Title, bye, home ice still on the line as ECAC Hockey hits final weekend

There are three standards of achievement at the end of each ECAC Hockey regular season: the league title, a first-round bye and a first-round home series. With two games and four points remaining on each team’s 2011-12 docket, 10 of the league’s 12 programs are still fighting to attain at least one of those three levels … and the other two teams don’t play each other.

In other words, everyone’s in the fight on Friday night.

Bubble trouble

Everybody is still playing for something this weekend — nobody is locked into a seed yet — but seven teams are in especially potent or precarious situations entering the final deuce of the regular season. So, in no particular order …

Bobcats eye the bye

Only two points behind fourth-place Clarkson, Quinnipiac faces Brown and rival Yale in Hamden. Not only are these winnable games (as much as any matchup in this league can be termed “winnable”), but Quinnipiac holds the tiebreaker over Clarkson as well.

The situation looks pretty clear for QU, and to be honest you’d have to like its chances … if it weren’t for Harvard. The Crimson are the potential fly in the fruit cup, sitting a point ahead of and holding the tiebreaker over Quinnipiac, and controlling their own fate against St. Lawrence and Clarkson.

“We definitely want to finish as high as we can,” Bobcats coach Rand Pecknold said. “We’d love to get the bye; if we don’t get it, we’d love to finish five or six instead of seven. I think you always want to finish as high up the ladder as you can, but we haven’t really focused on that as a team — we got Brown Friday night, and we need to play well. They’re a good hockey team; we tied them earlier in the year. We need to focus on Friday, and when we get to Saturday, we’ll need to focus on Saturday. I know it’s a cliché — one game at a time — but that’s really what we need to do.”

Junior forward and leading goal-scorer Jeremy Langlois missed much of last weekend, getting hurt early against Rensselaer and posing a big question for Pecknold and the Q-Cats this week. Despite his potential absence, the coach is confident that a 60-minute effort will pay off for his wards.

“I think it’s been a solid year,” he said. “We’ve definitely let some games slip away from time to time. Whether it was sloppy defense, or a failure to finish our chances … we need to really focus in on playing 60 every night. I think we’re close to that, but we’re certainly not perfect.”

The postseason is still a week off, but only by technicality in the eyes of most coaches and players.

“I think last weekend felt like the start of the playoffs,” Pecknold said. “We’re certainly in that mode. It’s not do-or-die, but I think everybody’s in that mode already. In the last couple weeks of the year, we’re all making a push for the seedings.”

He is happy to finish the regularly scheduled programming in Hamden, where his team is 10-3-2 and eager to host a playoff series for the sixth year running.

“It’s always nice to finish at home the last weekend,” Pecknold said. “I think you always want to be at home, not only for the points, but also from a travel perspective it’s better. You get good rest on Sunday, and you kick off on Monday getting ready for whoever your playoff opponent’s going to be.”

Harvard’s future is Bright

Pardon the pun, but it’s absolutely appropriate given the circumstances: the Crimson host hot St. Lawrence and Clarkson at Boston’s Bright Hockey Center this weekend, with Saturday’s season finale against the Golden Knights looking especially significant. Should the teams remain within two points of each other following Friday’s contests, Saturday’s victor is likely (though not assured) to get a week’s rest in anticipation of a second-round home series.

Harvard split in the North Country earlier this year, edging the Knights 3-2 before falling to the Saints 4-3. The Crimson saw a nine-game league unbeaten streak (4-0-5) come to a clamorous termination on Saturday, as Harvard was effectively terminated at Yale in a 7-1 beatdown. Rookie goalie Steve Michalek got the hook after five goals, 16 shots and just under 30 minutes of brutalization, and Yale went 3-for-11 on the power play in the romp.

The Crimson responded adequately after their last loss — tying RPI, beating Northeastern and tying Brown following a 3-1 Beanpot loss to BU — but St. Lawrence and Clarkson have played much better hockey this year than any of those teams. It’s going to be a wild weekend on the shore of the Charles, that much is assured.

Third point’s the charm

If Clarkson can take three points this weekend, the Golden Knights will hold onto fourth place and earn the week off. One nagging problem: Clarkson hasn’t taken three of four on a league road trip all year.

The Knights are coming off an impressive three-point weekend at Cheel against Cornell (1-1 tie) and Colgate (2-1 win), in which senior goaltender Paul Karpowich had perhaps his best weekend of the year with 55 stops.

Karpowich may need to duplicate that kind of effort for ‘Tech to achieve its three-point goal at Dartmouth and Harvard, as the Knights are averaging fewer than two goals a game in conference road games. The Knights lost to Harvard (as aforementioned) in Potsdam in mid-November, but shut out Dartmouth 4-0 the following night.

Saturday’s trip home will be vastly more comfortable with an extra week to reset and recuperate. That peace of mind is a mere three points away.

Big Green need a big weekend

Harvard and Dartmouth will be best buddies this weekend, as each is wishing only the best for the other in their mutual quests for higher seeds.

The Big Green needs a little more help than the Crimson, however, as the Granite State Ivy sits two full points behind SLU and Yale for the final home-ice spot in the standings. The team snapped a seven-game tumble (0-5-2) with Saturday’s 4-1 win at Brown, and because of that slide the Green will have only themselves to blame should this weekend’s efforts come up short.

The offense has been a critical shortcoming of late, as — despite a veteran roster — Dartmouth sputtered out merely 11 goals in its six matchups prior to Brown. Senior goalies Jody O’Neill and James Mello have shared duties of late, but while O’Neill has better league numbers by far, he has been inconsistent in his last few starts.

Dartmouth beat SLU and lost to Clarkson in its mid-November North Country trip. It’s hard to imagine anything less than three points will be necessary to secure another home game at Thompson this spring.

Bulldogs angling for a move

Don’t make the mistake of presuming that Yale’s goal this weekend is to hang onto a home-ice spot.

“We’re trying to move up to fourth place, not hold onto eighth place,” snapped head coach Keith Allain. “That’s our mind-set.”

Last weekend’s home sweep of Dartmouth (by a 5-3 score) and Harvard (7-1) was only the team’s second four-point weekend of the year, and its first since before Thanksgiving. Yale’s dozen goals matched the combined output of its previous four efforts (in which it went 1-3), and the four goals against were the fewest in a weekend since the first week of January. These cannot be interpreted as bad signs, that’s for sure; whether they bespeak a marked improvement in the squad’s mettle and fortune remains to be seen.

For the umpteenth time, this has been a rebuilding year in New Haven, though perhaps the adjustment period has been a little more wobbly than desired given the Blue’s stellar recent history.

“I think our team’s attitude is that we’re getting better as a group, and we expect to be successful every time we suit up,” said Allain. The team’s play last week, he said, was as good as or better than it had been all year.

One popular concept that Yale does not buy into, however, is the idea that playoff hockey starts well before the playoffs actually begin.

“I don’t think in terms of that,” Allain said. “We want to be as good as we can be every single game we play. This weekend is important, but at the end of the day, we’ll prepare well, we’ll play as hard as we can play, but we’ve got games to play the following weekend regardless of what happens.”

Cleary as day

There’s no two ways about it: Friday’s game between Union and Cornell at Lynah Rink in Ithaca is the biggest game of a weekend chock full of big games, and it will be the biggest game of the regular season for either team as well.

At least until Saturday.

The decision won’t necessarily determine the Cleary Cup champion, but it might. It won’t necessarily decide who will take the No. 1 seed, either … but it might. The onus is on home-standing Cornell to win if the Big Red are to hold out any hope of taking the top seed: A loss or tie eliminates them from that possibility. The Cleary Cup — awarded to the regular-season champion — can be shared should two (or more) teams tie atop the standings, but anything less than a win by the hosts will place Cornell’s destiny in the hands of hated Colgate.

For Union, the task is simple: Beat Cornell, claim Cleary and the No. 1 seed outright. A tie still takes the top seed, but risks a co-championship with Cornell. A loss … well, that unleashes a whole different beast come Saturday night.

“Obviously, it’s the way it goes in sports sometimes. If it just happens to be coming down to the one game, well y’know what, so be it,” Union coach Rick Bennett said. “Whether at home, away, or if we’re playing on a pond, it doesn’t matter: It’s gotta be decided, and we’re just happy and fortunate enough to be in it.”

Cornell’s veteran coach, Mike Schafer, struck a more philosophical tone when analyzing his team’s position.

“We controlled our own destiny earlier in the year, but the games we lost — to BU down at Madison Square Garden, we didn’t play great down in Florida and lost a game there — so it’s a … lesson for our players that you control your own destiny by winning games,” he said. “It’s kind of a flip-flop of years: Last year the league was really good nonconference, and this year we haven’t been. It’s definitely hurt [ECAC Hockey] teams; if we’d have had this record last year, we’d have been a lock right now [for the NCAA tournament]. Every year is a new year, so we just concentrate on the things we can control right now, which is Union right in front of us and RPI on Saturday.”

Both coaches said they are approaching this game as they would any other, and expect their charges to do the same. Neither has specifically emphasized (or at least, admitted to emphasizing) the significance of Friday’s tilt to their respective teams, though each is certain that many players from both sides are perfectly up to date on the latest ECAC standings and PairWise Rankings.

“As a team, we haven’t talked about it. We’re not going to bring it up this week, and we haven’t talked about PairWise once outside of a couple things,” said Bennett. “We had a blip … when we went out to Denver and CC — we had a team meeting, talked about how sometimes these games are very important, nationally — and the guys seem to have gotten it since then, so I don’t think there’s a need to bring it back up.”

“I don’t even know where we stand in the PairWise,” Schafer shrugged. “[My players] know that they’ve got to win both games this weekend; we know that we’ve got to win both to be first, but that’s about it. I’m sure they check — some guys check and some guys don’t — but they know that we have to win Friday and Saturday in order to win the league.”

(Note: That’s not necessarily true — beating Union on Friday, and a Union loss at Colgate paired with a Cornell tie against RPI on Saturday would give Cornell the title and top seed outright as well.)

These teams tied 4-4 the last time they met, three weeks ago in Schenectady. It wasn’t the kind of performance that either coach would like to see again on Friday, but the recency and intensity of that game have served the combatants well in this week’s preparations.

As Bennett simply pondered, “I think it helps the psyche of the team, knowing what you’re going to face.”

One pivotal question that faces Union this week is the viability of starting netminder Troy Grosenick. The keeper of the nation’s best save percentage (.942) and goals against average (1.52) missed three games early in the month with an ankle injury, then re-injured it against Quinnipiac on Saturday and couldn’t finish the game.

With a two-point lead on the Big Red, a bye week locked up, and a NCAA berth almost assured, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to imagine Bennett resting Grosenick for as long as necessary.

But that’s not going to happen.

“No, no we’re not,” the coach said, when asked if his staff would be cautious about re-introducing its top goalie. “We’re going to push him as best we possibly can, and hopefully he’s ready to go. We don’t have time to be cautious. If Troy can go, he’s going to play. I think it’s a lot better than people made it out to be.”

On the other bench, Schafer said that junior forward John Esposito is unlikely to return before the playoffs. The reliable contributor has played only twice since early January, and those appearances may have set back his recovery from an ankle injury.

When all is really said and done and we media types have returned to our keyboards, it should be assumed that all bets are off and all forms of gamesmanship are in play for this mega-match. Cornell is in an uncomfortably unfamiliar state, having to fight for a shot at the NCAAs for the first time in years. It’s one game at a time in Ithaca, but these games sure are getting serious, aren’t they?

“It’s been kind of a weird year,” said Schafer. “You look at our record (11-3-6 in league) and how many ties we’ve had, and look how much parity there is in the league — it’ll be another good game, and another good contest to see how much we’ve really grown as a hockey team in the last three weeks since we [last] played them. I think we played solid when we were there, but I think we’ve gotten better each week since then.”

Friday will pit two better teams, each trying to get the better of each other in what by all rights should be one of the better contests we’ve seen in a long time.

Better be ready. It’s by no means guaranteed to be the best game you’ve ever seen …

But it might.