This Week in ECAC Hockey: March 4, 2010

Last season’s final column started with a quote from wily St. Lawrence coach Joe Marsh. (And really, is there a better way to describe Marsh in a coaching context? If so, I’d love to hear it.)

“In the playoffs there’s almost the mentality that you have to go twice as hard to go half as far,” he said. “I told the guys the other night how hard it is to end a team’s season, and don’t be surprised by how hard it is. It’s supposed to be hard this time of year.”

It’s one of my favorite hockey quotes, because it’s such a truism. It’s supposed to be hard this time of year.

No. 12 Clarkson @ No. 5 St. Lawrence

The far ends of the spectrum aren’t going to let each other off the hook this year. The Saints, coming off a disappointing February in which they failed to secure a Top Four spot, host North Country neighbor and archrival Clarkson for the sixth-ever postseason series between the schools.

The coaches said the right things about the draw:

“I don’t know if it’s that big of an advantage to be sleeping in your own bed and play close to home. No matter where you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go on the road, and we put ourselves in that position.” — George Roll, Clarkson …

“It’s a tough draw. We realize that. But at the same time, there’s great benefits to having it. Certainly, it doesn’t hurt the North Country, and the economy, and all of that. The building’s going to be filled — we’ve already sold out.” — Marsh.

… yet as sure as Cornell hates Harvard, Clarkson is tickled pink to have ducked the huge road-trip bullet, while SLU is cursing the fates for sticking it with its refreshed, reinvigorated rival.

Both coaches agree that beyond the basics, the atmosphere is going to be a critical component to the series.

“In that building … they are such a momentum team,” said Roll. “When they get it going, they get a goal, and the next thing you know it’s two or three. They build on that first goal, and for us it’s a matter of staying the course, no matter what happens.

“If they get a goal, we have to make sure that next shift or the next couple shifts we don’t turn a one-goal deficit into a two- or three-goal deficit. It’s happened to us a number of times this year, where we’ve given up a goal, and then a few shifts later we’ve given up a second goal or a third goal. That’s going to be key in their building.”

“I think what this does, is it kind of takes away a home-ice advantage,” mused Marsh, a few clicks down Route 11. “They’re 10 miles away, they have great fan support here. But at the same time, the flip side of it is that it’s a good thing. The building’s going to be filled, there’s going to be tons of energy and a lot of interest, and regardless of how it plays out … it’s going to be a really memorable series, because it’s Clarkson-St. Lawrence.

“The big thing is to try to establish some sense of home ice, to play with a lot of intensity and a lot of energy. [After that,] it usually comes down to the three main components: your power play, your penalty killing and your goaltender. The longer you play, the more it seems to come down to that.”

The teams are on a collision course, but are they headed in opposite directions? The Saints were 1-4-3 in February, including a 1-2-1 record at home. Clarkson was 3-4-1 over the same period, and 3-2-1 in the last three weeks.

“They’ve struggled here down the stretch, but we’ve been through it too. There’s such a fine line between winning and losing. They’ve lost a lot of tight games,” sympathized Roll, whose Golden Knights couldn’t have buried a golf ball in the Grand Canyon for most of the year.

Marsh is reasonably concerned about the matchup for reasons beyond local loyalties.

“They’re playing better hockey now, and we’ve certainly got to be wary of that. They’re getting healthier. We played them three times, and it was dead even: 1-1-1. Really, the two teams are pretty evenly matched, regardless of how the standings played out. It’s really going to be an unbelievable series.

“They’ve had some tough things [happen] to them this year, but now — just like us and everybody else — they’re tied for first,” he added.

Critical Factors

• Clarkson allowed 31 second-period goals in league play this year, which was the fourth-highest total for any period (by any team) in the conference. With only nine first-period goals scored — the fewest in ECAC Hockey, for any period — can the Golden Knights buck the trend and wrest … then hold … an early lead?

• On the other hand, the Saints scored only 14 first-period goals themselves. An early goal could prove momentous for either side.

• Clarkson took 15.3 penalty minutes per game in league action, while the Saints took an even dozen. None of the four special teams units was particularly inspired this year, so there’s a lot of room for improvement — and an equal opportunity for an energized club to take control with playoff-caliber special-teams play.

• An irrelevant history note: The last time any low-ranking team got so fortunate in the draw was Rensselaer — seeded 11th in early 2003 — when travel partner and cross-town foe Union finished sixth. Since we’re talking about Union’s past, any ECAC fan worth his salt will know the outcome: the Engineers swept.

Clarkson and St. Lawrence have met in five previous postseason series, and four of those five meetings — including the last four straight – have been in Potsdam. Clarkson swept at home in 2001-02 (the first round, which was also the quarterfinals), swept in ’92-93 (first round/quarters), swept in ’89-90 (second round/quarterfinals), and won the aggregate in ’84-85 (first round/quarters) with a 6-2 win followed by a 4-4 draw. The Saints won their only home series against the Knights, however, way back in early 1983 … winning Game 1, dropping Game 2 and winning a mini-game 3-0 to advance to the second round (and semifinals).

Thus, Clarkson is 4-1 all-time against SLU in playoff series.

No. 11 Brown @ No. 6 Rensselaer

Neither Brown nor Rensselaer is where it hoped to be entering last weekend.

The Bears had a shot at taking a home-ice spot away from Harvard … but instead, losses to Princeton and Quinnipiac buried Bruno in 11th in the standings. RPI had its eye on a first-round bye, but a Friday-night loss at Colgate — the Starr Curse — eliminated the team from Top Four contention.

Thus, here we are. The Bears and Engineers split their season series, with each team winning at home. Bruno has a little more jump and a little more jam than recent Brown squads, but will it be enough to slip by enigmatic but undeniably talented RPI?

“I really liked the way we played last weekend,” started Rensselaer coach Seth Appert. “Certainly from a result perspective, we wanted more, but I thought that was probably our most consistent hockey of the last month. I thought we played really well both nights, except for the penalty killing on Friday — that was really the only hiccup we had. We were a hard team to play against.”

“I think it’s going to be an interesting matchup, and a lot of things will have to click for us in order to be successful … and we haven’t been very successful on the road this year,” said Brown coach Brendan Whittet. “But we go into this as a new start, a second season for us. It’s going to be a tough challenge, but we’re embracing it.

“Our goal is to make sure we’re good in the first shift of the first period of the first game against RPI, and try to set a tone right at the beginning of the game, to be good for the whole series.”

The frequently overmatched Bears have had decent success this year by keeping the legs moving, forcing opponents to match Bruno’s efforts … or get out of the way.

“They attack the net well, which plays into their nature as a physical, fast team,” assessed Appert. “They’ve got some good older forwards, who are big: [Aaron] Volpatti, [Devin] Timberlake, [Harry] Zolnierczyk. They have a lot of juniors and seniors who … are the power-forward type, and can really get to the net well. They are a good power-play team; I think Jeff Buvinow’s a very good power-play quarterback for them. They’re a team that plays physical, and they don’t just run around hitting people; they’re physical with the puck, in using their size to try to get to the front of the net.”

Appert returned to Brown’s punishing style over and over again.

“Brown is, in my mind, probably the most physical team in our league. They go out of their way to be physical, their forwards are big, they’re physical, they try to finish every check. Because of that, they will take some penalties. We need to match their physical intensity, and we need to be the initiators of a lot of physical contact. That’s going to be an important element of the series. We also need to take care of the puck. Because they’re physical, they force teams into turnovers a lot, and they have good speed with their forwards.

“We need to take care of the puck and make them defend, which plays into the strength of our team, which is our group of forwards, and putting their defensemen on their heels with our team speed.”

“We’re going to have to work very hard to generate offensive opportunities,” said Whittet. “I think [the Engineers’] Allen York is a tremendous goaltender, and he has a very, very bright future in the game.”

Special teams — along with goaltending — are critical to postseason success, and neither coach has any delusions about how his units have functioned of late.

“Some games we’re real good on the PP or on the PK, and other games we’re not,” stated Brown’s bench boss. “It’s kind of part and parcel with a team learning to find its way, and what it takes to actually be competitive and win on a consistent basis in this league. We need to make sure we’re very, very intelligent; we can’t be in the box the whole game.

“[The penalty kill] has been good in stretches and bad in stretches. In a two-minute minor, we’ll be good for 1:50 and then just make an absolutely critical mistake — we won’t clear the puck, or we’re out there too long, or we lose coverage for a second, or we don’t get in a shot lane. So you know, it’s little things that get away from us sometimes in those situations.”

“I think our power play is just OK of late,” echoed Appert, of his own squad. “I know it can be better, and I have a lot of belief that the five guys we have on the first unit and the five guys we have on the second unit can go from being 15-17 percent — like they’ve been in the last month — to being the difference in the series, in a positive manner. I think we’ve just slipped a little bit in respect to our attention to detail, our urgency in terms of winning puck battles and getting to the net, and being a real aggressive shoot-first power play that converges on the net and scores some ugly, gritty goals. So we’ve got to get back to that this weekend if we’re going to want to have success against Brown and against [goalie Mike] Clemente, who’s a good goaltender. We need to make life hard on him by getting traffic and getting pucks to the net.”

Critical Factors

• Bearing down, or Bears down in the third? Brown has allowed 47 third-period goals in league action — over two a game — while RPI isn’t much better, surrendering 38 in the final frame.

• Can Brown penalty-killing (76.4 percent, eight points below Rensselaer) come through for key kills? Something has to give for Bruno — either a much-improved PK, or aberrationally few penalties.

• Speaking of box-able offenses, the Engineers lead the league (or bring up the rear, depending on how you look at it) in penalty minutes per game, with an even 17.0. Brown is second, at 16.4. In this series, maybe it’s the five-on-five units that should be termed “special teams” … they may never see the ice.

No. 10 Dartmouth @ No. 7 Quinnipiac

The Big Green had an outside shot at a home-ice position for the first round, but the dominoes didn’t fall Dartmouth’s way last weekend despite a three-point effort in the North Country. Quinnipiac avoided a first-round road trip and built a little momentum to boot, pounding Brown and edging local rival Yale for the four-point finale.

In other words, both of these teams are on a little bit of a roll, and yet are still flying under the radar in the greater scheme of things.

“We played well both nights [last weekend] and got a little bit of our confidence back, which had been an issue in recent weeks. It’s good to have a little bit of momentum,” said QU coach Rand Pecknold.

“In terms of Dartmouth, they’re a scary team right now. They’re playing well, they haven’t lost in the last five games, and they’ve got some nice wins in there. A couple of the ways they won scare me a little bit, how they came from behind to win. [Scott] Fleming and [Adam] Estoclet are their leading kids, and obviously [Doug] Jones is up there, too, so we’re going to have our hands full trying to shut down their offense.”

“The team’s played really well,” said Dartmouth coach Bob Gaudet. “I’ve actually liked my team all year long. We’ve battled through some injuries and that type of thing; we’re a relatively healthy team at this point.

“We know we’re playing a really good team in Quinnipiac. When we played them the first time, they were No. 5 in the country; they were 12-1, they beat us in their building, and I thought our kids played a solid game. They’re obviously a high-caliber team, one of the better teams in our conference, and a team that has a lot of firepower and a lot of really, really solid players in all the positions. It’s a good team we’re playing, and we’re decided underdogs in this series.”

Back when Dartmouth and Quinnipiac first ran into each other, the Big Green were a miserable 0-4-0, en route to a luckless first half and a fairly disappointing season overall. The Bobcats were 7-1-0 at the time, and went as far as 12-1-0 before the wheels fell off. The ‘Cats went 1-11-2 in a Charlie Brown spiral, as the team didn’t play a vastly different game than it had when it was winning … it’s just that none of the bounces were there anymore.

Now, though, both teams are on the mend — physically and emotionally. The cumulative youth is earning its stripes, and confidence is clearly growing in both camps.

“I do think they’re a different team now than they were for most of the season,” said Pecknold of his latest opponent. “They’ve got some confidence, they feel that they can win, and they’re winning. They beat Cornell, they’ve beaten some pretty good teams. They play a fun system, they really get after it pretty good on offense, but they focus on defense and they’ve got good goalies in [James] Mello and [Jody] O’Neill. I wouldn’t say they’re just an offensive team, because I don’t think they are. They’re playing well enough to win right now, and that’s all that counts in the end.

“A big part of the series will be my four freshmen defensemen. We have four freshmen and one sophomore in there, so we’re young. But those guys are seasoned now; they’ve played some games, and I think if they can be focused to play well, that’s certainly a key to the weekend. Obviously it comes down to goaltending and special teams in the playoffs, so I think those will be two main factors again, as always.”

“We’re not a team that matches lines at all; I’ve never done that in close to 27 years of this business,” stated Gaudet. “So what we do is, there’s tendencies with teams. Quinnipiac has a team that transitions very well, they’re very quick, they’ve got some excellent offensive players from the blue line obviously up through their forwards. Their goaltender handles the puck quite well, so turnovers and puck management is a huge thing. You don’t want to turn the puck over in bad areas, obviously, so that they work for everything they get. We’ve got to make sure we take care of the puck; that’s the focal point of playing against this team.”

Critical Factors

• Can Dartmouth (32 third-period goals against in league play) hold firm late in the game? The Big Green has certainly mustered some big comebacks this year, with a four-goal third-period outburst against Cornell two weeks ago and a similar three-goal barrage against RPI the week prior, but the Green also let a 6-4 lead with nine minutes to play fall by the wayside against Colgate. It will be interesting against a team as sharp as Quinnipiac.

• Can QU continue its first-period defensive dominance? The Bobcats gave up only 13 goals in the first frame against ECAC Hockey foes, which was the third-best defensive period in the league.

• While looking at scoring breakdowns, the second period may be the big one: The Q-Cats scored 30 in the second stanza this year, to only 19 out of Dartmouth. Maybe it’s coincidental, maybe it’s a matter of adjustments or momentum or whatnot, but it will be worth a keen eye as we kick off Friday night.

• Finally, will Dartmouth’s respectable special teams numbers (20 percent on the power play, an 80.7 percent kill rate) be able to keep up to Quinnipiac’s league-leading pace? The Bobcats are leading ECAC Hockey with a 25.2 percent success rate on the man-advantage, and are killing a second-best 86.2 percent of penalties.

No. 9 Harvard @ No. 8 Princeton

Princeton finally did it, passing Harvard in the standings on the final day of the regular season. The four-and-a-half-hour, 264-mile swing is just one of the subtexts to a fascinating series.

Not only did the two teams finish the season as next-door neighbors, but they’ve each shown flashes of brilliance despite extended periods of glaring mediocrity. Princeton’s disappointments were by and large a product of injuries, while Harvard is simply as inconsistent a team as you could ever hope to see. High-end players like Louis Leblanc, Kyle Richter, Doug Rogers and Alex Biega couldn’t carry the load, and true 60-minute performances were fleetingly rare.

When asked what the keys were for the Crimson, coach Ted Donato replied, “probably solving [Princeton goalie Zane] Kalemba, and making sure we get traffic and are able to get to him. They’re a very good team, they have a lot of guys that have been to the NCAA tournament the last couple of years, a lot of guys who have been to the Final Four of the ECAC’s. They’re a proud team and a team with a lot of character. They’re playing at home, but I think ultimately think he’s been the X-factor for them. He’s been very good against us at times, so it’s important that we are able to get to our game and find a way to not make it easy for him.”

Kalemba, the Tigers’ defending Ken Dryden Award-winner as ECAC Hockey Goaltender of the Year, hasn’t been himself in his senior season as never-ending personnel changes played havoc with his defensive unit. He’s still a game-stealer at heart, though, and that has Harvard’s attention.

In the Crimson net, we’re not sure whether we’ll see junior Richter — himself a Dryden recipient — or classmate Ryan Carroll, as the duo has split time all year long. Richter has the experience, but Carroll may have the hotter hand.

As for the game between the nets, Donato is also wary of Princeton’s quick-strike ability.

“When they’re at their best, they’re a high-tempo team that really dominates on the forecheck and uses the transition game,” he said. “I think for us, that is something we’re going to have to handle, and also use that as a weapon ourselves.”

As always, special teams are a concern. Neither team has had exceptional numbers, but the Tigers’ seem especially suspect: the Stripes are killing only three of four penalties, and the power-play percentage is a pedestrian 15.7 percent.

“Any time you get in the playoffs — whether it’s a best-of-three series or a one-game playoff — special teams are huge,” said Donato. “In that respect, your goaltender is usually your best penalty-killer, and on offense you’ve got to be able to score some goals on the power play, or at least create enough chances and momentum to carry your team forward. I think both teams are probably excited about the prospects of their special teams, but neither one can point to them and say, ‘Hey, we’ve been good at this all year long.'”

Critical Factors

• When will the series be decided … after the first horn, or the second? Princeton allowed 37 second-period goals this year, but scored 20 in the third … Harvard scored 29 second-stanza goals, and surrendered 31 in the third. Princeton’s weak second or Harvard’s soft third?

• Which goalies will show up? Obviously, Harvard has to decide between Richter and Carroll … but for Princeton, will it be Zane the Game-Changer, or Zane the Hopelessly Overworked?

Readers’ Poll

Plain and simple, folks: pick the winners. Multi-votes allowed so that I don’t have to create four different polls, but if you vote for each team in the same series, I’ll just nullify your say. So there.

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