Elmira gets back in the groove

Elmira finished 2011 on a down note, dropping games to Brockport and Geneseo. After earning a 5-0 record in the ECAC West early on, lowering its non-conference record to 2-5 by the holidays did not sit well with the team.

After refocusing a bit over the month-long break, the Soaring Eagles are back on track in 2012, going 4-0-1 over the last two weeks.

“Ending the first semester the way we did and then getting a chance to redeem ourselves was something we were all looking for,” said Elmira coach Aaron Saul.

Elmira played well in its first game back from the break against Fitchburg State, but only managed a 1-1 tie, despite outshooting the Falcons 48-16. Goal scoring has been a problem for the Soaring Eagles this season, who are averaging nearly a half goal less per game compared to last year, and only notched four goals once in six games before Christmas.

Was the first game of 2012 a hint of the problem continuing?

“We ran into a very hot goaltender against Fitchburg,” said Saul. “Teams that we play on our schedule are all very good. On paper, Fitchburg is probably the easiest team we have played record-wise, but they had an unbelievable performance by their goaltender.  With 48 shots, I can’t tell the guys to shoot more. For an offensive team that has a history of putting the goals in, perhaps it is a little bit of a struggle if you look at it like that, but we are getting key goals at key times. The most important thing at the end of the day is winning the game, not by how much.”

The puck has started to go in since then though, as Elmira has averaged four goals per match over the last four games, all wins.

Leading the way has been senior Brendan Sanders, who has scored a goal in each of the last four games, including a pair in last Saturday’s game. Sanders has scored five goals so far in 2012, surpassing the four he scored in the first two months of the season.

“Brendan is probably our most complete player as far as all around, but he has been struggling to score goals,” said Saul. “He is a second-line guy, power-play guy, penalty-kill guy, late-situation guy, he does everything for us. He also is physical and sets the tone. He is definitely the engine of our team, and when he gets going, our team is usually going. So it is good to see him get a couple of goals.”

Defense has also tightened up for Elmira, which has only allowed six goals in the five games of 2012.

“Defense wasn’t so much of a change as a refocus,” said Saul. “Certain games we were allowing too many opportunities and too many shots. It was something that we talked about as a team. We need to make sure that we are playing aggressive and defending our zone.”

A re-emerging offense and solidifying defense is a scary prospect for the other ECAC West teams as Elmira re-enters league play this weekend at Utica. The Soaring Eagles already have a two-game lead on the rest of the league in the standings.

“It is a challenge for us these last seven out of eight games playing teams that we know the best,” said Saul. “Our league is very good top to bottom, and this time of year everyone is playing better. It is a great way to prepare for the ECAC West playoffs and trying to set up for a NCAA bid.”

Elmira didn’t do itself any favors with its stumbles in nonconference play — the Soaring Eagles have only a 6-5-1 nonconference record so far, barely above .500 with one more game to go, but three of those losses came against teams like Oswego and Norwich at the top of the national standings.

If Elmira can continue to roll in league play, will it be enough to overcome some blemishes and still get an NCAA Pool C bid?

“It depends on how the other teams do and how we do down the road,” said Saul. “The stretch of games that we play in our league is going to be really important. We all know that we need to continue to win. It is going to be real interesting with no Pool B. That will be a first for us and our league, so it will be interesting to see how the numbers look. It will come down to the last week to see who they are going to send.”

Remember that the NCAA dissolved the Pool B bid this season that the ECAC West had grown accustom to winning. Since the league doesn’t have enough teams to qualify for a Pool A auto-qualifier, the only way into the NCAA tournament is through the at-large Pool C.

Manhattanville is another team that is on a roll in 2012. The Valiants ended 2011 at 4-4-1 with a 4-1 loss at Wesleyan. They were getting scoring, but not at the most opportune times, and production was only coming from a few players.

Since January 1, the scoring touch has spread throughout the team and was showcased last weekend, as the Valiants thumped Potsdam in a pair of games, outscoring the Bears by a combined 15-1 margin. Fourteen different Manhattanville players scored during the pair of games.

“The offense was spread out, which is the way we are built,” said Manhattanville coach Eric Lang. “We have some guys going pretty well now. Coming into the season, we knew for us to be good we would need contributions from everybody, which is kind of where we are at. Our first line is as good as our fourth, and I’m not sure which one is which right now.”

While the Valiants have gone 4-0-2 since the break, the actual turnaround began back at the end of November. After losing to Western New England 3-2 on November 22, Manhattanville was 1-3 on the season and was being outscored 18-14 on the year.

It was gut check time for the Valiants before too much of the season slipped away.

“We got off to a slow start, maybe a little bit of making adjustments to a new coach and vice versa,” said Lang. “If you go back to the Western New England game, we have been a really good team. Guys realized that some nights you can’t just put the jersey on, you have to work for everything. Our effort has been fantastic. I know what I am getting from this group every day. Our practices have been tremendous, and they are getting it done. We are a high-energy, high-effort team.”

Manhattanville has gone 7-1-3 since then, the only loss being at Wesleyan. A noticeable difference is how the Valiants are opening games now. Manhattanville has scored 38 percent of its goals in the first period, outscoring opponents by a commanding plus-12 margin. The Valiants have used that early momentum to control the pace of games.

“A big emphasis is to be great for the first five minutes of each game,” said Lang. “We are building off of that. We score a lot of early goals, get on teams early. We are so consumed with our effort right now.”

ECAC West Weekly Awards:

Player of the Week: Brendan Sanders, Sr., Elmira. Sanders recorded five points with four goals and one assist during a 3-0 week against nonconference opponents. Against Fredonia earlier in the week, the senior had a short-handed goal. During the Soaring Eagles’ weekend series against Morrisville, Sanders netted one goal on Friday, followed by a two-goal, one-assist performance on Saturday.

Goaltender of the Week: Pierre-Olivier Lemieux, Sr., Manhattanville. Lemieux posted a .967 save percentage, averaging 29.3 saves per game and a .970 goals-against for the Valiants, who finished the week 2-0-1. After making 37 saves in a 2-2 tie against Curry earlier in the week, the senior allowed one power-play goal over two wins against Potsdam while notching 51 saves during that span.

Rookie of the Week: Paul Sirignano,  Manhattanville. Sirignano recorded four points with one goal and three assists during the Valiants’ weekend series against Potsdam. The freshman followed a one-assist performance during a 7-1 win on Friday, with a three-assist game in Saturday’s 8-0 win.

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