Finding the line between physical and dirty in ECAC Hockey

After witnessing a couple of extraordinary hits last weekend — some impressive, some revolting — I conducted a straw poll to assemble a short list of the league’s most recognizably physical players. The specific question I posed was: Who are the most fearsome hitters/physical players in the league?

To which I received the following nominees (in alphabetical order by program): Harry Zolnierczyk, Brown; Dan Nicholls, Cornell; Joe Stejskal, Dartmouth; Michael Sdao, Princeton; John Kennedy and Josh Rabbani, Rensselaer; and Adam Presizniuk, Union.

It’s no coincidence that all but two of these players are seniors (Sdao is a sophomore, Rabbani a junior). You can build a lot of muscle and learn a lot about the game in three years, and these guys are among those who have made the most of these opportunities.

Now, this is clearly anything but a comprehensive “who’s who” of ECAC Hockey’s heavy hitters, but it’s a good start. Nor is it a list of the conference’s most respected bruisers: Many in the Union community hold a heavy (and public) grudge against Zolnierczyk for roughing up Dutchmen goalie Keith Kinkaid in a game last year, and another respondent replied, “I can tell you who the dirtiest player is: Nicholls.”

Physicality isn’t to be confused with dirty play, of course. Every team has its immovable bodies, but it will inevitably have its inexperienced, hot-headed, or just plain dumb penalty-prone players as well. Sometimes they are the same person, but that’s not always the case.

As a segue, here are each team’s most-penalized players so far, in descending order of minutes served:

• Zolnierczyk, 13 penalties for 45 minutes (one major penalty, two misconducts)
• Chris Cahill, Yale, 10/42 (two majors, two misconducts)
• Scott Zurevinski, Quinnipiac, 9/29 (one major, one misconduct)
• Brandon DeFazio, Clarkson, 9/18, and teammate Nik Pokulok, 8/27 (one major, one misconduct)
• Matt Raley, St. Lawrence, 7/25 (one major, one misconduct)
• Sdao, 8/24 (one misconduct)
• Mike Devin, Cornell, 6/20 (one misconduct)
• Brian Day, Colgate, 9/18, and teammate Thomas Larkin, 8/19 (one major)
• Mike Keenan, Dartmouth, 9/18
• Chase Polacek, Rensselaer, 9/18
• Danny Biega, Harvard, 6/12, and teammate Michael Del Mauro, 3/17 (one major, one misconduct)
• Brock Matheson, Union, 7/14

Zolnierczyk is averaging nearly six minutes of sin per game; Cahill, nearly five. No one else on the list has strayed very far from a minor-per-game average, if that. Does this mark Zolnierczyk and Cahill as dirty players? What about Nicholls, who was called out by name? He’s taken only four penalties for eight minutes in seven games.

The answer is that it’s all in the eye of the beholder. This list isn’t a rundown of angry young men by any stretch: Zolnierczyk, Day, Del Mauro and Matheson are captains. DeFazio and Polacek are assistant captains. These aren’t irresponsible or uncontrollable personalities, at least not in the eyes of their teammates and coaching staffs.

The other simple fact is that they’re not about to be reined in by their respective coaches either, because like any heavyweight — on either side of the line — they are impact players. Like battleships on the ice, the guys who bring the lumber make the other team skittish and less effective: Nobody wants the puck on his stick if it marks him as a target for annihilation.

Big hits and big hitters have a very inherent place in ice hockey. They provide the fear factor. They win puck battles. They can clear or clog a crease, and when working effectively, they can set a very palpable tone on both benches. The take-home message is not to confuse penalties for poor judgment, and not to peg hitters as hacks.

Not to mention, keep an eye out for the aforementioned nameplates, because it’s all many of their opponents will ever see of them as these locomotives barrel through.

Scratching and clawing

While the big stories through the season’s first trimester has been how surprisingly good — and bad — some ECAC teams have been, Quinnipiac chugs along quite inconspicuously.

The Bobcats have come by their 7-6-1 record by virtue of an opening-weekend split, followed by a three-game winning streak, four-game winless skid (0-3-1), another string of three straight W’s, and now back-to-back losses once more.

“I think that’s a pretty good evaluation. We’re good, we’re bad … we have 18 freshmen and sophomores, so you know any time you have that much youth, there are going to be peaks and valleys, so that’s kind of what we’re experiencing right now,” coach Rand Pecknold said. “We just have to get a little more consistent in our focus and our compete level.”

The Q-Cats are hanging around the middle of the league in just about every statistical category, but the offense — ranked 10th in the league in overall productivity, with just 2.21 goals a game — is of special concern to Pecknold.

“I didn’t think we’d have this much trouble scoring goals,” he sighed. “I’ve been here 17 years, and it’s probably been 15 years since we’ve struggled to score goals. That’s one thing we always do well, and we’re just really, really fighting it right now. We’ve got a lot of good players, guys that put up a lot of good numbers in junior hockey, that just aren’t producing for us at this point. I think it’ll happen, but we’re struggling right now on offense.”

Of QU’s handful of productive players, junior captain (and previously mentioned) Zurevinski has been a leader both on and off the ice.

“Zurvy’s been great,” Pecknold said. “He struggled a bit the first two games, but he’s been great since. He’s a really great hockey player, he does a lot of things well, he’s a physical presence, and certainly he’s starting to produce offensively.”

With a team-leading five goals so far, the 6-foot-3, 210-pound product of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, is trying to catch up to last year’s 16-14–30 pace … one that caught so many eyes in the professional ranks, and one that Pecknold believes will mark an early departure from collegiate hockey.

“That’s what we thought would happen,” Pecknold said of Zurevinski’s potential postseason contract. “We’ll have to wait and see at the end of the year. He’s certainly getting a lot of attention, and I think we’ll plan on that. If he decides to return, we’d certainly be very excited to have him back, but we’ve got a long way to go before we get to that point. I think planning-wise, we have to assume — with the CBA setup and the way the NHL’s set up right now — that he’s gonna go.”

Fortunately, QU isn’t relying solely — now, or in the future — on Zurevinski’s presence. Freshmen twins Connor and Kellen Jones have combined for eight goals and nine assists to date despite adjustment challenges.

“Connor and Kellen both have been really good, [but] it’s been kind of an eye-opener for them,” Pecknold said. “They were so dominant at the junior level; their biggest struggle right now is keeping their confidence up when things aren’t going their way. They’re adapting, and I’m very happy with the twins.

“Those three forwards — along with, some nights, [junior] Yuri Bouharevich — have been our four best forwards.”

In a bit of a sea change from years past, the Bobcats’ biggest strength right now may be in net. No, not filling the other team’s net … their own net. Yes, I know, it’s weird.

When junior Dan Clarke began to stumble after four or five games, sophomore Eric Hartzell filled in quite nicely, and has since shown little desire to relinquish the starting role.

“Hartzell’s been great. He stepped up and has really played well in almost every game he’s played in,” Pecknold said. “I think we’re in a good situation where we’ve got two goalies that can play, and we’ll just have to ride out the season playing whoever’s got the hot hand. Hopefully we can get them both going at the same time. That would be a real luxury if we could pull that off.”

On the whole, QU’s up-and-down season can be summed up in one word: youth. The veteran Bobcats bench boss recognized it off the bat, but knows there’s little that can be done other than to teach, encourage and wait out his charges’ individual learning and adjustment periods.

“I think it’s mostly youth,” Pecknold said. “I think our game prep has been all over the map. I don’t think it’s just the first period we’ve had problems with; I think we’ve had problems with playing a full 60 lately. I think it’s a maturity thing — or a lack of maturity thing, I guess is the better phrase — and, you know, we’re young. We’re putting a lot of young players on the ice every night, and we’ve gotta let ’em get some game experience. I think we’ll be a lot better in February than we are now.”


  1. I can’t speak to most of them (though BU’s fans were rather angry at Zolnierczyk), but I can say that I saw both of Cahill’s misconducts. His first one was a Goaltender Interference call against Dartmouth, where he was charging hard on a 2-on-1 and clipped O’Neill, knocking his mask off. I’m a bit biased, but O’Neill definitely moved in Cahill’s direction to try to play the puck, and the hit seemed to be more accidental than intentional. That said, you’re going to get whistled there by skittish refs, and it’s not necessarily a bad call.

    The other misconduct was levied in the Air Force game (btw, Atlantic officiating is a biased joke…they called a clean game in the first period, after which the AF coach called them to the bench and harangued them. Guess who the refs started sending to the box afterwards?). Air Force had just gotten away with a decidedly-nasty, possibly-dirty hitting from behind into the boards on a check against Brian O’Neill, after which Yale was rung up for two boarding calls of their own. Cahill’s misconduct came in a scrum following one of those boarding calls, where even Allain got hung with a misconduct for calling out the refs’ officiating.

    It’s a young season, I’m sure Cahill’s numbers will even out.


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