Peeking at the big picture as ECAC Hockey play winds down

Kelly Zajac (Union - 19) faces off with Will MacDonald (Princeton - 22). Zajac had a 4 point game as the Union College Dutchman visited Hobey Baker Rink in Princeton, NJ, defeating Princeton 7-4. (Shelley M. Szwast)
Union's Kelly Zajac (right) faces off with Princeton's Will MacDonald (photo: Shelley M. Szwast).

Three weeks left. That’s it.

Only three weeks remain in ECAC Hockey’s regular season, so the annual segment snuck up on me a bit, to tell you the truth. But without further ado, let’s take a look at …

What we know

Most teams have six games remaining, but a few have five or seven. Here’s how the playoff race is shaping up.

• Colgate (four points) can’t finish higher than eighth place.

• Harvard (six points) can’t finish higher than seventh.

• St. Lawrence (nine points) and Brown (11 points, each with seven games remaining) could finish as high as third.

• Mathematically speaking (which is all we’re really doing here), Clarkson (13 points, seven games left) could finish anywhere.

• Quinnipiac (16 points, five games left) can’t finish higher than second place, but won’t come in last, either.

• Princeton (19 points), Dartmouth and Cornell (20 points each) and Rensselaer (21 points) will enter the playoffs as no worse than 10-seeds.

• Union (25 points) and Yale (26 points) have secured home-ice seeds in the first round at the very least.

And that’s what we know. Tiebreakers and all that sudoku-like logic will be addressed down the line.

Advantage: North Country

Home-ice advantage: It’s a big cliché, but no small factor when assessing a matchup. ECAC Hockey has a lot of great, historic, intimidating venues, but as the sun begins to set on this season, I had to wonder … which ECAC programs have really been holding the aces at home in recent history?

First I asked the coaches.

“Cornell,” one said. “They’re a good team, physical, [with a] loud building where they seem to get a lot of penalty calls in their favor.”

Most other coaches agreed with that assessment, as did my next pollsters, the league’s sports information directors.

“They have had a lot of very good teams, and their fans are tremendous,” one said of the Big Red.

Other responses, though, included Harvard, RPI, Union, Yale, even Brown (“While some of the dinginess has been renovated out of the building, small crowds suck the energy out of the game, even for those just watching and not playing. It has been tough for us,” one SID said). A couple respondents noted what have been notoriously difficult road trips as well, citing the Central New York swing (Colgate/Cornell), while another, unsurprisingly, rues the North Country haul:

“The North Country trip has been incredibly difficult,” a coach said. “SLU is well-coached and plays in a bandbox of a rink. Stuff happens quick on that ice surface. Clarkson has always been strong on their ice. Just a tough trip … no easy route for the bus to get to this area and just can be taxing travel-wise.”

But did I stop there? You should know me better than that. I went to the numbers.

I broke down overall (not just league) home and away records for each of the conference’s programs over the last 10 years, not including this season, and converted those results to winning percentages.

Not surprisingly, Cornell ran away with that contest, triumphing at a .747 rate at Lynah over the last decade (114-32-20) and winning at a better clip on the road (.629) than seven league mates did at home.

Also making their home games count were Harvard (.668), Dartmouth (.646), Quinnipiac (.632 in a reduced sample size, given its brief history in the ECAC), Clarkson (.629), Colgate (.621) and St. Lawrence (.617). On the flip side, five programs have failed to claim as many as six points out of 10 at home since the 2000-01 season: Princeton (.460) brings up the rear, followed by Brown (.493), RPI (.497), Yale (.520) and Union (.573).

Funny how some of the weakest swimmers in the pool this year are among the home-ice hazards, while Yale, Union and RPI are first, second and third in the standings right now.

As for road records, after Cornell came Harvard (.453), QU (.443), Colgate (.426), Dartmouth (.421), Yale (.415), RPI (.395), St. Lawrence and Union (.383 apiece), Clarkson (.370), Princeton (.356) and Brown (.307).

But here’s the real question. Good teams will win at home or away; Cornell demonstrated that over the last 10 years, if you need any proof. But who really gets a boost at home … which fans, arenas and environments have had the power to turn middling teams into formidable foes, and turn rolling visitors into roadkill?

It’s easy enough to deduce, once you have the aforementioned numbers: Just find the greatest difference between home and road records.

Who’s getting the most juice from their house? Clarkson and St. Lawrence, actually.

The Golden Knights take top prize with a .259 differential, turning what would have theoretically been a road loss into a home tie, or a road tie into a home win once every four games. The Saints showed 23.4 percent better at home as well, validating the anonymous coach’s opinion of the North Country as the toughest trip in the league in recent history.

Running down the rest of the league, Dartmouth’s Thompson Arena should be in the conversation of venues you’d rather avoid, with the Big Green winning 22.7 percent more often at home than on the road. Harvard’s .215 improvement at the Bright Hockey Center rounds out the top four home-ice advantages in the league. At the other end of the spectrum, Rensselaer had won only 10.2 percent more often at the Houston Field House than away; Princeton was up 10.4 percent at Baker Rink, and Yale a mere 10.5 percent at the Whale. The fourth-“worst” (if you can call it that) local edge in the league over the last 10 years? Cornell, believe it or not, which boasts only a .118 difference between its home and road percentages. (The other four programs all fall between .187 and .195 advantages.)

If I’d had the time, I would’ve checked out each program’s league records over that period as well, to keep the overall strength-of-schedule aspect constant, but this is really an evaluation within teams, not between them. Not many schedules are tremendously more difficult on the road than at home, or vice versa, especially over a few years’ time.

What’s it all mean in the coming weeks, as these teams jockey for position and a chance to terminate each other in the playoffs? Not much … but it’s food for thought.