ECAC Hockey’s top four teams ready to roll the dice in Atlantic City

There’s been a lot made of the up-and-down play throughout ECAC Hockey this season. But in the end, consistency through the regular season was rewarded, as all four top seeds are heading to the championship weekend for the first time since 2009.

Note that there’s been a slight change to the starting times, as both early games will start at 4:30 p.m. and the night games are set to begin around 7:30, according to the league.

Here’s a look at who’s left as the ECAC heads to Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.J., this Friday and Saturday.

No. 4 Colgate (19-15-3, 11-10-1) vs. No. 1 Union (22-7-7, 14-4-4)

Season series: Union 2-0

For the second time in as many years, Colgate reached the finals the unconventional way.

Last year, the Raiders became the first No. 12 seed to make the semifinals in league history, knocking off Rensselaer and Union to reach Atlantic City.

They’re back this year after holding on to the final bye spot in the face of a late skid that left their week off in doubt.

“Our team kind of backed into the fourth seed, if you will, with four losses to end the season,” Raiders coach Don Vaughan said. “But we’re judged on our body of work and we did enough during the regular season to get that bye.”

But Vaughan knows the Raiders have a challenge in Union, which beat Colgate on the last day of the season to secure its second straight Cleary Cup.

“They are very talented but also are extremely well coached,” Vaughan said of the Dutchmen. “When you look at what they do technically in all situations … to just playing with their sticks on the ice all the time, they are a complete team. … There’s not a team that I can remember in our league in recent history that is as complete as they are.”

Colgate’s top line is centered by playmaker Chris Wagner and his 23 assists, which are second only to Quinnipiac’s Matthew Peca in league play. The sophomore is flanked by Joe Wilson and Austin Smith, the nation’s leading goal-scorer, who added his 36th goal of the season Sunday against the Bobcats.

It’s the line that’s garnered most of the attention this season, but those who’ve seen this team, including Union coach Rick Bennett, know there’s more to the Raiders than just those three.

“They have a lot of depth,” Bennett said. “Jeremy Price is one of the best defensemen in our league. He’s a hybrid-type player and he’s tough to play against.”

Colgate’s aggressive attack often leaves Price and the rest of the defense to fend for themselves.

“Our whole defensive core played well against Quinnipiac,” Vaughan said. “Corbin McPherson sometimes goes unnoticed, even though he’s 6-[foot]-4. And freshman Spiro Goulakos has played a ton of minutes for us this year.”

When asked who else he was counting on this weekend, Vaughan pointed to the all-senior line of Matt Firman, Austin Mayer and Nick Prockow.

“We broke them up when we were having a little bit of a slump,” Vaughan said. But the trio has been playing together recently, and with good results. “They don’t put up huge offensive numbers,” Vaughn added. “But they do a good job of controlling the offensive boards.”

As for Union, Bennett took over seamlessly for the departed Nate Leaman, in large part thanks to goalie Troy Grosenick, who emerged his sophomore year after playing sparingly last season.

“The crystal ball in my office was broken,” Bennett said. “I knew he didn’t play a lot his freshman year but he had a good work ethic and attitude playing behind Corey Milan and Keith Kinkaid,” Bennett added, saying that he that Grosenick worked closely with strength coach Dan Gabelman in the offseason.

“He’s been rewarded for paying the price over the summer,” Bennett said.

There’s a good chance he could be further rewarded Thursday night at the league’s award banquet. Grosenick is one of three finalists for the Ken Dryden Award, given the to the league’s top goaltender.

His presence in net helped the Dutchmen allow the fewest goals in league play. But while they protect their own end well, Union isn’t afraid to bring it, either, as it leads the ECAC in scoring as well.

Union’s balance is evident through players such as senior Kelly Zajac, who leads the team in assists, is outstanding on the draw, and joined Wagner and Cornell’s Greg Miller as the finalists for best defensive forward.

Bennett credited Zajac, along with 20-goal scorer Jeremy Welsh and senior defender Nolan Julseth-White, as being excellent game managers.

“We have lofty goals and that all starts with leadership,” Bennett said.

The Dutchmen are making their second trip to the semifinals in three years. They reached the conference championship game for the first time ever in 2010, losing 3-0 to Cornell.

But they were denied by Colgate in the quarterfinals last year, as the Raiders won two in a row to send Union home early, although the Dutchmen did receive an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.

“We’re not changing a thing,” said Bennett, who was an assistant on last year’s team. “We have enough to focus on from the past weekend. Last year was a different team; I know that [gets old] but it really was. Our focus is just to work on our weaknesses so it doesn’t happen again.”

No. 3 Harvard (12-9-11, 8-5-9) vs. No. 2 Cornell (17-7-7, 12-4-6)

Season series: Cornell 1-0-1.

Back in a familiar spot, the Big Red are looking to make out better than last year’s trip to Atlantic City, which saw them get blanked 6-0 by Yale in the championship game.

“We’re excited to get back to Atlantic City after not performing well in the championship game last year,” said Cornell coach Mike Schafer, whose Big Red are making their fifth straight appearance in the league semifinals.

It all starts in net for Cornell, where sophomore Andy Iles has played every minute there after splitting time with Mike Garman last year.

Iles started the championship game last year against the Bulldogs but was relieved by Garman after allowing five goals on 15 shots. Since then, he’s done nothing but perform in some of Cornell’s biggest games this season.

“It’s a difficult situation to know that you’re carrying the load the whole year,” Schafer said of his goaltender. “But he’s been very consistent; five straight shutouts at home [earlier in the year], and in big games he’s played very well for us.”

But he’s had support in front of him, as upperclassmen Greg Miller, Sean Collins and underclassmen Brian Ferlin and Joel Lowry helped the Big Red finish fourth in the ECAC in scoring. However, Ferlin missed the quarterfinals against Dartmouth with an injury and hasn’t played since Feb. 17 against Clarkson.

Junior John Esposito returned against the Big Green after a lengthy absence, and defenseman Nick D’Agostino has a career-high four power-play goals in league play.

While the rivalry runs deep between Cornell and Harvard, Schafer expects his team to push that aside once it gets to Atlantic City.

“You can only go so high on emotion,” he said. “Once you get there with the opportunity to get into the championship game, that’s more than enough motivation.”

While the Big Red are familiar participants in the league’s final weekend, the Crimson are this deep in the season for the first time since 2008, when they lost to Princeton 4-1 in the championship game. Since then, they’ve finished no higher than fifth and were picked to finish last in the preseason media poll and seventh in the coaches’ poll.

“Guys in the locker room didn’t feel the way the media felt,” Harvard coach Ted Donato said. “No question it was a bit of a chip on our shoulder as to where we got picked. We really tried to prove everyone [wrong] all season.”

The Crimson enter Atlantic City having won two straight elimination games last weekend following a 2-1 overtime loss to Yale on Friday. They beat the Bulldogs 4-3 in double overtime Saturday and blasted Yale for seven goals in the final two periods for an 8-2 win Sunday.

Raphael Girard started all three games in net for Harvard, stopping 129 of 136 shots. The sophomore has of late supplanted freshman Steve Michalek, who hasn’t played since a 7-1 loss to the Bulldogs on Feb. 18.

“He was outstanding over the weekend,” Donato said of Girard. “He really added a level of confidence to the team.”

Girard’s emergence in net, coupled with Harvard’s potent power play that’s ranked first in the nation (28.2 percent), could make the Crimson an unwelcome sight this weekend.

“The good thing about our power play is that is does have some different dimensions,” Donato said. “We have some high-end, skilled players like [Alex] Killorn, and [Danny] Biega. It makes teams really have to overplay them and we’ve been able to share the puck and take advantage of whatever has been open.”

Killorn, a senior, has 30 points in league play and centers a line with Marshall Everson and Alex Fallstrom. The trio finished with 10 points against Yale Sunday.

“Killorn took over the game,” Donato said of one of the league’s top forwards. “Saturday, he kind of flipped the switch and he was virtually unstoppable on that line on Sunday.”

As if that wasn’t enough, fourth-line center David Valek posted his first career hat trick Sunday.

“He’s our unsung hero; we don’t get home ice without his performance in the last weekend of the season,” Donato said of the junior, who has scored seven of his nine goals over the last five games.

That performance, coupled with a surging Girard in net, could set the pieces for Harvard to advance to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006.

Poll and PairWise check-in

The latest Division I Men’s Poll has four league teams ranked, including Union (sixth), Cornell (13th) and newcomers Harvard (19th) and Colgate (20th).

More importantly, Union is tied for sixth in the PairWise Rankings, while Cornell is 13th. Harvard (tie, 22nd) and Colgate (24th) are out of the top 16, so they’ll need a pair of wins to play past this weekend. Cornell could benefit from at least one win, as things are so volatile that it might not be guaranteed an at-large bid if it doesn’t win the Whitelaw Cup.

Want to check out the possibilities? Click here for the PairWise Predictor to plug in your own results for all of the playoffs this weekend to see who’s still alive after this weekend.

League awards

The ECAC has been releasing the finalists for the league’s awards, which will be announced Thursday night at the end-of-the-year banquet in Atlantic City. Here’s who’s been nominated outside of those mentioned above:

Player of the Year: Austin Smith, Colgate; Danny Biega, Harvard.

Best Defensive Defenseman: Danny Biega, Harvard; Braden Birch, Cornell; Michael Sdao, Princeton.

Rookie of the Year: Matthew Peca, Quinnipiac; Brian Ferlin, Cornell; Patrick McNally, Harvard.

As a final note, Brian Sullivan and I will be on the Boardwalk this weekend, so be sure to check back for a live chat and game coverage.



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