ECAC West playoff preview

No. 4 Hobart at No. 1 Elmira
Until last weekend, Elmira was the hottest team in Division III men’s hockey. The Soaring Eagles were undefeated in their last 12 contests, and hadn’t lost a game since Thanksgiving.

Elmira lost to Neumann and tied Utica last weekend, but the late season stumble doesn’t worry the Soaring Eagles.

“We knew that we had it going on for a while,” said Elmira coach Aaron Saul. “You’re not going to go undefeated in our league, no matter what time of the year it is. There are so many strong teams. Our guys know that the playoffs are here, it is a new season, and the games are just going to get harder from here on out.”

With the long roll of wins earning the top seed, Elmira will host Hobart in the semifinal round.  The Statesmen defeated Manhattanville 1-0 in the first round Wednesday in a tightly-played game to move on to face Elmira.

Blueliners and goaltending are a strength for both teams. In net, Darren McDonald (Elmira) and Nick Broadwater (Hobart) are the top two tenders in the league for save percentage.

“The strength of a hockey team is goaltending,” said Hobart coach Mark Taylor. “Anyone in hockey will tell you have to have that.  I also want our strength to be winning battles and winning races.”

In addition to a stalwart defense, Elmira has added balanced scoring to its bag of tricks this season. Kevin Willer and Darcy Vaillancourt lead the team in goals, but five other Soaring Eagles have scored five or more goals this season as well.

“Our corps group of defensemen is our biggest strength,” said Saul. “The depth in scoring, with four lines all contributing, is great.”

Elmira leads the series this year 2-1, including a pair of shutout victories two weekends ago. Despite not knowing who they would face until last night, the Soaring Eagles have been preparing all week for the playoffs.

“Earlier this week, we worked on stuff in our own game, making sure we are prepared and doing things that brought us success this year,” said Saul. “We’ll make a few adjustments now for Hobart and be ready for Saturday.”

Hobart beat the Soaring Eagles back in November in a wild 6-5 shootout and gained a dose of momentum with the tight 1-0 victory over Manhattanville on Wednesday. The short turnaround doesn’t provide Hobart much time to prepare for Elmira, but these teams are so familiar with each other, perhaps that isn’t much of a problem.

“I think the quick turnaround is good for us,” said Taylor. “We’ve just won a big hockey game and two days is enough. We’ll take that as a positive.”

No. 3 Utica at No. 2 Neumann
For the third year in a row, Utica travels to Neumann for the ECAC West playoffs. The Ice Works have not been friendly to the Pioneers, who have lost both of the previous two playoff games and also were swept by the Knights just two short weekends ago.

“We are not happy about it,” said Utica coach Gary Heenan. “It is our third year in a row going down there and we haven’t been successful. We are a team that plays extremely good at home, so we aren’t happy about going on the road. We need to mentally figure out what to do to win that hockey game.”

As would be expected, Neumann is pretty happy about being home for the semifinals of the playoffs. The Knights jumped into second place over the Pioneers with the sweep and then solidified their position by beating Elmira on the road last weekend.

“It helps a little bit,” said Neumann coach Dominick Dawes. “Being in their shoes, that is something they are going to look forward to getting a shot in the playoffs as well. We had a good weekend here a couple of weeks ago and we need to try to do things we did that whole weekend to be successful again.”

Neumann has been wracked by injuries this season. Only two players, Michael Rey and William Lacasse, have played in all 25 contests so far. Rey and Lacasse lead Neumann in points, but the Knights are starting to get healthy, and that has helped them enter the playoffs on a three-game winning streak, the longest currently in the league.

“We are starting to get a little consistency and get in a groove,” said Dawes. “We’ve got a couple of guys back from injury and they are starting to put the pieces together. If you look at our special teams, our penalty kill has been awesome the last couple of weeks. Our power play has started to click and get some goals.”

Utica made it through the majority of the season relatively healthy, knock on wood, and has 11 players who missed one or no games. The Pioneers have a lineup loaded with freshmen, and the grind of the regular season has taken a toll on the young players

“We cancelled Monday’s practice,” said Heenan. “We are trying to be rested going in. We are experiencing the bumps and the bruises of the ECAC West schedule. We are going to take some time away from the rink this week so we can be fresh going down to Neumann.”

Youth can also be a blessing as inexperience allows for a freedom of play that has helped Utica all season long.

“We’ve done some very good things at opportune times,” said Heenan. “There has been an uncanny ability to show up when a lot wouldn’t expect it. It has been finding a way in a lot of big games.”

Utica will need every bit of its youthful exuberance to figure out a way to win at Neumann and not allow results of the past to dictate the future.

“You hope it gives us more motivation, but it can also weigh on your mind,” said Heenan. “We haven’t been close to Neumann all year. They’ve handled us, so it is going to take a special effort to win down there.”

Neumann knows its task is equally as difficult, playing a top team in the nation in a one and done game.

“In this league, it doesn’t matter who you face, you are going to see one of the four best teams in the country,” said Dawes. “At one point, you are going to play them all.”

ECAC West Weekly Awards

Co-Players of the Week: Matthew Wallace (Sr.) — Hobart. Wallace shared a team-high with three points in a weekend split for the Statesmen against Manhattanville. He scored Hobart’s first goal on Friday on the power play. Wallace also assisted on the game-winning goal to lead the Statesmen to a 3-1 win over the Valiants. On Saturday, he assisted Hobart’s fourth goal that cut the Statesmen’s deficit to one with 1:25 remaining.

Goaltender of the Week: Ross MacKinnon (Jr.) — Neumann.
MacKinnon made 36 saves on 38 shots as Neumann defeated Elmira on Friday evening to wrap up the Knights regular season with a 4-2 win.

Rookie of the Week: Luke VanNatter — Manhattanville. VanNatter recorded his second multi-goal weekend of the season against Hobart, scoring the team’s lone goal on Friday night and then netting the go-ahead goal in the second period of Saturday’s 5-4 Valiant victory.