By the end of this weekend, all ECAC West teams will have played just about half of the games on their schedule as they take a break for the holidays.
It seems like an appropriate time to take a look at the strengths of each team and what they might be working on to improve as they get ready for the stretch run.
Elmira finished the first part of the season a perfect 5-0 in league play, but 2-3 outside the league. All three losses came to teams ranked No. 1 in the nation at the time of the game, including two against Oswego to start the season, and the third to Norwich in the Primelink Tournament.
What has been the key ingredient that led Elmira to the top of the standings?
“It is our depth in all three areas, forwards, ‘D,’ and goaltenders,” said Elmira coach Aaron Saul. “We haven’t been this deep in years.”
Fifteen different players have scored goals this season, and freshman goaltender Ryan deMelo has contributed in net during key situations, including a win over Hobart.
Even the best teams are constantly looking for ways to improve, and Elmira is no exception.
“When we have the lead in games, we need to continue to be aggressive and put the pressure on,” said Saul. “We can’t let off. We’ve had certain situations this year where we have been up by a couple and let teams back in it, instead of burying them.”
A killer instinct would make Elmira an even more dangerous foe in the second half of the season.
Manhattanville and Neumann are tied for second place in the standings, although the Valiants have a game in hand.
Last year, Manhattanville went a perfect 10-0 outside the league, but struggled in conference play. After getting off to a 0-2 start against Hobart and Elmira this year, the Valiants turned it around with convincing wins against Neumann and Utica, but Manhattanville has struggled outside the league, with a loss at Western New England and a tie against Williams.
“For us, it is all about our effort,” said Manhattanville coach Eric Lang. “Every night, it is about us, and we are not consumed with whom our opponents are. We need to control our effort and execution. If they are very good, we are going to win more often than we are going to lose.”
Speed is the magic ingredient that has helped the Valiants get going.
“Our speed is as good as anyone in the country,” said Lang. “We have six defensemen that can skate, and 18 forwards that can flat out go. We are trying to push the pace and tempo of games. In the games that we have done it, we have been very successful.”
Special teams have been anything but special for the Valiants. Neither the power play nor penalty killing is where coach Lang would like to see them.
“Our special teams has got to get better,” said Lang. “Right now, they are below average. If we can get over 20 percent power play and 80 percent kill for a night, that is the starting point for us. Our goals are much loftier than that though. It is a combination of systems and execution. When we try to get cute, that doesn’t work for us.”
More balanced scoring has helped Neumann go 3-0 in nonconference play. Last season, Michael Rey tallied 15 goals for the Knights, nearly twice as much as the next most prolific scorer.
Rey has drawn a lot of attention from opponents this season, limiting him to only a single goal, but Rey has added nine assists, helping to diversify the Neumann offense. Fourteen different Knights have scored goals so far this season.
“This year, we have had a little bit of balance,” said Neumann coach Dominick Dawes. “Stats-wise, we don’t have anyone running away with it. Everyone has been consistently contributing; that has helped us have different guys step up on different nights.”
The balance means that everyone has to be ready to jump in and make the critical play for the team, instead of relying on a few to carry the load.
“We have been working on our mental toughness, for guys to handle the highs and lows of the game,” said Dawes. “That is something that we have talked about all year. In this league, every game is essentially a playoff game. As the guys have gotten older, they have realized a little more what college hockey is about. They have been able to adapt to that.”
Utica and Hobart round out the standings at the midpoint of the season, tied for fourth place. Each has only managed a single conference win so far, but Utica earned a perfect 5-0 nonconference record, while Hobart went 4-1.
Utica is another team that has struggled in league play, going 1-3, with the sole win on the road at Hobart.
“Our disciplined approach to games, penalty killing, and defensive play have been strong,” said Utica coach Gary Heenan.
Utica leads the league killing penalties, with an amazing 90.5 percent, and is first in goals scored. While The Aud is always friendly, the Pioneers are only 1-2 on the road, which Utica needs to work on during the second half of the season.
“Playing on the road and not making the big mistake are areas for improvement,” said Heenan.
Hobart got out to a quick start in the conference with a 4-0 road win at Manhattanville, but struggled through the remainder of the first part of the league schedule. Outside the league, the Statesmen are averaging scoring nearly a goal more per game, and are 4-1.
“There are a lot of strengths,” said Hobart coach Mark Taylor. “Tightness as a group and keeping an eye on the mark are certainly there. I am happy with our focus, commitment, and the direction we are going.”
Hobart has always been well known for its defensive soundness, and this year it is even more on display, as the Statesmen dress nine defensemen per game. Hobart leads the league in team defense, but is keeping the focus firmly on that area of the game.
“We are trying to improve our five-man defense, from the start of the transition all the way back into our zone,” said Taylor. “That is something that we are constantly trying to perfect.”
ECAC West Weekly Awards:
Player of the Week — Marcus Van Sydow (Sr.), Manhattanville. Led Manhattanville to a 6-3 win over No. 8 Utica on Friday night. The senior opened the scoring early in the game, giving the Valiants a 2-0 advantage, and ended the scoring in the first period with his second goal of the night.
Goaltender of the Week — Darren MacDonald (Jr.), Elmira. MacDonald had a standout weekend in two Soaring Eagle wins, making 26 saves Friday in a 3-2 overtime win against No. 13 Neumann. The junior then made 23 saves Saturday, allowing one goal in a 4-1 win against SUNY Fredonia.
Rookie of the Week — Mark Rivera, Manhattanville. Scored his first collegiate goal in the second period of Friday’s game against No. 6 Utica. His tally proved to be the game-winner in a 6-3 victory for the Valiants.