ECAC Championship Preview
by Jillian Saftel/CHN Reporter
After tightly-matched overtime quarterfinal games that ended the seasons of both Dartmouth and Yale, the four strongest ECAC teams are left standing — Union, Colgate, Cornell, and Harvard.
No. 1 Union (22-7-7, 14-4-4 ECAC) vs. No. 4 Colgate (19-15-3, 11-10-1 ECAC)
Season series: Union won, 2-0-0
Feb. 3, 2012 – Union 3, Colgate 1
Feb. 25, 2012 – Union 5, Colgate 3
After claiming the number one spot in the ECAC regular season, Union was able avoid last year's fate and get through to Atlantic City. It knocked rival Rensselaer out of the conference championship running by taking the first two in a best of three quarterfinal series, 3-2 and 4-2. In all, Union defeated RPI in all five meetings this season.
But Union's play, coming off the bye, was haphazard, and there is plenty of room for improvement this weekend.
"We don't want to be satisfied," Union head coach Rick Bennett said. "We're not going there to walk on the Boardwalk and have a grand old time. We want to have fun when we can, but this is a business trip. Our sole goal is to come back with a trophy, and we want to put ourselves in the best situation to do that."
Colgate’s road to the semifinal round wasn’t so easy, dropping the second game of the series to Quinnipiac, 4-2, after taking the first game, 4-2. The Raiders were able to secure advancement to the semifinal round with a 4-0 win in Game 3.
Colgate head coach Don Vaughan said he credits first-year head coach Bennett with much of Union’s success this year, and knows the strengths they’ll be bringing to the ice.
"They had a lot of people returning, but you still have to put your own mark on it, and it's not an easy thing to do. They have talent, but when you look at the system, the attention to detail — they have sticks on the ice, they gap guys quickly, they front guys — that's all coaching. They've obviously bought into whatever the coaches are doing,” Vaughan said.
"They come hard to the net, they have an unbelievable power play, and they have perhaps the best goalie in the country. It all scares me."
Of course, Vaughan has his own weapons, including the nation's top goal scorer Austin Smith (36) and his setup man Chris Wagner, who dominated in the two wins last weekend. Whether Colgate goaltender Eric Mihalik can match Union's Hobey candidate Troy Grosenick will be a huge key for the Raiders.
Prediction: Union wins, 4-2
No. 2 Cornell (17-7-7, 12-4-6 ECAC) vs. No. 3 Harvard (12-9-11, 8-5-9 ECAC)
Season series: Cornell won, 1-0-1
Nov. 11, 2011 – Cornell 4, Harvard 2
Jan. 21, 2012 – Cornell 2, Harvard 2 (OT)
Dartmouth put up quite the fight against Cornell in their overtime Game 1 matchup, but Cornell got the win with a 4-3 OT final, and ended Dartmouth’s season with a 3-1 win the next night.
Sophomore goaltender Andy Iles was much of the reason Cornell experienced such success this season, putting up five shutouts in a row at home from Nov. 18 to Dec. 3. He’s also sure to be an integral part of any success the team sees this weekend.
"It's a difficult situation to know you're carrying the load the whole year, and he's been very consistent. And in that consistency he's had some really great moments. ... In big games, he's play very well,” head coach Mike Schafer said of his goaltender. “Right now, his practice habits and everything else, he's right on top of his game."
Cornell continues to play without freshman Brian Ferlin, who had season-ending surgery last month. He was perhaps Cornell's best player for much of the season. But the Big Red also got John Esposito back in the lineup after missing five weeks, and he's sparked the offense.
Harvard’s offense will be trying to penetrate Iles’ goaltending skill this weekend. The Crimson fell to Yale, 2-1 in overtime of the first quarterfinal game, but then went on to win the next two, 4-3 in double overtime, and 8-2 in the final game.
Picked to finish 12th by the media in preseason polls, Harvard has certainly exceeded expectations this season.
"We finished season strong last year. This year we had an inordinate number of major injuries and fought through it. We were trying to work in a couple goalies that didn't really have any experience at the college level. There's no question there was a little chip on our shoulder from where we were picked. We had confidence,” head coach Ted Donato said.
“We knew we had some excellent hockey players in our room, and we worked all season to prove it to everybody.”
Alex Killorn leads the way. He's become a dominant all-around forward. But the Crimson have improved so much because other lines have started to perform. In particular, David Valek, a third-line center who came from the national program but never produced offensively, has lit it up for seven goals in the last five games, including a hat trick in last Sunday's series clincher.
Meanwhile, the defense is one of the most gifted groups, on the whole, in the nation, led by Danny Biega, who is a finalist for ECAC Player of the Year, and freshman Patrick McNally. They help quarterback a power play which is ringing up at 30 percent.
Prediction: Harvard wins, 3-2 (OT)