ECAC Final Four Preview
by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
In his address to the media on Tuesday, St. Lawrence coach Joe Marsh said, "It's about will, obviously, but you have to have some skill, too."
This weekend in Albany N.Y., four teams will hope that their will and skill are enough to help them skate away as the ECAC tournament champion.
And as the ECAC Championships return to New York's Capital District - with, as usual, not only the league championship on the line but NCAA berths as well - as few as one and as many as four ECAC teams can qualify for the NCAA tournament depending on this weekend's results,
For now, though, it's all about winning the Whitelaw Trophy.
This year's final four features the most dominant travel partner pairing in the league - the North Country duo of St. Lawrence and Clarkson. Top seed St. Lawrence last won the ECAC title in 2001, while the second-seeded Knights last won the tournament in 1999. The two teams that will challenge the North Country pair in their respective semifinals are Dartmouth and Quinnipiac, both looking for their first ever ECAC championship.
1. St. Lawrence (22-12-2 overall, 16-5-1 ECAC) vs. 5. Quinnipiac (20-13-5, 10-8-4)
After struggling to a 2-5-1 record in the month of December, Joe Marsh's team has enjoyed a 13-2-1 record since the New Year, a stretch that includes wins in eight of its last nine games. Needless to say, the Saints are on a roll.
But St. Lawrence ascended to the top of the league somewhat unexpectedly this year. Picked by the media to finish 7th after losing four of their top five scorers from last season, the Saints have surpassed not only those expectations but perhaps even those of their coach as well.
Said Marsh, "Certainly, I wouldn't disagree with where we were picked to finish in the middle of the pack. There were a lot of unknowns."
But despite the considerable question marks surrounding his team, Marsh knew he had some reliable players returning whom he could count on to surprise a lot of people this year.
"We had some pretty good returning players," said the 22 year coaching veteran. "[Drew] Bagnall certainly has distinguished himself over the years and really emerged this year. He has been like a captain since day one. He's a very emotional leader, and his work ethic is unbelievable. And the same thing with Kyle Rank. They've made themselves better over time and are passionate leaders."
The team facing St. Lawrence in Friday's first semifinal knows a thing or two about surpassing expectations as well. Rand Pecknold's Quinnipiac Bobcats are in only their second year in the league and, after finishing the regular season in fifth place, traveled to Cornell last weekend for their quarterfinal series and swept the Big Red in two games.
Said Pecknold, "I was extremely proud of my team's effort [at Cornell]. We found a way to grit it out against a very good Cornell team both nights. Lynah Rink is a tough place to play, and we're fortunate to be going to Albany to play for the ECAC championship."
Asked if he thought it would take just two years for his team to advance to the league's final four, Pecknold responded candidly, "Realistically, no. Our athletic director, Jack McDonald, and I sat down once we got into the league. He said, 'What do you think - finish between nine through 12 the first four years and then move up after that?' I kind of agreed, but I didn't want it to take that much time.
"Our recruiting has been great. Bryan Leitch was the Rookie of the Year last year, and Brandon Wong this year has just been a star for us. That's allowed us to move along quicker than anyone thought it would happen."
With 26 goals and 43 points this season, Wong is one of the many "stars" featured in this semifinal. Senior defenseman Reid Cashman, in the midst of his third consecutive 40 point season, is another. And the Bobcats are backstopped by goaltender Bud Fisher, who posted a 1.00 GAA and a .955 save percentage in Quinnipiac's quarterfinal series against Cornell. In the first game of the series, he shut out the Big Red for over 60 minutes in a 1-0 overtime win.
For St. Lawrence, senior forward Kyle Rank leads the way offensively with 32 points, but standout defenseman Drew Bagnall is the player who seems to have Pecknold's attention.
"I think he's the best player in the league," said Pecknold about Bagnall. "I've told my guys a few times this year that he will play in the NHL. He is so good at winning battles. He is so good defensively. He's just a dominant player on the defensive size, and obviously he's good offensively, too. We need to get our guys ready to compete and ready to be physical with him. We can't be intimidated by him."
The Saints are also enjoying solid goaltending of late, as freshman Alex Petizian made his playoff debut with 6-1 and 5-1 wins over Colgate last weekend.
Marsh commented not only on Petizian, but on his now-backup goaltender Justin Pesony, who logged most of the minutes between the pipes last year and now represents the type of character of this year's Saints team. Despite having appeared in only six games this season, Pesony is an assistant captain and serves as a motivating force in the Saints' locker room.
"This year, we've gone with Petizian," said Marsh. "He's had the hot hand and sustained it. But Pesony's contributions off the ice have been incredible. He's a probably the best conditioned athlete on the team. His work ethic is unbelievable.
"It's tough not to go with Pesony, but Petizian has just developed the hot hand. Still, Pesony has been instrumental in our success, and a lot of that is his maturity and leadership. And I think other guys can look at him and see how hard he's been working. His leadership has not been the least bit diminished. In fact, it's been enhanced under some tough circumstances. I think that has really set the tone in our locker room for guys to set a high agenda and sacrifice for the sake of the team."
Now, only two wins away from the ECAC championship and the accompanying automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, all those sacrifices may finally pay off.
But not if Quinnipiac has anything to say about it.
Said Pecknold, "We're going to basically try to play like we did at Cornell. We went into the weekend aggressive and with a nothing to lose attitude. Nobody other the kids in that locker room thought that we could beat Cornell. I think that we're going to have the same attitude this weekend."
2. Clarkson (23-8-5, 13-5-4) vs. 3. Dartmouth (18-10-3, 12-7-3)
If Dartmouth can do something they haven't been able to do in recent years — and that's win a semifinal game in the ECAC final four — then they will get the chance to play for the ECAC title on the big(gest) green day of them all, St. Patrick's Day.
But standing in their way is a Clarkson team who could come out of the weekend with a number one seed in the NCAA tournament and who has remarkably lost only three of its last 25 games.
"It's certainly been an enjoyable year," said Clarkson coach George Roll, whose Golden Knights were runners-up in 2004, their last trip to the final four. "This year's been a pleasure. We've played pretty consistently for most of the year. I think Dartmouth is very similar to us. They have some very good forwards up front, and their defensive corps is a veteran group who present a lot of challenges."
And it was quite a challenge for the Knights the last time these two teams faced off. After defeating the Big Green 6-3 on the road early in the year, Clarkson needed two goals by team scoring leader Nick Dodge in the final seven minutes of the game to rally for a 4-4 tie at Cheel Arena in late January.
Said Roll, "When the game seems to be on the line, whether we're down late or up late, we don't lose our composure. Against a quality team like Dartmouth, to come back from being down two goals speaks to the character of our guys and the confidence they have in their abilities."
Just as Roll praised Dartmouth, Big Green coach Bob Gaudet took time to return the favor.
"We're playing a great team in Clarkson," said Gaudet. "Obviously they have a lot of weapons and are an elite team, so we have our hands full. But it's going to be fun. They're good in all facets of the game. David Leggio has had a great year and is really tough to beat. They have a great work ethic, they're very disciplined, and it's hard to get opportunities against them because they're a very good team defensively."
While Clarkson swept Harvard last weekend, Dartmouth swept Princeton and has now won nine of its last 10 games.
A big reason for their recent success?
Explained Gaudet, "We got healthy. We seemed to be losing defensemen left and right for the first half of the season. We lost a key guy, Grant Lewis, with an ankle injury in our first league game of the year, and he was out until the middle part of the year. We had some guys like J.T. Wyman, who's a really good forward for us, play defense. Once we started to get healthy, we started to get more continuity as a team.
"And then Mike Devine made some of the best saves I've seen down the stretch and won some points for us. We very easily could have been beaten by a lot of teams down the stretch, and Mike was a big difference for us."
Devine, the only goaltender of the four teams participating this weekend to have started a game in the ECAC final four, will have to deal with a group of junior Clarkson forwards who have been terrorizing opponent defenses all season. And while Dodge often gets most of the attention from the media, Roll notes that other players have been just as instrumental in his team's success.
"[Shawn Weller and Steve Zalewski] have probably been, along with [Dodge], our most consistent players this year. And the games where they haven't brought their 'A' game, we haven't won. They compete every game, both ends of the ice. They log a ton of minutes on the special teams. On the backline, Ty Mason and Michael Grenzy don't get a lot of accolades but are awfully good defensively and have shut down our opponents' top lines pretty consistently."