â€Rise and Shine, Itâ€™s Playoff Timeâ€
Thatâ€™s how Elmira coach Tim Ceglarski greeted me when we talked early on Tuesday morning. It may have been the case of too many cups of coffee, but he definitely has a point.
It is time for playoff hockey in the ECAC West and teams either win or see their season come to an end. Semifinal action is on tap this Saturday.
No. 1 Elmira Soaring Eagles vs. No. 4 Neumann Knights
Elmira won the ECAC West regular season title for the second year in a row. The Soaring Eagles secured the crown Friday night when they eked out a tie against Utica and then saw that Hobart and Manhattanville had also deadlocked.
â€œOur guys deserve a ton of credit for two years in a row finishing in first place, especially having graduated two All-Americans and 60 some points on the blue line last year,â€ said Ceglarski.
But like last year, the final week of the regular season was not kind to the Soaring Eagles as Elmira tied and lost to Utica. Teams try to get on a roll at the end of the year so they have momentum entering the playoffs, but it isnâ€™t quite what happened to Elmira last week.
â€œFriday night, I thought both teams didnâ€™t really come out and play that well early on,â€ said Ceglarski. â€œWe played great for the last 30 minutes of the game, but Utica is a hardworking team and you canâ€™t only play 30 minutes against them and expect to win. We had guys with the flu and injuries and everything else last week.
â€œI wouldnâ€™t say stumbling but we definitely are coming in to the playoffs through the back door a little bit. We arenâ€™t going into the playoffs the way we would like but I still think we are a very fast skating and hardworking team.â€
Neumann defeated a tough Utica team Wednesday night, 4-3, in the ECAC West First Round. Utica controlled play for much of the first two periods, building a 3-1 lead by 15:37 into the second period. But after a flat start to the game, Neumann kept plugging away until the third period, at which point they took control of the contest, dominating shots on goal 12-1 in the third period and scoring a pair of goals to win the game.
â€œWe came out flat,â€ said Neumann coach Dominick Dawes. â€œ[Utica] came out and did what [coach] Gary [Heenan] wanted them to do which was get in our face and play physical. From the first period to the third period we improved and got better. We got a little better and a little better. From the first shift of the third period, we were all over them.â€
The victory kept the Neumann season alive for another game, this time only three days later at Elmira on Saturday. That quick turn-around doesnâ€™t give the Knights much time to review tape and make a game plan, but that shouldnâ€™t matter as these two teams are very familiar with each other.
Elmira and Neumann have met four times already this season, three times in league play and once at the Times-Argus Invitational tournament. Elmira holds a 3-0-1 advantage over the Knights, but in a one game playoff anything can happen this weekend.
â€œIt is good to get right back out there and get going,â€ said Dawes. â€œI think the guys like that. [Elmira has] had our number for the most part this year. Last time they beat us pretty good. Weâ€™re going to have to go in there and work hard, play like we did in the third period on Wednesday night.â€
Elmiraâ€™s strength all season has been its team speed, a trait the Soaring Eagles have used successfully against most other teams. The only time they got out-skated this season was against No. 1 ranked Plattsburgh back in late October.
â€œOur overall team speed is far and away the best it has ever been,â€ said Ceglarski. â€œOur team speed is there. We have a lot of youth and energy on our team with nine freshmen who are contributing almost every night.â€
Scoring has been a strength all season for Neumann. Averaging 4.46 goals per game, the Knightsâ€™ potent offense currently ranks eighth in the country.
â€œOur offense has scored a lot of goals this year,â€ said Dawes. â€œWe have to continue to chip away, score goals, and do all the little things that have helped us score goals.â€
Elmiraâ€™s offensive output isnâ€™t far behind Neumannâ€™s, though, averaging 4.40 goals per game and 11th nationally. It could be quite the shootout in the Thunderdomes on Saturday night.
No. 2 Manhattanville Valiants vs. No. 3 Hobart Statesmen
It was about as even as it could get last weekend at the Playland Ice Casino in Rye, NY. Hobart and Manhattanville played 130 minutes of hockey but settled nothing, as they skated to a pair of 1-1 ties.
â€œIt was great hockey,â€ said Hobart coach Mark Taylor. â€œThe officiating went well. You had two teams trying to get first place without screwing things up. Thatâ€™s why [they] ended up as tied games.â€œ
Official shots on goal were close in the first game, but Saturdayâ€™s contest gave an advantage of 46-23 to Manhattanville. However, the shots on goal recorded on the official score sheet donâ€™t necessarily reflect what happened on the ice.
â€œI saw the shot total after the second game and I donâ€™t buy that for a second,â€ said Manhattanville coach Keith Levinthal. â€œI didnâ€™t see the game that way. We might have had a couple more shots, but the game was very even back and forth. They were two really good hockey games, hard fought, right down to the last second, could have gone either way. Hobart is a very good team, very fast with great goaltending. It is as close as you can get to a series in college hockey.â€
With the pair of ties, Manhattanville and Hobart also tied for second place in the league standings. However, the Valiants defeated Hobart 3-1 on December 6 and win the head-to-head tiebreaker to earn the No. 2 seed in the playoffs.
As the No. 3 seed, Hobart returns to Playland this Saturday but this time it is a single elimination semifinal playoff game. The sparring matches last weekend were just a warm-up to playoff hockey. This Saturday itâ€™s for real, but donâ€™t expect either team to change much.
â€œHobart came in as advertised,â€ said Levinthal. â€œBoth teams have a certain way they play. We play a certain sort of trapping system and they do certain things too. As much as Saturday was a hard fought game, boy was it an ugly game. They refused to pass pucks up the middle and we refused to pass it around their forecheck. It was back and forth that way. The two games really didnâ€™t do anything but setup the next game. It was a pretty good draw.â€
â€œThere are some things we did that we thought cost us goals,â€ added Taylor. â€œWeâ€™ll make a few adjustments there. But for the most part, if you play two 1-1 ties on the road, youâ€™re not doing too many things wrong. Itâ€™s a fine line wanting to come away with a win, but in playoff hockey you canâ€™t shoot yourself in the foot.â€
Manhattanville has been on a roll for most of the season, going 15-1-5 in its last 21 games. The Valiants have been scrappy at times as 14 of those games were decided by two goals or less. Some might call that playing to the level of your opponent, but in Manhattanvilleâ€™s case it is more akin to finding a way to win no matter what circumstances arise in a game.
â€œRegardless who we have played, we have found a way to raise our level to what it needs to be against the opponent that we are playing,â€ said Levinthal. â€œWe have only lost one in our last 21 NCAA games. We have played a wide range of teams and have almost identical scores in almost all of our games. This group refuses to give in. They have been pretty defiant. When it comes time to get it done, they find a way to get it done on multiple occasions even when you thought we couldnâ€™t do it.â€
Goaltender Keith Longo has been stellar in net for Hobart all season long. The senior leads the league with a 93.4% save percentage and has set several school goaltending records this season and throughout his collegiate career.
The Statesmen players have another strength that isnâ€™t quite as obvious but is equally important in the playoffs.
â€œThereâ€™s no question one of our strengths is Longo between the pipes,â€ said Taylor. â€œHeâ€™s made me look like a pretty good coach for four years. I also like the intent of the group. I like what is in the guyâ€™s heads, what they want to get done, and how they are going about it. There is stuff within a team that binds you pretty tight and that is one of the strongest things you can have.â€
It should be a barn burner of a playoff game between Manhattanville and Hobart on Saturday, but donâ€™t be surprised if it takes extra time to determine a winner.
Late last week, Hobart senior Ryan Adler was named as one of 10 finalists for the Bank of New York Mellon Hockey Humanitarian Award. This is the second year in a row that Adler received such an honor.
The Hockey Humanitarian Award is given annually to college hockeyâ€™s finest citizen. Adler is one of four repeat finalists, and one of four Division III players who were named as finalists.
The winner will be announced on Friday, April 10, as part of the Frozen Four festivities held in Washington, DC.