Goodbye Lake Placid, Hello Worcester
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
As you head past Albany, you continue on a straight line, on a near-desolate highway. When you left home, it was 65 degrees; now, it's about 35 as you take your exit for Route 73.
It's a good thing you know where you're going, because as you get to the bottom of the exit ramp, all the arrows point right, but none of them say the name of your destination. You go left. This is a relatively famous place, right? No matter, better to keep it our little secret.
The approach to town is filled with frozen ponds, chilly streams and glistening lakes. The mountain sides, tentacled with brilliant natural ice sculptures, keep you safe.
Just when the road becomes a little boring, out pops a ski jump, which looks far more treacherous in person than on television. You pass the Olympic Training Center, and you finally reach town. And as you make the turn, you're on Main Street, that tiny strip of territory where a miracle was celebrated; where the Olympic speed skating oval rests on the front lawn of the local high school.
And you saunter a little more to find quaint shops, eateries, and nightlife, unencumbered by Wal-Mart, McDonald's and Target. There's dog-sled rides, and ice fishing.
Assuming there's a god, this is where he lives; or at least owns a summer home.
Lake Placid. Home of the ECAC tournament. The bane of many fans' existence. It's too far, it's too cold, it's too small.
Those people have no soul.
When the Muslims pilgrimmage to Mecca, do they make those complaints?
You disparage Lake Placid, you are committing hockey blasphemy.
What better place than to spend three days with 6,000 of my closest hockey friends. Man, I missed that place. After five years, it was great to be back.
Speaking of closest friends, best wishes to Ken Schott, hockey writer for the Schenectady Gazette and frequent contributor to USCHO. Ken suffered a mild heart attack Friday night while in Lake Placid, and missed Saturday's games.
Apparently, Ken is doing relatively well, and we continue to root hard for his speedy recovery. We'll miss him in St. Paul.
That Deserves a 'Wow!'
Harvard's run to the ECAC tournament championship — winning the last three games in overtime — came against all odds, just two weeks after being completely written off, even by most of their own fans. And for good reason.
A lot was written by a lot of naysayers about the Crimson's disappointing season, including one particularly ballyhooed article by yours truly. I went so far as to say the entire Harvard program needs to do some soul-searching and figure out whether it's really headed in a positive long-term direction.
Looking back, there is complete justification to question Harvard's performance this season. Most of the players admit they were playing dreadfully. After all this time, the players still hadn't completely bought into the system, and other teams were labeling them "soft." True or not, it's not a good label to have.
"The last two weeks of the season, we were struggling, no two ways about it," said Harvard forward Dominic Moore.
On the other hand, was it overstating the case to question the long-term direction of the program? Well, they were only questions ... not answers. Of course, it didn't look like any questions would be answered this year, but some certainly have been now.
Whether Harvard won the ECAC Tournament or not, it's probably still too early to tell whether the Mark Mazzoleni regime will get the program somewhere near the national limelight again. But, even without the tournament championship, there's no question things are in better shape than when Mazzoleni got here, when the program was at a relative bottom. He's started to bring in a different kind of player, and instilled a different kind of attitude, even if that wasn't showing up on the ice. Yet.
And despite all the prognostications, it wasn't Mazzoleni who was proclaiming his team ready for an ECAC title. He knew the program was still a work in progress.
"Over the last three weeks, especially with the young team that we've had, we tried to find a point where our team came togther and understand how hard they had to work, and more importantly, how they had to play together as a team," said Mazzoleni.
Then, someone flipped a switch.
Some of the negative press fired up the Crimson. But it goes far beyond that. Moore admits that, perhaps some of the naysayers had a point, that the players did need to look in the mirror and take it upon themselves to turn things around.
"Playoffs rolled around, and we actually maybe figured out what we need to do to compete and what we need to do to win," said Moore. "I think definitely we took a gut check when we were losing all those games. It just took the fresh start of playoffs to make us have a fresh start and go at it with a new attitude, knowing what we had to do; and winning just reinforces that. Once you win, now you know what you have to do to win."
Was Harvard soft? Who knows. But it was the farthest thing from soft last weekend, mentally and physically.
"The confidence is so key," said Moore. "Winning three games in overtime, it just does so much for your mental attitude going into every game, and that makes a huge difference in the playoffs. By the same token, we had no confidence when we were losing all those games.
"The first game against Brown [in the first round] we played well, they didn't play too well. The next night when they played well, and the goalie played unbelievable, we fought through it. When you come out on top after a challenge like that, that's sorta when you figure things out and say, 'We can do this.'"
Winning this ECAC tournament championship does not suddenly cure all ills. As NESN television commentator Bob Norton said afterward, "They still have to do it for a full season." Just because they won this tournament doesn't mean they are ticketed for the NCAA Finals within three years.
Nevertheless, it was hard not to be truly impressed with the way Harvard performed at the tournament, and with the way the Crimson conducted themselves.
"This is our best game. We had to be at our best to beat them, and that's a real tribute to them," said Mazzoleni.
"Our execution of our game plan [is responsible for the turnaround]. Our kids have bought into what we've aksed them to do, and I think we're a pretty well prepared team when we play."
In the process, Mazzoleni shook off a nemesis of sorts. The Big Red had knocked Harvard out of the postseason in each of Mazzoleni's first two years with the Crimson. They also eliminated Miami from the NCAA tournament in 1997, when Mazzoleni was the coach there.
Losing this tournament seemed to hit Cornell harder than most. The Big Red weren't overconfident, but they couldn't help but think this was their year, and that they'd go into the NCAAs on a major high. They won the league by nine points, and Harvard was in third place, 13 points behind.
But they ran into an inspired Harvard team, who brought in a great game plan, and caught Cornell on a night when its defense had its first bad game in a long time.
Sometimes a loss like that can help a team re-focus heading into the NCAAs.
"If you knew the way our guys compete, the way our guys love to compete," said Schafer, "there will be no problem with our guys coming back and ready to play next week."
Cornell got a break, to a degree, getting Quinnipiac as its first-round opponent. Of course, Quinnipiac is saying the same thing, considering it tied the Big Red last year, 2-2. But, on paper, it would figure to be an easier first-round game than Cornell could otherwise have hoped for. Assuming things go right for the Big Red, it will give them a chance to get their confidence back before a grueling test against New Hampshire.
"We set the goal to get to the Frozen Four, and we still have something to accomplish," said Schafer. "We sat around early in the year about wanting to get there, and win. I think if you don't set a goal to win a national championship at the beginning of the year ... then you're going in the wrong direction."
Talk about the Big Red being too slow is foolish, and Cornell didn't think the big ice surface would negatively impact them at Lake Placid.
But for this game, on this day, it definitely was a factor. Not because the Big Red are slow, necessarily, but because the scheme Harvard used was made possible by the larger ice and was something Cornell wasn't used to. And the Crimson players executed that scheme perfectly.
"With the Olympic sheet, I thought they could spread us out," said Schafer. "Which made us have to be patient, which is probably not our strong point. I thought they did a strong job."
Said Mazzoleni, "We played our game to a 'T.' We attacked the whole night, we put pressure on them, we executed our game plan by trying to stretch them out, and I'm very, very proud of our kids."
In particular, the biggest difference between Saturday's game and last month's defeat at Lynah Rink, was the play of the defensemen, who did a tremendous job on the breakout and never allowed Cornell to set up its fearsome forecheck.
"Our kids showed tremendous poise, we were a lot of tape-to-tape coming out," said Mazzoleni.
"They run an 'I' coming in [the zone]. What we tried to do was take away their first man and then really get the flow going one way, and reverse back coming out weak side."
Mazzoleni wanted to make Cornell skate through center, stand them up and not allow them to gain the red line and dump it in.
"They're a team that plays a half-court game," said Mazzoleni. "They like to get it over the red [line] and throw it in. We've played this forecheck for a month, and we knew how hard we had to guard the red.
"They had to play behind all the time, and then we were able to get the puck to the weak side of the ice with our 'D' strong over our 'D' weak, and then forecheck off of it. That never allowed them the flow of their forecheck going, because we never allowed them to dump the puck."
Harvard forwards were open for more shots than anyone has been against Cornell this season. And over the whole 90 minutes-plus of game time, you couldn't find a 10-minute stretch where Cornell controlled play.
"I give a lot of credit on our game plan to coach [Ron] Rolston and coach [Nate] Leaman," said Mazzoleni. "Those guys watch an awful lot of tape. They put a good game plan together. We wanted to stretch them out. In a pro-sized rink there's 15 feet less, and they can really jam you on the walls, and you can really spread it out more."
Mazzoleni and Schafer had a conversation, where the coaches of two bitter rivals agreed their teams could be the standard bearers for the conference on a national level. And they are right.
If any two ECAC programs should give fans hope it's Cornell and Harvard. Vermont, Clarkson, RPI and St. Lawrence all have the capability for a lot of success, but Cornell and Harvard are the closest.
"Everybody that's associated with the ECAC will be extremely proud that Cornell is in the NCAA tournament," said Schafer, almost defiantly after his team's loss Saturday to Harvard. The next day, he expanded on his comments.
"One of the things we talked about all year with our team, the ECAC doesn't get enough credit for the caliber of play," said Schafer. "On ESPN News [during the selection show] it made it sound like the winner [of Cornell-Quinnipiac] is going to be a walkover for UNH."
Schafer doesn't mind carrying the responsibility of the league into the national tournament.
"You better take that responsibility on your shoudlers, and I think Harvard will too," he said.
Said Mazzoleni, "Mike and I talked about that before we played at Ithaca earlier this year. He said he sees Cornell and Harvard beginning to carry the flame for the ECAC. We've been down for a while. When we took this thing three years ago, we knew it was going to take time. I never envisioned this. But the way we've come together over the last 2-3 weeks, it wasn't a fluke."
Play-In is Out
This year marked the final season for the so-called Play-in game. It started in 1998 when the league decided to scrap the Tuesday night preliminary round in favor of five first-round best-of-three series, with five winners advancing to Lake Placid.
"There were disadvantages and also plusses," said ECAC assistant commissioner Steve Hagwell, of the play-in round. "That's why they went to it."
Next season, all 12 teams make the playoffs, with 5-12 playing a best-of-three series, followed by another best-of-three series the following weekend against the 1-4 teams, with four teams ending up in Lake Placid.
The CCHA went a different route. After deciding to put all 12 teams in the playoffs as well, starting this year, that league stayed with one round of best-of-three series, and sent six teams to the final weekend. The top two seeds earned a bye, while 3-6 played one game for a berth in the semifinals.
ECAC folks are happy with their decision.
"Coaches like it, I like it, the league likes it," said Hagwell. "Every team is guaranteed two games. [This year], RPI and Dartmouth fans didn't know if their team would play after Thursday."
Attendance for this year's weekend was below capacity, but Hagwell was still pleased with the outcome.
"It was a fabulous weekend. We couldn't ask for a better weekend," he said. "People looked at our five teams and wondered what the attendance would be like. Would we like to have this place packed? Certainly, anyone would. But we had a great crowd."
The key, Hagwell said, it to keep them coming back.
"We want to build it so people will come regardless of who's in it," he said. "That's the key objective from a fan's standpoint and having a packed house, and not just waiting for people to say Monday, 'OK we're in, so we're going.'"
The ECAC is committed to Lake Placid for at least another few years. This year was the first of a new five-year deal.