This Week in ECAC Hockey: Rensselaer playing like ‘a mature hockey team,’ finding ways to close out tough games

Rensselaer senior Todd Burgess has scored 14 goals this season after netting just eight total coming into 2019-20 (photo: Liz Brady/RPI Athletics).

Entering the final weekend of the regular season, it was Saturday’s Cornell-Clarkson matchup that was billed as the game to watch.

But the Big Red won Friday to clinch ECAC Hockey’s regular-season title and ensure that Clarkson finished in second place.

Instead, it was Rensselaer’s game at Dartmouth Saturday that had the biggest impact on the league standings. The Engineers beat the Big Green 4-1 to clinch a top-four spot in the league standings for the first time since 2013.

RPI was in that position after beating Harvard on Friday to pass the Crimson for the final first-round bye spot, putting them in control of their own destiny entering the final game of the regular season.

It’s been a strong stretch run for the Engineers, who ended the regular season on a 5-1 run.

Rensselaer coach Dave Smith credited the team’s depth as an important of that success.

“We’re big on development,” Smith said. “When [guys] get their opportunity, they know what we expect. It’s a credit to those guys for being ready.”

Eight players have at least 15 points for RPI, including senior Todd Burgess, who has 14 goals this season after entering the year with eight total.

It’s also helped that goalie Owen Savory has followed up a sluggish first half with an outstanding second half. The sophomore has recorded a .963 save percentage over the last two months and is one shutout shy of tying the single-season school record.

“We want to be a mature hockey team and I think being a mature hockey team is what makes teams in this league great. We’ve understood what being a mature team is. We’ve gone into third periods with a one-, two-goal lead and found a way to close it out,” Savory said.

This season has continued a steady progression for RPI under Smith. The Engineers won six games during Smith’s first season in 2018-19 and enter the playoffs with 17 wins, the program’s most since 2016.

As for Harvard, it’s the first time it hasn’t finished in the top four of the league since 2015. That year, the Crimson won the Whitelaw Trophy in Lake Placid as the No. 6 seed.

“I’m not going to lie and say that having home ice and that bye isn’t a great advantage,” said Harvard coach Ted Donato. “But we also have a really young group, so we continue to learn lessons on a nightly basis, sometimes even within periods. At this time of year we knew that we are going to have to beat whoever is in front of us and if it means that we have to add another weekend to it, I think we can look at the positive and say hey, it would be helpful to us to establish the way that we want to play and really strengthen our identity as a group.”

The Crimson are playing in the first round despite starting out 6-0. Harvard is 7-10-6 since then, including several frustrating losses and ties.

Harvard scored 36 seconds into the first period against Brown on Feb. 15 but had to settle for a 1-1 tie. Two weeks ago, the Crimson lost 6-3 to St. Lawrence, a team that hadn’t won in nearly three months.

“It’s just another game. [We’ve all] played juniors where you’re playing 60 games,” Harvard senior captain Nathan Krusko said. “Two extra games is not going to wear us down. Playoffs are the most fun to play for us, so we’re definitely looking forward to it.

Previewing the first round

The first round of the ECAC Hockey playoffs starts on Friday with four best-of-three series. Here is a look at the matchups set for the weekend.

No. 12 St. Lawrence at. No. 5 Harvard

Season series: Tied 1-1

Harvard might have struggled down the stretch, but the Crimson still boast the country’s No. 1 power play, while St. Lawrence’s penalty kill is second to last in the country. That didn’t stop the Saints from snapping a three-and-a-half-month winless streak with a 6-3 win over the Crimson on Feb. 22.

A young Harvard team will need a strong series from its tops line of Casey Dornbach, Nick Abruzzese, and Jack Drury and for someone to emerge in net between freshman Mitchell Gibson and senior Cam Gornet.

No. 11 Princeton at. No. 6 Dartmouth

Season series: Dartmouth, 2-0

Dartmouth was on a roll through the middle of January and appeared poised to challenge for a first-round bye.

But the Big Green struggled down the stretch, losing eight of its last 11 regular-season games. Still, Dartmouth is a dangerous team that has the ability to score goals in bunches.

If Princeton is able to pull off the upset, the Tigers will have to take advantage of a Big Green defense that allows more than three goals per game. But that might be a problem for a Princeton team that is averaging less than two goals per game entering the league tournament.

No 10 Union at No. 7 Yale

Season series: Yale, 2-0

The Bulldogs have a talented defense led by Phil Kemp and Jack St. Ivany, while sophomore Justin Pearson has teamed with classmate Curtis Hall to give Yale a pair of legitimate top-line forwards.

However, the pair combined for just over 40 percent of the team’s goals, meaning the Bulldogs will need someone else to step up if those two are targeted by opposing defenses.

Union enters the series looking to score its first goal of the season against Yale after the Bulldogs swept the season series by an aggregate score of 7-0. The Dutchmen have struggled to generate offense all season, and that’s led to a lot of busy nights for goalie Darion Hanson, who faces an average of 30 shots per game.

No. 9 Brown at No. 8 Colgate

Season series: Brown, 2-0

Expect a low-scoring series, as the Bears and the Raiders enter the playoffs averaging less than two goals per game combined.

Brown has gotten good goaltending from senior Gavin Nieto, whose .928 save percentage in conference play was fourth in ECAC Hockey. Colgate goalie Andrew Farrier finished with a strong season overall, but faded a bit down the stretch and gave way to Mitch Benson in the Raiders final two regular-season games.

O is for Offense

He may not be one of the more recognizable forwards in the league, but Dartmouth’s Drew O’Connor is having an impressive season.

The sophomore recorded his first career hat trick Friday against Union and then added a goal Saturday against RPI. He finished the regular season with a league-high 16 goals in conference play and his 21 goals overall are currently third in the nation.

O’Connor is the first Dartmouth player to score 20 goals in a season since Scott Fleming in 2009-10 and the first Big Green player to lead ECAC Hockey in goal scoring since Ross Brownridge did so in the 1979-80 season.

Looking ahead

The field for the inaugural Holiday Face-Off in Milwaukee was announced Tuesday, and Clarkson is one of four teams set to play at the Fiserv Forum, Dec. 28-29.

The Golden Knights will be joined by Wisconsin, Arizona State and Connecticut. Matchups will be announced at a later date.