ECAC Final Four Preview
by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
The road to this weekend's ECAC Championships has been fraught with more twists and turns than an M. Night Shyamalan film. And indeed, only an impressive sixth sense could have led anyone to predict the final four combatants descending upon the village of Albany, N.Y., this weekend.
Here's 'the happening' at the Times Union Center on Friday: Ivy foes Cornell and Brown face off in the 4 p.m. semifinal, followed by a nightcap featuring St. Lawrence against hometown favorites Union at 7 p.m.. Conspicuously absent, of course, are the Yale Bulldogs — the defending league champions who once seemed unbreakable — who thanks to Brown will watch intently from afar this weekend, with Pairwise implications aplenty.
The league championship game is slated for Saturday night.
It's the final ECAC championship weekend in Albany, as the league heads south to Atlantic City, N.J., beginning in 2011. For now, though, with a new champion ready to be crowned, all the 'signs' point to a Capital District weekend to remember.
No. 2 Cornell vs. No. 11 Brown
Brown has authored the story of the ECAC playoffs thus far, winning back-to-back road series following a 6-12-4 regular season conference record. After knocking off No. 6 Rensselaer in the first round, Brown stunned No. 1 seed Yale — along with most ECAC fans and a handful of NCAA bubble teams — last weekend, earning its first trip to the ECAC Final Four since 2003.
"A lot of it is just belief," explained Brown coach Brendan Whittet. "The guys believe in each other, they believe in Brown University, and they believe that this can be a special season. They've made it happen. We have 29 guys on our team, and all 29 play selfless hockey. They're a driven bunch of guys right now."
As a player for Brown in the early '90s, Whittet played in the ECAC Final Four twice, including the 1993 ECAC championship game in which the Bears fell to Clarkson. Now, in his first year as head coach, Whittet has already doubled Brown's win total from a season ago, and he and his team have every intention of returning to the title game for the first time since that '93 campaign.
"It's been a transformation," said Whittet, whose Bears were picked in the pre-season by the media and coaches to finish last. "You're talking about a program that was unbelievably down when I got here [as head coach]. And not unbelievably down just in win-loss record, but unbelievably down with mental psyche. It was a group that almost expected bad things to happen at the beginning of the year. We've made an effort to change that and make them understand that, in order to win, you have to expect to win. Whether it's realistic or not, we don't really care."
"Mental psyche and momentum are funny things," continued the rookie coach. "Our guys truly believe. We're not just going to Albany to go on vacation. We're going to win a championship. And that's our goal. I mean, we made it this far. We're not going to stop pushing now."
Brown received another huge boost, emotionally as much as anything, when senior defenseman Jordan Pietrus was cleared to play. It was thought he was out for the season with a groin and abdominal muscle tear, but Pietrus is going to suit up Friday, and Whittet said he expects him to play a lot of minutes.
Next up for Whittet and Co.? The top seed remaining in the tournament, the Cornell Big Red, who finished the regular season in second place and enter the weekend tied for 8th in the national Pairwise rankings. Cornell, looking for its first ECAC title since 2005 and its 12th league crown overall, was the tournament runner-up a year ago.
This season, Cornell swept the season series against Brown, shutting out the Bears in Providence, 6-0, early in the year and then hanging on for a hard-fought 5-3 victory in Ithaca on February 12. In that most recent matchup, Brown repeatedly fought back from one-goal deficits until a late empty-netter by Cornell leading scorer Blake Gallagher finally secured victory for the Big Red.
So, asked if Cornell might be caught by surprise on Friday by the underdog Brown team, coach Mike Schafer immediately referenced the Big Red's most recent meeting with the Bears.
"That was probably the game that I didn't think that our guys showed enough respect for them," said Schafer. "In that sense, our warning has already been issued. They already know it's going to be a really competitive game on Friday."
Also competitive should be the goaltending matchup — featuring Cornell senior Ben Scrivens, who ranks second nationally in both goals-against average (1.89) and save percentage (.933), and Brown sophomore Mike Clemente, who has backstopped the Bears in all four playoff wins thus far.
Both enter Friday's game after earning a shutout last weekend, and Scrivens was named the ECAC Goaltender of the Year.
"Our whole group of seniors — they've seen the highs and lows," said Schafer. "Ben is the consummate team guy, and he would obviously love to win the ECAC title. But the whole team wants to win it."
Added Whittet, of his 19 year old netminder, "[Clemente] has been an absolute gem in the playoffs. He's been very consistent. He's a guy who's very calm in net, and he's big in net. We've done a good job of protecting the 'grade A' areas, so that he's able to see a lot of the pucks."
In Sunday's decisive Game 3 against Yale, with a trip to Albany on the line, Jack Maclellan's shorthanded goal stood up as the game-winner for Brown, as Clemente made 44 saves to shut out the nation's best offense, 1-0. It was his third career shutout.
"He was amazing," Whittet reiterated. "It was probably one of the best performances I've seen by a goaltender, probably ever. It was incredible. He's a goaltender, and the pressure is on. But that's why those kids play that position."
Trying to solve Clemente on Friday afternoon will be the aforementioned Gallagher, who reached the 100 career points plateau last weekend, when the Big Red swept its quarterfinal series against rival Harvard by scores of 5-1 and 3-0. Hoping to join Gallagher in the century club is junior standout Riley Nash, who enters the weekend with 99 points in 99 career games.
Nash, a first-round NHL draft choice of the Edmonton Oilers, is looking to become the first Cornell player to reach 100 points as a junior since current NY Islanders star Matt Moulson accomplished the feat, with his 100th point coming on a game-winning assist in the first-round of the 2005 NCAA tournament. 18 of Nash's 99 points have come in the Big Red's last nine games.
Finally, senior captain Colin Greening — heralded as one of the most dominant physical forwards in the league — will look to continue his success this season against Brown. In the Big Red's two wins against the Bears, Greening netted two goals and added three helpers.
Said Whittet, "We're going to have to be really, really good in our defensive zone. They have some big boys — Greening, Nash, and Gallagher is an electric offensive kid. They won't beat themselves. We don't want to give them opportunities, unnecessarily, through needless turnovers, through bad decisions. We want to try and play in their zone if we can. Easier said than done.
"If there's any team we could emulate, I'd like to emulate Cornell. I love the way they play."
The Cornell/Brown matchup will be part of a busy day of Big Red sports, with the men's basketball team set to face Temple in the first round of the NCAA tournament and the women's hockey team scheduled to play Mercyhurst in the women's NCAA Frozen Four. Certainly, NCAA implications hover over the men's hockey team as well. The pressure will be on Cornell on Friday, who in most scenarios needs a win this weekend to secure an NCAA berth.
Of course, in typical fashion, Schafer is only concerned about one thing.
"[Brown's] very dangerous," said the veteran coach, aiming for his fifth ECAC title behind the bench. "But every team in the tournament is dangerous. Their approach can be whatever it needs to be, but our approach needs to be focused and on executing our game plan, regardless of who we're playing or what the circumstances are."
No. 3 Union vs. No. 5 St. Lawrence
Better late than never.
With just one opportunity left to play in the ECAC Championship Weekend just a short drive from hometown Schenectady, the Dutchmen will play in the ECAC Final Four this weekend for the first time in program history, in front of what they anticipate will be a largely pro-Union crowd.
And if you haven't been paying attention, Union is all about making history these days.
Last Friday night, the Dutchmen played in the longest college hockey game of all time, losing a heartbreaker to Quinnipiac in Game 1 of their quarterfinal series, 3-2 at 10:22 of the fifth overtime period. But who could have known at the time that their most impressive feat was yet to come?
ECAC Coach of the Year Nate Leaman steered Union to victories in Game 2 and Game 3 — games which, combined, were shorter than the Game 1 marathon — to propel the Dutchmen to their semifinal showdown with St. Lawrence.
Said Leaman, "I'm happy for the fans. I'm happy for the alumni. And I'm happy for a lot of those teams that were previous to me being the coach and even some of the early teams when I was a coach, helping to grow the program. That 1991-92 team, the first Union team that played Division I, they took a lot of lumps. And they knew they were going to take a lot of lumps. But they did that because they envisioned he program having success.
"And that's why I think it's important. A lot of people previous to this have paid the price for us."
St. Lawrence coach Joe Marsh — whose team was swept in the regular season series by Union — has taken notice as well.
"They're a heck of a team," said Marsh. "They're a team that makes you work real hard. You have to work twice as hard to go half as far. I've been really impressed with them. They've consistently gotten better and developed, and they've done it the right way."
In the offensive zone, the Dutchmen have been paced by a trio of seniors — forwards Mario Valery-Trabuco and Jason Walters (with a combined 83 points in 36 games) and first-team all-ECAC defenseman Mike Schreiber. But the most looming question for Union fans will be who starts between the pipes on Friday night at the Times Union Center — freshman Keith Kinkaid or senior Corey Milan?
Kinkaid played well down the stretch for Union and was named to the all-ECAC Rookie Team. However, Milan stepped in for the two wins last weekend against Quinnipiac, after Kinkaid's heroic but exhausting 6-hour goaltending performance on Friday night.
Leaman addressed the issue but gave no indication as to who his starter will be.
"This time of the year, goaltending is a big part of your success," said Leaman. "Obviously, I'm happy to have two guys who I can evaluate this week in practice. We'll go with the guy that we feel gives us the best chance on Friday night.
"The biggest thing that we have to make sure is that the guys are loose. They can't get uptight at all. And I don't think they will. I didn't think we were uptight in Game 3 [against Quinnipiac] at all, which was a great sign for us."
St. Lawrence, meanwhile, enters the weekend after a road sweep of Colgate last weekend. The Saints, too, are led by an accomplished class of veteran seniors, highlighted by goaltender Kain Tisi and forwards Travis Vermuhlen and Mike McKenzie. As freshmen, the Saints' senior class played in the NCAA tournament. A year ago, they fell to Yale in the ECAC semifinals.
McKenzie in particular enters the weekend on a hot streak, with points in eight of his last nine games. In two of the last three, McKenzie has provided the heroics for St. Lawrence with game winning goals late in the third period.
The Saints are seeking their seventh ECAC tournament championship in program history and their first since their back-to-back titles in 2000 and 2001.
Said Marsh, of the keys to Friday's semifinal showdown, "[Union's] a well balanced team. We're a fairly aggressive team. A lot of it is fundamentals — guys readjusting, getting back on the defensive end. Our guys are well aware of how good they are, and we need to bring our 'A' game."
And the thought of playing Union so close to home?
"If they bring all of Schenectady, that would be good," said a jovial Marsh. "You want that atmosphere. Your kids want to play under those conditions in the tournament."