With history as a guide, ECAC Hockey teams chase Cornell down the stretch

We may have passed the halfway mark of the season last month, but we only just ushered out the first half of ECAC Hockey’s league schedule last weekend. The non-conference schedule doesn’t end until the second round of the Beanpot on Feb. 13 — just two weeks shy of the conclusion of the regular season — but for all but two teams (Princeton and Harvard), it’s an all-league diet from here on out.

That means it’s time to start breaking down the field in the midst of a full-blown playoff surge.

Precedents set the table

Since ECAC Hockey — nee the ECACHL, once upon a time simply the ECAC — contracted to 12 teams in advance of the 1984-85 season (that’s right, contracted … the league had 19 teams the year prior), the thresholds for achieving postseason standards have remained remarkably stable. First team to 34 points wins the crown, beat 26 points to earn a bye, or top 19 points to avoid a first-round bus trip. (Yes, I am aware that the current playoff format, with byes and whatnot, only dates back a decade, to the 2002-03 season.) And when I say that those marks are stable, I mean that whether you’re taking a five-, 10-, or 20-year average, the results remain within a point or less of those aforementioned figures.

A few exceptions: the Cleary Cup champion has claimed the prize with as few as 30 points (twice), in 2003-04 and 2005-06. Forty points has been achieved thrice, but not since the Berlin Wall came down. The cutoff for a bye was as high as 29 points (five times) and as low as 21 (in the spring of 2000). And should you maintain meager standards, 16 was the low-water mark for eighth place (twice, last in 1995-96), with 22 points being the highest that bar has ever been set (twice, last in early 2002).

So now you know where we stand historically. History may mean squat as a predictor, but it can give us some reasonable expectations as we try to judge where the pieces may fall. So without further ado, on to the pieces.

Keeping the pace

Here’s a simple breakdown of how the league would shake out if each team continued playing at its current pace, as set by winning percentage:

1. Cornell: 34.85 points
2. Union: 28.78
T-3. Clarkson, Colgate: 23.85
T-5. Quinnipiac, Brown, Dartmouth: 22
8. Harvard: 20.33
9. Yale: 20.15
10. Princeton: 17.6
11. SLU: 16.5
12. RPI: 12.85

This obviously doesn’t take into account upcoming head-to-head matchups, and … you know … changes of fortune. Minutiae like that.

If we apply the average thresholds, well, you can see the projected total for fourth place comes up way short. We’ll see how that plays out. Beyond that, you can now look at each team and figure out — roughly, I remind you — how it will need to do over the last month and a half to reach each plateau. I’ll spare you the table; the standings are here if you need them.

All any of us really need to know is that the regular season ends on Saturday, Feb. 25 — five weekends out — and that’s it.

Something old, something new in Ithaca

In case you weren’t paying attention — like, at all — Cornell is leading ECAC Hockey with a two-point lead and a game in hand on second-place Union. The Big Red lead the league in scoring (3.17 goals per league game), are ranked ninth in the nation in the latest USCHO.com Division I Men’s Poll, hold the country’s longest active unbeaten streak (seven games) and fourth-best winning percentage (.684).

The only thing Cornell isn’t doing well is killing penalties … but, just when you think you’ve found the flaw, it must be noted that Cornell doesn’t really take penalties (fifth-fewest penalty minutes in the country — 11.2 — right behind Princeton, at 11.0).

“I like the team,” understated coach Mike Schafer said. “I think we’re just playing OK right now. We’re still striving to get all parts of our game together, and at the same time, I like fact that our guys find ways to win. Even in tight games, they’re able to knuckle down and make good plays, so we’re getting some points and moving forward in a really tough league.”

Schafer doesn’t just talk the talk when he discusses the strength of the league, from top to bottom. He preaches it to his players as well, and expects them to prepare for every opponent with the utmost respect and determination.

“We don’t put standings in our locker room; we never have,” he said. “I think guys would be hard-pressed on our team if you asked them to rank the teams based on how teams are playing against us so far. Who would be one, who would be 11 … I think if you did a coaches’ poll or a players’ poll right now, you would find it kinda all over the place. It all depends on when you catch teams. There are a lot of good teams in our league, but there are also a lot of teams trying to find consistency.”

The Big Red need only study travel partner Colgate to see how quickly and severely a flameout can occur. At this point, though, the Red are red-hot and rolling thanks to flexible systems, underrated talent and well-appointed leaders.

“[Senior defenseman] Keir Ross, in his unheralded way, has done a great job of being a leader for us. [Junior defenseman and leading scorer] Nick D’Agostino, obviously a leader, both defensively and offensively from the blue line, and [senior forward] Sean Collins is playing the best hockey of his career at Cornell. All those three guys, who the players thought would be leaders, that’s all come true,” Schafer said of his captains.

I have been as guilty as anyone of taking the lazy approach to describing Cornell, by ascribing to this year’s team the same brutally successful characteristics as past iterations of triumphant Ithacans. Schafer reminded me that even if he wanted to play that game — the type that took them to the Frozen Four in 2003, the savage strong-armed sieges that pummeled opponents into defeat year after year — he can’t anymore. But that’s OK, because there are other ways to win.

“That kind of hockey has gone by the wayside, and I think we even saw that in the Harvard game on Saturday night,” Schafer said. “We got a great hit by one of our kids that was called a penalty; it was a clean hit. [Sophomore forward Armand de Swardt] is 6-foot-5, the other kid’s 5-foot-8, and it was called a penalty. You’ve got to be able to play more than just physically; you’ve got to be strong in all aspects of the game.

“I think that people think that we’re only big and strong, and I think people associate that with, ‘can’t skate, don’t have skill,’ and I think we’re a little bit more skilled this year. I think we’ve produced more offense. We’re near the top of the league in producing offense, but if we do struggle with putting goals in the net, that night we can shut it down and clamp down on teams. Just because we don’t score doesn’t mean we don’t have a chance to win. That logic has served us over many years.”

The love of The Siege will course through the veins of Big Red hockey for at least as long as Schafer remains Commander-in-Chief, but this ravenous pack of Cornell crusaders has added a few new weapons to the arsenal. The coach is an adaptor; don’t be fooled into thinking otherwise. He has outgrown the battering rams and has adopted more decisive methods of taking the castle.

Just call him trebu-Schafer.

QU’s Jim Armstrong passes away

Hockey is a tight-knit community, college hockey even more so, and perhaps ECAC Hockey beyond all that. So it is both our duty and our honor to remember former Quinnipiac head coach Jim Armstrong, who died on Saturday at the age of 68.

Armstrong coached the Bobcats — then known as the Braves, playing as independents at the Division II level — for 14 seasons, the high point being the 1986-87 season in which QU went 22-7-1. Current head coach Rand Pecknold immediately followed Armstrong in the fall of 1994, and credits him with laying the foundation for the major successes that Quinnipiac hockey has enjoyed to date.