This Week in the ECAC West: Feb. 25, 2010

The postseason has arrived in the ECAC West.

Unfortunately, a wet blanket was thrown over what should be the most exciting time of the year when Lebanon Valley withdrew its team from Division III on Tuesday. But the remaining ECAC West teams battle on with the semifinals on tap for Saturday.

As my esteemed SUNYAC colleague Russell Jaslow likes to say, this season’s playoffs so far are a “Do Over” from last year. The five teams that made the playoffs finished in the exact same order again, setting up the same matchups.

And with Neumann’s 3-1 victory over Utica on Wednesday in the play-in game, the déjà-vu pattern continues into the semifinal round.

No. 1 Elmira vs. No. 4 Neumann

The first semifinal rematch is between Elmira and Neumann. The Knights stunned Elmira at the end of last season, defeating the Soaring Eagles twice in the post season by identical 2-1 scores. Eerily similar to last year, Neumann comes into this weekend’s game on a roll, having gone 6-0-1 in its last seven games.

“Neumann is playing the best hockey of the year, very similar to what they did last year as far as running the table,” said Elmira head coach Aaron Saul. “We’re looking to try to disrupt the flow of their game, make some adjustments, and slow them down in the offensive zone.”

Meanwhile, Elmira has been stumbling a bit with only one win in its last five games during the last three weekends.

“The games last weekend against Manhattanville were two great hockey games back and forth,” said Saul. “In Neumann [two weeks ago], we didn’t play our best hockey and made a lot of mistakes, so it was good to see us rebound and play a couple of good games against Manhattanville.”

Last year, Neumann’s roll ran all the way to the national championship, but this year’s team has few carryovers from that squad.

“Eighty percent of these kids weren’t here last year, so it is a completely different team,” said Neumann head coach Dominick Dawes. “We’ve just been trying to get this team to make its mark.

The big snowstorm this week caused more concern than not knowing which team was coming to the Thunderdomes on Saturday. Neumann University shutdown both Thursday and Friday while coach Dawes and his staff scrambled to find a way to get to the Southern Tier. But that didn’t affect Elmira’s preparations for the game.

“We did a lot of stuff for ourselves that we needed to improve on the last couple of days,” said Saul. “Now we will prepare and get ready for Neumann.”

Elmira’s amazing speed and quick transition allowed the Soaring Eagles to get off to a dominant start in league play earlier this season. The Soaring Eagles need to get a bit of their scoring touch back this weekend, particularly on the power play.

“We’ve got to use our speed at both ends of the ice and look at our power play to help us score some goals in the playoffs,” said Saul.

“[Elmira] has been a good hockey team all year long,” said Dawes. “They are as skilled as any team in the country. They have a fantastic transition game, can get up and down the ice as well as anybody.”

With such a young team, Neumann has stumbled through new-to-them situations throughout the season, but seem to be pulling together as veterans at the right time of the year.

“The past month and half has been trying to improve every day,” said Dawes. “Resiliency has been our strength. The past six or seven games, we’ve been thrown into all kinds of different situations. Whatever the situation, we’ve stuck with it and battled through.”

No. 2 Manhattanville vs. No. 3 Hobart

Hobart plays at Manhattanville also in a rematch of last year’s semifinal contest. In that game, Hobart scored a trio of goals to defeat the Valiants 3-1.

“This situation isn’t new to Hobart,” said Manhattanville head coach Keith Levinthal. “They’ve been in it and won, and we haven’t. The games have been really close and I would expect it to be no different on Saturday.”

During the regular season, the road team was victorious when Manhattanville and Hobart met. The Statesmen won 4-2 at Playland Ice Casino and Manhattanville took a pair of games 4-2 and 3-2 at The Cooler.

The Valiants have been on a roll during the second half of the season, posting a 13-2 record since the middle of December. Manhattanville has been a better road team than at home, but figured how to win in the Playland Ice Casino a couple of weeks ago.

“We have played really well in the second half of the year and have gained some confidence,” said Levinthal. “Areas we need progress is on the penalty kill and playing good defensive hockey. We’ve played pretty good in those areas but could get better.”

Hobart came into this season with high expectations coming off an NCAA semifinal appearance last March. The injury bug bit the Statesmen very early in the season and Hobart has struggled at times to adapt. Some of the injured players started to trickle back into the lineup as the regular season wound down, though, and Hobart has gone 6-1-1 over its last eight games.

“We haven’t had one game this year where we’ve had everyone available that played in the NCAA games last year,” said Hobart head coach Mark Taylor. “It doesn’t justify anything, but it is a reality. We have had a little bit of a fight. The year has been some challenges within ourselves with high expectations coming back. We’ve had some adversity from week two and we’re at the same place we were at last year.”

Hobart and Manhattanville are very familiar with each other, so don’t expect many surprises this weekend. The Statesmen are looking inward to prepare themselves for Saturday.

“Manhattanville is an excellent hockey team,” said Taylor. “Those are all things you say in an interview, but it’s true. We need to concentrate on not trying to do too much, sticking to what works and how you have to play.”

Likewise, Manhattanville knows the strength of the Hobart team lies in their speed and forechecking ability and will look to counter that within the friendly confines of Playland Ice Casino.

“Hobart has played very well in our rink four times in a row,” said Levinthal. “They are definitely playing well. They have some kids back from injury and some guys offensively that can make plays. We’re going to have to deal with that. Hobart has a great forecheck, get in quick, and are extraordinarily dangerous. How we handle their forecheck will determine our success in this game.”

ECAC Responds

In my column last week, I chastised the ECAC for not doing more to save the ECAC West from its apparent slow death spiral. With the demise of the Lebanon Valley program this week, my expressed opinion has become even more poignant.

I chatted with Michael Letzeisen, ECAC Director of Sport Administration, this week, and he brought to light some of the initiatives that have been going on behind closed doors.

“We’ve been actively looking for another program,” said Letzeisen. “We have made mention to some programs regarding moving their club program to varsity status. It is hard right now to start a varsity program because the current economy is not in favor of adding sports for any institution. Adding a varsity sport in ice hockey, which is very expensive, is very difficult. There are some programs at the varsity level that we have reached out to as well in other leagues.”

What about the idea, expressed by many, of shuffling teams amongst the three ECAC Division III leagues, East, Northeast and West, to balance the number of teams geographically?

“We’ve discussed reorganizing the last two years after the MASCAC came about,” said Letzeisen. “We’ve talked about restructuring and possibly taking some programs over [to the West], but our hands are tied by NCAA bylaws. We are hoping to continue the interlocking alliance between the ECAC East and the NESCAC, so we need to keep the ECAC East intact. It is difficult for us to take an East team or a Northeast team and move it into the West.”

Unfortunately, nothing is as easy as people hope it could be in an ideal world. Affiliations, rules, regulations, relationships, travel, academics, and economics all complicate the issues at hand, making it very difficult to effect change.

“We are always talking about restructuring,” continued Letzeisen. “We have 45 different teams in five leagues [in the east], and you have to take a look at all of the teams as a whole rather than just one league at a time. Obviously, the men’s [ECAC] West is our top priority now, but we also need to ensure that the other leagues stay intact as well.”

The league athletic directors held a meeting on Thursday to discuss how the ECAC West moves forward from here.

“Number one priority right now is to get a scheduling agreement together,” said Letzeisen. “With Lebanon Valley moving, we are going to have to reevaluate the 2010-2011 schedule and possibly that could be that everyone will play four times per year. We are looking at maybe aligning with another Division III conference within the east region to get those conference games put together.”

It is good to see the ECAC stepping in to assist the league. Hopefully they can exert as much authority as can be mustered to lead the ECAC West out of deep, dark woods they find themselves in today.

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