replace him it’s hurt our secondary scoring. It’s hurt our defensive play, faceoffs, penalty kill … he does everything, and you can’t replace a player like that. We’ve tried different kids, but we’re not deep enough to offset a loss like that.”

Another loss that didn’t ultimately seem to derail the team was the temporary withdrawal of freshman goalie Nick Pisellini. After putting up national-caliber numbers in the first half, the early Rookie of the Year candidate elected to take a leave of absence from QU in order to spend more time with his ailing father back home. As of yet, it is unknown when — or if — the sterling young puckstop will return to southwestern Connecticut.

“I spoke to him last week … but there’s no news on that front,” said the coach. “I’m not sure what’s going to happen.”

In his stead, fellow freshman Dan Clarke and stalwart senior Bud Fisher have proven to be equal parts terrific and terrible. Neither has been able to hold the .900 mark in save percentage, nor keep his goals-against average below 2.5. That said, Fisher had one of his best performances of his career in relief of Clarke in Friday’s 3-3 tie with Yale, stopping 29 of 30 shots in over 52 minutes of work. Clarke has proven that he has the ability to come up big as well, holding Air Force to two goals on 31 shots in his first-ever start, and blanking Dartmouth on 19 shots five days later.

As such, Pecknold has no inclination about who will be playing this weekend at Harvard and Dartmouth. His biggest concern at the moment is getting his most experienced charges, Fisher included, on the kind of productive, easy-flowing roll that they once knew.

“Honestly right now, I need to get my seniors back on track and focused. A majority of them are struggling right now, and when you have that many seniors (nine, all earning regular playing time), you expect them to play well down the stretch.”

That stretch looks destined to ship the Bobcats away from the cozy confines of their TD BankNorth Sports Center. It’s not exactly adding insult to injury for this team; if there’s one thing that Quinnipiac has going for it, it’s experience in not only playing away from home in the playoffs, but winning away from home.

“It’s nice (to play at home), but we’ve won on the road in the playoffs before. We swept Cornell a couple years ago, swept RPI a couple years ago, so we’ve shown that we can win on the road in the playoffs,” said Pecknold.

Just for one final jab in a new year saturated with foul luck, the veteran helmsman is faced with the prospect of playing a short bench in the upcoming weekend. First, three key players — leading goal-scorer David Marshall, second-leading goal-scorer Eric Lampe, and leading defensive scorer Zach Hansen — were handed game disqualifications for their participation in a scrum at the end of Saturday’s loss to Brown. Neither Pecknold nor Brown head coach Roger Grillo really felt that all the DQs were necessary, but NCAA rules state that disqualifications can not be minimized; if the ref calls ’em, so shall they stand (unless the officials finger the wrong culprit; more on that later).

Each of these players therefore has to sit out Friday’s game, but will be eligible for Saturday’s. Simultaneously, a handful of Bobcats are nursing some pains that go beyond the standard bumps and bruises, and Pecknold is forced to wait and cross his fingers.

“Ultimately whatever happens, we’ll have to deal with it,” he said of the playoffs, “and right now I can’t worry about that; I’m trying to put enough players on the ice to play Friday night,” he sighed.

“If we played today,” he said Wednesday, “I’d have 15.”

The Tough Questions

With the Bears already locked into last place, this weekend is no longer about the points in the standings. It’s about figuring out how to win in two weeks, when Bruno travels to whichever school finishes fifth.

“We wanna win our last two games, and make sure we’re moving in the right direction — which I feel we are — and make sure we’re playing our best hockey at this time of the year,” said coach Roger Grillo. “There’s not a huge difference between teams, so I think [of it as] giving us an opportunity to continue to play hockey. And that’s what our goal is; it’s to go as deep as we can, and put our best foot forward and play our best hockey at this time of the year.”

The 12th-year coach, all at Brown, said that he likes what he’s seen from his team of late.

“I think in our last three or four games, we’ve played really well. We’ve only won one of those, but we’ve certainly had opportunities to win. We’ve just gotta clean a few things up, and create a few more positive bounces for ourselves, and put ourselves in the winning column.”

Knowing one’s seed in the playoffs ahead of time might relieve a small amount of stress bred of uncertainty, but the Bears know that they’re bringing up the rear for a reason, and also know that nobody is going to look past them in the first round.

“I don’t think anybody is excited to play anybody,” said Grillo. “I think it’s a tough league, where anybody can win any given night, and I don’t think we’re going to sneak up on anybody. I don’t think guys are sitting around, looking at us in 12th, and going ‘oh geez, I can’t wait to play those guys.’ I just don’t think there’s a lot of difference between teams, and I’d feel the same way if I was on top of the league playing any one of the other teams at the bottom. There’s nobody that’s enjoyable or easy, or a team that you can take a night off on, because the quality of players and the quality of teams is too high.”

Like Quinnipiac, the Brown Bears are facing Friday’s opponent in an undermanned situation. While the Bobcats lost three players to game disqualifications in Brown’s 3-2 win against them on Saturday, so too did the Bears lose a trio for the Colgate game thanks to some final-horn fistic festivities.

The names originally penciled down on the Brown side were junior forward Aaron Volpatti, senior forward (and leading scorer) Matt Vokes, and senior defenseman Mike Stuart. After looking at the tape, all parties involved realized that Vokes was actually innocent in the matter, and that the intended culprit was in fact junior forward Jordan Pietrus.

The game ended with both teams being sent to their respective locker rooms without engaging in the customary handshake. This decision was made by the officials, not the coaches; in fact, the coaching staffs walked out to center ice to meet each other and exchange best wishes after the teams had cleared the sheet.

In any case, Grillo and QU’s Rand Pecknold agreed that the punishments may have been a bit heavy-handed.

“I don’t think there was anything that was malicious,” said Grillo. “In fact, I think that both groups of guys, both teams on the ice, handled it with a great deal of class. There’s no bitter feelings, no malicious stuff that took place. It was just emotion at the end of the game that got carried away.

“If you would see the tape of the altercation, you’d feel it wasn’t as bad as it looked on paper.”

Shifting the focus back to Brown, it’s been a surprise to many to see rookie goaler Mike Clemente tending the Providence pipes of late. The six-foot-two 19-year-old has started Bruno’s last five games, allowing 13 goals but stopping over 93 percent of shots faced. The highlight of his recent run was probably his two-goal, 41-save exhibition at Union, a game Brown lost 3-1.

“He has played the last handful of games, and he’s played well, so at this point he’s either given us an opportunity to win, or he’s won for us,” praised the coach. “For us, we feel as we have all along, that we have three quality goaltenders and whoever’s on top of their game at that particular time is going to play, and he’s been playing pretty well.”

Grillo professes that he doesn’t know who will play this weekend, saying all three “are in the mix.”

When it comes down to it, it’s clear that the Ocean State Ivy has had some serious issues this season … issues it will need to address and dismiss in a hurry if it hopes to advance in the ECAC tournament. Fortunately, the coach — who is strongly rumored to have earned a four-year contract extension — was not afraid to man up and answer some of his program’s burning questions.

“I don’t think we’ve been consistent,” he identified as this year’s biggest problem. “We’ve played well at times, [but] within games, even within periods we’ve had some inconsistency. I think when we’ve found that consistency, we’ve played so much better. One example’s the (Feb. 13) RPI game, where we’re playing pretty well on the road, and we have a minute and 15 seconds where we give up three goals. It’s these [snippets] of time where we make poor decisions or we take a bad penalty or we do something that ends up really coming back to haunt us in the win column, that’s something that we work really hard here down the stretch to try and clean up.”

While the previous statement sounds suspiciously like classic coach-speak, spinning any bad situation into something not quite so severe, there is actually a lot of truth in what Grillo said. The Bears are not the flat-out worst team in the league in any major category other than scoring defense (3.8 goals allowed per game).

True, the offense — scoring less than twice a game in league play — is tied for the weakest in the conference, but when looking at the component figures, Brown is merely below average or poor: It has taken fewer penalty minutes per game than Quinnipiac, Yale or RPI. Its power play has been better than four other teams’, including Princeton’s. The penalty-kill is 10th of 12. These numbers are indicative of a team better than Brown’s 3-14-3 league record.

Grillo feels that, and declares that his team is better than it’s shown on the charts. That said, he won’t avoid placing the blame for his team’s lackluster record, either.

“As head coach of the team, it’s all me. The bottom line is there’s nobody else to look at, that’s just part of the responsibility of being in the position and I have absolutely no problem with that,” he intoned.

Is it exceptionally difficult, personally, to be at the helm for a season like this, he was asked?

“Oh yeah, it always is. If you’re a competitive person, you want to win, and the bottom line is we’re not winning enough. So yeah, it makes it really difficult, and it makes it difficult for everybody involved in the program. It’s a hard pill to swallow when you’re not winning enough games.

“I’m certainly very disappointed with where we’re at in the win-loss columns, but pleased with the development of some of our guys and where our team’s at emotionally and mentally, and how we’re playing right now.”

In case some of you are from a younger generation of hockey fans, or — perhaps at the other end of the spectrum — if you don’t have much long-term memory left, Brown has not been a cellar-dweller for all that long. The team was ranked in 11 of USCHO.com’s 25 national polls in ’03-04, peaking at 11th in mid-February. (Keep in mind, this is when the poll was a top-15 affair, not the 20-team list it is today.) The Bears topped out at 10th in the USA Today/American Hockey Magazine poll on Feb. 3 of 2004 as well.

Goaltender Yann Danis, now stopping rubber for the New York Islanders, was a Hobey Baker finalist in the spring of ’04, and was also honored as ECAC Player and Goaltender of the Year. Teammate Brian Ihnacak was co-Rookie of the Year, and Scott Ford was named Defensive Defenseman of the Year.

All in all, this isn’t just a team filling a membership spot in ECAC Hockey. It has quite a lot of tradition, and as you can see, not all of it was photographed in black and white.

“We’ve got one guy playing in the NHL that nobody knew about, and he’s playing quite well, and we’ve got five guys playing in the AHL that only one of them was ever drafted,” said Grillo, who coached all of them.

“We’re about three and a half, four years removed from that [success]. It’s about getting a little bit deeper in certain spots, and cleaning up a few things and it’s not a big difference. I’ve been very impressed with [Yale, Princeton and Dartmouth]. I think they have great squads and they’re having great years. But I don’t think there’s a huge difference between the teams; I don’t think the difference between us and the top teams is that dramatic. It’s a very tight league, it’s a very competitive league; the league’s as strong as I’ve ever seen it, and we just happen to be at the wrong end of it right now, but we’re working hard to flip that around.”

The Ivies are among the most difficult schools to recruit for athletically, as the Ivy League schools do not offer athletic scholarships and have the most stringent acceptance standards in the nation. That said, sharp kids who play hockey all know that a quality education is the smart bet. Hockey credentials — your own or your program’s — are gravy. That is what Ivy League hockey offers: a powerful diploma to go along with a little NCAA hockey.

Brown may not be the most successful Ivy in the ECAC right now, but Grillo doesn’t sweat it.

“Every place has its pluses and minuses,” he said, “and you try to accentuate the positives and not dwell too much on the negatives. We certainly have some hurdles here, but as we’ve proven in the past, we can overcome them. It’s just going to take a lot of hard work. We’re committed to what we’re trying to do every year, and that’s win an ECAC championship. The record maybe doesn’t prove it, but I think we’re closer than maybe some people out there might want to believe.

“We were just there, it wasn’t that long ago where we were in the top-10 in the country. We had a Hobey Baker finalist. We had Rookie of the Years, and Player of the Years. It’s somewhat cyclical, and unfortunately right now we’re on the bottom end of a cycle, and I’m very confident that we’ll be on the top end of the cycle here soon.”

Princeton is Still Good

Just in case you’d forgotten about them in the midst of Yale’s run up the ladder, the Tigers are still a pretty darn good team.

They just beat Yale, for starters.

The second-place Stripes have an optimistic eye on first, finishing their annual improvement in the standings. Last season, Princeton finished second to Clarkson in the regular season, only to win the NCAA auto-bid and the Whitelaw Cup by beating Harvard in the tournament finals in Albany. They have a lot to be proud of already this season, and they have the experience and ability to make another run at the big prize again this year.

Senior forward Brett Wilson has picked up where classmate Lee Jubinville left off last season, leading the team in assists (14) and points (23). Wilson is actually the team’s only 20-point player, but that’s not a sign of a down year offensively for the Tigers: they have a dozen others with between 11 and 18 points so far.

One quirk about this team is its dominance on the road, whereas it has been merely solid at home. The Garden State Six is a stunning 9-1-0 away from campus, but 10-5-0 within the confines of Hobey Baker Rink. Last weekend marked the team’s first ECAC home weekend sweep of the year, believe it or not.

The team has managed to keep it clean throughout the ’08-09 campaign, taking the fewest penalty minutes per game of any team in the nation: 9.7. Combined with the country’s ninth-ranked penalty kill (87.5 percent), the Tigers have surrendered merely 14 goals in man-down situations. Factor in their six shorthanded goals, and you’ve got yourself a very difficult team to get an edge up on.

Some of the credit for those numbers can go to junior netminder Zane Kalemba. Last season’s Most Outstanding Player in the playoffs now boasts the country’s best goals-against average (1.58) and second-best save percentage (.939, one thousandth of a point behind Cornell’s Ben Scrivens).

As for historical markers, Princeton’s 20 wins are the program’s second-most ever, tying the ’98-99 team (20-12-2 under current UMass coach Don Cahoon), and only one shy of last year’s 21. Two of Princeton’s three 20 wins seasons were the last two years, a testament to the abilities of coach Guy Gadowsky and the allure of the Ivy League institution.

Speaking of Coach, he’s within a game of .500 for his Princeton career. Gadowsky’s record is currently 74-75-9 … very impressive, considering he was 21 games under .500 through his first two years, and is now 20 games over in his last two.

We’re With You in Principle

The first half of the Pink at the Rink games have come and gone, and for the teams who played at home last weekend, the unfortunately popular response seems to be “thank goodness.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big supporter of the cause and I’m proud of what this league has done in the past few years to benefit the American Cancer Society. I, like many, many others, have lost loved ones to cancer and in no way do I mean to belittle ECAC Hockey’s significant efforts on behalf of the ACC and cancer victims everywhere.

With the disclaimer out of the way, I present you with a few images that maybe the organizers should’ve considered before rolling out the specially designed PatR jerseys.

Princeton can sorta pull it off, since their uniforms are simply black and orange, but my sincere hope for future Pink events — on behalf of the fans, players, and even the benefit’s own dignity — is that Those In Charge can find a more palatable way to showcase auctionable items … and maybe avoid running such an event on Senior Night, as many teams elected to only wear the Pink sweaters on Friday, switching back to their familiar homes for the Saturday game and senior ceremonies. (St. Lawrence only wore their pink & blacks during warmups on Friday, as visiting Harvard forgot to bring their whites.)

Please go to ECAC Coaches vs. Cancer and bid for these jerseys though. Unless you only wear green pants, or brown ones with red vertical stripes, you’ll be able to pull these off better than your team did. They’ll be a heck of a conversation-starter in 10 or 20 years too, I bet.

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