This Week in ECAC Hockey: Feb. 18, 2010

Perfect Storm

I don’t usually like devoting column space to talk about games that are already in the books, but last week’s Yale-Cornell tilt was clearly a matchup worthy of some apres-buzzer analysis.

As Union was busy losing to Harvard in an uninspired performance, the Bulldogs and Big Red battled it out for sole possession of first place at James Lynah Rink on Saturday night. Each squad had won four of its last five, the Elis were on a three-game winning streak, and — just for a little national flavor — each team was ranked in the top 10.

Cornell scored first, with newly returned center Riley Nash feeding Colin Greening for the goal in the game’s seventh minute. After that, however, it was all Blue & White.

Yale proceeded to outshoot the hosts 41-8 after the first period, and the only reason the game wasn’t handily decided in regulation was Cornell’s super-sharp netminder, Ben Scrivens. The league’s most consistent goaltender stopped 52 of the first 53 shots he saw, while his colleagues mustered only 20 shots on goal in the same amount of time (63:17).

In fact, following a 25-shot first period in which the Bulldogs tallied 13 shots on net, the remaining frames’ shot count read 20-4, 13-4, 8-0. This was Yale’s game … but nobody had informed Scrivens.

Mark Arcobello knotted the game at 13:48 of the second period, rocketing a one-timer over Scrivens from the smack-dab middle of the slot. Taking the pass from Denny Kearney, who was behind the Cornell goal line, the score was Arcobello’s ninth of the season — still only good for fourth on the sizzling Yale roster.

The overtime winner developed as Brian O’Neill hit Sean Backman on the fly, streaking in on Scrivens. The senior forward shot it between Scrivens’ pads, and the puck trickled over the goal line as Yale formally claimed a game it had owned all night long.

The decision was Yale’s fifth straight over national power Cornell, and put the Bulldogs on a season-high four-game winning streak. With the season sweep, Yale also claimed the head-to-head tiebreaker against the Big Red — critical, as Cornell went on to defeat Colgate 6-2 on Tuesday to draw even with Yale in the standings. In taking over the starting job late in the season, senior Billy Blase is now 5-0-0 between the Elis’ iron.

“They expose tendencies and weakness you can’t get away with from good teams … they move pucks and we didn’t stick close with our checks and they made plays,” Cornell coach Mike Schafer told the Cornell Daily Sun after the contest.

“I can’t imagine a better college hockey game,” Yale counterpart Keith Allain told the Yale Daily News. “That was as good as we have played this year.”

If there is any justice in the world, we’ll see a rematch in Albany.

A Capital Combination

Regular readers and other such ECAC Hockey folk are, by now, well aware of the talent playing in the greater Albany area. Union and RPI are programs on the rise, led by sharp young coaches and an ever-increasing handful of nationally overlooked talent. Engineers junior Chase Polacek and Union senior Mario Valery-Trabucco shine brightest among a burgeoning constellation of Capital District stars.

‘Cek it out

Out in Troy, Polacek is merely leading the nation in scoring with 46 points, and is tied for the D-I lead in goals with 23. He’s sixth in the country in points per game (1.44). He’s gone only seven games without scoring a point this season, and four of those came in his first six games. His longest pointless drought was two games — once — and has 14 multi-point games, including seven three-point nights.

“Chase has always been very talented,” said head coach Seth Appert. “He’s an explosive skater, not only north but laterally as well. He’s got a great scoring shot — he’s always possessed a powerful shot, where he can threaten and/or beat goaltenders from the tops of the circles or above, which not a lot of people can do.

“I think the one thing that’s developed in his game (at RPI) is his competitiveness, his willingness to go to the high-traffic areas to score goals. The last two years, he’s had dramatically more assists than goals — and granted, he was younger and we didn’t have as deep of a team — but he’s much more willing to go to the front of the net (now). He’s added many more garbage goals, so to speak. Paying-the-price goals, right around the crease. He’s scored many more of those this year than he has in the past two years.”

“We’ve played against Chase four times this year, and he’s a tremendous player,” said Union coach Nate Leaman, who has seen nearly as much of Polacek as Appert. “He has breakaway speed, he has good vision, he’s a good finisher.”

Furthermore, Polacek has scored eight goals with 11 assists in 12 games against teams that are currently ranked in the USCHO.com top 20, and holds a 7-9–16 line in seven combined games against Yale, Cornell and Union.

“He’s much more willing to go after the puck now and win those puck battles, which leads us to spend less time in the defensive zone,” assessed Appert. “I think the real impressive thing about him is his consistency this year: he’s won Player of the Week twice now, in the past three or four weeks, but ’til then, it was just putting points on the board every weekend. He was putting points up almost every game — he had a 14-game point streak earlier in the year.”

Polacek is supported by freshman Brandon Pirri, who leads the country in freshman scoring with 39 points. He is second only to Merrimack’s Stephane Da Costa among rookies in points per game (1.22), and is fifth nationwide in assists per game (30 total, for 0.94 per game). Pirri’s tied for 20th in the nation in points per game, just ahead of seasoned league opponents Sean Backman, Jason Walters and Brian O’Neill, and just behind Blake Gallagher.

Most Valuable Trabucco

Meanwhile, across town, long-time lesser light Union is shining brightly under the glow of superstar Valery-Trabucco. Fans outside the ECAC may not know the name, but they’ve been sure to catch his number as he’s rampaged through this season.

Valery-Trabucco holds the 10th seat in the nation in points per game with 1.31, and while he hasn’t matched Polacek’s score sheet consistency since Day One, he has Polacek beat in one area this season: hat tricks. In fact, MVT has two — one against Clarkson, another against Polacek’s own Engineers in early December. (Polacek scored a natural hattie against Dartmouth last weekend.) Valery-Trabucco has a dozen multi-point games, including three three-point nights and the three-goal, five-point demolition of Clarkson earlier this month. A plus-22 forward, Valery-Trabucco is one of the Dutchmen’s best penalty-killers as well as an offensive dynamo. MVT’s next point — his 39th — will vault him past linemate Adam Presizniuk for Union’s single-season scoring record.

“He’s got an excellent release,” praised Leaman. “He’s a very shifty player, and he’s a guy that, when he shoots the puck, we’re a better team. He’s given our power play a couple different dimensions, because he can play up top or [down low]. His first two years he was a centerman for us, but after his sophomore year I thought a move to the wing would help our team in freeing him up.

“He’s scored a lot of big goals for us throughout his career. He’s a complete player, and he’s a big reason why we’re having a lot of success this year.”

He has a lot of support from linemates Presizniuk and Jason Walters, who sit three-two on the Union scoring list, not to mention four-three on the team in plus/minus to boot. The line has combined for 42 goals and 104 points this season, and each player has surpassed the 30-point mark already. Walters and Presizniuk are a combined plus-38, putting three Union forwards (and one UC blue-liner) atop the league’s charts in that category. MVT and Walters are already enjoying career years in this, their senior, seasons, and “Prez” has a shot at doing the same, if he can muster up eight more points before the year is through.

Mike Schreiber is also a District name worth knowing, as the senior is tied for seventh nationally in scoring by defensemen. Trailing only Yale’s Thomas Dignard in this league, Schreiber picked up where graduated teammate Lane Caffaro left off: providing a big offensive boost from the back, without sacrificing defensive-zone responsibility (he’s plus-22 on the season, tied for the league lead with MVT). He’s an All-American all the way.

What We Know

Round Two:

• Clarkson (8 points) can finish no higher than ninth, therefore assuring a first-round road trip.
• Dartmouth (11 points) can finish no higher than sixth.
• Brown (13 points) and Princeton (14) can finish no higher than fourth.
• Harvard (17 points) can finish no higher than second, but no lower than 11th.
• Quinnipiac (18 points) and Colgate (19) can finish no lower than 11th.
• Rensselaer and St. Lawrence (20 points each) can finish no lower than 10th.
• Union (24 points each) can finish no lower than eighth, locking up home-ice in the first round, if not a bye.
• Yale and Cornell (26 points) can finish no lower than seventh, also insuring home-ice in the first round and putting them in line for a bye.

Tiebreakers

These are all of the head-to-head variety at this point, from the top of the standings on down. I’ll try to tackle the second and third tiebreakers — wins, and record against the top four — next week; the latter is far too premature to work on, and the former doesn’t give us any new advantages yet. (“Moot”, obviously, signifies that the advantage is irrelevant given the two teams’ separation in the standings. Brown, with 13 points, can’t catch up to Cornell’s 26, so it’s a moot comparison.)

• Cornell beats Brown (moot), Clarkson (moot), Colgate and St. Lawrence.
• Yale beats Brown (moot), Dartmouth (moot), Colgate, Cornell and Union.
• Union beats Clarkson (moot), Rensselaer and St. Lawrence.
• St. Lawrence beats Clarkson (moot), Colgate, Princeton and Rensselaer.
• Rensselaer beats Clarkson (moot), Harvard and Yale.
• Colgate beats Clarkson (moot), Brown, and Princeton.
• Quinnipiac beats Colgate and St. Lawrence.
• Harvard beats Dartmouth and Union.
• Princeton beats Dartmouth and Harvard.
• Brown holds no tiebreaker advantages.
• Dartmouth beats Brown.
• Clarkson holds no tiebreaker advantages.

Tiebreakers on the line this weekend:

Union and Rensselaer can each claim tiebreakers over travel partners Princeton and Quinnipiac with as little as two ties apiece, each team having swept the QU/’Jersey weekend earlier this year. (Moot: Union/Princeton.)

Two ties or better out of St. Lawrence will earn it the edge against Brown and Yale, and the Bears and Bulldogs can take their respective matchups against Clarkson with the same result. (Moot: Yale/Clarkson.)

Colgate and Cornell both beat Harvard and Dartmouth at home this season, and thus require a tie per game on the road this weekend to take the tiebreakers. (Moot: Cornell/Harvard; Cornell/Dartmouth.)

What’s Left

Remaining opposition’s league records for each team:

Brown: 26-38-8
Clarkson: 29-34-9
Colgate: 31-31-10
Cornell: 31-31-10
Dartmouth: 32-31-9
Harvard: 32-31-9
Princeton: 36-25-11
Quinnipiac: 36-25-11
Rensselaer: 36-31-5
St. Lawrence: 29-34-9
Union: 36-31-5
Yale: 26-38-8

Readers’ Poll

Last week’s poll seemed relatively innocuous at the start, but ended up generating a lot of comments from respondents. Addressing the issue of playoff participation, a record 52 voters chimed in — most in support of the current, all-in 12-team format, but with 20 others splitting votes between 10-team and 8-team preferences.

For the record, only one bottom-four squad — as in, finishing between ninth and 12th — has qualified for the league semifinals in the seven years that the current system has been in place: Clarkson finished ninth in the league in 2004 and defeated No. 8 Union and No. 2 Cornell on the road, then upended top-seeded Colgate in the semis before falling to Harvard in the league championship.

This week, I make a few assumptions for the sake of a clean poll: who will be the fourth of the league’s ultimate top four regular-season teams? Don’t start snarking about Yale/Cornell/Union not having wrapped anything up, either. I realize that, thank you.

Also, here’s a handy little tool to play with the final standings.

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