Well, no one ever said it would be easy … or predictable.
Another ECAC Hockey end-game is upon us, as four teams converge on Atlantic City for its inaugural league championship weekend. Each of these teams is compelling for its own reasons, with a story worth telling of challenges met and feats yet to achieve. I like to think that each corner of our Garden State quartet has been documented fairly and thoughtfully this season, but should you disagree (or simply starve for more playoff coverage), here’s our final ECAC rundown of the 2010-11 season.
The Hamilton icers utterly failed to live up to even the most conservative expectations this year, but have certainly found a way to turn things around at the most critical point of the season. The Raiders became the first 12th seed to qualify for the championship weekend, “pulling a Brown” by stunning fifth seed Rensselaer and regular-season champ Union — both on the road, of course — in consecutive three-game sets, much the same way Bruno did at RPI and Yale last spring.
“We’re thrilled to be in this position, and somewhat fortunate as well,” said coach Don Vaughan. “You know the kind of year we’ve had up until this point; it was certainly a frustrating regular-season campaign for us, with a lot of close games which at the end of the day I think took a toll on the psyche of our team. We were frustrated, clearly, at times … but we stayed positive most of the time.”
The veteran team ultimately pulled together in the penultimate month of the season, ending the season on a 4-2-1 run that funneled momentum straight into the upcoming playoffs.
“The team battled through a lot of adversity and finally got a win against a Clarkson team in our own building in February which gave us a little bit of confidence,” Vaughan said. “From there, you could actually see the light go on with this team: They were playing a little different, they were coming to the rink with a different attitude, and we were able to string some wins together down the stretch.
“I think the wins late in the regular season really helped us as we rolled into the playoffs. We played two quality opponents in RPI and Union, and we knew going in that we were going to have our hands full. Let’s face it, either of those series could’ve gone either way — all the games were tight — and again, we were fortunate to get a couple bounces in both series that we weren’t getting early on. That said, I think a lot of that is the result of a team that continued to work, and got great leadership from our captains.”
Many underdogs, great or small, relish the idea of playing with house money: Nobody expected them to make it this far, so there’s no pressure to do anything other than play their game and have fun doing it.
Colgate is not that dog.
“We feel we play better when we’re focused,” the Raiders’ coach said. “I know that when you’re in our position, a lot of times there’s a ‘nothing-to-lose’ kind of attitude as the 12th seed, but my experience with this team especially has been — because we’ve tried everything this year — that we didn’t perform as well when we were too loose. So we’ve tried to keep the guys focused, and take a little more of a businesslike approach to the last part of the season and the playoffs.”
The ‘Gate has had few regular contributors this season, but the handful who made their presence felt through thick and thin are definitely on board for the postseason … with a few new band members, too.
“It’s been a combination of a few guys, really: Francois Brisebois (who leads the team with 16 goals) has continued to play well, he plays with a lot of energy, he’s got great acceleration, he’s hard to contain,” Vaughan said of one of his most reliable producers.
“I thought the last two weekends, the guy for me who has been the backbone of the team and who has really stepped up his play is the guy who scored the game-winning goal on Sunday — Wade Poplawski. It’s not because he scored the game-winning goal: He was my MVP last weekend at RPI. We tried to match him up as much as we possibly could against Chase Polacek. He’s a hard guy to contain, and Wade did a good job of that, especially on Sunday night. We were able to keep him off the score sheet, which in my opinion resulted in us winning that game. He’s played a lot of minutes for us, he’s been injured on and off throughout the season — he missed a large block of games in the middle of the year, which certainly had an impact on our team — but he’s played really, really well.
“I look at Brian Day as well. Brian hasn’t put up the big numbers that he normally does, but he’s a guy that gives you everything he has every time. Those guys have done a great job for us. And we have a freshman who, in my opinion, has been unbelievable the last two playoff series in Chris Wagner. He just took his game to a whole other level. He’s a heck of a hockey player, and he’s done a lot of work for us here in the last couple weeks, especially for a freshman.”
Factor rookie Eric Mihalik into the equation as well: The freshman goaltender has held opponents to two goals or fewer in seven of his (and his team’s) last 13 games since beating Clarkson. Combined with the offense’s seven three-plus-goal outings over that stretch, and you’ve got yourself a hot streak.
Yale is on notice: This may finally be the Raiders team that we were all expecting from Day 1.
If the Raiders are the phoenix of the league, emerging stronger than ever from the decimation of a regular-season lost, then the Big Red are a lesser — but perhaps more powerful — story of redemption in their own right.
Cornell just figured things out sooner.
“That championship last year feels like it was 15 years ago,” coach Mike Schafer sighed. “It was a long haul for our team this year, getting off to a bad start, climbing the standings throughout the year, and we were fortunate to get home ice in the playoffs. We’re excited to be back, and we know that it’s going to be very, very difficult to claim the championship.”
I don’t feel compelled to add much more to last week’s column, as the Red stumbled but ultimately surged past spunky Quinnipiac to get back to the league’s final foursome for the fourth time in a row. I don’t feel too bad about it though, as Schafer doesn’t feel much need to tinker at this time of year, either.
“The [bye] week off gave us an opportunity to practice some things that we were lacking in the last three or four games of the season,” he said. “At this time of the year — especially after playing three games in three nights — I think we were pretty dead. It’s very difficult to get after it throughout the course of this week, because you want to be fully ready and energized for the game on Friday. With the travel, it makes for a short week. … It’s been a lot of hockey played and a lot of lessons learned, so it’ll be a light week of practice as we prepare for Atlantic City.”
One issue that will stimulate talk around ECAC-friendly water coolers is that of Schafer’s goaltending tandem. Freshman Andy Iles and junior Mike Garman have platooned for most of the year, but will that rotation hold up with all the chips on the table?
“Both goaltenders played very, very well,” the coach said of last weekend’s three-game squeaker. “They’ve put up almost identical statistics throughout the course of the season, and they’ve given us an opportunity to win in almost every game that they’ve played in. Mike’s played on Friday, and Andy’s played on Saturday, so I figured going into Game 3 we’d just keep the rotation going. The fact that Mike was fresh, he didn’t have to play back-to-back games, was the basis for the decision. Both would’ve been an easy decision, but the fact that Mike rested on Saturday and could come back on Sunday was a big part of what went into it.”
Iles played both games against Dartmouth this year, allowing two goals each game in a 2-2 tie and a 3-2 overtime win. Let the mind games begin.
The Cool Hand Luke of the league, the Big Green worked their way up to the No. 3 seed and got through feisty Harvard in the semifinals with a sense of confidence that belies the true brutality of the conference schedule. Without flashy streaks or a national spotlight, Dartmouth has simply chugged along in happy anonymity.
Now, though, the inconspicuous Green feel ready to step into the limelight. Against a Big Red backdrop, Dartmouth is comfortable facing a team that brings out its best.
“These are two very evenly matched teams. I think the styles are fairly close, the way we play the game, and we like to think that we’re a good, solid, defensive team that has the ability to score some goals,” coach Bob Gaudet said. “We have depth, we don’t rely on one line or anything like that, and I think that Cornell’s very similar: They play hard, they’re very, very strong defensively, and they try to spread it around offensively. I liked the matchup in the regular season; I thought they were two excellent games.”
Like Cornell before, I have little to add this week to last week’s piece, other than that Gaudet and the Green foresee no trouble adjusting to Friday’s opponent.
“Harvard really played a style where they were physical, defensively they were really, really solid — you had to fight for every inch of ice in all three games. I think it’s going to be a very similar situation for Cornell, so I think the Harvard series was excellent preparation for playing against Cornell.”
Once Cinderellas, then juggernauts, now … what? Who are the Yale Bulldogs, now that they’re not, well, the runaway favorites we expected them to be?
From an outsider’s perspective — that being someone who doesn’t inhabit a locker room at Ingalls with any regularity — we feel compelled to attach a tag, a role, to this team. They were the last unbeaten team in the nation, they boast the most prolific offense in the country, they beat North Dakota in the NCAA’s last year and took eventual champs Boston College to the wire despite having no serviceable goaltending to speak of that afternoon.
But then they blew a two-goal, third-period lead at Air Force. They lost to ninth- place Brown, and Union, and Rensselaer, and 11th-seeded St. Lawrence (twice!). Last-place Colgate tied Yale, in New Haven no less — the only blemish on an otherwise immaculate regular-season home record (15-0-1, now 17-1-1 after last weekend’s 2-1 series win over SLU).
So we sit back and wonder, who are the Bulldogs? To which I’d respond: Does it matter?
“We had our backs up against the wall, but came out and played better in Game 2, and won that 5-2,” coach Keith Allain said of the St. Lawrence quarterfinal. “[Sunday] night we were able to get the jump on them. I think we were able to take advantage of the fact that it was their sixth game in 10 nights, and we kept the pressure up and were able to win 4-0.”
That’s the talk of a team and a coach who are focusing on one game at a time, the same as everyone else. Perhaps the Blue doesn’t have a role, other than as one of four participants in this weekend’s festivities. A lock for the NCAA tournament, and all but assured a No. 1 seed in Bridgeport’s East Regional (which they host), the Bulldogs are a very good team that is trying to build on the successes — and failures — of the past two years.
One of the big advantages this team has is a stable goalie. The No. 1 netminder since the Bulldogs’ opening week, senior Ryan Rondeau has met every challenge and has all but erased memories of last year’s four-man, zero-consistency sieve stable.
“Absolutely. I don’t think there’s any change in the way he’s approached the game, or the way he’s played,” Allain said. “He’s been rock-solid all season long, and he was rock-solid again this week.”
Yale’s infamous offense is only getting better as the production swells from deeper within its ranks.
“I thought the line of [Kevin] Limbert, [Denny] Kearney and [Broc] Little had an outstanding weekend for us, and the defensive pairing of Jimmy Martin and Mike Matczak was really good as well. We have a freshman center who didn’t play a lot during the year but played this weekend — Clinton Bourbonais — and I thought he had an outstanding weekend on both sides of the puck. He didn’t just sub in; I’ve been alternating him and [classmate] Jesse Root for most of the season, and the weekend before, we played him and he scored — he was playing well — and so the job was his.”
Suffice to say, these are not last year’s so-close-yet-so-far Elis.
“Three games into the playoffs last year, we’d lost, as opposed to winning this year, so the mood is much different,” said Allain. “I still contend that we played pretty well in our playoff series last year, and the goaltender kind of stole it — but I guess what I liked better about our team this year is I felt that we started pretty good Friday night, and got better in each of our games over the weekend. That’s the direction all coaches would like to see their team heading in.”