Yale-St. Lawrence: A Dynamic Matchup
by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
After a series of first-round upsets in the ECAC, order has been restored for the league's final four.
This weekend, the ECAC's top four teams in the regular season — Yale, Cornell, Princeton, and St. Lawrence — will vie for the league title during the ECAC championship weekend at the Times Union Center in Albany, N.Y. Friday's first semifinal matchup features the top two offenses in the league this season: the regular season champion Yale Bulldogs against St. Lawrence.
This final four also showcases the top talent in the league, as 13 of the 18 players named to the First, Second, and Third All-ECAC teams are playing in the semifinals.
1. YALE BULLDOGS (22-7-2)
How they advanced: First-round bye; Defeated Union in quarterfinals (4-2, 2-0)
Record in last 10 games: 7-2-1
Leading scorer: Mark Arcobello (33 points in 31 games)
Starting goaltender: Alec Richards (17-4-1, 2.02 GAA, .923 save percentage)
ECAC tournament championships: None
Yale has seen its win total increase steadily each year since the 2004-05 season and now makes it first appearance in the Final Four since the ECAC championships moved from Lake Placid, N.Y., to Albany. Moreover, this is just the fourth ECAC semifinal appearance in school history, with each of the previous three ending in defeat for the Bulldogs — ironically against each of the other three ECAC final four teams (1986 — Cornell, 1987 — St. Lawrence, 1998 — Princeton).
But neither history nor expectations has mattered much to the 2008-09 edition of the Bulldogs, picked by both the media and coaches to finish seventh in the standings. Instead, they finished as regular season champions for the first time in over a decade, propelled by a 10 game undefeated streak in league play from mid-January to mid-February.
For third-year coach Keith Allain, the success of his alma mater this season has come from always staying near-sighted.
"Our guys come to work every day, they work hard, they have fun, and all they want to do is win a hockey game on Friday night." said Allain, who was named the ECAC Coach of the Year earlier this week. "And then all they want to do is win a hockey game on Saturday night.
"I'm thrilled for our kids. They've put so much time and effort into this."
Among the Yale roster is a relatively unheralded group of seniors — a group who began their collegiate careers in New Haven under the direction of legendary Yale coach Tim Taylor. Their freshman year was Taylor's last season at the helm, and the year before, the team won just five games.
One of those seniors is goaltender Alec Richards — whose 2.02 goals-against average represents the seventh best mark in the nation. Allain frequently speaks of the growth and maturity he has seen from Richards, and the numbers seem to reflect improvement as well. As a freshman, he was allowing over three goals per game. Now, for a team known mostly for its offense, Richards has led Yale through a season that has the Bulldogs on the verge of its first ECAC championship and its first NCAA tournament appearance.
And no matter what happens this weekend in Albany, Yale — the host team of the East Regional in Bridgeport, Conn. — is a practical lock to receive a bid to the NCAA tournament.
Despite the stellar play from Richards between the pipes (1.50 GAA in his last dozen games), the undisputed strength of this Yale team is its explosive offense, led by juniors Mark Arcobello and Sean Backman, as well as sophomore Broc Little. Each is averaging over a point per game, Backman is now 10th on the all-time scoring list at Yale, and Little leads the nation in shorthanded goals. All these numbers add up to an offense that averaged 3.32 goals per game this year — 11th best in the country.
Said Allain, "One of my goals in structuring the team coming into the season was to achieve a balance offensively. We've been able to put two offensive lines together. Having balance offensively is a huge weapon."
However, there is a flip side to being active offensively. And that's being responsible defensively.
"The other side of it," continued Allain, "is that we have to maintain our structure in the offensive zone because if we're careless down there, it's going to be a race down to the other end."
Indeed, while Yale has the 11th best offense in the country, St. Lawrence is just behind at No. 12 — averaging 3.31 goals per game. Unique to their team is perhaps the most offensively-minded group of defensemen in the league. In particular, Saints defensemen Matt Generous, Jared Ross, and Zach Miskovic have combined for 34 points this season.
Said Allain, "They're scary. One of the things you maybe try to do against a team that has an active defense is get to them early before they get going."
This season, Yale was 0-1-1 against St. Lawrence, with an overtime loss on the road on Nov. 7 (Yale's second game of the season) and a 2-2 tie in New Haven, Conn., on Jan. 17.
But again, history hasn't mattered to this Yale team yet, so why should it now?
For the time being, all Allain is stressing is focusing on one goal at a time — whether a cliche or not.
"Our mindset is to find a way to achieve our goals," said Allain. "Our next goal after winning the ECAC [regular season title] was to get to Albany. Now our next goal is to win in Albany. Our mindset has been really good that way."
4. ST. LAWRENCE SAINTS (21-11-4)
How they advanced: First-round bye; Defeated Quinnipiac in quarterfinals (5-3, 5-3)
Record in last 10 games: 7-1-2
Leading scorer: Mike McKenzie (34 points in 36 games)
Starting goaltender: Alex Petizian (17-8-4, 2.13 GAA, .928 save percentage)
ECAC tournament championships: 1962, 1988, 1989, 1992, 2000, 2001
"By winning six more periods, you take any of the other numbers right out of it."
So says St. Lawrence coach Joe Marsh, easily simplifying the objective this weekend for the Saints.
The Saints come marching into Albany with the best record of any other final four team in their last 10 games. Moreover, the Saints are unbeaten in two regular season meetings this season with their semifinal opponent Yale. And they boast a strong junior goaltender in Alex Petizian who may be playing with a chip on his shoulder as the only goaltender in the final four who was not honored by the league awards this week.
Despite achieving a fair amount of success — more so than any other ECAC team — against Yale this season, Marsh is still well aware of the Bulldogs' dangerous qualities.
"They've got great offensive firepower," said Marsh. "Their numbers, offensively and defensively are great. They don't seem to have a lot of weaknesses. They're a very well coached team. They've got just a great team — a team that's been getting better and better as the season went on."
St. Lawrence currently sits precariously on the Pairwise bubble, but any concern over whether they finish in the top 16 of the Pairwise would of course be eliminated by, as Marsh said, "winning six more periods."
And Marsh, now in his 24th year coaching the Saints, appears to have imparted much of his wisdom and perspective to his players this season — showing them that winning a period, or winning just a single shift, is a process that requires patience.
Explained Marsh, "Sometimes a real good shift, not a lot happens. There's a lot that maybe didn't excite the fans. You possessed the puck, you got it back down low, you gave the next line coming out a chance to be successful. You didn't turn it over. No harm, no foul. It's important to understand that that's okay. We are a better team in that respect — in that we're a little bit more patient knowing that not everything has to be spectacular every single shift."
As mentioned above, the Saints have won many a shift this season by consistently involving their defensemen in the offense. However, senior blueliner Matt Generous has a stained knee and has not played in the playoffs so far. However, Marsh took a moment to credit another senior defenseman, Shawn Fensel, who has helped pick up the slack.
"There's no doubt he's the most underrated player I've ever coached in my life," said Marsh. "He's incredibly sound in terms of his ice management. He's not real tall, but for whatever reason, he's so efficient that he doesn't get noticed. He's a tremendous player. He reads situations well."
The injury bug has affected the Saints forwards as well, with senior Casey Parenteau out of the lineup since late January. Again, Marsh points to another senior who has helped the Saints absorb the loss — veteran forward Brock McBride, who is not only averaging over a point per game but is also one of the nation's leaders in plus/minus rating, with a plus-24 heading into the weekend.
Remarkably, no other Saint has a rating higher than plus-11.
Said Marsh, "He has thrown up significant numbers. He is an extremely strong, very tenacious player. He's probably the best skater I've ever coached. He's got a great subtle change of speeds, his stride doesn't really break down with fatigue. He's a very efficient player. He just loves it. He'd play all day long, every day, all summer long. He may even have better days ahead of him. He's so sound defensively because he's really learned to use his skating ability to maintain his defensive posture. He's in a lot of battles, and he wants to win those. Whatever we do, he wants to be first. He has a really competitive nature that fuels the fire."
McBride and Fensel are two of 19 upperclassmen for the Saints — all of whom experienced the NCAA tournament two years ago despite falling short of an ECAC title in Albany. This time, they'll try again, trying to win Marsh his first championship since 2001.
Said Marsh, "No athlete can ask for more than this — you're in the position to determine your own fate. It's nice not to leave it up to other things, other circumstances to happen."