For Colgate, last season’s postseason run was just a preview

What a difference a year makes.

Colgate snapped a midseason slump with a pair of wins over Cornell on Jan. 27 and 28. That has led to a 5-1 stretch that puts the Raiders in good position for a first-round playoff bye with two weeks left in the ECAC Hockey regular season.

A year ago? Colgate was simply looking for wins, never mind a bye.

The Raiders didn’t get their first conference win of the 2010-11 season until Feb. 5. That 4-2 victory against Clarkson was not only their first ECAC win of the season, but their first of any kind in two months.

Colgate went 3-2-1 to close out the season, a modest streak that set up an improbable playoff run. By knocking off Rensselaer and Union — NCAA tournament teams — the Raiders became the first No. 12 seed ever to reach the ECAC Championship.

Their season came to an end in Atlantic City, losing to Yale in the opener and then to Dartmouth in the consolation match.

“Clearly we felt a little better about the team having had the run through the playoffs,” Raiders coach Don Vaughan said. “But with that being said, we went home for the summer with the regular season still sort of lingering in the back of our minds.”

A preseason trip to Italy helped the Raiders clear out any remaining memories of the prior season.

“It gave us a chance to come together in a little more of a casual setting,” Vaughan said. The team spent 11 days in Europe, playing several games against local competition before returning home.

But Vaughan and the Raiders knew the best way to push away last year was with a good start this season, and they did just that, beating Nebraska-Omaha to win the Maverick Stampede and ripping off a six-game unbeaten streak to close the first half.

That was followed by a nearly month-long winless drought, which Colgate snapped by sweeping rival Cornell at the end of last month. It was their first sweep of Cornell since the 2003-04 season and first win against them since 2007. It might seem like the hard way to break out of a slump, but in Vaughan’s eyes, facing the Big Red was just what the Raiders needed.

“We knew the energy would be there and the crowds would pack the buildings,” he said. “We played well but got some good bounces,” he said, adding that Colgate played Dartmouth and Harvard well the prior weekend, which produced a 2-2 tie with the Crimson and a 5-4 overtime loss to the Big Green, a game which Colgate led 4-1 entering the final period.

Colgate’s special teams play has improved over the last few weeks, and the Raiders have continued to get production from Hobey Baker Award candidate Austin Smith, who leads the nation with 32 goals.

But there’s more to Colgate than just Smith, starting with his linemates, center Chris Wagner and wing Joe Wilson.

“Austin will be the first to tell you his linemates are a big reason for his success,” Vaughan said. “Chris Wagner is a very special player. He’s a strong and physical kid with great explosive speed. And Joe Wilson has great acceleration. He’s able to track down pucks for those other guys. He’s first in on the forecheck and the first one back.”

While much of the focus has been on the offense, which also includes junior Robbie Bourdon (11 goals), the Colgate defense has been up to the task despite getting left alone at times due to the Raiders’ attacking style.

“We’ve been preaching defense especially since we’ve got a lot of guys that want to go the other end quickly,” Vaughan said. “They’ve left the ‘D’ out to dry at times, but they’ve done a nice job.”

Thomas Larkin (4-10–14) adds offense from the blue line, while Corbin McPherson provides steady play and leadership and freshman Spiro Goulakos has been counted on for key minutes, Vaughan said.

But Smith has been the key to Colgate’s season. The senior had his second hip surgery (on different hips) in as many years last April and was determined to come back and make a statement, Vaughan said.

“He left last spring with his surgery knowing he’d be ready,” Vaughan said, adding that Smith’s prior surgery came later in the offseason and forced him to rush back. “His acceleration, his speed and the tempo he plays at has a little to do with feeling physically ready and getting off to a good start. He’s tracking pucks, playing great defensively, and just making everyone around him better. He’s been fun to watch.”

Consolation game still means something

It wasn’t televised, and was played in front of near-empty house. But the Beanpot consolation game can still have meaning for those involved.

“Coming into the game, we knew we wanted to leave it with a good feeling,” Harvard coach Ted Donato said. “We established the way we want to play for the rest of the season.”

Even the most optimistic of the bunch would argue that it’s hard to get pumped up for a third-place game in a deserted rink. But what’s the alternative? If the Crimson came out and laid a stinker, they’d no doubt be feeling a lot worse right now.

Instead, they bumped their overall mark over .500 (8-7-10), and enter ECAC play this weekend holding on to the final first-round bye spot.

As noted last week, one of the story lines entering Monday’s game was the disparity in special teams play. Harvard’s power play is tops in the nation, while Northeastern is 51st. The Crimson penalty-kill is just 52nd overall, but they’re among the least penalized teams in the country.

But the winning goal came when the Crimson were down a man, as Luke Greiner’s score at 13:44 in the final period marked Harvard’s first short-handed goal of the year. It did give up a late power-play goal but held on for the win despite getting just one power-play chance of its own, on which it didn’t convert.

A peek into the future

Last time this space was dedicated to league alumni who participated in either the NHL or AHL all-star games. This week, let’s take a look at the future of the ECAC, as these players recently committed to league schools. Commitments are for next season unless noted, and the list is courtesy of College Hockey Inc.

Brown: Tyler Wood, RD, Noble and Greenough HS (NEDI), 2013-14.

Clarkson: Paul Geiger, LD, Stouffville Spirit (OJHL).

Colgate: Julian Fialkow, F, New England Wolves U19 (MassM) 2013-14.

Cornell: Alex Rauter, LW, Choate Rosemary HS (NEDI), 2013-14.

Harvard: Peter Traber, G, Topeka Roadrunners (NAHL); Alec McCrea, RD, Janesville Jets (NAHL), 2013-14; Phillip Zielonka, C, Salisbury HS (NEDI), 2013-14; Trevor Fidler, C, Dexter HS (NEDI), 2013-14.

Princeton: Michael Zajac, F, Eagan HS (MN-HS)

Quinnipiac: Soren Jonzzon, LW, Youngstown Phantoms (USHL), Chase Priske, RD, Selects Hockey Academy (CT-HS), 2015-16.

St. Lawrence: Kyle MacDonald, G, Baystate Breakers (EJHL); Michael Rotolo, G, Green Bay Gamblers (USHL), 2013-14.

Weekly awards and poll check-in

As selected by the conference coaches:

Player of the week: Greg Carey, St. Lawrence. The sophomore had two goals, including the winner, in a 4-3 win over Quinnipiac last Friday and added a goal and an assist in Saturday’s 4-1 win against Princeton. Carey has eight points over his last four games and is tied for the team lead with 12 goals on the year.

Rookie of the week: John Lidgett, Colgate. The freshman had six points (3-3–6) in a four-point weekend for the Raiders. He factored in all four goals and posted a career high four points in Colgate’s win over Yale Friday.

Goalie of the week: Matt Weninger, St. Lawrence. The sophomore helped the Saints kill all 17 of their penalties last weekend in wins over Quinnipiac and Princeton. Weninger had 59 saves and a .937 save percentage on the weekend.

No new league teams entered the Division I Men’s Poll this week, but Cornell (13th to 12th) and Union (11th to eighth) each moved up. Colgate landed just outside the top 20, leading the receiving votes category with 107 points.

Union is the top-ranked ECAC team in the PairWise Rankings, tied for ninth with Northern Michigan. Cornell is in a three-way tie with North Dakota and Ohio State for 15th, while Colgate (21st) and Harvard (25th) round out the top league teams. Just imagine if the Crimson had converted some of their nation-high 10 ties into wins.

The Walter Brown Award semifinalists were announced and several ECAC players made the cut. Colin Blackwell (Harvard), Mike Clemente (Brown), Marshall Everson (Harvard), Mike Keenan (Dartmouth) and Andrew Miller and Brian O’Neill (Yale) were among the 21 finalists. The award is given by the Gridiron Club of Greater Boston to the best American-born college player in New England. Check the full list here.

In case you missed it

Colleague Brian Sullivan and former Union coach Nate Leaman, now with Providence, were the guests on USCHO Live!. Check out a replay of the broadcast here.