ECAC Hockey teams chase new power Union, but gap isn’t big

So, Union is the new powerhouse in the conference. But wasn’t Yale hoisting the Whitelaw chalice just a couple of days ago?

Or Clarkson, or St. Lawrence? Or was it Cornell? Or Harvard?

The short answer: Yes.

Welcome to ECAC Hockey.

The tightest top-to-bottom conference in the country kicks off another season on Nov. 2, but its members are already playing Division I competition with the postseason in mind. Quinnipiac upended then-No. 15 Maine in Orono, while two-time defending Cleary Cup champion and preseason No. 5 Union slipped under the weight of its new banners against Merrimack on Saturday. If these results seem funny to you, you must be new around here.

Speaking of new around here, St. Lawrence officially bid farewell to iconic coach Joe Marsh last spring and anointed Greg Carvel — SLU class of 1993 — the Saints’ first rookie head coach since the eight-bit Nintendo Entertainment System was released.

Practically across the street, Clarkson has its own transition to address: Who will be the next great goalie to occupy the crease formerly occupied by Paul Karpowich? Do the Golden Knights have another David Leggio in the wings?

As far as replacing legends goes, no one may face a tougher task than Colgate, which graduated Hobey Baker Award finalist Austin Smith. The Dallas dynamo walked out of Hamilton with 79 goals and 160 points in his suitcase. That’s more goals than any four 2012-13 Raiders players have scored in their collegiate careers combined.

While Don Vaughan is trying to figure that out, Dartmouth head coach Bob Gaudet might just overtake his longtime foe and colleague on the all-time wins board. Gaudet (312) sits just two shy of Vaughan’s 314.

As those two veterans race each other to 320, 330 and beyond, a little further up the chart is ECAC Hockey’s leading winner, Rand Pecknold. The Quinnipiac bench boss is a dozen wins short of 350 for his distinguished career, and would love to get there by Christmas … if not sooner. Already 1-0, his Bobcats are off to a good start.

Nipping at Pecknold’s heels is Mike Schafer at Cornell. The 332-win legend has managed 13 consecutive overall winning seasons in Ithaca, by far the longest for any current ECAC program and/or coach. Will this be the year that the perennial NCAA contenders become true championship-caliber terrors?

Brown may not yet be a terror in the same way that Cornell could be a terror, but there is no denying the energy that the Bears bring every night and the ferocity with which they play the game. Credit head coach Brendan Whittet for the attitude; time will tell if he’ll be lauded for a turnaround as well.

Keith Allain has earned such acclaim already at Yale, but the past couple of seasons have proven challenging for the soaring, scoring Bulldogs as they battle for their spot on the league’s top tier.

Archrival Harvard is poised for potentially its best season of the century if talent works hard, and if someone can step into Alex Killorn’s empty boots.

Completing the H-Y-P trilogy, Princeton hopes for another step forward out of goalies Mike Condon and Sean Bonar, not to mention a breakout performance by junior stars Andrew Calof and Jack Berger.

As for breaking out, Rensselaer is dying to bust free of last year’s uber-funk on the wings of strong play from the goal out and better scoring distribution. A few nifty strikes from C.J. Lee, Nick Bailen or Ryan Haggerty wouldn’t go unappreciated, either.

Is this saving the best for last? Union will have to get its head on straight after a disappointing, mildly stunning opening-night loss in which its blitzkrieg offense was held to a single goal and its power play shut out in five opportunities.

Here are the picks. Click a team’s name for its preview.

12. Brown

Thin on proven production, Bruno will rely on energy and strength. That’s half of Whittet’s ideal team, at least.

11. Colgate

There is no room for doubt or hesitancy in Hamilton this year. The 2012-13 Raiders are unproven almost to a man. Goals have to come from somewhere, fast.

10. Princeton

The Tigers will have to prove that the offense is more than a three-man operation. This is a veteran team with minimal losses, but that doesn’t always equate to wins.

9. Clarkson

In many ways it is unfair to pin the hopes of a season entirely on one person or even one position, but it feels apt here: Who will take over for Karpowich, and how well?

8. Rensselaer

Seth Appert and the Engineers always come to play; that’s never in doubt. The question is whether they will be able to execute with any consistency at all.

7. St. Lawrence

The Saints return a big chunk of their scoring, but that’s not to say that they return a lot of production. Last year’s underperformers will have to step up.

6. Dartmouth

This is as big a wild card as any in the deck, with 18 freshmen and sophomores. We’ll stick the Big Green in the middle of the pile and see how the hand plays out.

5. Yale

Are Antoine Laganiere and Kenny Agostino ready to take the lead? Each played with his hair on fire at times last season; the Bulldogs hope it’s a contagious condition.

4. Quinnipiac

The Bobcats looked good to make a run even before the Maine game; now we know they have it in ’em.

3. Cornell

The Big Red seemed like the only true challenger to Union’s crown for much of the season, and they don’t look much like easing up now.

2. Harvard

A stellar finish, minimal attrition and a blue-chip recruiting class makes the Crimson a team worth watching.

1. Union

Gotta beat the best to be the best. Union almost did that in Tampa, and no one else seemed to be able to do it in ECAC Hockey last year.