This Week in ECAC Hockey: March 17, 2010

Let’s face it: Even though this is a pretty unusual quartet, Albany-wise, it’s not the first time we’ve seen them. If you want the nitty-gritty on each team, I recommend reading the past two columns … this is purely the final polish.

Go get ’em, boys.

No. 11 Brown

The bear went over the mountain to see what he could see. Last year, he decided to spend his hibernation on the valley floor.

This year, he climbed the next mountain, too.

“It’s a team that believes. We believe in what we’re doing, we believe in the progress we’ve made, we believe in each other, and that’s a pretty powerful thing when the guys have that sense of family,” said charismatic Brown coach Brendan Whittet. “There’s 29 guys in that room that all love each other, and don’t want to take off their jerseys, that’s for sure.

“We’re excited. It should be fun.”

Fun. That’s not a word that most teams use at this time of year … but maybe they should. As Whittet said, this team believes, and they are living, skating proof of one of the oldest sports truisms in the book: hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.

That’s not to say that Rensselaer and Yale didn’t work hard. They just didn’t work hard enough.

“We got absolutely top-notch goaltending from Mike Clemente,” said Whittet, not only of the Yale series last weekend, but against RPI the week prior. “He was very good, but he was not the sole reason that we advanced past Yale. We played very, very good hockey in Game 1 and again in Game 3. We were good on the defensive side, we kept a lot of things to the outside, we were selfless in the respect that we sacrificed ourselves … to block pucks, to get in shot lanes, to deflect things out of harm’s way throughout the series, just like we did the weekend before at RPI.”

Hard-skating, hard-hitting, hard-working Bruno has a new opponent in Cornell on Friday, but it’s not a style the Bears are unaccustomed to: to many degrees, it is their own.

“It’ll be an interesting game because we play fairly similar styles,” described Brown’s coach. “Obviously, Cornell does it better, to a certain extent. We’re going to have to limit their Grade-A opportunities, we’re going to have to limit their power-play opportunities — they have an excellent power play — we’re going to have to play in their zone if we can, we’re going to have to get to Scrivens. Cornell does an unbelievable job on the defensive side, to shore things up and make sure shots are coming from the outside … there aren’t too many second or third opportunities against Cornell, but we’re going to have to create those opportunities. We’ll have to win battles in our zone and along the walls, because they’re very, very good possessing pucks and wearing you down, then attacking or drawing penalties when you’re tired.”

No matter what happens this weekend, Whittet is indescribably proud of this program in his first year at the helm. A former Brown Bears player himself, the energetic coach didn’t pause for one second when asked if this season was a success already.

“Yes. It’s more than the wins and losses; we were able to inject new life into a program that was broken, and make Brown hockey exciting again — exciting for alums, exciting for our team, exciting for the people associated with this university,” he said. “It’s a proud program, and it’s a program that’s going to win championships … and it may be this year.”

Brown is a known quantity on paper. It’s big, it plays hard, it hits often. It blocks shots (28 in Sunday’s series-clinching win over Yale alone), it has strong goaltending and a passionate coach. What can’t be defined or quantified is how bad it wants it, and how far it’s going to get it.

“We have to play physical, no matter who we play,” said Whittet. “We have to get in people’s grills … and we have to play with a swagger, because if we don’t, we’re in trouble. We’re in trouble. We’ll come out with a lot of pride, and we’ll come out with a chip on our shoulder.

“We’re the underdog, we relish that opportunity and that role, and we’ll go out and try to dispel what people believe about our program and the direction that we’re going. We’re on the upswing, we’re a proud university with a deep, deep winning tradition with Brown hockey. We’re on the way back.”

No. 5 St. Lawrence

Coach Joe Marsh said that last week’s series at fourth-seeded Colgate felt like the movie “Groundhog Day:” another spring, another series in Hamilton.

What he failed to realize is that his program’s late-season charge is in itself another edition of “here we go again.”

The Saints have won five of six, vanquishing archrival Clarkson and homestanding Colgate in the process. They’ve won relatively higher-scoring games (4-3 wins over Harvard and Colgate) as well as a number of tight ones (a 2-1 victory to open the Colgate series, and two 3-2 wins along the way as well). It’s not T.J. Trevelyan’s team anymore, but it’s still the same hard-fightin’ Saints.

“It was like ‘Groundhog Day,'” Marsh ironically repeated in this week’s interview. “I felt like Bill Murray when he wakes up and hears that Sonny and Cher song. But really, we were very fortunate, [Colgate was] a dangerous team. They were pretty even games. We just kept working, got some breaks; I don’t think there was anything really specific [that put us over]. The two teams were pretty evenly matched.”

In the semifinal, SLU takes on a team that’s had its number this year: Union. The Dutchmen haven’t exactly taken the Saints to the woodshed, but they did pin four goals on each of Marsh’s goaltenders in 4-3 and 4-2 wins.

“Playing Union, they’re a real good team, they’ve beat us twice. I’ve got tremendous respect for how they’ve done it, Nate Leaman was a real good choice [for coach of the year]; I know I voted for him. It’s not just for what they’ve done this year, but really what they’ve done in the last few years and how: They’ve had a very honest, systematic approach to developing good players and how they rebuilt their team. They’re like a lot of us smaller-market teams, where we all have to rebuild, and they’ve done a great job at it. I have a tremendous amount of respect for them. We know we’re going to have to bring our A-game, and it should be really exciting game.”

Marsh isn’t going to let St. Lawrence sit back and expect the past to carry it through to the title game. The Saints may have played in Albany in three of the last four springs, but this is a whole new year with a whole new opponent.

“They’re excited, they’re pumped to be there and it’s in their neighborhood,” Marsh warned.

Like most coaches at this point of the year — at least, those with healthy lineups — Marsh doesn’t foresee any big philosophical shifts in how the Saints play hockey from last weekend to this. It’s all about taking care of business, and working as hard as they always have, he said.

This year’s Saints have exhibited all the major characteristics of a traditionally successful St. Lawrence squad: dangerous and responsible talent up front, highly active and hard-skating defenders, and a viable netminder holding down the fort.

Unlike years past, this year’s team has fought uphill to Capital District. It’s not a favorite, it’s not an at-large contender … these Saints are flying under fire, and they’re approaching their target at high velocity.

No. 3 Union

The Dutch haven’t been this powerful since the War of Spanish Succession.

Union is in the midst of its best season in school history — literally, not just lyrically — and now laces up a mere 20 miles from Messa Rink in its biggest game ever.

Again, literally.

St. Lawrence looms for the Dutchmen, and even though UC has come out on top twice, Leaman remains wary of the foes from the North Country.

“I know that St. Lawrence is always a team that’s well-coached. They play with a lot of passion, a lot of energy, a lot of jump, and they don’t stop coming … so we know we’re going to have our hands full, without a doubt,” said Leaman, ECAC Hockey’s recently crowned coach of the year.

“I think they’re similar [to Quinnipiac]. Both teams are very good in transition, both teams have good team speed, both teams have a little bit younger defensive corps. I think the one difference for St. Lawrence is that they score so many goals from their defensemen. They use their defensemen well in their offense, all over the ice, so that will be an adjustment we’ll have to make going into this game.”

One of the obvious questions facing the Dutchmen is how the team will perform under completely novel circumstances. Not only have none of its current players ever been to the league championships before, but neither has the program itself.

Leaman isn’t sweating those points, though; experience is what teaches you how to play better hockey … not how to play better hockey in Albany.

“I don’t put a huge amount of stock into [experience], honestly,” he said. “Some of my experiences have been just the opposite way: When I was part of the University of Maine staff, we didn’t have a player that had ever played in the national tournament, and they won the national tournament that year. It’s funny, I was listening to the radio coming into work two days ago, and [legendary college basketball coach] Bobby Knight had mentioned the same thing. He mentioned that it’s about the players, and it’s not about the experience, and I tend to agree. I agree that it’s about the players that are playing the game. Every year it’s different teams. Different year, different team.”

The other focal point for Union-watchers is between the pipes. Keith Kinkaid is up for rookie and goaltender of the year honors, but it was actually junior Corey Milan who picked up each of the UC’s wins against Quinnipiac last weekend.

“He controls his rebounds really well. I think that’s the best thing about Keith and his adjustment to this level, is the fact that he does a tremendous job at controlling his rebounds, so a lot of the time he’s not being forced to make the second or third save. He’s a big body in there that has a good set of hands and is very athletic, so he’s got some great, great traits that go along with being an elite goaltender. He’s had a great freshman campaign,” praised his coach, who went on to describe some of his roster adjustments on Saturday.

“We basically wanted to get fresh guys in there. I put all of our extra forwards in the lineup and obviously started Corey [Milan in net]. One thing we feel about our team is, we feel we have a lot of depth. We wanted to use that depth in the series, we’ve been using that depth all season long, and the guys who stepped in played tremendously for us, including Corey.

“Looking at the weekend, both Keith and Corey played two games: Keith actually played more than Corey on the weekend, from one night’s game. The decision to go back to Corey was a lot about rest, Corey played extremely well [Saturday], so we just thought it was right to go back with him once again. That obviously worked out for us there.”

A lot has been working well for Union this season. Records have fallen, and a new bar has been set for future Dutchmen … but how high will it be? We’ll certainly know by Saturday night.

No. 2 Cornell

And without further ado, the Cornell Big Red. It’s only fitting that they’re the highest remaining seed, because even if Yale had made it through, the Red would still have been the true pedigree pooch of the lot.

Cornell was the last ECAC Hockey team to make the Frozen Four (2003). It has been the most successful team this decade, without much debate, and it represents generations of legendary Cornell hockey players every time it dons those classic jerseys.

But don’t get them wrong; that ain’t Joe Nieuwendyk taking the draws, and it’s not David LeNeveu tending the twine. This is a self-made Big Red team, led by a self-made coach … heck, Mike Schafer doesn’t even have a secretary.

What this team does have in common with its predecessors is size, strength and smarts. Cornell will herd you into a corner, have some of its 6-foot-3 sentinels beat the tar out of you, then transition the puck up ice to Blake Gallagher, Colin Greening or Riley Nash (to name the “usual suspects”) for a really pretty goal. It’s what they do.

That last bit though, about the scoring? That’s pretty new. Cornell’s always been known for its defense and goaltending, but this year’s team is adding a page to the Book of Red: scoring. The above-named trio combined for 44 goals in a 31-game season to date, which is also 44 percent of the team’s offense (99 overall goals).

Ben Scrivens is, as a senior, exactly what Ben Scrivens was hoped to be as a senior: simply great. He’s got a .933 save rate and a 1.89 goals-against average, not to mention five shutouts and eight more one-goal games. In his last four outings, Big Red opponents have scored once, once, once, and … none. That’s clutch ‘keeping right there.

There is no question that the Red will also pack the house this weekend, bringing the league’s largest fan base to the Times-Union Center once more. If there’s any part of this team that relies on its past, it’s the fans: Legions of Cornell students have swayed to “Hail Cornell” and jumped about to “Give My Regards to Davy;” it’s an inimitable facet of the Ithaca experience.

One team, one season, will never kill that kind of loyalty, nor can any one year elevate such devotion to something beyond … but boy, one year can resonate for a long, long time in the hearts of those who care. The Big Red have a lot of those hearts, and the power to make them beat in unison.

Annual Honors

Tim Taylor Award

On Monday, the league named Leaman the recipient of the Tim Taylor Award as coach of the year. Under his guidance, the Dutchmen finished with a program-record 20 overall wins, 12 conference victories and a .622 winning percentage. Picked sixth in both the coaches’ and media preseason polls, Union is instead the third seed and contends in the league’s final four for the first time in school history.

“It’s a good team award,” said a deferential Leaman. “You’re a good coach because you have good players and good staff around you. It’s a nice recognition for our team.”

Dryden Award Finalists

Union’s Kinkaid, Cornell’s Scrivens and Rensselaer’s Allen York have been named the three finalists for this year’s Ken Dryden Award for the league’s top goaltender. Freshman Kinkaid and sophomore York will probably be considered longshots against the senior Scrivens, who has been a Dryden contender for just about his entire Big Red career.

Player of the Year Finalists

Yale’s Sean Backman, Rensselaer’s Chase Polacek and Cornell’s Scrivens compose this year’s player of the year hat trick. Polacek led the league in points (50) and goals (26), and ranks third nationally in each category as well. Backman’s story is well-worn by now, and I have a hard time seeing voters look past their suspicions to pick him over either Scrivens or Polacek, who is likely the favorite in this race.

Rookie of the Year Finalists

Rensselaer’s Jerry D’Amigo, Union’s Kinkaid and Harvard’s Louis Leblanc are the three names in the hat for the honor. D’Amigo finished second in league scoring among rookies, notching seven goals and 17 assists, and tallied 34 points in 35 overall games. Leblanc led the Crimson in scoring with 23 points, and scored all 11 of his overall goals in league play. Leblanc also ranks sixth nationally in rookie goal-scoring, and was ECAC Hockey’s leader in that category.

Vermeulen Named Best Defensive Forward

Cornell’s Joe Scali, St. Lawrence’s Travis Vermeulen and Brown’s Aaron Volpatti were in the running for the award, but Vermeulen was ultimately named the winner on Wednesday afternoon. Vermeulen played the PK for the Saints, excelled in the faceoff circle and was called “the best defensive forward I have ever coached” by Marsh. The senior is currently second on the Saints with a plus-10 rating, and leads SLU in goals (17), assists (24) and points (41).

Defensive Defenseman Finalists

St. Lawrence’s Derek Keller, Cornell’s Justin Krueger and Union’s Mike Schreiber were named the league’s top contenders for this award in a traditionally defense-minded league. Keller was among the Saints’ top horses this year, eating up the ice time and leading both of SLU’s special-teams units. Krueger tied for the league lead in plus-minus, as the plus-14 blueliner supplemented that number with 18 points and countless blocked shots. Schreiber, arguably the league’s best offensive defenseman, nonetheless anchored a defense that ranks 15th in the nation (2.59 goals-against average) and supports a plus-.95 goal differential per game, 11th in the country.

NCAA Doomsday Scenario

With Alabama-Huntsville’s shocking win in the CHA tournament, the available spots in the NCAAs are now down to 14: UAH takes one, and CHA partner and one-time favorite Bemidji State will take another as an at-large team (as the Beavers are currently seventh in the PairWise Rankings).

Wait, did I say 14? I meant 13.

That’s because Atlantic Hockey’s ultimate champion — RIT is the prohibitive favorite, and is now playing in the semifinals — will take another of the NCAA bids, which cuts the number of open seeds down to unlucky 13.

Alaska currently occupies the 13th spot, but the Nanooks were bounced from the CCHA tourney last weekend, so they can only be jumped … they can’t drop on their own. Among teams currently outside the top 13 who are still in contention are Michigan, Vermont, Maine, Boston University, and all four remaining AHA participants. Top-13 teams who are no longer playing include aforementioned Bemidji State and Alaska, as well as Yale.

The Bulldogs probably thought they were safe in 10th, but now they’ll have to be feeling some heat. Chances are the Elis are safe, but I haven’t run all the possibilities yet.

What does this mean to our teams still skating? Union: win, nothing else will get you through. Same deal for St. Lawrence, and same goes for Brown, obviously. Cornell is in, though they might need one win out of the weekend to breathe a little easier about things.

No shortcuts this weekend, boys.

Readers’ Poll

Only Richter547 picked Brown over Yale in last week’s poll … but unfortunately for him/her, he/she also picked Quinnipiac and Colgate. Oops. SCONF correctly picked three of four again (with Brown of course being the fourth), as did Red Cloud; for some reason, none of the other five 75-percenters from last week voted, and Humanoid was only 1-for-4.

Therefore, it’s SCONF and Red Cloud for the championship, and This Week is still seeking its first perfect weekend. This week’s poll is a little tricky, so you’ll have to pay attention: pick Friday’s winners, then in accordance with your first picks, pick the championship and consolation games from the proper pairings. If you pick the wrong Saturday matchup(s) given your Friday picks, you’re a cheater.

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