ECAC Quarterfinal Preview
by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
For the final time before the league packs its bags and tries its luck in Atlantic City, the ECAC is one week away from its final championship weekend at the Times Union Center in Albany, N.Y.
Vying for one of the four tickets to the Capital District are the eight remaining teams in the ECAC playoffs, with top seeds Yale, Cornell, Union and Colgate hosting best-of-3 quarterfinal series this weekend. Two upsets in the first round a week ago (Brown stunning Rensselaer and Harvard toppling Princeton) have set the stage for what's sure to be another dramatic and unpredictable weekend.
No. 11 Brown at No. 1 Yale
Yale, the defending ECAC tournament champion, won seven of its final eight games of the regular season to enter the playoffs as the league's top team, edging second-place Cornell — whom the Bulldogs defeated 5-0 in last year's title game — by one point.
Said Yale coach Keith Allain, "We will certainly try to use last season's experiences to help us along, but at the same time, we are not living in the past. We are looking forward to new and exciting challenges [starting this weekend]."
Though the Bulldogs didn't lose much of their characteristic offensive firepower from last year's championship squad, they did lose goaltender Alec Richards to graduation. Since then, Allain has trotted out a carousel of goaltenders, with all four on the roster seeing time between the pipes this season. In fact, three different Yale goaltenders have recorded at least five wins this season — the first time that's happened in the 115-year history of Yale hockey. Down the stretch, freshman Nick Maricic has taken the reigns as starter and appears ready to see his first playoff action this weekend.
Still, the Bulldogs have allowed at least four goals in each of their last four games. On the season, Yale has allowed an average of three goals per contest — a potential weakness that has of course been overshadowed by the fact that Allain's team boasts the top offense in the country, with the second-best power play percentage (24.1 percent) and the nation's goal-scoring leader (junior Broc Little).
However, Keith Allain's squad will be without the services of star forward Sean Backman, who suffered a bad heel injury away from the rink and is out for the season.
Backman was recently selected to the All-ECAC first team and was named the Ivy League Player of the Year. His 77 career goals are fourth best in the history of Yale's program, and he was the tournament MVP a year ago during Yale's ECAC title run — highlighted by a hat trick in the Bulldogs' championship game triumph over Cornell.
The real challenge for the remainder of the Yale offense this weekend? Solving goaltender Mike Clemente, who led Brown to a dramatic upset of Rensselaer last weekend. The Bears took the series in three games, and Clemente was named the ECAC Goaltender of the Week for his efforts.
In Brown's two wins, Clemente earned a 1.50 goals-against average and a .945 save percentage, while allowing three goals on 52 shots. Meanwhile, senior Aaron Volpatti — the team leader with 14 goals — was named ECAC Player of the Week and is a finalist for the League's award for Best Defensive Forward.
"What impressed me the most was our belief that we could get the job done," said first-year Brown coach Brendan Whittet. "After losing Game 2 in convincing fashion, the team responded and played Game 3 with unbelievable desire. For most of the series, I felt that we possessed the puck well along the walls in the offensive zone and were able generate offense from our possession game. Mike Clemente was very solid throughout the series and especially sharp in Game 3."
Whittet knows that Clemente will have to be equally as sharp this weekend, facing a Bulldogs team that averaged well over four goals per game this season (5.4 goals per game at their home Ingalls Rink) and that swept the season series with the Bears by scores of 8-5 and 6-5.
Entering Friday night, the Bulldogs have won eight straight games against their regular season travel partner.
"Yale is an incredible team," said Whittet. "They are explosive offensively and deadly on the power play. If we get into an offensive shootout with them, we will struggle to be successful. We are the definitive underdog as the road team against the top offensive team in the country."
No. 9 Harvard at No. 2 Cornell
For a college hockey rivalry known by its fans — and a 1970 film — as a love story, this is a happy anniversary indeed.
100 years ago, in 1910, Cornell and Harvard faced off the first time. Since then, the Big Red and Crimson have battled on 132 occasions, developing one of the greatest rivalries in college sports. Cornell leads the all-time series 67-58-7 and swept Harvard in this year's season series — with a 6-3 win in Ithaca's Lynah Rink in November and a 3-0 shutout of the Crimson at Bright Hockey Center in Cambridge, Mass., not even a month ago.
Of course, it's all about the numbers at Harvard and Cornell, and we're not just talking about GPAs. The teams have combined for 19 ECAC tournament championships and are No. 1 and No. 2 all-time in ECAC playoff winning percentage (.674 for Cornell, .654 for Harvard). Playing at the friendly — a relative term, if there ever was one — Lynah Rink, Cornell is 44-9 all-time in playoff games.
"The atmosphere at Lynah should be electric this weekend," said Harvard coach Ted Donato. "The challenge for us is to manage our emotions, manage the crowd, and have responses on the ice in a proper way to the many types of adversity we are sure to encounter this weekend. We are excited about the challenge."
Leading the way for Harvard will be goaltender Kyle Richter, who sat out last season after winning the Ken Dryden Award as the league's top goaltender the previous year. Richter struggled in his return this season but drastically outperformed Princeton netminder Zane Kalemba last weekend to earn the road sweep for the Crimson.
Richter stopped 70 of 72 shots on the weekend, as Harvard won by scores of 4-2 and 3-0.
Said Donato, "Richter was outstanding for us last week against Princeton. His performance should give him personally, as well as our team collectively, a great deal of confidence."
Cornell, after finishing second in the league during the regular season, enjoyed a first-round bye last weekend. Leading the Big Red are forwards Blake Gallagher (the team leader in scoring with 34 points in 29 games), captain Colin Greening, and NHL first-round pick Riley Nash (the team leader in assists).
A surprise to no one, Cornell enters the weekend ranked second in the nation in team defense, thanks in large part to senior goaltender Ben Scrivens, whose goals-against average (1.99) and save percentage (.931) are both third-best in the country. Scrivens was a unanimous pick for the All-ECAC first team and is considered the runaway favorite to win the league's Goaltender of the Year honor.
"It's a matter of guys in the dressing room saying, 'We've got to buckle down,'" Scrivens told NHL.com's Bob Snow last month. "Everyone is a key piece of the puzzle. All I can do is go out and try to stop the puck."
Certainly, there isn't a fish in the Finger Lakes who can feel at ease as the weekend approaches. But neither can Cornell itself, despite earning the No. 2 seed and playing at home. One needs to look back only to last weekend to realize that playing an archrival in the playoffs is dangerous. Fifth-seed St. Lawrence was five minutes away from falling to No. 12 seed Clarkson, before the Saints rallied to take the series.
Cornell and Harvard have squared off in eight of the last 11 postseasons. In both 2003 and 2005, the Big Red topped the Crimson in the ECAC championship game. In 2006, Harvard returned the favor in the league title game, and in 2008, Harvard beat Cornell in the ECAC semifinal round.
This time, though, there's only room for one of them in Albany. And that's what's on the line at Lynah Rink this weekend, as the ECAC's most storied 100 Years War continues.
No. 7 Quinnipiac at No. 3 Union
Could this be the year that Nate Leaman and his team finally put the "Union" in the Times Union Center?
With a series win this weekend, the Dutchmen would reach the 20-win plateau for the first time since becoming a Division I program at the start of the 1991-92 season — a year in which Union won just three games.
Making his ECAC playoff debut on Friday night will be Union rookie goaltender Keith Kinkaid, who has emerged as the starting goaltender over junior Corey Milan. Kinkaid is a finalist for the ECAC Rookie of the Year Award and was in goal for the Dutchmen's 7-3 victory over Quinnipiac last month, to complete a sweep of the season series.
"Keith has put together a great freshman year," said Union coach Nate Leaman. "For a young goaltender, he controls his rebounds very well. More importantly, Keith is a winner. He does not let a bad goal rattle him. He won every award he could in junior hockey, including the league regular season championship and league tournament championship and was the MVP of both. So he has a great deal of experience as well."
Union also boasts considerable offensive weapons, led by senior forward Mario Valery-Trabucco, who finished second in the league in scoring with 32 conference points and set the Dutchmen’s single season record with 42 points and 21 goals. The Montreal native was named to the All-ECAC second team this season, during which he also posted a plus-21 rating with two hat tricks and 12 multi-point games.
Skating into Schenectady, N.Y., this weekend is a Quinnipiac squad that was pushed to the limit last weekend in its first-round matchup with Dartmouth. After taking Game 1, the Bobcats faltered in Game 2, and then rallied to take the series with a 2-1 win in the decisive third game.
With sophomore goaltender Dan Clarke, whom Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold described as "excellent" and the "key to the series" last weekend, playing well between the pipes, it was the Bobcats' top-scoring senior trio — Brandon Wong, Eric Lampe, and Jean-Marc Beaudoin — carrying the team offensively. The trio played in the ECAC championship game as freshmen, and they are now two wins away from leading Quinnipiac back to the Final Four.
"Jean-Marc and Eric had big games in the Friday win," said Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold, who enters the weekend with 300 career coaching victories. "Actually they both got their 100th career point on the same goal. Brandon had a big goal that night too. Then on Sunday, Eric scored again, using his speed and aggressiveness on a breakaway."
In Sunday's winner-takes-all affair, Quinnipiac struck first with the all-important first goal. Leaman, whose team needs to avoid any early-game rust after not playing last weekend, knows that the start to Friday night's game will set the tone for the entire series.
Said Leaman, "Quinnipiac is a first period team. We want to be a tough team to play against in this series and that starts with being plugged in right from the drop. We realize that they will be game sharp, but we will be fresh, so we need to use our energy the right way. And be smart and poised, staying out of the penalty box."
And just how important is getting a lead on Quinnipiac? In their last 50 games, dating back three seasons, in which the Bobcats have led after two periods, Pecknold's team is undefeated at 46-0-4. Their last loss in that situation? An unfortunate memory for Bobcats' fans — the 2006-07 ECAC Championship Game, when Clarkson scored four third period goals to come from behind and take the league crown.
No. 5 St. Lawrence at No. 4 Colgate
As Rensselaer and St. Lawrence faltered down the stretch in the regular season, Colgate played solid hockey and quietly locked up the fourth and final first-round bye. The Raiders are undefeated in their last four games, which include home wins over both Rensselaer and Union.
As quiet as Colgate has been over the last few weeks, though, there's no hiding now. St. Lawrence comes to Hamilton, N.Y., after sweeping the season series with the Raiders by scores of 4-0 and 3-2.
This is the fifth playoff meeting between the Saints and Raiders in the last eight seasons.
Said Colgate coach Don Vaughan, "Both regular season games could have gone either way. In the loss at SLU, the game was tied 0-0 with 10 minutes remaining, and the game at Colgate was a 3-2 loss in overtime. As our regular season finish would indicate, these two teams are very evenly matched. I do think SLU's special teams play was better than ours in those two games, particularly their penalty kill.
"We have to find a way to solve that, since in most games this time of year, good special teams play and timely saves are an important ingredient to winning."
Colgate enters the quarterfinal matchup with the 12th best scoring offense in the country, averaging 3.35 goals per game. Furthermore, in its current four-game unbeaten streak, the Raiders' power play has converted at a 31 percent clip (5-for-16).
Indeed, the matchups to watch in this series this weekend will be each team's power play, trying to take advantage of penalty killing units that are, respectively, 47th (Colgate) and 48th (St. Lawrence) in the nation. The Raiders and Saints have successfully killed penalties just over 78 percent of the time this year.
The Raiders' offense is led by the trio of Austin Smith (40 points), David McIntyre (37), and Brian Day (34). Sophomore Alex Evin has started 13 of the last 14 games in net for the Raiders and is one of many goaltenders around the league this weekend looking to advance to the ECAC Final Four for the first time.
"Our goaltenders have done a great job of battling through some adversity," said Vaughan, of Evin and senior netminder Charles Long. "[Coach] Jason Lefevre has worked very hard with our goalies, and they responded when we needed them most, especially in the final two weekends of the season. I am confident that whoever gets the call this weekend will be ready to go."
St. Lawrence, meanwhile, enters the weekend after breathing a sigh of relief late Sunday night, defeating neighbor and rival Clarkson in overtime of a decisive Game 3. Clarkson was primed to pull off the upset, leading the Saints late in the third period. St. Lawrence outshot the Golden Knights 18-2 in the third period but couldn't find the net until senior winger Mike McKenzie found sophomore Rich Carden for the game-tying goal.
McKenzie then provided the heroics in overtime, sending the Saints to the quarterfinal round.
"Clarkson gave us three really tough games, and I think that will help us in our next series at Colgate," said Saints coach Joe Marsh to St. Lawrence Athletics following his Game 3 victory. "Our guys stuck to it in the third period, despite some great plays by [Clarkson goaltender Paul Karpowich] and their defense. Our seniors came up with some big plays to pull it out."