ECAC Final 4 Preview
The League's Top Four Seeds Skate For The Whitelaw Trophy
by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
ALBANY, N.Y. This Friday, at the Pepsi Arena in Albany, N.Y., the ECAC's two most dominant sets of travel partners — Dartmouth/Harvard and Colgate/Cornell — will begin their quests for an ECAC championship and the accompanying automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
(Also see ECAC Notebook)
1. Dartmouth Big Green (18-11-2 overall, 14-6-2 ECAC)
After starting their ECAC season 0-4, the preseason favorites to win the league were left feeling green. That dramatically changed on November 12, when the Big Green knocked off Cornell, 6-1. The win propelled Dartmouth to a 14-2-2 record its final 18 league contests, and as it heads into this championship weekend, the Big Green has only lost once in its last twelve games.
"We have an excellent leader in Mike Ouellette," said coach Bob Gaudet. "He's done a nice job after a rocky start to the season coming out of the gate. I really need to credit our captain for keeping the team together and for all his leadership."
After earning a first-round bye, the Big Green swept Yale this past weekend to earn its trip to New York's capital district. Tanner Glass, Sean Offers, and Ouellette — the Ivy League player of the year — each scored twice, characteristic of a balanced Dartmouth offense that includes six players with at least 20 points scored this season. Meanwhile, goaltender Mike Devine made 55 saves on 57 shots in the series, backstopping Dartmouth to 5-1 and 3-1 victories.
Said Gaudet, "Mike Devine has done a great job. He's a good, calm kid, very athletic, and he works incredibly hard every day. He's a guy that really hates to get beat, and he's found a way to make huge saves for us."
Dartmouth has never won the ECAC championship, and if it intends to this season, the Big Green must first go through their travel partner, Harvard, their semifinal opponent on Friday afternoon. The teams split the regular season series, though both of the games were played before the holiday break. Also on the line for Dartmouth is a chance at making the NCAA tournament.
"It's self-inflicted," said Gaudet, of Dartmouth's position in the PairWise rankings. "We dropped some games during the season, and that's the way it goes. If we have to go ahead and win [the ECACs] to make it, well that's our goal, and it's in our hands. We just have to go out and keep battling. Our ultimate goal right now is to win the ECAC championship."
2. Colgate Raiders (20-11-6 overall, 14-6-2 ECAC)
Don Vaughan's No. 17 Raiders have experienced an up-and-down season, characterized by a strong start, a mid-season 0-4-2 slump, and a strong final weekend that allowed them to clinch a share of the regular season title.
Said Vaughan, "It was our leadership — guys like Jon Smyth, Kyle Wilson, Tyler Burton, and Jesse Winchester — that really helped carry our team this year. And of course, our goaltender [Mark Dekanich] was a big part of our success this year as well."
Last season, Colgate lost to Harvard in double overtime in the semifinals, meaning the Raiders continue to look for their first ECAC championship since 1990. A major difference this year from last is that Colgate must win the league championship in order to earn a trip to the NCAA tournament.
"Every year, our goal is to win the ECAC championship because that automatically comes with a bid to the tournament," said Vaughan. "It hasn't been a real focus for us, talking about the NCAA tournament. We have to battle to have an opportunity to win the league. We want to win a championship."
This past weekend, Colgate dropped game one of its quarterfinal series to Quinnipiac, but came back to beat the Bobcats 5-3 and 4-0 in the next two contests. Their reward is a semifinal matchup with No. 7 Cornell, who swept the Raiders in a pair of highly-charged games in early February.
"We obviously have a lot of respect for Mike Schafer and the Cornell team," said Vaughan. "We've had some pretty good battles over the last few years. Mike's teams are very stingy defensively, so you have to capitalize on your chances when you get them. His teams are big and strong, and they want to play in the offensive zone. When you play Cornell, you just have to expect that you'll be in your end a little bit more than you'd like."
"I think for Colgate, it's always been a pretty intense rivalry," continued Vaughan. "Its increased a little bit more over the last four or five years, simply because the two programs have had some pretty good success. For the people in Hamilton and on the campus here in Colgate, it's the highlight for our students and fans. Lots of emotion, and the games have been tremendous. It's fun when we play them, and it's what college hockey is all about."
3. Cornell Big Red (20-7-4 overall, 13-6-3 ECAC)
Cornell heads into Albany after playing one of the most memorable playoff series in ECAC history, defeating Clarkson in double overtime in two thrilling back-to-back games. Saturday's contest, the longest in the history of Lynah Rink, ended after All-American captain Matt Moulson scored in the 91st minute of play.
"Our two games against Clarkson demonstrate that it's very difficult to get back to Albany," said coach Mike Schafer. "It was two great hockey games, and character-wise, our guys gutted it out and were able to get the win. We're looking forward to trying to keep that same mentality going into Albany, being mentally tough and knowing that we're going to face very similar type of games. The game plan doesn't change a whole lot."
"Although," joked Schafer, referencing his team's typically stingy style of play, "I was thinking about opening it up a little bit this weekend."
Despite Cornell's oft-depleted blue line and the supposed struggles by last year's Hobey Hat Trick finalist, goaltender David McKee, the Big Red have continued its characteristic strong defensive play this year, allowing only 2.19 goals per game — the fifth best mark in the nation. However, their opponent on Friday night, Colgate, has been almost as good itself, allowing only 2.38 goals per contest.
"It's a good rivalry," said Schafer. "There's a lot of respect for each other as far as the programs are concerned. The games [against Colgate earlier this season] were really tight both nights. But we throw everything out the window when you get to this point of the season and the playoffs. It doesn't matter who you're playing or what the records were at the start of the year. It means absolutely nothing. It's a big game, and the players feel the exact same way."
As defending ECAC champions, Cornell knows what it takes to win, and they skate into Albany looking to win the program's 12th league title and its third in the last four years.
"Everyone wants to win the ECAC championship," said Schafer. "It's what you prepare for all year long. It's a big weekend. You don't come into this weekend to try and qualify for the NCAAs. You come into the weekend to win the trophy."
4. Harvard Crimson (19-11-2 overall, 13-8-1 ECAC)
Ted Donato, in his second season as coach of the Crimson, has led Harvard back to the ECAC final four. Last year, Harvard lost in the championship game to rival Cornell. In fact, the Big Red and Crimson have split the last four ECAC championships. This year, the Crimson will play Dartmouth in Friday's first semifinal.
"I think our team has played very well the second half of the season," said coach Ted Donato. "We're playing our best hockey of the year right now. We're excited about getting to play Dartmouth. They're a very good team. We expect a very competitive, excellent hockey game."
"The only downside," quipped Donato, "is that we're a bit reluctant to play on St. Patrick's Day against a team that calls themselves the Big Green."
Harvard comes into the weekend after finding themselves 20 minutes away from a sweep at the hands of St. Lawrence on Saturday. After losing game one 5-1, the Saints held a 2-1 lead heading into the third period. However, goals by Ryan Maki and Dave Watters forced a decisive game three, in which the Crimson offense exploded for an 8-4 victory.
"I think the attitude of our team was having a strong will," said Donato. "We were down 2-1 going into the third period, facing elimination in game two against a very good St. Lawrence team. Our guys had their backs against the wall, and responded very admirably.
"All year long, we've had a group of juniors and seniors who have led this team — guys like Kevin Du, Ryan Maki and Peter Hafner, our captain. John Daigneau in the net has been a very stable force for us. We've watched his confidence grow throughout the season. He provided us with a level of goaltending that allowed us to be very competitive."