Utica finishing roller coaster season

It has been a frustrating stretch run for the Utica Pioneers over the last few weeks. The return to league play in late January started off optimistically enough. Utica battled league-leading Elmira to a 2-2 tie on January 20, then swept Hobart the next weekend.

It has been a wild roller coaster ride since then. Utica lost to Manhattanville, 5-1, on February 3 before collapsing 9-3 the next night to the Valiants.

“Being full-time has been our challenge all year,” said Utica coach Gary Heenan. “We keep taking a shift off that costs us. We haven’t taken a night off all year, but it is getting our guys to focus every single shift. We could be a pretty good hockey team if we could play a full 60 minutes.”

A similar pattern played out last weekend when Neumann beat the Pioneers, 5-0, on Friday and then battled to a 3-3 tie on Saturday.  Utica outshot the Knights by a healthy margin in both games, 39-21 on Friday and 41-25 on Saturday, and had many grade A scoring opportunities, but the Pioneers just couldn’t solve Neumann netminder Ross MacKinnon.

“To be honest with you, we played pretty well,” said Heenan. “I feel like a fool saying that when we lost 5-0, but we carried the play and played a pretty good hockey game. We just couldn’t score, made the big mistake, and they capitalized. Saturday was very similar. We made three big mistakes that they scored on. Neumann is a team that when they get the lead, they do well with it.”

Utica has always had a great penalty kill, and this year is ranked third in the nation in that category. Earlier this year, the power play was clicking along equally as well, but it has gone stone cold, only scoring two goals on 24 man-advantage situations. The power-play frustrations came to a head last Friday when Utica was unable to score on three different five-on-three advantages during the game.

“We generated the opportunities we wanted, but McKinnon made an unbelievable save to his credit,” said Heenan. “But we missed a couple of empty nets that we have got to convert. We are playing good hockey and earning power-play opportunities. We are a little snakebit. When we get in the league, everything tightens up statistically. Your power play can look good against other teams, but once we get in our league the numbers go down.”

With the playoffs rapidly approaching, Heenan and the Pioneers needed to step back, relax a bit, and refocus on the task at hand. To help with that, the team took Sunday and Monday off.

“We are a frustrated group right now,” said Heenan. “There is still time to put that together, so we are still optimistic. We said to get away from the rink. We are a veteran team and are trying to stay fresh. The teams that can stay the freshest seem to do best down the stretch.”

Staying put
Utica was recently notified by the SUNYAC that its application to join the league was turned down. The Pioneers had applied to join the SUNYAC in early 2011, and have been working through the evaluation and site visit process since then.

“We have been officially not accepted,” said Heenan. “It was a thanks-but-no-thanks. From a coaching perspective, I believe they are concerned about the greater good of the game to their credit. They were concerned about leaving the other ECAC West teams in a bad situation.”

Nazareth College will be joining the ECAC West in the fall of 2012, becoming the sixth team in the league.

Playoff implications
As we enter the final weekend of the regular season, nothing has been decided.  Every position is still up for grabs, highlighting the parity amongst the ECAC West teams.

The playoff format involves three rounds, each consisting of a single, winner-take-all, game. The first round will be held on Wednesday, February 22, when the No. 4 seed hosts No. 5.

The semifinal round will be on Saturday, February 25, when the No. 1 seed will host the lowest remaining seed and the No. 2 seed will host No. 3.

The finals are scheduled for Saturday, March 3, as the two remaining teams will meet at the highest remaining seed.

The tiebreaking criteria for the ECAC West is:
1. Head-to-head record;
2. Number of conference wins;
3. Record versus common opponents (including nonconference games); and
4. Overall record.

Here is a rundown of each team, where they might finish, and how they fair in the tiebreaking criteria.

Elmira Soaring Eagles
Currently: First
Range: Can finish as high as first or as low as second.
Key: Needs one point in final two games to clinch first place. Owns the head-to-head tiebreaker against Manhattanville.

Manhattanville Valiants
Currently: Second
Range: Can finish as high as first or as low as second.
Key: Needs to sweep Hobart and hope that Elmira loses both games in order to win first place. Any other result clinches second. Owns head-to-head tiebreaker with Utica, loses that tiebreaker against Elmira.

Utica Pioneers
Currently: Third
Range: Can finish as high as tied for second or as low as fifth.
Key: Needs one point in final game to clinch third place. Loses head-to-head tiebreaker with Manhattanville, so can finish no higher than third seed for playoffs. Owns head-to-head tiebreaker with Hobart, but loses that comparison with Hobart.

Neumann Knights
Currently: Fourth
Range: Can finish as high as third or as low as fifth.
Key: To finish third and gain the first-round bye, must win final game, have Utica lose final game, and hope that Hobart doesn’t sweep Manhattanville. Owns head-to-head tiebreaker against Utica.

Hobart Statesmen
Currently: Fifth
Range: Can finish as high as third or as low as fifth.
Key: To finish third and gain the first-round bye, must sweep Manhattanville and hope Elmira defeats both Utica and Neumann. Owns head-to-head with Utica.

Neumann and Hobart Tiebreakers
All of the relevant potential ties in the ECAC West are straightforward, using head-to-head this season except for Hobart and Neumann. The teams split their three-game regular season series 1-1-1, so head-to-head tells us nothing. Likewise, both currently have three conference wins, so if Neumann and Hobart end up tied in the standings after this weekend, it is likely they will both have the same number of conference wins then as well.

If it comes down to common opponents to break the tie, Neumann has the advantage. The Knights have a common opponents record of 8-5-1 compared to Hobart’s 4-7. The games this weekend will add to these totals, but there is no way for the Statesmen to overcome Neumann’s lead in this category.

After all that, there are a few things that we know. Elmira and Manhattanville will finish in the top two spots in the league, but the order is still up for grabs. Utica has the inside track on the important third spot to gain the final first-round bye. Neumann and Hobart can grab third away from Utica by winning and getting some help.

ECAC West Weekly Awards

Player of the Week: Darcy Vaillancourt, Sr., Elmira. Vaillancourt tallied six points in Elmira’s 1-1-0 weekend set against Hobart.  In Friday’s 6-4 win over the Statesmen, the senior scored a goal, his 100th point in a Soaring Eagles uniform, and added an assist.  In Saturday’s 5-4 loss, Vaillancourt had a hand in every Elmira score, with one goal and had three assists.

Goaltender of the Week: Pierre-Olivier Lemieux, Sr., Manhattanville. Lemieux set a program single-season record for saves while making 30 stops in Manhattanville’s 9-3 win over Morrisville on Saturday. Lemieux currently sports a .917 save percentage on the season, and his 631 stops surpasses the previous record of 617 set by Andrew Gallant during the 2006-07 season.

Rookie of the Week: Bronson Kovacs, Hobart. Kovacs netted a goal and added an assist to lead the Statesmen to a 5-4 upset victory over No. 11 Elmira on Saturday. He set up Hobart’s third goal of the contest and scored the game-winning goal for the Statesmen.


  1. I think Mr Biggar needs to proof read his articles before posting for all to read.  First Utica DEFEATED Manhattanville on Feb 4th 9-3.  Secondly in the playoff breakdown he states in the Utica section  “Owns head-to-head tiebreaker with Hobart, but loses that comparison with Hobart.”  I think it can be assumed the second “Hobart” should be Neumann. 


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