For half of the ECAC Hockey championship field, eyes are on a first title

Another March, another final ECAC Hockey notebook. Let’s save the sentimentalities for Twitter and get right down to brass tacks.

Seventh-seeded Brown will take on regular-season champion Quinnipiac at 4 p.m. EDT on Friday, while third-place Yale will get the last change against fourth-seed Union at 7:30. Tons of information can be found here on the league’s website, but here’s the bare-bones basics: The games are being played at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.J., for the third and final time (as far as we know) before moving back to Lake Placid, N.Y., next year. The games will be broadcast live on Fox College Sports/Fox Sports Atlantic (623 on DirecTV), and live streaming video is also available for a fee (info on the league’s site).

2013 ECAC Hockey Championship

Follow all our coverage of the ECAC Hockey postseason at Playoff Central

Neither Brown nor Quinnipiac has ever won a league tournament title — Brown is 0-3 in championship games; the Bobcats are 0-1 — while Union and Yale have each lifted the Whitelaw Cup in just the last five years. Finally, Quinnipiac is the only one of the four teams that has assured itself an NCAA berth.

Now for some quick looks at the teams:

March is Bears’ season

There are a lot of doubters who are watching Friday only to see who Quinnipiac will play on Saturday. To them, Brown coach Brendan Whittet has but five words:

“Wait ’til you see us.”

The Bears are playing as well as they have all year, winning five of their last six and going 9-4-2 since late January. The hot streak ensures the program of its first .500 season in eight years, and its first under alumnus Whittet.

“It’s a nice step,” Whittet said. “Our goal is not to [just] finish .500. If you look at Brown hockey over the last 30 years-plus, that’s a good accomplishment. From where we were at the beginning of the year through December, and where we are now, we’re night and day in terms of our confidence level as a team and as a program.

“We had some [injury] setbacks. We had the Kevin Roy situation. We had an unsettled goalie situation. So it’s been nice to see our transformation from the beginning of the year to the end. It’s nice to have a .500 record, but it’s just a step along the way.”

Much of the credit for Brown’s streak has been heaped at the feet of senior goalie Anthony Borelli, who — entering November — had played barely 250 minutes of Division I hockey. Since then, he’s beefed up his resume with 26 appearances, 1,500 minutes, 13 wins, a 1.87 goals against average and a .942 save percentage.

His coach is beside himself with appreciation for the late-blooming netminder, but warns watchers not to peg his team’s success exclusively to the pads of his big backstop.

“I could see how you would look at that from the outside and think that’s the case, but I’m on the bench for the games: Anthony Borelli was tremendous for us this year, but he’s also part of the team and part of a defensive system where we keep a lot of stuff at the perimeter,” Whittet said. “Anthony’s asked to make a lot of not-Grade-A saves and either hold them or put them in good areas where they don’t get those second or third chances.

“People will see the shot totals from [Rensselaer] that last game [42-17 in Brown’s 3-2 elimination-game win], but RPI was coming on hard, and that game was well within our control for close to two periods. People can look at stats all they want, but watch the games — we had a couple chances there in the second period where we had wide-open looks, and that 3-0 lead could’ve been 4, 5, 6-0. We just didn’t convert on ’em; we didn’t even hit the net on ’em, so that’s why those shots didn’t show up. I’m not concerned about that. We play really good team hockey. I would disagree with that wholeheartedly. He’s a big part of what we do, but it’s not the Anthony Borelli show.”

Brown also will waltz into Boardwalk Hall with a sense of confidence that no one else in ECAC Hockey could match this winter: The Bears are the only league team that Quinnipiac could not beat. The Bobcats settled for two ties (1-1 and 3-3), each coming in the middle of what turned out to be Quinnipiac’s record-setting 21-game unbeaten streak.

Whittet doesn’t boast about that fact, and realizes that his boys hardly had the Bobcats on the ropes in those draws.

“In both games, they had us down a little bit,” he said. “The game here was a 1-1 tie and we were playing well, but so did they as the game went on. At their rink, they had us down and out and we found a way to tie that game, but we don’t put a lot of stock in that.”

Ironically, it appears that the only team in the nation that can keep Quinnipiac from starting the NCAA tournament as the top seed at its most convenient regional — the East in Providence, R.I. — is Brown. A Bears victory on Friday probably won’t keep the Bobcats from that desirable fate, but should Brown win the league title and its NCAA automatic bid, it will bump Quinnipiac out of the Providence site.

As the host school for the East Regional, Brown would earn the right to play there, forcing Quinnipiac to shuffle to a different regional in order to avoid an intra-conference matchup in the first round.

Defending champs happy to avoid the spotlight

In a brief and complimentary conference call, it was clear that Union coach Rick Bennett was in no mood to hype his squad in advance of Friday’s contest against Yale. If anything, Bennett may have mentioned the Bulldogs nearly as often as he did his own team.

“They’re a very dangerous team,” Bennett said. “I feel they’re quite possibly the best transition offense team in our league, in the fact that they can really turn it up. It can be a long night if you decide you want to turn that puck over.”

On his own bench, the coach praised his team’s ability to focus on the details that win games. The assessment seems apt, as the Dutchmen have rolled off four wins in a row and are 6-2 in their last eight.

A key cog in the machine is, of course, junior goaltender Troy Grosenick, who boasts a .923 save percentage and 2.17 goals against average despite suffering two separate injuries that cost him playing time this season.

“It all starts in net,” Bennett said. “Any time you get to the playoffs, late in the season, you rely on your goaltender. He’s been playing well throughout the year.”

Bennett also pointed to forwards Kyle Bodie, Wayne Simpson and Daniel Carr as big producers for the Dutchmen. Simpson (15 goals) and Carr (14) lead the team in lamps lit, while Bodie’s 23 assists set the pace in that department.

Union has a very real shot at making the NCAA tournament despite a loss this weekend, though Bennett isn’t wasting time on such possibilities.

“We do have our volunteer assistant, Joel Beal, who could rival “The Matrix,” but I try to stay far away from that,” Bennett said. “We worry about playing Yale, and we worry about our next practice and the rest will take care of itself. For those guys who came up with that formula, God bless ’em, and we’ll just keep worrying about playing.”

Bobcats focused on Friday

Following a wild and gritty three-game, 11-period series win over Cornell, Quinnipiac and coach Rand Pecknold feel prepared to peel into the next layer of competition.

“When you’re No. 1 in the country, everybody comes to play. Everybody wants to knock you off your perch, and we’ve dealt with it well all year,” Pecknold said. “I don’t see that changing. We’re a veteran team. We’ve got great leadership.”

That said, the coach realizes that it’s not just No. 1 that everyone’s gunning for now: In potential win-or-go-home scenarios, the pressure is universally borne but individually carried.

“There’s pressure on everyone,” Pecknold said. “My guys know they’re in the [NCAA] tournament, and right now we’re focused on trying to win an ECAC Hockey championship, which was one of our goals before the season, along with winning the regular season championship. I don’t think my guys are focused on the NCAA tournament; I think they’re focusing on Brown on Friday, and we’ll move on from there.”

Speaking of Brown, Pecknold said: “I don’t think we’re that much different no matter who we are going to play. Whoever we were going to play on Friday was going to be a great team, and our league is outstanding from top to bottom. We really haven’t gotten into [analyzing] Brown that much. It’s more about what we do.

“The guys are excited about going to Atlantic City. I don’t think the opponent [matters]. Friday’s Friday. We’ve got a game to win. We need to do what we do well, and we’ll be fine.”

While the Bobcats muscled past Cornell despite the extraordinary efforts of Big Red goalie Andy Iles, they now face another hot goalie in Brown’s Borelli (mentioned above). While Borelli has received pages of accolades for his performance this season, Quinnipiac’s own Eric Hartzell is no slouch, himself. The starting goalie behind arguably the best team in the nation deserves Hobey Baker Award consideration, and he’s got it.

It is questionable, however, whether even that is enough to recognize the amount of Quinnipiac’s success for which Hartzell is personally responsible.

“Any time we’ve struggled, he bailed us out,” Pecknold said. While Pecknold graded a few of his team’s performances during the 21-game run as poor, he said that the reason the ‘Cats mustered points “was all Hartzell. He’s probably the most valuable player in college hockey.”

Die-hard Bobcats fans will have their hands — or remotes — full this weekend, as the women’s basketball team (30-2) qualified for its first-ever NCAA tournament as well. The 13th-seeded Bobcats went undefeated (20-0) in Northeast Conference play, and will take on fourth-seeded Maryland on enemy hardwood at 11:15 a.m. EDT Saturday.

“They’ve had a phenomenal year,” Pecknold said. “They haven’t lost in probably longer than we went. It’s been a great year for Quinnipiac women’s basketball, and certainly a great year for our hockey team, too.”

Bobcats fans are hoping that both glorious seasons will live on come Sunday; is that really too much to ask?

In Malcolm they trust?

In case you missed it, Yale promptly booted all five of its games during senior goalie Jeff Malcolm’s injury last month, scoring six goals while surrendering 19. Since his return, the Bulldogs are 5-0 and outscoring the opposition 19-8.

That’s so close to poetically perfect, it’s eerie.

The Bulldogs shut down St. Lawrence in straight sets last weekend, sending the Saints packing by 6-1 and 3-0 scores. Malcolm was called upon only 30 times, stopping 29 shots for his 15th and 16th wins of the season. Ironically, sometimes the presence of a capable goaltender leads a team to give up fewer chances, rather than permitting itself more in the name of transition offense.

“We’re about growth and last weekend we took a step forward as a hockey team,” coach Keith Allain said through Yale’s sports information department. “We did a great job defensively, and because of that great job we were able to create a lot of scoring opportunities.”

Allain foresees the need for even more diligent backchecking ahead, as Union’s team defense poses a significant obstacle for any ambitious offense.

“I’m expecting a really good hockey game,” he said. “We have a lot of respect for Coach Bennett and the Union hockey team. I think it will be a game where it will be really hard to get scoring chances.”

This will be familiar territory for Allain, if not his seniors, as the Bulldogs aim for a third Whitelaw Cup in five years and a fourth NCAA berth in the same period.

Hooray, status quo!

Here’s the deal on the PairWise Rankings, and therefore the NCAA tournament field:

If the favorites — meaning either the teams currently ranked higher in the PairWise or the higher seeds — win their league tournaments, it looks as though four ECAC Hockey teams will qualify for the big dance: Quinnipiac (guaranteed the overall No. 1 seed, as best I can figure), Yale (around the sixth- to eighth-seeded area), Union (15th) and Rensselaer (16th).

What could end up being the fly in the punch bowl? If a team outside the PairWise top 16 wins its league title. The most conspicuous place this might happen is in Atlantic Hockey, where anyone other than Niagara would bump RPI into the offseason.

The AHA isn’t the only sticky spot, however. There are a good half-dozen other teams from Hockey East (Providence, Boston University), the WCHA (Wisconsin, Colorado College) and the CCHA (Michigan, Ohio State) that could send RPI (and Union, should the Dutchmen fail to improve their PWR rating this weekend) golfing with tournament victories.

Long story short: If you’re rooting for RPI, Union or ECAC Hockey in general, you’re also a Niagara, Boston College, Massachusetts-Lowell, Notre Dame, Miami, Minnesota, North Dakota, Minnesota State and/or St. Cloud State fan this weekend.

Looks like you’ve got some last-minute jersey shopping to do, so I’ll let you get on it. Check back often for updates from USCHO, as well as Friday’s predictions from myself and Nate Owen.