Utica travels to Neumann this weekend to take on the Knights in a pair of games, but the teams have been headed in opposite directions lately. Utica is riding a four-game winning streak, including sweeps of Hobart and Manhattanville. Meanwhile, Neumann has gone 1-2-1 in its last four games against the same competition.
One potential cause of such diverse fortunes is injuries. While no coach will use injuries as an excuse, it can have a dramatic affect on the game.
Unlike last season, Utica has remained healthy this season and is reaping the benefits down the stretch. Five different Pioneers scored last weekend in the sweep against Manhattanville, and four have tallied 10 or more goals this season. The depth in scoring has helped move Utica into a tie with Elmira for the league lead.
“We’re staying healthy, which has been a big difference for us this year,” said Utica coach Gary Heenan. “All year, we’ve had different guys scoring. No one is running away with it like we’ve had in years past.”
Neumann, on the other hand, has been bit by the injury bug repeatedly this season. Only four players have dressed for all 22 games, and the subsequent adjustments in the lineup from night to night have made it hard to find any kind of consistency in the results.
“We have been struggling to get into any kind of a flow,” said Neumann coach Dominick Dawes. “We have been hit pretty badly by injuries. My trainer told me we are at 70 games missed. It isn’t an excuse, but it has made it hard to get any chemistry going with groups or lines. Hopefully, we can build off of what we did last Saturday and get a little momentum.”
Last Saturday, Neumann scored a pair of third period goals to tie Hobart and steal a point in the standings.
An important factor in Utica’s sweep of Manhattanville was short-handed goals. The Pioneers scored one in each of the second periods last weekend and now have tallied six on the season without giving up a single shortie against.
“Two big short-handed goals on two different nights made the difference for us,” said Heenan. “It is individuals making plays. It’s not a systems thing or anything that we have put in. There have been some beautiful goals.”
The Pioneers have always been known as a tough defensive team, building offense from within their own zone. This year, Utica has taken that philosophy to another level. The Pioneers are limiting opponents to only 1.95 goals against this season, an all-time low for the program.
“I think it is personnel,” said Heenan. “We’re running the same things we always have in our d-zone. We have some freshmen ‘D’ who have really stepped up their game. Our freshmen goalies have a one-two punch, and we are getting a bounce here and there as well. It certainly helps out to have a little luck on your side.”
Now Neumann and Utica face off this weekend in a pair of games that are very important to both teams. With only two weeks to go in the regular season, it is crunch time.
“Huge, obviously, considering where we are all at in the standings,” said Dawes. “[Utica] has a young group that is rolling. We are focusing on when we have played well and try to take care of our own business. We need a good weekend.”
In a shootout back in November, Neumann scored the game-winning goal with 2:08 left in the third period to steal a 5-4 victory at Utica. That has stuck in the memory of the Pioneers ever since.
“It is a huge series down the stretch,” said Heenan. “They scored with two minutes to go up here to win the hockey game, and that is certainly on our minds.”
The playoffs for the ECAC West will follow the same format as the last few years. All games are single elimination.
The first round will be played on Wednesday, February 23, when the fourth place team will host the fifth-place finisher. The top three teams at the end of the regular season get byes through this round.
The semifinal round will be held on Saturday, February 26. The winner of the first round game will travel to the regular season champion, while the second-seeded team will host the number three team.
Finally, the two semifinal winners will meet on Saturday, March 5, at the site of the highest remaining seed to decide the championship.
If needed, tiebreakers will be used to seed teams who end the regular season with the same number of points. The tiebreakers are:
2. Number of conference wins
3. Record versus common opponents
4. Overall record
ECAC West Weekly Awards
Co-Players of the Week: William Lacasse (Jr.) — Neumann. Lacasse scored two goals and notched an assist in a 4-4 tie at Hobart on Saturday afternoon. The junior scored his two goals in the third period of the game. His first was scored 1:51 into the third to bring the Knights within one, 4-3. Lacasse then netted the tying goal with 2:52 left in regulation.
Rick Shrank (Sr.) — Elmira. Schrank scored two power-play goals to lead Elmira past Cortland. Schrank’s two goals came in the third period. His first goal broke up a 4-4 tie at the 11:42 mark, and his second came with just 17 seconds to play, sealing a 6-4 win for the Soaring Eagles.
Goaltender of the Week: Nick Broadwater (So.) — Hobart. Broadwater recorded his second shutout of the season on Friday with a 4-0 win over Neumann. He stopped all 40 shots he faced. On Saturday, Broadwater recorded 38 saves in 65 minutes in goal for Hobart to finish with a 4-4 tie.
Rookie of the Week: Trevor Hertz — Utica. Hertz totaled one goal and one assist as Utica defeated Manhattanville twice this past weekend. He assisted on a short-handed goal to tie the game as the Pioneers went on to win 2-1 Friday night. He added a short-handed goal in the Pioneers’ 3-1 win over the Valiants on Saturday.