February 21, 2008 PRINT Bookmark and Share

ECAC: Down the Stretch

by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer

Welcome to the tightest conference standings race in college hockey.

It's true that the WCHA has two teams tied for first place, but with each team still to play its final four games of the regular season, the ECAC is the only conference in Division I in which six points separate second place and eighth. More notably, only two points separate the five teams between third and seventh place.

No other conference in the country has five teams within two points of one another.

Of course, the ECAC has historically been a conference of parity — as much of a cliche as that may be — and unpredictability, famous for having its final playoff positioning decided on the league's final regular season weekend.

And here are the numbers to back that up: the last time the gap in the final ECAC standings between fourth place and fifth place was more than two points was 1998. The difference between fourth and fifth in today's league format is the difference between playing a best-of-three playoff series the week after the regular season ends... and having a first-round bye and an extra week of rest. For nine years, that difference in the standings has been only two points or less. Furthermore, in a memorably tight race in 2002, only four points ultimately separated third place from 11th.

Nothing is guaranteed in this league. In 2005, a 14-win Dartmouth team finished in fifth place. This season, 14 wins would virtually guarantee a first-round bye.

"Our league is extremely competitive because of the strong depth of competition," said Rensselaer head coach Seth Appert. "Also, with only 22 league games instead of 28, like most other conferences, the wiggle room grows smaller."

Added Union coach Nate Leaman, "What is great about our league is that, every year, the league is up for grabs. We do not go in and say 'these are the top four teams.' Every year, every team knows they have a shot, as well as they know they can take a dive."

So let's take a closer look at this season's current standings, where each team fittingly has two home games and two road games remaining. In parentheses after the point totals are the average standings positions of each team's remaining four opponents — an admittedly crude reflection of each team's remaining strength of schedule.

1. Clarkson - 26 points (5.25)
2. Princeton - 24 points (5.5)
3. Quinnipiac - 22 points (5.5)
4. Cornell - 21 points (5.5)
5. Harvard - 20 points (7.5)
6. Union - 20 points (5.6)
7. Yale - 20 points (8.25)
8. Colgate - 18 points (5.5)
9. St. Lawrence - 12 points (5.25)
10. Brown - 11 points (8.25)
11. Rensselaer - 11 points (5.6)
12. Dartmouth - 11 points (7.5)

Clarkson sits in first place, looking to win its first regular season championship since 2001, when it won its league-leading 10th Cleary Cup. With 26 points and a two-point lead over second-place Princeton, the Knights are in good position. That said, perhaps the biggest games left on the ECAC schedule are next weekend at Clarkson's Cheel Arena, when the Knights host Princeton and third-place Quinnipiac. Both the Tigers and the Bobcats will have their eye on maintaining their position in the coveted top four. And who knows? Perhaps first place and the chance to be the No. 1 overall seed in the playoffs will be on the line in those games.

Still, Princeton and Quinnipiac will have their work cut out for them with arguably the toughest road trip in the league. This season, eight teams have traveled to the North Country to face Clarkson and St. Lawrence on back-to-back nights, and no team has returned home with four points. If any team won't care about this past history though, it's probably this young Princeton team, which has boldly defied preseason expectations. The coaches and media both picked the Tigers to finish eighth, and now they find themselves in a conversation regarding a possible first-place finish, which has never happened.

Third-place Quinnipiac naturally plays the same teams as travel-partner Princeton but is coming off a weekend in which it was outscored 11-3 in back-to-back losses against Harvard and Dartmouth. Clearly, goaltender Bud Fisher needs to return to earlier season form — when he allowed eight goals in a four game stretch against the Bobcats' remaining opponents — in order for Quinnipiac to avoid a severe tailspin.

"We need to continue to play hard and continue our ability to find ways to win even with the injuries that we've sustained," said Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold, in part referring to senior assistant captain Matt Sorteberg, who will miss the remainder of the season with an injury.

Another injury-plagued team of late has been fourth-place Cornell, who had a chance to move into first place two weeks ago but instead lost three straight games to Clarkson, St. Lawrence and Union. The Big Red recovered in time to defeat last-place Rensselaer 7-1 last Saturday, but now, coach Mike Schafer's squad finds itself in a precarious position where a loss or two could leave the Big Red at seventh, or even eighth, place in the standings. Such a position would be unfamiliar territory for the Red, as Cornell is the only team in the league to have earned a first-round bye every year since the ECAC switched to its current format in 2002.

This year, however, the Big Red has struggled through inconsistent play and injuries that caused Schafer to dress eight defensemen and only 10 forwards in last Saturday's win over Rensselaer. Adding insult to injury in this case is that Cornell has not fared well against the top teams this season.

Cornell, along with Clarkson, Princeton, and Quinnipiac, cannot finish lower than eighth, and therefore, all of the current top four teams are guaranteed to host a playoff series at home.

Harvard sits just outside the top four, right behind Cornell, but the experience of Ted Donato's Crimson could be beneficial for them in the season's final days. Harvard, the ECAC champions in 2002, 2004, and 2006, has won three consecutive conference games against teams in the top five (Union, Princeton, and Quinnipiac). The Crimson also came within a heartbeat of beating Boston College last week in the Beanpot championship game, ultimately falling 6-5 in overtime.

Now, while some may look to the finale at Cornell as the game to watch on Harvard's schedule, it's more likely that the Crimson's home game against Yale this Friday night in Cambridge, Mass. will have a larger impact on the final standings. The two are in a tie for fifth place with Union.

Of the three teams — Harvard, Union, and Yale — tied for fifth place, Yale clearly has the least difficult schedule on paper. Three of the Bulldogs' final four opponents are in the bottom half of the standings, and the average position in the standings of their remaining opponents is much lower than any other team's opponents. That's very good news for Yale fans, who have seen their team go 1-6-1 against the current top four teams this season.

Union has defied expectations much like Princeton has. The unanimous pick to finish dead-last in the league is tied with Harvard and Yale for sixth, and as mentioned above, has an important road game at Yale next weekend. Both the Dutchmen and first-place Knights are looking to avoid a potentially troubling late-season skid by rebounding on Friday. Perhaps for one team, a loss Friday night could suppress morale heading into the final three games.

Nevertheless, Union coach Nate Leaman remains confident.

"We have a very good record in one-goal games this season, and we know how tight these games will be," said Leaman. "We also only play one team ahead of us in the standings, so we feel we have a good opportunity with out schedule. Many of the top teams play one another, so there will be a great deal of movement.

"I feel the one thing about this league is that any team can beat any team in the league — as evident by our 8-0 tail-kicking by Colgate [last] weekend. Our program this year is 4-2-1 versus the top four teams, but the so-called middle-of-the-pack teams or lower teams [in the standings], we have not been as successful against."

While a lot of the focus may remain on the three-way tie for fifth place, Colgate is sitting quietly behind in eighth place. And don't count out the possibility of coach Don Vaughan's group moving up the standings in a hurry. The Raiders were written off by many after winning only one of its first seven league games. But now, Colgate has put together a modest but meaningful four-game unbeaten streak that includes three consecutive shutouts for netminder Mark Dekanich, the 2006 Ken Dryden Award winner for the best goaltender in the league.

Dekanich now has an ECAC record shutout streak of 212:14, including 65 minutes of scoreless hockey at Clarkson.

Looking near the bottom, Brown has a 3-3-0 record in its last six games, with the three losses coming against the league's top three teams — a highly respectable mark considering the Bears suffered through a 15-game winless streak earlier this season.

While Rensselaer is certainly in some trouble heading into the final two weekends, with just one win in its last 16 games, now is certainly not the time to count out any team — especially St. Lawrence, last year's regular season champion, or Dartmouth, whose 4-11-3 league record is not necessarily a reflection on the quality of the Big Green team.

"I think the perfect case in point is Dartmouth," said Union coach Nate Leaman. "They are an excellent team, and look at their nonconference record [5-1-1]. They beat Boston University and New Hampshire in the same week. How many Hockey East teams do that? But Dartmouth is in the second tier in our league currently. We were in the same position last year — had done excellent out of conference, but when you get in the ECAC, it is a dog fight, and one call, one goal, one mistake can literally mean a huge difference."

While another race entirely, it should be mentioned that four ECAC teams — Clarkson, Princeton, Quinnipiac, and Cornell — appear in the latest Pairwise, but only Clarkson is comfortably in range for a potential at-large bid to the NCAA tournament should it fail to win the ECAC tournament. Therefore, in addition to jockeying for position for the ECAC playoffs, several teams will play games over the next two weeks that could have important national implications as well.

For now, though, it's just another race down the stretch for the ECAC.

And it's not likely to end until the final buzzer sounds next Saturday night.

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