Elmira Soaring Eagles (18-8-1 overall, 11-4 in the ECAC West)
The last few days have been an emotional roller coaster for the Elmira Soaring Eagles. Leading 3-2 on Saturday in the ECAC West championship game, Elmira saw Manhattanville tie the game with one second left in regulation and then lost when the Valiants scored midway through the overtime period.
The weight of coming so close to the league title crushed down on the Soaring Eagles players as they watched Manhattanville celebrate on their home ice. After the game, Elmira believed their hope for an NCAA tournament bid had also evaporated as the Valiants bus carried away the trophy. Elmira had begun to mentally prepare to wrap up the season when the phone rang Sunday evening.
â€œIt was quite the surprise [on Sunday],â€ said Elmira head coach Aaron Saul. â€œWe went out and had some dinner with our captains and seniors to say thanks. Then we got the phone call and were excited to say the least. I was very surprised not to see Manhattanville [in the NCAA tournament] as well.â€
Since the ECAC West doesnâ€™t have an auto-bid, the NCAA considered the entire season in evaluating whom to award the Pool B bid to. By the narrowest of margins, the ledger tilted in Elmiraâ€™s favor over Manhattanville and now the Soaring Eagles host a first round NCAA game against ECAC Northeast champion Curry on Wednesday.
â€œIn life you donâ€™t always get a second chance,â€ said Saul. â€œWe need to elevate our game now and the guys are pretty excited to do that.â€
Motivation is easy to come by for Elmira, as they know firsthand just how much a season ending loss can sting.
â€œSaturday wasnâ€™t a good feeling,â€ said Saul. â€œNot winning that game, and the feeling the guys had after that game, is something that they donâ€™t want to experience again. It is really going to help us for the rest of the run.â€
Elmira and Curry last met on Jan. 9, 2004 at the same Thunderdomes where the game will be played this Wednesday. That season, Elmira was in the midst of a mediocre campaign while Curry was flying high. Curry outshot the Soaring Eagles 43-25 in that game, but Elmira battled back for a 2-2 tie, the first blemish on Curryâ€™s perfect 10-0 record to that point in the season.
Both teams have changed quite a bit since then and there are no easy games in the NCAA playoffs.
â€œWe know Curry is very good in their league,â€ said Saul. â€œThey have some really skilled forwards, a good power play, and a hell of a senior goaltender, so we are going to have our work cut out for us.â€
At this point in the season, coaches hope that their players have absorbed all of the drills, plays, and learning moments that have occurred during the games. After battling through a long ECAC West season, a very difficult out of conference schedule, and the emotions of the past few days, Elmira will need to dig deep to make a run in the NCAA tournament.
â€œWeâ€™ve played some outstandingly competitive games down the stretch,â€ said Saul. â€œThe results werenâ€™t always a win, but those games have been great hockey. The ECAC West has prepared us for this game on Wednesday because the games have been so tight. We have elevated our play. We are well prepared because we have played such tough games down the stretch.â€
Curry Colonels (19-8-1 overall, 10-3-1 in the ECAC Northeast)
When looking at its opponent in the opening round of the NCAA tournament, Curry can’t help but wonder what might have been.
The Colonels will travel to Pine Valley, New York to face Elmira, the ECAC West regular season champions who finished the season with a record of 18-8-1.
Curry secured its first trip to the NCAA tournament since 2005 by knocking off pesky sixth seed Johnson & Wales, 5-4, in the ECAC Northeast championship game.
Elmira wasn’t so lucky, falling to second seeded Manhattanville in the ECAC West final. But they were still able to earn a spot in the tournament and will host the Colonels Wednesday at 7 p.m.
“We’ve got a little familiarity with the dome up there,” Curry head coach Rob Davies said. “Obviously they have home ice and that’s something that they’re familiar with that will work in their advantage this time of year.”
Curry and Elmira haven’t met since Jan. 9, 2004, when the two teams skated to a 2-2 tie in Elmira’s barn.
But the Colonels have faced a trio of the Soaring Eagles’ conference mates this year, beating Manhattanville and Utica, while losing to Hobart.
“We played three of the ECAC West teams this season,” Davies said. “There’s a certain style in that league that we might be familiar with.”
The Colonels allowed the fewest goals in ECAC Northeast play and second fewest overall behind Wentworth.
Curry is backboned by a trio of goaltenders who have been involved in a time split all season. Seniors Steven Jakiel and Zachary Cardella, along with freshman Robert Dawson, have all seen action, with Jakiel holding the edge in playing time.
It was Dawson who got the start in the ECAC Northeast championship game, allowing two goals on five shots against Johnson & Wales before giving way to Jakiel.
But Davies said he won’t decide who will get the nod until the team’s morning skate on game day.
“I’m not 100 percent sure,” he said. “There’s a very good chance we’ll go with Steve Jakiel. He’s played very well, especially in non-conference games.”
With a wealth of goaltenders to choose from, Curry’s well balanced offense shouldn’t be overlooked.
They ranked second in the ECAC Northeast behind Wentworth in both league and overall scoring, and boast four skaters with 10-plus goals, while another four each have eight, including defenseman Ryan Barlock, who leads the team with 18 assists. Forward Payden Benning posted 19 goals and 35 points in 26 games, leading Curry in both categories.
Benning is the Colonel’s deadliest scorer on the power play, leading the team with seven goals with the man advantage. But it was his timely passing that figured in two of Curry’s three power-play goals against Johnson & Wales. Davies expects special teams to be a crucial part of this matchup as well.
“In playoff hockey specials teams is one of the crucial aspects,” he said. “You want to win that part of the game as far as denying them on the PK and chipping in on the power play. But you want to play solid 5-on-5 and not give up anything anytime it’s one game and the winner moves on.”
Regardless of the situation, Davies said he is looking for a sharper mental edge out of his team.
“We can’t take shifts off regardless of where the puck is. We have to compete on the puck but away from the puck as well, and be cerebral enough to see what’s going on around us.”
With a 2-1 overtime win over top-seeded Fitchburg State on Saturday, Salem State ensured that it would be one of the few Division III teams to end the season on a wining note. The Vikings won the first ever MASCAC championship, but the league does not yet have an autobid to the NCAA tournament. Each team scored in the third period before Mike Genovese’s tally 58 seconds into overtime broke the stalemate.