This Week in ECAC Hockey: March 5, 2009

Lots to cover this week, boys and girls, so eyes up and notebooks open.

And you, spit out that gum.

Kick in the Teeth

Despite an exceedingly handicapped roster, Quinnipiac still managed to hang tough with Harvard on Friday night in Boston. The Bobcats, sans top scorers Brandon Wong (injury) and David Marshall, Eric Lampe and Zach Hansen (all assessed game disqualifications the previous Saturday), outshot the Crimson 28-25, drew one more power play than their hosts, and sure thought they’d earned the game-tying goal with only 1.6 seconds on the clock.

Junior forward Jean-Marc Beaudoin received a pass at the edge of goalie Ryan Carroll’s crease, and the puck clearly deflected off his skate and into the net. The question in most people’s minds was whether Beaudoin actually kicked the puck in or not.

However, this wasn’t the proper question, as it turns out.

Unbeknownst to myself and many others I talked to at the game, the rule on kicked-in goals no longer contains the infamous phrase, “distinct kicking motion.” This used to be the lone factor in deciding a goal’s legitimacy: did the offensive player bury the puck by make a distinct kicking motion toward the net, or did he merely redirect it, intentionally or otherwise?

Thanks to the ever-enlightening guidance of league Director of Officiating Paul Stewart, referee John Murphy made the proper call not because he saw Beaudoin kick the puck home, but because he intentionally maneuvered his skates. The new verbiage as it pertains to footy goals reads as follows:

“A goal shall not be allowed if the puck has been kicked or directed into the goal off an attacking player’s skate. When in doubt, the goal shall be disallowed. A goal shall be allowed if a puck deflects off an attacking player who is in the act of stopping.”

The amendment was made a point-of-emphasis in this year’s NCAA rule book, and the gist of it is that a player can still score if a puck banks off his skate, but he cannot deliberately redirect a puck in such a way. As Stewart put it, the guy pretty much has to stand there and let the puck hit him if he wants it to count.

The issue of scoring-by-skate is inherently imperfect. The Powers that Be — at all levels — don’t want to outlaw any goal that caroms off a blade outright, because sometimes those goals are scored without the “offending” forward’s deliberate intent and also because playing pucks with one’s skates is considered a “hockey skill,” as it is often phrased.

But by the same coin you can’t allow players to intentionally kick pucks goalward and expect to score. The risks of serious injury by razor-sharp blade are simply too great.

Thus hockey is stuck in a constant state of analysis and re-adjustment, rephrasing and re-emphasizing in what is ultimately a futile attempt to make black and white out of an infinite series of impossibly gray potentialities.

No. 12 Brown @ No. 5 Harvard

The basics: Harvard (9-7-6) and Brown (3-15-4) tied the season series with 3-3 and 1-1 draws. Crimson senior forward Steve Rolecek (3-6-9) is doubtful, while Brown plays without captain Devin Timberlake (4-4-8), who hasn’t played since January 3.

Brown has had a miserable season, as the record indicates, but has a way of giving teams fits by playing a physical brand of attrition hockey. The Bears don’t score much, but by this point it’s fair to say that that’s just their game … they play every contest like it’s a road playoff game. Their game will be to keep the score low, the pace slow, and give the opponent a good crunch at every opportunity.

Harvard enjoyed a modest February rebound after a catastrophic 0-9-4 winless trudge between mid-November and late January. (What’s often overlooked is that the slump was extended to 1-12-4 before the Crimson finally strung together some wins.) The Cambridge crew is 4-0-2 down the stretch, however, and has been putting home three goals a game pretty steadily for the last seven weeks. The Cantabs did not win a single non-conference game nor a game away from their home Bright Hockey Center, but do possess a 9-3-1 record on its friendly sheet. Discipline has been this team’s Achilles’ heel, taking inopportune penalties with inopportune frequency. Many of these players laced up for the league’s title game last March, but just because they’ve been there before doesn’t mean it will be any easier for this Jekyll-and-Hyde squad.

“I think anybody at this point of the season can get on a roll and play themselves into the next round,” said Brown head coach Roger Grillo, “and we’re hoping that we can take care of the things we need to take care of. The two games we played (against Harvard) this year were pretty solid games, were pretty even games; obviously they were both ties, and we’re hoping that we can take another step (from) those games.”

With all due respect to Grillo — I like him, I wouldn’t do this if I thought he’d mind — I’m going to call him out for what I suspect is a side of evasive coach-speak.

“They’re just a really solid team,” he said of the Crimson. “They’re really disciplined, they make good decisions with the puck; they’re not really a team that beats themselves and it’s not an easy feat. To beat a team like that you’ve got to be a little patient, you gotta play smart, you’ve got to play disciplined within your own game.”

The fact of the matter is that Harvard has had a maddeningly inconsistent year, and head coach Ted Donato has harped on his team’s inability to stay out of the box since day one.

I don’t think Grillo is ignorant of Harvard’s tendencies; not by a long shot. Rather, I imagine that he’s simply more concerned with getting his team to effectively play its own game than he is with trying to counter Harvard’s inconsistent strengths. He more or less affirmed my suspicions thereafter.

“At this point in the season, you’ve got to play to your strengths, try to eliminate your weaknesses, and try to exploit theirs. There aren’t many there, but it’s a situation where our games have been so close that it’s a shift here, a shift there, a bounce here, a bounce there, so you’ve just got to make sure you’re playing solid hockey and giving yourselves an opportunity to win.”

As for Brown’s focus, there’s no surprises here: Bruno’s hoping for a tough, tight, offensively opportunistic weekend by the Charles.

“I don’t know if we have a team that can take it to somebody,” Grillo said. “I think we have to be really solid defensively, I think we have to pick our spots, and special teams will be critical. Goaltending’s critical. [The playoffs are] a tough, tough battle.”

Speaking of goaltending, the Ocean State Ivy is banking on freshman Mike Clemente. The rookie stepped in when workhorse junior Dan Rosen started to struggle, and Clemente has posted an exceptional .921 save percentage in 14 appearances so far this year. He hasn’t surrendered more than one goal per 10 shots in his last five games, and has started 11 of Brown’s last 13 games.

“He’s played pretty well for us, and I think that right now he’s the guy,” confirmed Grillo.

While Grillo allowed that having tied Harvard twice probably gives his players some confidence entering the series, he warned against reading too much into the regular-season results.

“Sometimes you look at the matchups, and you try to go ‘geez, this will be a better fit’, but you don’t know. Teams change so much from weekend to weekend, and I think the biggest key is that the teams that finished up top are the teams that were most consistent from start to finish. I think other teams fluctuated, and unfortunately for us, a big part of our issue this year was inconsistency. That’s part of the reason we’re in the spot we’re in.

“But I think that of late, we’ve consciously worked hard on trying to play a much cleaner, better game from start to finish, and that’s what’s allowed us to be in these games, and will allow us to win games down the stretch,” he said.

No. 11 Rensselaer @ No. 6 Dartmouth

The basics: Dartmouth swept the season series with two 5-2 wins. The Engineers are expected to be healthy, with the exception of the long-term injury to frosh defenseman Mike Bergin. Second-year forward Andrew Owsiak (8-9-17) and junior forward Josh Gillam (2-4-6) are probables for Dartmouth, but third-year striker Rob Smith has been out all year.

Rensselaer and head coach Seth Appert are still awaiting the high-energy, up-tempo offensive game that the coach prefers to orchestrate; this year’s team just doesn’t have the dynamic talent to make that vision a reality. The ‘Tute has topped three goals just four times all year, and enters the postseason having scored only five times in its last five games. Appert deigned his defense “one of the better — if not the best — D-corps in the league, with a top goalie tandem” before the season began, but the woes in the offensive end have led to team-wide pressing, which has in turn led to defensive lapses. Despite a depressing record, the Trojan six has turned it up in recent weeks with better energy and a more deliberate and physical game. Belittle the offense all you like; it won’t spare you any bruises.

Dartmouth would easily rate as this season’s most surprising team, if it weren’t for that Blue Man Group from New Haven. The pack jumped out to a 5-2 start and an 8-4 record by New Year’s, but like many young teams began to struggle as the season’s minutes accumulated. The Big Green went 3-3-3 in January, then stumbled to a 3-5-0 result in February. The Green are offensively loaded, with 11 players boasting double-digit points overall and 17 goal-scorers, but one of their most noteworthy members has got to be rookie netminder Jody O’Neill. The freshman has started 28 games already, has made the most saves in the league (698 against the ECAC), and ranks fifth in the conference with a .928 league save percentage. It may not be the most veteran bunch, but sometimes overestimating the unknown can prove more motivating than properly assessing a known quantity.

As always, RPI head coach Seth Appert is a quality source for solid quotes. He doesn’t beat around the bush, he sees the game in a creative but comprehensible way, and as much as anything else, he’s extremely high-energy.

“There’s three areas where they’ve been very good,” he said of Dartmouth, diving right in. “One is in goal, and obviously Jody O’Neill’s had an outstanding freshman year, so we need to try to get to him. He’s given up quite a few more goals in the last month than he probably did in any previous time in his freshman year, so we’re going to need to continue to get on him, get to the net, get traffic on him, and make the game difficult on a young goaltender.”

The rough patch Appert referenced was O’Neill’s dirty-dozen weekend in the North Country two weeks back. In a busy 27 hours, the goalie ushered five Clarkson goals twineward, then another seven for St. Lawrence the following night in his — and many of his teammates’ — first-ever trip to the northernmost reaches of ECAC Hockey.

“I think the (other) two other areas that they’re very dangerous and a very talented team is in transition and then also on their power play,” Appert continued in an efficient, effervescent clip. “In transition they’re a very good rush team, they create a lot of offense on the rush, they activate their defensemen on the rush, and they’re a very, very talented and dangerous team if you’re going to give them three-on-twos, and four-on-threes, and two-on-ones, et cetera. We need to make sure we stop their transition game by taking care of the puck and being in good defensive position against them.

“And then obviously on the power play … our special teams have not been good this year. We need them to be this weekend, but we also want this series to be a five-on-five series. We want to be physical, we want to be aggressive — that’s when we play our best, when we’re aggressive and we’re physical — but at the same time we want this to be a five-on-five series. That plays to our advantage, to our strengths, if the power plays for both teams are five or under (per game).”

The Engineers allowed 29 of their 75 total league goals against on the penalty kill. Their 79.6 percent PK figure was worst in the league, and only two teams averaged more penalty minutes per game than the ‘Tute.

In goal, Appert has a critical decision to make. Senior Mathias Lange has had flashes of brilliance and even dependability this year, but has fallen on hard times in the second half. First-year challenger Allen York has provided some quality minutes since Lange began to falter, and both have demonstrated postseason know-how before.

“I’m not sure (who to start), I’m torn on that still. Mathias Lange obviously is a senior and he’s got a lot of experience for us, and he played well in the playoffs last season at Yale, and I think he had his best game of the second half against St. Lawrence on Saturday night. But at the same time, Allen York, a freshman, has played very good down the stretch for us, and has had extensive runs deep in the playoffs. He’s won two Alberta championships in a row, two Doyle Cups in a row, and taken his team to the Canadian Royal Bank Championships (all with the Camrose Kodiaks) two years in a row. He’s not only played well down the stretch this year, but he’s also had a lot of postseason success in his career. So I think we have two good options, and it’s possible that both could go this weekend.”

Overall, Appert just hopes that his charges have their heads on straight and their eyes set dead-ahead.

“It doesn’t matter what’s happened in the past, we can’t change that, no one was happy with the regular season that we had. But that has no bearing and no effect on our performance Friday night unless we let it. So we’ve put that away, we’ve learned some hard lessons, and now we’ve got to get re-energized and excited about playing playoff hockey because these are the opportunities that you dream about as a young kid.”

On the Dartmouth side, head coach Bob Gaudet has been around too long to dare overlook an underdog like Rensselaer.

“They’re a really good team. They’re a team that’s good in goal, it’s a well-coached team that’s very skilled,” he began. “They do a lot of creative things offensively: they get a lot of people involved in the rush, they get a lot of people involved in the offensive zone, defensemen coming down and interchanging with forwards. They’re a very creative team, and they’re a team that’s actually quite physical too. They’re a team that finishes a lot of checks.”

Looking at his own roster, Gaudet can’t be blamed for feeling proud of his boys’ results thus far.

“The interesting thing about our team is that we were picked 11th, and some picked us 12th (in the preseason polls), and our kids are a pretty humble group. They’re pretty confident in what they can do, but we feel that we have to be at our best. We have to have our A-game to be successful, and it doesn’t matter who we play against.”

Even Gaudet is surprised at the prolific youth of his club.

“We have a very young team. For the last few weeks, basically, we’ve been playing four or five combination juniors and seniors on our team, so the rest of our team has been freshmen and sophomores. So there’s a lot of times — a surprising amount of times, and it’s not by design — that I watch video (and notice) that there’s six freshmen on the ice for us: two defensemen, a goalie and three forwards. And any combination of units that we have is really young.

“With that, we have guys (for whom) it’s a brand new experience. And so when we go into the playoffs, we have a bunch of guys that have never been in college playoffs. So these guys are going to be working their hardest to be at their best, because that’s what they know they have to do.”

A former goaltender himself, Gaudet knows his way around a crease … and how tough it really is to weather the strains of a full season’s work, both physically and mentally. That’s why he’s so impressed with O’Neill, for whom the coach seems to have a genuine admiration.

“Jody is an unbelievable strong kid. Fundamentally, he’s got great technical attributes. But what I like most about him is his mental toughness and his ability to battle, and that’s something that you really can’t teach. He’s a guy that can let in a goal that he thinks he should have, and come back and make huge saves. He’s been really consistent.

“In my 20-whatever it’s been, 25, 26 years, he is the best young goaltender that I’ve ever coached in terms of what he brings to the table. He has pretty good size … he plays big too, he’s upright quite a bit, and he has good technical abilities, but he’s unbelievably tough mentally. He’s been without question our biggest factor in our games.”

Like all his players, the coach and his staff have watched for tell-tale signs of fatigue as the goalie’s first collegiate season wore on. Weight loss, diminished performance in practice, games, or the weight room, or any number of other indications can tell you that a player needs a rest, but apparently O’Neill is as good to go as ever.

“We’ve tried to keep our goalie sessions short and to the point. The physical fatigue works toward mental fatigue. He’s actually surprisingly fresh, which is encouraging for me.”

Time to see if the rest of the Big Green can play as fresh as they did in the fall.

No. 10 Colgate @ No. 7 Quinnipiac

The basics: Colgate swept the Bobcats by 1-0 and 3-2 (ot) scores this year. QU sniper Brandon Wong is doubtful for this series, and defenseman Sami Liimatainen is questionable. Colgate is purportedly healthy.

Colgate has been playing Lou Lamoriello hockey lately. Sure, the Raiders aren’t storming the league en route to any new records, but they sure know how to take care of business in their own end. In their last eight, the diligent icers are averaging exactly two goals against per game, which isn’t bad for a first-round road team. So how’d they land down there? An 0-6-3 skid in the fall extended to a 3-14-5 slump by early February. When the offense was going, the defense was porous. When the goalies were hot, the offense took a vacation. Sometimes the forwards took a nap at the same time as the defense, which just got ugly (6-1 losses to Denver and Lake Superior State come to mind). Junior David McIntyre (20-21-41) is possibly the biggest scoring threat in the league, and when rookie Austin Smith (13-13-26) can keep up, they pose a legitimate problem for opponents. Sophomore Brian Day (13-11-24) has put himself in the offensive mix as well, but after that the numbers fall way off. Third-year netminder Charles Long is the guy now, and is heating up just in time with a 4-1-2 record in his last seven, bearing a mere dozen goals in the stretch.

Quinnipiac has lots of talent, but lacks the central figure. It’s not about emotional leadership as much as it is about having the final, crucial piece that connects all the individual parts. Fittingly enough, that pivotal part that’s missing is, well, a pivot. Center Brandon Wong’s absence has been well-documented here in the past few weeks, and the details of his potential return are still very much up in the air. The fact is that the Bobcats are an inferior product without him, lacking depth and power up front and reliable backchecking when playing defense. The ‘Cats planted 14 goals in their three wins since Wong left the lineup, but only generated 17 in their seven losses and one tie … and five of those goals were in one 8-5 loss to Robert Morris, the day following the injury. On the bright side, Quinnipiac finished the regular season with a much-needed 4-1 victory at Dartmouth last Saturday, securing the Q-Cats home ice for the first round and elongating senior netminder Bud Fisher’s late-season surge. A starter once more, Fisher has given up seven goals in his last four games, and has pitched gems against Yale (one goal, 29 saves in 52-plus minutes of relief) and the Big Green (one goal on 43 shots).

First, the question on all Hamden’s mind.

“I think he’ll play next week if we advance,” head coach Rand Pecknold said of Wong. “He still hasn’t been cleared. There’s a chance (he’ll play this weekend), but he hasn’t been cleared yet.”

As for reversing the Bobcats’ flummoxing fortunes against light-scoring Colgate, the coach has a few key foci.

“First and foremost, you’ve gotta find a way to stop McIntyre. He’s one of the better players in our league, and he’s very dynamic offensively. We need to find a better way to play against Colgate. We were 0-2 against them during the year, we lost 1-0 and 3-2 in overtime. So certainly we were in both games, but for whatever reason we just didn’t match up well against them in those two games. We need to find a way to play a little bit harder, and generate a little more offense.”

Pecknold elaborated on the matchup, and what the ‘Gate does to so effectively negate Quinnipiac’s trademark offense.

“We struggle a bit against them because they trap. They play that trap-type game and kinda slow it down, and that’s probably not to our benefit. We need to play more up-tempo. We’ll [dump-and-chase] at times, but that’s not a strength of our team. I just think we can’t let them slow the game down. Now I’m not sure exactly how to do that, but we need to find a way to not have them slow the whole game down. That’s what they do very effectively.”

Unfortunately, Pecknold still doesn’t feel that QU has found a way to compensate for the multiple role voids left by Wong’s injury.

“No, ultimately we’re just not as good without him. He’s a dynamic player, he’s an impact-type kid, he changes our whole lineup. He changes the way teams have to defend against us. I just don’t think you can offset losing a player of that caliber. We’re trying, but I think there’s only so much you can do without him. So for us to advance and hopefully make it back to Albany, we’re going to need to get him back and healthy.”

It’s a mighty big test for both teams. Colgate has a chance to prove that it can be more than a defensive nuisance, and for the Bobcats … well, a series win without Wong could prove to be a tremendous shot in the arm going forward.

No. 9 Clarkson @ No. 8 Union

The basics: Each team won at home in this season series, with the Knights taking their game 4-3 (ot) in late January and Union winning last Saturday, 2-1 in Schenectady. Senior blueliner Tyrell Mason is doubtful for the visitors, having missed the last two weekends with a leg injury, while the Dutchmen are feeling pretty healthy. Union has no expected health-related scratches.

Clarkson has had a better winter than their fall, but that’s not saying much. The well-regarded crew won only three games before mid-January, succumbing to injuries that were massive in both number and severity. ‘Tech rebounded with a 7-4-3 record to close out the regular season, even going 3-3-1 on the road in that homestretch. Only 13 players played as many as 30 of the Golden Knights’ 34 games to date, with notable absences from senior forwards Chris D’Alvise (12-11-23), Shea Guthrie (11-14-25) and defensive classmates and co-captains Phillipe Paquet (1-10-11) and Mason. Freshman draft pick Julien Cayer (4-6-10) and sophomore rearguard Dan Reed also missed significant time, further hamstringing the Knights for big chunks of the schedule. Rookie Paul Karpowich has been adequate in goal, but it’s hard to be extraordinary when your team is so regularly shorthanded. Now that players are returning to regular duty, the offense is coming along quite nicely, but the defensive systems still seem spotty, with 20 goals-against in the last six games.

Union has not been as successful as it was last year, when the Dutch secured a first-round bye. That said, it was a bit of a fluky season in ’07-08, as Union succeeded in the face of a negative goal differential. The Dutchmen saw the lamp lighting more often behind their own net than that of their opponents once more, but managed to secure home-ice for the first round with a gritty 2-1 win over Clarkson on the last night of the regular season. Offense has been a major concern in Schenectady, as the club hasn’t topped the three-goal mark in a dozen games, and while the defensive unit has been strong, it’s been imperfect, good for one meltdown every three to five outings. It’s a quick but low-scoring team, perfectly confident that it can beat you despite only scoring two goals … but if you can get three on goalie Corey Milan, you’re sitting pretty. It should go without mention around ECAC Hockey, but just in case you missed the billboards near RPI, Union has never won a playoff series.

The first thing that fans from either school will think about when it comes to this series will be last weekend, and for good reason. Home ice was at stake in the final 60 minutes of the “First Season,” which effectively began the programs’ playoff runs early.

“We thought from our game Saturday night that they’re one of the best teams we’ve played in the second half,” said Union head coach Nate Leaman. ” If you look at their record over the last [14] games (7-4-3), it backs that up. Obviously the intensity of the game was a playoff game, it was a sold-out rink, there was a lot of atmosphere, and it was a must-win game for both teams if they wanted home ice so it was essentially a playoff game.”

“They’ve got eight draft picks, they’ve got a good team,” he stated.

And what is it that makes Clarkson a good team, Leaman was asked?

“Eight NHL draft picks,” he laughed.

“They have two lines of forwards that are pretty skilled, and another two lines of forwards that are pretty deep,” he added. “I believe Shea Guthrie is one of the best forwards in the league. He’s slippery, he’s slick, and he’s a senior. He’s a guy that’s produced throughout his career, and now it’s his senior year, and you’ve seen him really turn it up in the second half. (Guthrie has a 10-12-22 line through 17 games in 2009.)”

“You obviously have to shut down their top line. Their top line is terrific, with D’Alvise, Beca and Guthrie. In our last game against them, they’re the line that really stood out. Equally important, special teams will be important in this series. I think this is going to be a real tight, hard-fought series where a couple bounces may determine the whole thing.”

In his own locker room, Leaman finds a group of players who can’t wait to make a name for themselves.

“We feel absolutely great. We’ve played some great hockey in the second half of the season. We haven’t gotten the results that we’ve wanted, but we’ve played very well as a team. The guys have very good focus, keeping things short and simple this week, and the senior class has done a really great job of stepping up to the plate in these last two or three weeks.”

In addressing Union’s stunted production, Leaman supported his troops, but admitted that there’s still work to be done around the net.

“We’ve played 10 games this year where we’ve held our opponents under 20 shots, and we’re 3-7 in those games. At times in the second half I thought we really played well, but maybe we didn’t finish well. It’s something that we’ve focused on in the past three weeks, to make really sure we’re getting to the scoring areas with the puck. We’ve scored consistently this year … and I believe in our team, I believe we have the depth to score.”

One thing’s for certain, this edition of the Dutchmen couldn’t care less about Union’s hapless postseason history.

“You can’t focus on the past, if you do it will only take energy away from you. We’re completely focused on today. It’s the only thing we have control over. We’re focused on today, and when tomorrow comes we’ll be focused on tomorrow,” Leaman affirmed.

“We know it’s going to be a great series, and we know Clarkson’s going to play great and we want them to play great, because it will bring out the best in us.”

Snapshot

Just one for you this week, hence the title’s singularity.

St. Lawrence rearguard Matt Generous was injured in Friday’s game at Union, and did not play in Saturday’s regular-season finale at Rensselaer. The senior has played in 137 games for the Saints so far, and head coach Joe Marsh is optimistic that he will play in at least one more.

Marsh said that the dependable blueliner, who suffered an MCL injury, has already demonstrated signs of fast improvement and could potentially return for the quarterfinals at Appleton next weekend. He also indicated that Generous would likely be ready to play should SLU advance to the semis in Albany in two weeks.

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