The first look at ECAC Hockey’s playoff picture

All square again

For the first time since opening day, all dozen squads are even with 18 conference games in the bag. The standings can’t mislead in any way, so we can make some very easy assessments of the clarifying playoff picture. In its infinite wisdom, ECAC Hockey has arranged the schedule to ensure that each team has two home games and two road tilts left, so that saves us some analysis.

Brown is in last place for the first time this year, but can still finish as high as fifth. (Fourth is out, as Clarkson – which plays Harvard in the season finale – holds the tiebreaker over Bruno.) RPI and Princeton are each a point ahead of Brown, and either could climb as high as fourth if the dominoes fall just right.* Dartmouth and Yale are currently tied with 15 points, but could conceivably wrest a first-round bye under ideal circumstances. Either team could climb as high as third by playoff time. SLU, now alone in seventh, can finish anywhere between second and last. Quinnipiac has a point on the Saints, but is looking at the same seeding window.

Clarkson could theoretically win the Cleary Cup if the Knights run the table, Union loses four straight, and Cornell only beats Union. That said, Tech is also one of two teams that could finish in any of the 12 spots heading into the postseason. Harvard – finally even with the rest of the league in games played – is the other team, who with Clarkson can’t rule out any seed just yet. Colgate can only fall as far as eighth – the Raiders have locked up a first-round home series, at the very least – and is three points behind Union for first. Cornell is one point behind Union, and they’ll play the penultimate game of the regular season on February 24 at Lynah Rink. That’ll be a special one, for sure. It looks as though the Big Red could tumble to as low as seventh place, but that still assures the Lynah Faithful of a short trip for the Red’s first playoff series… in whichever round it may be. Finally, Union will be beating off the wolves for the next two weekends. Currently an option for seeds one through six, the Dutchmen will be challenged to maintain game-by-game focus while quietly eyeing the Cornell game two weeks away.

If you need any explanations about my analysis – or if I’ve made any mistakes – feel free to comment below, find me on Twitter at SullivanHockey, or email me at [email protected]

*Deducting the league’s possible and/or likely top four finishers for purposes of tiebreaking is a task that I have neither the time nor inclination to undertake at this time. As such, I can only presume that there is some possible combination of outcomes that would work in favor of optimistic/climbing teams.

Austin Smith update

Smith was well marked last weekend – as he should’ve been – and was held to only two points against Yale and Brown. Fortunately for his Hobey Baker ambitions, each of those points were goals, elevating his season total to 32. Friday’s tally was an empty-netter with 47 seconds left in a 4-2 win over the Bulldogs, while Saturday’s was an even-strength second-period snipe in what was ultimately a wild 7-6 victory over the Bears.

Smith fell to third in the country in points per game (1.57, with 47 points in 30 games), but extended his lead in goals to 11 (over Minnesota’s Nick Bjugstad and Miami’s Reilly Smith) and – with 1.07 goals per game – holds a 0.35 GPG lead over Bjugstad for the national lead. The Golden Gophers’ star striker would have to score a dozen goals in his last six regular-season games to match Smith’s average… and that’s if Smith doesn’t see another red light before the playoffs.

Harvard tied up, or tied down?

The Crimson have set new program and league records for ties in a season (eight league ties, 10 overall), and the double-digit data ties the national record held by 2002-03 Minnesota State, ’08-09 Colorado College and last year’s Western Michigan team.

The Crimson are playing for a shot at a first-round bye and the Cleary Cup, in no small part because games that they would’ve lost last year, they are instead tying this year. That’s one way to see it. The way coach Ted Donato, his staff, and his players are seeing it though, is that a number of those ties could very easily have been wins.

The last draw – a 2-2 final at home against RPI on Friday – was one of Harvard’s least distressing ties, according to Donato, who said after the game that “I think there’ve been plenty of times this year that we’ve felt like we deserved better. Tonight, I think we got what we deserved.”

The Cambridge club has certainly felt snake-bit in a number of its deadlocks, but that is indicative of a team that expects better of itself… and that in itself is a very positive sign. Fans are often tempted to compare this year’s teams to previous seasons’, but in many cases – and certainly Harvard’s right now – the satisfaction level in the dressing room is significantly lower than it may be in the stands. The fact that this group is faring better than the last few to come through the Bright Hockey Center is great for all involved – and team morale is strong for it – but for Donato & Co., the degree of improvement (as gauged by results) could be much greater than what the standings currently show.

That’s the mark of a hungry team that doesn’t care what happened in the past. You don’t win big games by playing for small prizes.