This Week in ECAC Hockey: Oct. 29, 2009

The league’s half-dozen non-Ivy programs have been stamping their timecards for a few weeks now, so let’s check in on a few percolating trends.

Wild Knights

Up in Potsdam, coach George Roll predicted growing pains for his young defensive unit, but also foresaw significant offensive depth that would allow for a rolling Green and Gold scoring threat. Lo and behold, the coach knows what he’s talking about.

The Golden Knights have ripped an average of nearly 33 shots on goal over their first five games, and haven’t registered fewer than 29 in any individual contest thus far … but while the offense is hammering away on the scoreboard, averaging 3.4 goals a game, the defense is struggling to hold up its end of the bargain. Clarkson’s goaltenders have faced even more rubber — over 34 shots against per game — than their counterparts 170 feet away, and the rearguard has allowed the same 3.4 goals per game that its offense is busily producing.

Roll isn’t terribly concerned about the shot disparities, though.

“We look more at the quality chances for both sides, and we’re not really worried about the number of shots,” he said. “It’s the quality of chances, and actually we’ve been doing pretty good in that area so I think for us, shots can be deceptive. It’s more about the quality of Grade-A chances you’re getting, and in that area we’ve held our own.”

In a chicken-or-the-egg scenario, the Knights are drawing over six power-play opportunities a game so far. Whether it’s their pressure leading to penalties or the power plays leading to shots is a matter of conjecture and ambiguity.

“I think it’s both,” Roll said. “I think we’re working harder. We’re a much better team than we were last year, we’re competing at a higher level, and when you work hard, good things happen whether they be more penalties called against the other team, or generating more chances, or getting to the front of the net. We’ve stressed to our guys the importance of driving the net and creating traffic. I think it’s a reflection of a number of things, but primarily I think our work ethic is much improved.”

Following a convincing 4-1 victory over Route 11 rival St. Lawrence last Saturday, Roll was pleased, but conservatively so.

“Obviously the St. Lawrence game was an important game to continue [our] momentum, but more importantly, we wanted to continue with the work habits,” Roll said. “That did occur, and apart from the first game against Michigan State, we’ve been good in that area.

“I don’t want to read too much into it. I know for the people up here, they view it as such an important game — and it is an important game — but for us, we just want to continue showing the same type of intangibles that go along with winning. That was the big thing to us. I don’t want to read too much into one victory. It’s one game. Yeah, we’re happy we won it and it helps our confidence … but it’s one game, one of 34.”

He was certainly right about the local interest in the matchup. The non-league tilt drew 3,843 through Cheel’s doors, the fifth-highest attendance in the rink’s two-decade history.

“Our building’s been pretty much full every game here, and they really got behind the team and really responded to the way the team played,” mused an appreciative Roll. “Again, I think that’s a reflection of how hard the guys work and compete. And it certainly works both ways; it helps motivate our guys when you’ve got a full house against your rival, that will certainly work to your advantage.”

If nothing else, Golden Knights hockey has taken a big step up from its 2008-09 rut. The seventh-year Clarkson coach praised the captains for their steady hands at the helm, and is conspicuously happy about how his team has responded after last winter’s emotionally and physically frustrating campaign.

“Every day we show up at the rink, it’s enjoyable. I think it is for them, and it certainly is for the coaches,” exhaled Roll.

Big, bad Dutchmen?

Union features a couple exceptional figures at this early point in the year, but only one of them falls under the category of “desirable” to coach Nate Leaman and Co.

That positive figure would be the number 10. That is the difference by which the Dutch have already outscored the opposition in the third period, by a 13-3 score.

“I think we’re a well-conditioned team, we’re happy about that,” said Leaman. “I think we need to improve our starts, but it’s part of our mentality here to finish games strong.”

A negative number, however, is 18. That is Union’s average number of penalty minutes accrued per game thus far, including three 10-minute misconducts and two hits from behind (resulting in five-minute penalties and 10-minute misconducts). The issue was evident in UC’s 6-5 overtime loss to Sacred Heart last weekend.

“It took us a long time to get the momentum back in that game, and I thought we were finally able to take a deep breath and regroup for the third period. In the third, we played well, but unfortunately for the first 40 minutes of the game we didn’t play with the intensity or the work ethic that we needed to play with, and we dug ourselves a little bit too big of a hole,” said Leaman.

“We’ve taken two hit-from-behinds, and I think ultimately that is what really really hurt us in the Sacred Heart game. We started slow, but we started to get our feet underneath us a bit and we started to play better, and then we took back-to-back penalties, with the second one being a five-minute hit-from-behind. Because of that, they scored a couple of goals there, and because you still have a player in the box it’s tough to get the momentum back.

“A big part of hockey is the momentum in the game; you need momentum shifts and you need to catch the momentum every time you can, and I think because of … untimely penalties, it’s not allowed us to grab momentum in games when we can.”

The silver lining to the Dutchmen’s penalty parade is that 40 of the team’s 108 minutes were the result of major infractions, and those are relatively easy to clean up. The squad’s embarrassing .645 penalty-kill percentage will inevitably improve, and the transition game will see a boost from more regular play as well.

In net, rookie Keith Kinkaid suffered the SHU loss, but his coach isn’t stressing it.

“Corey [Milan] has a lot of experience, and Keith doesn’t,” Leaman began. “I feel that both guys are No. 1 goalies. Keith had an off night; I don’t think it’s like him. He played very well out at St. Cloud. It’s something that he’ll use, and … I think that it’s something that will make him better.”

And as for this weekend’s non-conference battle with rival Rensselaer, Union is ready to rumble.

“It doesn’t take a lot from our coaching staff when you play your rival in RPI. The guys obviously know what’s on the line, and [the Engineers] have had a good start to the season, which is very good for the league. We know it’s going to be a real good, close hockey game,” stated the coach.

Other Numbers of Note

QU littering the box

True, Quinnipiac has played only three games so far, but the Bobcats might want to reign it in a bit if they hope to remain perfect in the coming weeks. The Blue and Gold have been playing it black and blue, according to the stats: QU has been whistled for just under 19 penalty minutes a game, but unlike Union, each of the squad’s 28 bin-able infractions have been two-minute minors. Those are a bit tougher to eliminate.

On the bright side though, the Hamden Hammerers have yet to allow a third-period goal.

Affairs to forget

• The U.S. Under-18 team is perfect in ECAC Hockey play so far, much to the chagrin of Colgate and Cornell. The kids are now 3-3 against Division I opposition, with losses to Michigan, Boston College and Boston University, but with a win over Bowling Green as well as our two league representatives.

• Colgate is a sorry 1-for-26 on the power play this young season, with the lone goal going to waste in the Raiders’ 4-1 loss to Nebraska-Omaha two Saturdays ago. On the flip side, however, the ‘Gate is stifling opponents on their own advantages, running at an 89 percent penalty-kill efficiency. The PK opened the season a perfect 15-for-15 through three games, but UNO and Massachusetts-Lowell combined for three power-play goals in a dozen tries against the Maroon and Gray during their last two outings.

Readers’ Poll

Last week’s results are in, and from 45 results, it appears Rensselaer is the most popular (or at least Sullivan-savvy) school on the Fan Forum. As for runners-up Clarkson and Cornell: Don’t worry, I’ll try my best to suck up to you as well. No votes for Harvard or Princeton though? Only two out of Canton? I know I have more readers than this; the weekly grumblings and corrections regularly outnumber this poll’s turnout.

But like they say, if you don’t vote, you lose your right to complain.

This week, I’ll actually submit two new polls: one addressing “old news”, and one hitting a more contemporary chord.

First off, a dated but still controversial issue: Atlantic City as Tournament Central for 2011-13. Will the change affect your attendance? Do you think it’s a positive move for the league, which has struggled to generate a consistently thrilling championship environment in Albany? No matter what your opinion may be, if you don’t believe that Those In Charge pay attention to this column and its feedback, I’d encourage you to think again.

And moving on to more up-to-the-minute events, I’ll put a twist on a traditional question. While many polls ask who or what has been the biggest surprise to date, I’ll instead inquire which noteworthy trend is most likely to hold steady as the season progresses? Click through to share your thoughts.

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