ECAC Championship Preview
The ECAC championship weekend returns to Lake Placid this weekend, with Quinnipiac back in the semis for a fifth straight year and looking to defend its title. Harvard, in its third straight semis, and QU will meet for the third consecutive season in Lake Placid. The Crimson took the first meeting in the 2015 semis en route to the title. Last season, the two met in the championship game with QU taking it. Cornell and Union met in the 2014 semifinals.
Cornell has won the ECAC championship a record 12 times, Harvard has won eight, Union three and last season Quinnipiac won its first.
Three of the four teams that enter the tournament are near-locks for an NCAA tournament berth. Harvard enters the weekend No. 3 in the Pairwise and will be a 1 seed in either Providence or Manchester. Union is 7th, while Cornell enters the weekend in 9th. Unless crazy things happen, which they often do, those three teams will be in. QU, which made the national title game last season, will need to win the Whitelaw Cup if they wish to return to the 16-team NCAAs.
5. Quinnipiac (23-14-2) vs. 1. Harvard (24-5-2)
Season Series: 1-1-0
Of the teams in Lake Placid this weekend, Quinnipiac matches up best with Harvard. Earlier in the season, the Bobcats were able to eke out a 4-2 win at home against the Crimson. In a more recent meeting, four unanswered goals led Harvard to a 5-2 home win.
The matchup features two of the hottest teams in the country; as Harvard enters on a 12-game winning streak and QU has won of their past eight games.
Quinnipiac advanced after a three-game classic in the North Country, pulling an upset of St. Lawrence. It dropped the first game of the series’ on Friday night, 2-0, but proceeded to take the next two, 3-2 and 3-2.
“I am very proud of my team and what we have accomplished so far,” QU coach Rand Pecknold said. “That was a tough battle with St. Lawrence last weekend and we were battling with injuries. We found a way to advance and we look forward to defending the Whitelaw Cup.”
The Bobcats have gotten great goaltending in recent weeks from freshman Andrew Shortridge. Since a rocky start to the year, Shortridge has a 1.79 goals against average and a .931 save percentage in his last 20 appearances. In that time, he is 11-4-0 and has received the last eight starts in the Bobcat net.
“His work ethic is outstanding. He is battling, getting better and has gained a lot of confidence,” Pecknold said.
Craig Martin, who spurred the game-two victory against SLU, has been a key piece to the QU offense. His 27 points are an improvement of 23 from last year, when he was used sparingly in the Bobcats run to the national title game. Others that have stepped up this year are Bo Pieper and Tanner MacMaster, both juniors. QU’s offense may not be as potent this year, but there has been a nice balance.
"It is almost like we had a little bit of a Frozen Four hangover," Pecknold said. "It was almost like we had a little sense of entitlement, which is not anywhere in our culture or identity. For us to be successful we need to compete real hard and play to our identity. I have been happy with the run we are on, because we are reenergized and we have bought into our identity.”
Chase Priskie and Connor Clifton have led a strong blue-line for the Bobcats, which was decimated in the offseason. Priskie is the team’s third-leading scorer. Clifton has struggled offensively, but his defensive skill is still high. The blueline has also been bolstered by two freshmen in Brogan Rafferty (team-high 22 assists) and Karlis Cukste.
“They have both been really good,” Pecknold said. “They are both different players. Brogan is running our first power play and is really dynamic. (Cukste) is kind of a shutdown D. We needed that with what we lost last year.”
Harvard had a tougher time with rival Yale over the weekend than many would have expected. The Bulldogs actually held leads entering the third period of each game, but the Crimson pulled away.
Harvard has the nation’s best offense and has scored 4.23 goals/game. [[Alex Kerfoot]], who is a Hobey Baker Award finalist, is the leading scorer with 40 points (16 goals, 24 assists).
“If it isn’t clear, if Harvard isn’t the most talented team in the country they are certainly in the top two or three,” Pecknold said. “They are just loaded top to bottom with really high-end players and a great goalie. They are a tough challenge for any team.”
The Crimson’s strength is its ability to run line after line out to pin teams deep and to use its skill to put the puck consistently in the net. An example of this is the team’s second line of Tyler Moy, Luke Esposito and Sean Malone. In the weekend series against Yale, the trio put up 12 points and scored six times. On the season, they have combined for 110 points and 47 goals.
“I am actually hesitant to call that line a second line,” Harvard coach Ted Donato said. “I feel like we are very fortunate to have one and one-A. I think that has been really key to some of our success this season. We can count on different guys every night. That line was exceptional last weekend. Those three seniors and Kerfoot on the first line have provided us leadership both on and off the ice.”
Ryan Donato is also a key for the Crimson this weekend. He is a possession driver who averages over five shots on goal per game.
Also look for Harvard’s young defense corps to be active. Adam Fox has been one of the best defenders in the country this season, as a freshman. John Marino is a freshman, Jacob Olson is a sophomore and Wiley Sherman is only a junior. Only Clay Anderson is a senior.
“I don’t think you can overstate how good Adam Fox has been,” Donato said. “He is a guy with an incredible hockey IQ. He is an important part of our improvement in offense on the back end.
“Those young guys have seen big games and important minutes. Those guys have been thrown in the fire.”
3. Cornell (20-7-5) vs 2. Union (25-8-3)
Season Series: 1-0-1 Cornell
Having just met twice late in the season, expect a tough battle between two teams with different styles, but that matchup closely. That's usually the case in the late game at Lake Placid, the last three of which have gone at least one overtime.
Cornell picked up a road win in Schenectady, getting out to a quick start, holding on for dear life and then running away with it on two late goals. The teams played to a tie at Lynah Rink.
Cornell picked up a big series win over rival Clarkson last weekend, in a series it was heavily outplayed at times.
“My biggest mistake last weekend was I just gave them too much information,” Cornell coach Mike Schafer said. “We had a week off and they had too much information, when we really needed to play by instinct. With the turnaround this week, we need to play on instinct and be aware of what we need to do and how we are going to play.”
The Big Red have been powered by a renewed offensive charge this season. Although, 2.94 goals per game isn’t near the top of college hockey, with the defense and goaltending from Mitch Gillam, it does just enough to win them games — and it's 0.6 better than last year. Mitch Vanderlaan leading the way with 15 goals.
“I think the confidence has been the biggest difference for us,” Schafer said. “We haven’t done a whole lot different this year, it is just that the players are a year older, have a year more experience. The power play has done a solid job for us and I think we have been resilient. When we got down in games, we haven’t figured it was over.”
Gillam has been arguably the most consistent goalie in the ECAC over the last three seasons. This year, the senior has a 2.15 GAA and .920 save percentage.
Union, like Harvard, is led by a high-powered offense that Cornell will need to find an answer for. It is led by two Hobey finalists, in Mike Vecchione and Spencer Foo. Vecchione is third in points with 62 (29 goals, 33 assists), while Foo is hot on his heels in fourth (24-35—59). Foo was held off the scoresheet just four times on the year, and had a remarkable 21-game point streak early in the season.
“We know how great those guys are and their power play,” Schafer said. “There are no surprises with those guys. We need to be fundamentally sound against them. I don’t think either team is going to change for the Olympic sheet, in order to prepare for this game.”
Said Union coach Rick Bennett, “When we talk about Mike Vecchione, I like to talk about how consistent and how he has developed over his four years. That is a credit to him and his willingness to improve his overall game, especially in the 200-foot game.”
But Vecchione and Foo aren’t the only offense for Union. Sebastian Vidmar had 40 points, Brett Supinsky had 36 and Cole Maier had 14 goals. All three of them are sophomores that have come on in recent months.
“The players are the ones the deserve all the credit for their focus this year,” Bennett said. “Their work ethic has led to a big improvement within the class. All of those guys have contributed for us. Sometimes that class has been thrusted in roles that have normally belonged to juniors and seniors for us, but they have grasped it and have done a good job to date.”
Alex Sakellaropoulos has been underrated this season, but all he has done is win. He has a 22-4-2 record with a 2.37 GAA and .923 save percentage.
“Alex’s work ethic over his four years, has just gotten so much better and I think that has led to a lot of his success this season," Bennett said.