ECAC Playoff Preview: First Round
by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
A look at the first-round Best-of-3 playoff series. The winners will move to Best-of-3 quarterfinal series next weekend.
(12) CLARKSON at (5) ST. LAWRENCE
St. Lawrence won just one of its final eight games of the regular season, falling out of contention for a first-round bye in the ECAC tournament. A further punishment? Having to play a dangerous No. 12 seed in Clarkson, the Saints' neighbor and age-old rival in New York state's North Country.
The Saints played well in January, compiling a 6-2-2 record in the month, with wins over Boston College and Yale. February, however, did not go as well for Joe Marsh's squad.
But looks can be deceiving.
Explained Marsh last week, "We have been playing some pretty good hockey even though we have not had a lot to show for it in the month of February. It was good to finally get that win [against Harvard last Saturday], and it was a good way for the seniors to end their regular season. We've got a real tough task ahead of us with Clarkson coming in for the playoffs, but the way the league has been this year, all of the series are going to be battles."
Leading St. Lawrence into the playoffs are senior forwards Mike McKenzie (the team leader in plus/minus) and Travis Vermeulen (the team's leading scorer, who enters the playoffs with 10 points in his last five games). The Saints will certainly need to rely on their veterans against a Clarkson team whose upperclassmen boast valuable ECAC and NCAA tournament experience.
Plus, the Golden Knights — who completed February with a 3-4-1 record — are 11-4-1 all-time against St. Lawrence in the ECAC playoffs and have won eight consecutive league postseason games against the Saints.
This season, the teams went 1-1-1 in three contests against one another. And this weekend's series figures to be up in the air as well — an unusual level of uncertainty for a matchup featuring the highest and lowest seeds playing in the tournament this weekend.
"They are a well coached hard working team, and we know we have to compete at a high level in order to have a chance to win," said Clarkson coach George Roll. "The games this season were extremely competitive and both teams know each other well. I do think there is some benefit to being able to keep the same routine as far as the being close to home, but we know it is a tough place to win. We need to be competitive and win our share of the one-on-one battles and stay disciplined."
Clarkson's stretch run followed an early February massacre in Schenectady, N.Y. — an 11-2 drubbing at the hands of Union. Entering that game against the Dutchmen, the Golden Knights were considerably shorthanded, playing without three regular defensemen and being forced to use two forwards on defense.
"No matter what the situation, you can still go out and compete and that is what we have done since that game," said Roll. "We are now healthy other than having lost Julian Cayer for the season, and that has made a big difference especially on the defensive side."
(11) BROWN at (6) RENSSELAER
Among Appert's leaders are three of the nation's top forwards, junior Chase Polacek and freshmen Jerry D'Amigo and Brandon Pirri — a trio that, along with sophomore goaltender Allen York, propelled the Engineers to victories this season against Boston University, New Hampshire, and Michigan, among others.
Rensselaer enters the playoffs looking to advance to the ECAC Final Four in its hometown Capital District, but the Engineers appeared to falter down the stretch, falling out of contention for a first-round bye after winning just one of its final five games. Last weekend, Rensselaer suffered a 3-2 loss at Colgate, before closing out the season with a 1-1 tie at Cornell.
"There are no lingering disappointments at all," said Appert. "We played very well last weekend. We had six periods of strong physical intensity and mental execution. The only issue was our penalty kill Friday night."
Skating into Houston Field House this weekend will be a Brown team led by first-year coach Brendan Whittet. Brown's struggles down the stretch have been more glaring, as the Bears netminders combined to allow 15 goals in two games last weekend. 14 times this season, Brown has allowed five or more goals in a game — a potentially dangerous recipe when facing the likes of Polacek and co.
Said Whittet, "Our performance has been inconsistent over the past few weeks. We have been extremely good at home going 6-1-3 over our past 10 games, yet we have really struggled on the road. This past weekend, we gave up early goals and had to play catch-up hockey both nights which is not a sound plan for success."
Still, the playoffs represent the cliched "fresh start," and as such, the rookie coach is employing a veteran strategy to motivate his team this weekend — one that even worked for the Team USA Olympic squad last week in Vancouver.
"We head into the series as a definitive underdog and it’s a role that we relish," said Whittet. "As a team we will play hard, energized and loose. RPI has the pressure to perform as they are at home, have dangerous players throughout their lineup and are one of the top seeds in the tournament."
On the other bench, Seth Appert — a veteran of two national championship teams at Denver — won't be taking the Bears lightly, especially since Brown topped the Engineers in overtime in their most recent meeting, just over one month ago in Providence.
"We need to match Brown's physical intensity," said Appert. "They are one of the most physical teams in our league. We need to take care of the puck and prepare for a physically demanding series."
(10) DARTMOUTH at (7) QUINNIPIAC
If there were ever a team that needed a fresh start, it would be the 2009-10 edition of the Quinnipiac Bobcats — a team that was 12-1-0 heading into the month of December, only to finish 17-15-2 overall.
Still, perhaps the Bobcats have recovered just in time, skating into the playoffs with a three-game winning streak at home and a sweep last weekend against Brown and ECAC regular season champion Yale.
"It's been an up and down year for us," admitted Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold. "But we've got a little momentum with wins over Brown and Yale. We've struggled at times in the second half with our confidence as we have a young team that includes 13 freshmen.
"If we are going to beat Dartmouth we need to have confidence and make plays. We did that last weekend, and it will carry over."
Quinnipiac is led in scoring by seniors Brandon Wong, Eric Lampe, and Jean-Marc Beaudoin — a group that played in the ECAC championship game as freshmen, holding a 2-0 lead in the third period before letting the 2007 title slip away to Clarkson.
After quarterfinal losses in each of the last two seasons, they've had a long wait to return to Albany for a chance at the ECAC title that they once held in their grasp. They also are a part of a potentially dynamic Bobcats offense that led the league in power play percentage this season (25.2 percent).
On the opposing bench is a Dartmouth team that struggled with goaltending during the course of the year. However, all indications are that coach Bob Gaudet will ride the hot hand of sophomore James Mello, who outplayed classmate Jody O'Neill down the stretch. Mello was in net last weekend for a three-point road weekend against St. Lawrence and Clarkson.
The Bobcats and Big Green split their two-game season series, with each team winning its respective home contest. Key to matching up against Quinnipiac's Wong, Lampe and Beaudoin will be the Big Green junior duo of Adam Estoclet and Scott Fleming. With 33 and 32 points, respectively, Estoclet and Fleming have helped Dartmouth average over three goals per game in league play this season.
(9) HARVARD at (8) PRINCETON
After a school-record 22 wins last season and two consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, Princeton took a step back this season — due in large part to the graduation of forwards Lee Jubinville and Brett Wilson.
In addition, goaltender Zane Kalemba — the 2008-09 ECAC Player of the Year — faltered, his 3.20 goals-against average a far cry from the 1.82 mark he boasted a year ago.
Still, Kalemba led the Tigers to the ECAC tournament championship just two years ago, and while that experience should be invaluable, it's Princeton's play at the other end of the ice that has held coach Guy Gadowsky's attention of late.
Explained Gadowsky, "Our goal [down the stretch] was to find some offensive chemistry as we have been experimenting with different lines because of our injury situation. We have scored 18 goals in the past three games so we feel pretty good in that regard."
Harvard, meanwhile, enters the playoffs with a 2-8 record in the month of February. If the Crimson's season ends this weekend, their season win total (currently at seven) would be the lowest for a Harvard hockey team in 30 years.
"With the recent string of close losses, there is no denying the team is a little bit fragile mentally," said Harvard coach Ted Donato. "However, the excitement of the playoffs being a new season coupled with some of the positive things we are doing on the ice has everybody feeling optimistic and energized."
A key for the Crimson will be its goaltending, especially considering Princeton's offensive prowess in its last few games. Netminders Kyle Richter (former Ken Dryden Award winner for the league's top goaltender) and Ryan Carroll have struggled to play consistently all season.
Each started a game against the Tigers this season — a 3-3 tie for Richter in November and a 2-1 loss for Carroll in January.
Said Donato, "We have had some close, competitive and hard fought games with Princeton this year. We have a great amount of respect for them as a team. We recognize their roster being filled with guys that have gone to the NCAA tourney the last 2 years as well as having won the ECACs in the last two years and having great success in the playoffs.
"We have to find away to play aggressively offensively and sound defensively to neutralize their overall team speed. We also have to play with great discipline in terms of staying out of the box as well as making good decisions with the puck so as not to jumpstart their transition game. Lastly, and maybe most importantly, the 'X factor' is always goaltending. Kalemba has proven he can get very hot and be a huge factor. We also feel that our goaltending has likewise ability. It should be a lot of fun."