ECAC Hockey playoffs start this weekend as teams look to play with energy, urgency

 (Melissa Wade)
Ottoville Leppänen and Rensselaer travel to Yale this weekend to open the ECAC Hockey playoffs (photo: Melissa Wade).

Yale and Rensselaer both had a chance to improve their respective positions in the standings in the final weeks of the ECAC Hockey regular season.

Instead, both teams faltered and now enter the playoffs looking to reverse downward trends.

RPI entered the final weekend two points out of a home ice spot, while Yale was two points behind the final first-round bye spot in the standings. But both teams were swept, setting up a matchup between the No. 6 Bulldogs and No. 11 Engineers in the opening round of the playoffs. The best-of-three series begins Friday at Ingalls Rink. Yale won the season series between the teams 2-0.

“It was the wrong weekend to be out of sync,” Engineers coach Dave Smith said following Saturday’s 5-2 loss to Dartmouth. “Maybe it was because our guys so wanted to fight for eighth place. I was trying to think about the last time we’ve been flat for periods like this — and I’m saying November. Our guys have brought effort and our guys have brought attitude.”

Freshman Owen Savory has quietly been one of the league’s best goalies, as his .928 save percentage ranks seventh in the nation. The Engineers have also been bolstered by the addition of three transfers who became eligible to play after the holiday break – Chase Zieky, Mike Gornall and Shane Bear.

“Hopefully, it’s a weekend and it’s done,” Smith said. “Maybe the urgency of do or die can snap us back into the steady strong team play that we’ve had for so long.”

Yale will also be looking for better results after ending the regular season with a four-game losing streak. The Bulldogs only scored three goals during that stretch. Leading scorer Joe Snively is one of the top players in the league, but Yale doesn’t have a lot of secondary scoring options.

Sam Tucker and Corbin Kaczperski have split time in goal this season and Yale coach Keith Allain has given no indication of changing that pattern.

The Bulldogs will be without senior captain and defenseman Anthony Walsh for Game 1 of the series. Walsh was given a five-minute major and game disqualification from fighting in Saturday’s regular-season finale against Quinnipiac. Per NCAA rules, the game disqualification comes with an automatic one-game suspension.

Here’s a look at the three other first-round series in ECAC Hockey. Check back tonight for predictions on each series.

No. 12 St. Lawrence at No. 5 Dartmouth

Season series: Dartmouth, 1-0-1

Dartmouth has shown flashes of dominance, as it has beaten each of the top four teams in the league this season. The Big Green are solid at even strength, but its special teams have been a problem, a both its power play and penalty kill rank in the bottom half of the league. However, the penalty kill has been stronger of late after getting scorched in several games earlier in the season.

Adrian Clark has been a workhorse in goal for Dartmouth. He has started 19 straight games and tied a school record with five shutouts. Freshman Drew O’Connor and junior Will Graber are each entering the playoffs on a high note.

Graber had a hat trick in the regular season finale at RPI Friday, while O’Connor was named the league’s rookie of the week after posting three goals and an assist in the Big Green’s two games last weekend.

Not much has gone right this year for St. Lawrence this season, as the Saints stumbled to a second straight last place finish in ECAC Hockey. However, they did score a season-high five goals in Saturday’s win over Colgate to close the regular season. That win ended a month-long winless streak. For all its struggles, St. Lawrence’s power play was fourth in the league this season. That could prove to be an important matchup against a Big Green penalty kill that has gotten stronger as the year has gone on.

These teams met in the opening round of the league playoffs last year, with Dartmouth winning in three games.

No. 7 Colgate at No. 10 Union

Season series: 1-1

These teams exchanged home blowouts this season, as Union beat Colgate 6-0 at Messa Rink before the Raiders won 5-1 at the Class of 1965 Arena.

It was an unusual season for Union, as the Dutchmen had plenty of success out of conference but could never get much momentum going in league play. However, Union closed the regular season with a home sweep of Harvard and Dartmouth to clinch a home playoff series.

Goaltending has been inconsistent, as the Dutchmen have a .886 team save percentage in conference play. But Union has plenty of veterans throughout its lineup, led by seniors Cole Maier, Ryan Walker, and Brett Supinski, giving the Dutchmen several lines that can score.

That’s something that the Raiders lack, as Colgate has been shut out nine times this season.

The trio of Bobby McMann, John Snodgrass, and Josh McKechney has been solid, but Colgate doesn’t have much depth behind those three. In fact, that trio, along with defensemen Nick Austin and Trevor Cosgrove, has combined for nearly half of Colgate’s 54 goals this season.

Despite its offensive struggles, the Raiders have been strong in the faceoff dot this season. Colgate’s .537 faceoff winning percentage ranks ninth in the country.

No. 9 Princeton at No. 8 Brown

Season series: 1-1

A hot goalie can often make the difference and Princeton certainly has one right now. Tigers freshman Jermie Forget was named the league’s goalie of the week after stopping 62-of-65 shots in a 2-0 weekend for to close out the regular season for Princeton. His first collegiate start didn’t come until Feb. 22, but he has a .959 save percentage and the Tigers are 2-0-1 in games that he has started.

Secondary scoring has been a problem for Princeton this season. The top line of Alex Riche, Ryan Kuffner, and Max Véronneau has combined for more than half of the team’s goals, although the Tigers did get three goals from other players in a 5-1 win over Brown Saturday.

As for Brown, the Bears looked poised to potentially sneak into a top-four spot just a few weeks ago. But Brown has cooled a bit and is 1-2-2 entering the playoffs.

Still, this is the first time that Brown has hosted a playoff series since 2013, when the seventh-seeded Bears made it all the way to the league championship game.

Improved goaltending and defense had been a major reason for Brown’s improvement over the second half of the season, although the Bears gave up nine goals in two losses last weekend.

Brown might not have the top-end offense talent that Princeton does, but the Bears have depth through the lineup and a defense that can move the puck.

This is the second straight season that Brown and Princeton have met in the opening round of the league playoffs. Last year, the Tigers swept the Bears by an aggregate score of 15-3 en route to winning to the ECAC championship.