This Week in ECAC Hockey: Dec. 3, 2009

Double-Barreled

Pop quiz, hockey nuts: Who is the only ECAC Hockey freshman to currently leading his team in scoring outright?

St. Lawrence’s Kyle Flanagan? Almost; he’s tied with senior Mike McKenzie atop the Saints’ scoring list.

Brandon Pirri? Jerry D’Amigo? Nice try, but Chase Polacek has ’em beat by a half-dozen points. Andrew Miller? Well, I’ll give you credit for knowing the under-the-radar Bulldog, but he’s not the answer either.

Try this name on for size: Chris Zaires. The Brown rookie has three goals and six points in nine games for rebuilding Bruno, and while those aren’t big numbers, they lead the team nonetheless and make him one of only four ECAC frosh who have tallied a point per game. (Flanagan, Miller, and Harvard’s Louis Leblanc are the others.)

I’ll tell you one thing: While you may not be familiar with the pesky 5-foot-11 native of Aberdeen, N.J., I assure you that your school’s coach is in the loop. With multi-point games against Providence, Yale and Connecticut, Zaires is developing himself as a key playmaking cog in the new-look Bears’ lineup.

That lineup bellyflopped into the pool this season, but the sting of an 0-7-1 start is beginning to fade in light of consecutive wins against UConn and Harvard.

“I think some of it’s confidence,” first-year coach Brendan Whittet said of his team’s early-season trials. “You’re talking about a group of guys … that were probably all successful at some point in their junior or prep school or youth hockey careers. It just hasn’t translated in their careers at Brown; there have been a lot of downs, and I think that’s tough to overcome. Even when you are experiencing success during a game, during a shift, when you’re up and having a good period, in some aspects you’re maybe almost expecting — mentally — for the other shoe to drop. When’s something bad going to happen?”

The shoe dropped in the season opener at Princeton, where a ferocious effort by the Bears fell by the wayside in a 1-0 overtime loss. The shoe dropped at Union a week later, where 2-0 and 3-1 leads evaporated into a 3-3 draw. It dropped again at home against Yale, where Bruno fought back from 4-1 and 5-2 deficits to force overtime; a bad read led to a 3-on-1 for Yale’s top line, which simply doesn’t miss. Yale 6, Brown 5, final.

Even against Atlantic Hockey opponent Bentley — in Providence — the clog hit the carpeting, as Brown failed to hold a 2-1 lead with 16 minutes to play.

“The one thing that guys have done pretty much every night is that they’ve competed very hard, each and every period,” Whittet said. “They battle, and that’s what I’ve asked of them, but when you don’t get results, you come out on the short end too many times, it’s hard on the guys. It can wear on them.”

But then, last Saturday, the Bears finally orchestrated an effort that even the most heartbreakingly wacky of fluke bounces couldn’t have defeated. Five goals and 18 shots in 17:01 chased UConn starter Brad McInnis from the ice, and Mike Clemente made 24 saves on 25 shots as Bruno rolled to its first win of the season, 8-1. The eight goals were the most the program had scored in nearly six years … one day short, actually, of the anniversary of an 8-0 pasting of St. Lawrence, which was also the last time Brown had a winning margin of seven goals or more.

The Bears then doubled their fun by hog-tying Harvard in a 4-1 victory on Tuesday. The win (which included two empty-net goals in the game’s final minute) signified the third straight for the Providence crew over their Cambridge rivals, dating to last year’s ECAC Hockey first round in which the Bears stunned the Crimson with consecutive shutouts on enemy ice.

Two wins are great, but Whittet made an unusual remark for a coach in admitting that his team isn’t skillfully equal to its league opposition this year.

“We have a really really razor-thin line in terms of being successful, or in terms of ultimately not being successful,” assessed the Brown coach and alumnus. “So for us, we need the 20 guys who are playing each individual game to bring their best efforts. Each and every one of them. I can’t have guys that don’t show up; we just won’t have success.”

Now that his bunch has finally tasted some victory juice, Whittet may muse freely about what has been going right, for once.

“I think we’ve been more responsible defensively,” he said. “We were really struggling early in the year with individual defensive mistakes, lost battles in our zone, or poor reads defensively. I think guys have stepped up and done a better job along those lines.

“We’ve got some really good performances out of our offensive guys: Chris Zaires is putting up a point a game, Jordan Pietrus has been tremendous all year — he’s a great leader, and he fires a ton of pucks at the net every night.

“I think we’re a pretty good team when we’ve got the puck down low. We’ve got some big forwards, we’ve got some strong forwards, and we’ve got some guys who are able to wheel pretty good down there.”

One predictable storyline that has stuck to Brown Hockey in recent years, however, is going to have to change. So says the coach.

“I don’t want to give up shots,” he said. “A shot’s a shot, and it’s a scoring opportunity. It’s an opportunity for a second or third rebound chance. I don’t want to give up 43 shots a night like we did against Harvard; I don’t think that will lead to any sustained success. [That said,] I think Mike did a good job, I think he saw a lot of the puck, and I think our defensemen did a pretty good job boxing out. For the most part, [Clemente] will be successful if he can see the puck, as will any goalie … but that’s not a recipe for success in the long haul.”

Poll Cats

Last week, the Bobcats cracked USCHO’s top 10 for the first time in history; this week, they made a little more headway in that department. Quinnipiac is now ranked fourth in the nation, and received seven of 50 first-place votes from our diverse pool of voters. Not only have the ‘Cats never received top votes, nor ever been this high in the poll, but in careful (albeit non-comprehensive) searching, your loyal correspondent was unable to find any other No. 4 with so many No. 1 nominations. (If anyone wants to attempt to prove me wrong, I stopped looking at 2005-06’s polls. By all means, start at ’04-05 and continue working back. I won’t be holding my breath, though.)

Not that polls are worth the pixels they’re published with, but for the record, the last ECAC Hockey team to receive No. 1 votes was Cornell, in the Feb. 6, 2006, edition. That year’s Big Red unit was also the last league program to accumulate seven or more such tallies, as they reaped eight in mid-October of that season. For those of you who are wondering, Cornell was also the last ECAC team to claim the top spot in USCHO.com’s weekly survey, back in March 2003.

It’s a lot to absorb as a Bobcat fan. Imagine how dizzying it is for the team.

“I’ve got to be honest with you, we haven’t really discussed it as a team,” said coach Rand Pecknold, who is himself in a novel position despite over 15 years at the helm.

“I haven’t brought it up. We just keep focusing on the next game. Five minutes after we beat Colgate, we were talking about the things we have to do against Cornell. We did the same thing after Cornell: We started talking about Princeton. We did the same thing after Princeton, we started talking about UMass, and after UMass on Saturday, we said, ‘Let’s start talking about Yale.'”

Breaking a hot team down, and focusing it only on the next game, the next period, the next shift, is far easier said than done. Fortunately, Pecknold and his staff aren’t going it alone.

“The leadership is outstanding this year,” the coach said, praising his five-man senior class, all of whom having appeared in at least 11 of the team’s 13 games.

Surfing the crest of an eight-game winning streak, QU has left a dozen W’s for a single L in its wake. Where’s the room for improvement, short of petitioning the AHL for membership?

“We’re having a good year, but we’re not perfect,” Pecknold said. “We need to get a little better defensively, and we need to do a better job at staying out of the penalty box.”

But beyond that, his team is playing pretty sensationally … in every sense of the word. The toast of the ECAC so far this fall, it seems as though the only ones who can’t afford to enjoy too much of the Q’s success are those who inhabit the TD BankNorth Center’s subterranean nooks and crannies.

Said Pecknold, “The attention’s great for our school and for our program, but we’re just trying to focus on our next practice and our next opponent. We can’t rest on our laurels … if we go out and lose six of the next seven, everyone’s going to forget what we did.”

Guess Who?

Don’t look now, but QU isn’t the only undefeated team in ECAC Hockey. Don’t look to Cornell, Colgate, Yale, or Princeton for the tell-tale zero, either.

“There’s times when we’ve looked absolutely all-world, and at those times, it’s fun to sit back and watch your team,” said the coach of our mystery team, which currently rides a six-game unbeaten streak, holds winning records both home and away, already has 21 players with a point, and 15 with goals … even though the team leader in that category only has six.

“We knew coming in that depth would be our strength. We only graduated two regulars from our forward group last year … the key to our game is making sure we’re using our depth,” said the coach, whose squad has already swept its North Country trip this season, as well as beaten a traditional Hockey East powerhouse. Twice.

Give up? Go dig around Schenectady a bit, and see if anything grabs your attention.

That’s right, the Union Dutchmen have been entering through side doors this fall, ducking the hordes of fan- and media-types that are actively glomming onto Quinnipiac, Cornell and even Rensselaer, in the Capital District.

Perhaps it’s for the best, as even Union’s own coach (Nate Leaman, as we remove the curtain) sees a lot of work yet to be done at the Achilles Center.

“I think we actually should’ve played better during that [six-game] span,” he said. “I think we were very fortunate to tie Brown. There aren’t many games in this league that if you give up two shorthanded goals and a 60-foot wrist-shot goal, that you’re going to be able to get a point out of.”

Lucky points aside, much of the Dutchmen’s success has been built on the shoulders of its newest members. Greg Coburn, Shawn Stuart and Ryan Forgaard have seen significant time on the Union blue line, a facet of the game about which Leaman admitted to fretting during the offseason.

“Greg’s really headsy, a really smart player,” he said. “I haven’t coached too many freshmen D who have come in and had the poise with the puck that he has. He has tremendous playmaking ability for a defenseman. He doesn’t have the size that his brother [Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Braydon] has, but he has the smarts and the poise.”

Of the trio at large, Leaman is impressed with its rapid acclimation to the college game.

“We thought the transition for them might take a little bit longer, and that’s a big reason why we’ve only given up 16 even-strength goals in 13 games, while playing three freshmen D every night,” he said.

Up front, Leaman singled out a combo that has proven especially potent since its inception.

“One of the most significant things that has helped our team is the formation of John Lareau at center, Andrew Buote at left wing and Jason Schafer on the right wing,” he said. “We put those three guys together about three or four weeks ago, and they’ve really given a big boost to our team. They have great chemistry together, they’re all on the same page, and they can create offense and they can play good defense.”

With Mario Valery-Trabucco (14 points), Jason Walter (12), Adam Presizniuk (11), Kelly Zajac (10) and Mike Schreiber (10) also smelling blood in the water, that’s all any Union opponent needs to lose sleep at night — a little more depth in a seemingly bottomless lineup.

What They’re Saying About …

In a segment I feel proud to have pulled off, I asked a few coaches around the league what they thought of some of the in-conference opposition they’d seen so far. Here are their anonymous thoughts on the early leaders — and surprises — of the ECAC pack.

… Colgate

“In my opinion, they have the best first line in the league, with Day, McIntyre and Smith. Certainly there are other teams that, if they loaded up a line, could match up — like Cornell, but they split up Greening and Nash — but that first line is as dominant as any other line in the league.”

“McIntyre is one of the best players in the country. He’s very explosive. He’s the kind of guy who can change a game with one play.”

“They’re deadly.”

“That’s a line that you want to have your top defense out against. You don’t want them to beat you; you’d rather make somebody else beat you from that team.”

“We tried to shut them down all game, and I think they had [all of their] goals.”

“I think if you shut down that line, you’re probably going to beat Colgate, but it’s just not that easy. They play in all situations, and they play a ton, too. They play so many minutes, you can’t just have one line and one set of D to shut them down. They’ll take two-minute shifts, two-and-a-half-minute shifts … they don’t get tired.”

… Cornell

“It’s a prototypical Cornell team. They play great defense, Scrivens is excellent … and Riley Nash and Colin Greening are two of the best players in the ECAC. When you have high-end players like that, it’s going to separate you from the pack.”

“They have some big weapons. Colin Greening is one of the outstanding players nationally, and Nash is a pretty good player too. Gallagher’s having a great year. I think everyone associates them with defensive responsibility — which they do have, they haven’t changed that aspect — but they have some guys that can absolutely light it up.”

“In my opinion, those two kids [Greening and Nash] are both going to play in the NHL. Not just role guys; they’re going to play, they’re going to have good careers in the NHL.”

“They have a very good hockey team, and then Nash and Greening kind of put them over the top. I’d be shocked if they’re not a bye team this year.”

“Cornell is excellent. They’re big and strong, they don’t deviate from what they do well, and that’s why they have success. They’re a team that doesn’t beat itself at all.”

… Dartmouth

“Dartmouth is an excellent transition team: very good forwards, very good in transition, with the ability to score a lot of goals in a hurry.”

“It seems like they struggled in net early on, and all of a sudden O’Neill’s finding his legs. That’s what it looks like from the outside, because O’Neill’s a darn good goaltender.”

“I like their goaltender. I think he struggled a little bit early in the year, but obviously O’Neill’s gotten that straightened out.”

“They struggled a little bit early on, they lost a couple games maybe they should’ve won, their confidence may have been down a bit, but they’re a very good hockey team. At one point they were 0-5-0 in the league, and I was like, ‘I would not want to play that team in the first round of the playoffs.'”

“They have enough talent to be a fourth or fifth team in the league.”

… Rensselaer

“Their D-corps has solid veterans, and they have some good young forwards. They’re able to make plays with the puck. Obviously from beating UNH earlier in the year, and now playing the way they’re playing, they’re clearly a much-improved team and I think they’ll be one of those teams that keeps improving throughout the year as well.”

“They have some offensive flair and skill, that’s for sure. I thought they were very gifted in special-teams situations.”

“They have some really high-end skill: Pirri and D’Amigo, along with some of their returners. … They’re a very tough team to play against, especially if you give them a little time and space.”

… Union

“I think Union is a team that is really hard to beat in their rink. They play a really aggressive style, they have good offensive ability, and it seems that they’ve got pretty good goaltending right now, too. It’s a small rink, and things happen quickly there.”

“They’re up-tempo, they fire a lot of shots, and they get to those … dirty areas they’ve got to be in to score goals.”

“I know they’re young on the blue line, but up front, they’re a veteran team. They’ve been through some battles, and I think they know how to win.”

… Yale

“Now they’re a team that is absolutely explosive offensively. They’re very hard on the offensive side, and they have very good depth up front. From top to bottom, they can produce on any of their lines.”

“They have great forwards, obviously. I think the kid that’s overlooked in the whole group is Kearney. He was by far the most effective of all of them against us. He’s a big horse, he can work down low. I haven’t seen all the teams, but in my opinion if there’s a pro in our league, it’s Kearney.”

“Kearney can play an up-and-down game, like a speed game on the rush, and he can play a low physical game. He reminds me of Stempniak a little bit, trying to stop the guy, because they both have multiple tools.”

“They’re excellent, if given any kind of offensive opportunity. They’re excellent in transition, they can generate off a lot of different situations. They’re a hell of a good team.”

Readers’ Poll

This weekend features a prolific trio of teams fighting for more than just league points. As Quinnipiac and Princeton visit Yale (and, with all due respect, Brown), which of these three titular hopefuls has the most to prove: Quinnipiac, seeking credibility to pair with its gaudy record? Yale, seeking to remind everyone why it’s the defending league champs? Or Princeton, hungry to be re-included with Cornell, Yale, and QU as one of ECAC Hockey’s national-caliber teams? Weigh in, be heard (or at least, read).

Edit: it was late, I botched the poll the first time by including Cornell instead of Princeton. Therefore, if you were one of the early voters, by all means go back and vote again.

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