This Week in ECAC Hockey: Feb. 25, 2010

How spectacular is this?

One weekend left, two games apiece, and almost nothing is predetermined. ECAC Hockey has only one team that is locked into its seed, and only three that know their “grouping” (first-round bye, in this case) … and those three are all fighting for the Cleary Cup.

Everybody else is fighting to get somewhere: up from the bottom four to a fifth-through-eighth home-ice position, or up from the middle to fourth place — the last available bye. Literally everyone has a chance to either gain or lose a grouping’s privilege.

Compare that to Atlantic Hockey, for example, where only three teams out of 10 are fighting to avoid the first-round play-in game. The league title has already been decided before the last weekend of play (RIT), and three of the four teams competing for first-round home ice will get it (we just don’t know which ones yet).

The CCHA — which also ends this week — runs a 12-team playoff format just like ours … but where’s the suspense? Miami (20-2-4-2 in league play … yes, those are two shootout wins) is 20 points ahead of Michigan State for first place (though in this league, wins are worth three points, shootout wins two, and shootout losses, one). Six teams are fighting for three remaining byes, four are fighting to stay out of two open spots in the Cellar Quartet, and one — Michigan — is doing both simultaneously.

Meanwhile, the ECAC’s numbers: Five teams are fighting to avoid a first-round road trip, of whom three will end up packing their bags anyhow. Three squads are playing for one first-round bye, and one — St. Lawrence, like Michigan — could end up in any of the three groupings. Meanwhile, Yale, Cornell and Union are all grappling for the regular-season title and the No. 1 seed in the playoffs.

In other words, seven out of 10 teams will end up disappointed come Sunday morning: they couldn’t get first place, or the bye, or home-ice. In the CCHA? Five of 10. Atlantic Hockey? Three of seven.

I defy anyone to tell me that this isn’t the best league in the country.

It All Comes Down to This

“When I was playing, a lot of teams would already be done by now, since only eight teams made the playoffs,” Brown coach Brendan Whittet said this week.

Well thank goodness those days are over! Clarkson would be halfway into offseason workouts, Dartmouth would have Keggy on the speed-dial, and of the dynamic quartet of Quinnipiac, Harvard, Brown and Princeton, two would have to hit the bricks come March.

But now? Everyone has hope! I think that fact is perfectly substantiated by the proposition that even Clarkson — with no hopes for advancement this week — may still hope for St. Lawrence to finish a very realistic fifth place … thus insuring the Golden Knights of a most fortuitous five-mile first-round road trip, not to mention a good number of ‘Tech backers in the crowd.

I love this league.

The Big Games

On Friday, Union and Cornell square off at Lynah in a battle for second place. The squads tied, 2-2, in their first meeting of the year, so the winner here will claim the head-to-head tiebreaker as well as a two-point lead for the No. 2 seed. If the teams tie on Friday and finish the season knotted, Cornell gets the tiebreaker for having more league wins.

RPI and Colgate also tangle with a lot on the line in an NHL Network-televised tilt from Starr Rink in Hamilton, N.Y. The winner will hold the tiebreaker, if necessary (see below for details), but more importantly will be the two-point edge on the loser for the final first-round bye. And yes, Rensselaer goaltender Allen York will be back in net after missing last week’s game with a mild ankle sprain.

“It’s something every team in this league aspires to,” Colgate coach Don Vaughan said about the prospect of controlling your own destiny. “We’ve done it quietly, out of the camera’s eye. … At the end of the day I think we feel pretty fortunate that we’re in this position.

“It’s exciting, it really is. I told our guys the other day that if you can’t get excited and enjoy the moment in a situation like this, than it’s probably time to take up another sport. Or retire.”

“There might potentially be work ahead of either team … depending on what happens in other games, but this is everything you’re shooting for,” said RPI coach Seth Appert. “Certainly, you want to win a league championship at the start of the year, but most importantly, you want to put yourself in position to be in the top four … to get to Albany and win the glam title, to get to the national tournament.

“All those things are at stake on Friday night.”

Brown hits Quinnipiac on its way down to Princeton. This may not seem like a marquee game, but QU is currently two points ahead of Brown … and the Bobcats hold all the tiebreakers. If Bruno wants to dress in its own locker rooms next weekend, it will have to view this game as just as much of a must-win as its Saturday contest.

“If somebody had told anybody that Brown wouldn’t finish in last place — that we’d be battling for home ice, and could finish as high as fifth [before last weekend] — now, there’s a lot of things that could happen to have that break right, but I bet you’d have had a lot of non-believers, that’s for sure,” Whittet said.

Brown captain Jordan Pietrus is done for the year, however, after getting injured against Union on Jan. 30.

Moving on to Saturday games: Brown at Princeton leads the class, and that’s not likely to change with Friday’s results. The Ivies are scrapping to climb out of the bottom foursome, and the Bears won their first league matchup this year. Both teams are currently a point behind eighth-place Harvard, which has to make a tough North Country road trip to finish the regular season, so there’s a lot of potential for promotion here.

Princeton coach Guy Gadowsky has had a lot to deal with this year, as injuries on top of injuries put the Tigers in a big hole early. He seems to be playing it close to the vest now — he’s always been hesitant to discuss specific players, but he’s also opining that Princeton’s biggest concern right now has to be its health, and not its opponent. I’m not sure if I’m buying the company line, but even if it’s true, it doesn’t make the Stripes any less dangerous.

Harvard takes on St. Lawrence on Senior Night in Canton, with SLU desperately trying to leapfrog both Colgate and RPI for the first-round bye and Harvard working equally hard to avoid falling into a road series. Should the Crimson clip Clarkson on Friday and St. Lawrence stumbles against Dartmouth, Harvard would jump the Saints in the standings.

“There are so many possibilities,” Harvard coach Ted Donato said of the standings right now. “I haven’t really looked at all the tiebreakers … obviously Princeton would have the head-to-head against us. Basically we look at it as, we’ve got to win our games.

“We look at it as a good opportunity to go on the road and try to get our game to where we want it to be heading into the playoffs. There’s a lot of emotion, there’s a lot of schedule-watching, but when it all comes down to it, we know we can control our own destiny for home ice and that’s our focus.”

Elsewhere …

Yale buses off to Princeton on Friday and then right back to southern Connecticut for a televised game at Quinnipiac on Saturday night. The Bulldogs are in first place, two points up on the Union/Cornell block, and neither of Yale’s opponents is having an exceptional season. That said, Princeton tied St. Lawrence on the road and has beaten Cornell. Twice.

The entire QU community loves hosting Yale, as it promises a packed and raucous TD Bank Center and a chance to take the Elis down a notch in front of a local audience. I almost listed this one among The Big Games, except there’s not quite as much at stake. It’ll just be a heck of a fun game, is all.

RPI-Colgate and Union-Cornell are the big ones for each school, especially since they fall on Friday, but no one has it easy Saturday, either. The Engineers finish up at Cornell and Lynah Rink on Saturday night, while Colgate hosts Union. Neither of the Saturday pairs affect each other directly, but everyone will be scoreboard-watching and competing to stay ahead of their Friday night opponent.

I know what you Dartmouth fans are wondering: What about us? Well, first and foremost, you’re hoping that Harvard gets swept. Then, Brown must tie or beat Princeton after losing at QU, and Princeton can’t swing more than a point out of this weekend.

Good luck!

What We Know

For the last time:

• Clarkson (8 points) is locked into last place.
• Dartmouth (14 points) can finish no higher than eighth, the last spot for first-round home ice.
• Brown and Princeton (16 points each) can finish no higher than seventh.
• Harvard (17 points) can finish no higher than sixth, but no lower than 11th.
• Quinnipiac (18 points) is out of the running for the first-round bye, but can still finish as high as fifth or as low as 10th.
• St. Lawrence (21 points) can finish anywhere between fourth and ninth.
• Colgate (22 points) can finish between fourth and seventh.
• Rensselaer (22 points) can take the last first-round bye, or fall as far as sixth.
• Union, Cornell (28 points each) and Yale (30) are locked into top-three finishes.

Tiebreakers

These are all of the relevant advantages, from the top of the standings on down. The first tiebreaker is of the head-to-head variety (in league games only, of course). The second is league wins, followed by record-versus-top-four. (The rest of the list — rarely called upon — is at the bottom of the league’s standings page.

I have deleted tiebreakers between teams that can no longer tie (e.g. Yale and Clarkson) for the sake of simplicity and readability.

• Yale beats Colgate, Cornell and Union.
• Cornell beats Colgate and St. Lawrence.
• Union beats Rensselaer and St. Lawrence.
• Rensselaer beats Quinnipiac.
• Colgate holds no advantages.
• St. Lawrence beats Colgate and Rensselaer.
• Quinnipiac beats Colgate, Dartmouth, Princeton and St. Lawrence.
• Harvard beats Dartmouth.
• Princeton beats Dartmouth and Harvard.
• Brown holds no advantages.
• Dartmouth beats Brown.
• Clarkson is locked into 12th.

Tiebreakers and related scenarios on the line this weekend:

If Colgate beats Rensselaer on Friday, the Dutchmen get the head-to-head tiebreaker. However, should RPI win — and then lose Saturday at Cornell, while Colgate beats Union — then the Engineers would take the fourth spot based on the third tiebreaker, record versus the top four (2-4-0 against Yale/Cornell/Union, while Colgate would be 1-4-1.)

Quinnipiac would jump Colgate should the Bobcats sweep and the Dutchmen get swept, but QU is no longer in the running for a first-round bye.

Should Harvard sweep the weekend, thus beating St. Lawrence on Saturday to split the season series — and the Saints fall to Dartmouth on Friday as well — the Crimson would jump SLU on wins and finish at least as high as seventh, if not sixth.

Also pertaining to Harvard: if Brown and Harvard finish with the same number of wins (Harvard is currently one point and one win ahead in the standings), the Crimson get the boost for record against the top four — no matter who the fourth team is, Harvard still holds the edge. There is no way that Bruno can finish with more wins and the same points as the Crimson.

Princeton and Brown square off on Saturday for the head-to-head. The Bears beat the Tigers once already, so a win or a tie gives Bruno the edge. Should Princeton win and the teams end up deadlocked in the standings, the Tigers would get the nod based on league wins.

Dartmouth loses three of its four potential tiebreakers, so it will have to pass teams to beat them.

Readers’ Poll

Last week’s poll asked, who do you think will finish fourth this year? Rensselaer led the charge with 21 votes out of 42 (not a huge shocker, given RPI’s quiet success this year and the ‘Tute’s bottomless well of online support). St. Lawrence, now a point back but still in the running, accumulated 12 votes, followed by Colgate (six) and Quinnipiac (three). The Bobcats are now eliminated from that finish — sorry, to those three of you — but Colgate and RPI are neck-and-neck entering the final weekend.

Did we mention their Friday game will be broadcast on the NHL Network? Good times.

This week, I want to know which of this weekend’s games is the biggest, and why. Get crackin’.

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

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