March 8, 2012 PRINT Bookmark and Share

ECAC Playoff Preview

CHN Staff Report

You never know what you're going to get in the ECAC Tournament, although if there's been any predictability in recent years, it's that this weekend will produce some long games and series that go three games, more often than not.

No. 1 Union (20-7-7) vs. No. 11 Rensselaer (12-22-3)

Union has had a remarkable season. One year removed from the best season in the program's Division I history, losing a star goaltender and the coach that took the program to these unforseen heights, the Dutchmen came back with a relatively inexperienced goaltender and relatively inexperienced first-year coach and proved all the doubters wrong. With a second consecutive ECAC regular-season title, Union is poised for a second straight NCAA bid. What it doesn't want is a second straight quarterfinal playoff exit as the top seed, as when a suddenly-hot Colgate knocked Union out last year. Troy Grosenick stepped in between the pipes and anchored the nation's top defense. But Union also had a lot of skill and character coming back, and Rick Bennett was the one who recruited most of them and he's now the bench boss. So perhaps the transition was never going to be as harsh as it seemed.

Union handily defeated RPI in all three meetings this season, but the teams haven't played in a while, and RPI has been playing much better down the stretch, going 8-5-2 in the last 15 games, including a triple overtime loss at Clarkson in last week's playoff series. This was also a rejuvenated program under Seth Appert, whose turnaround culminated in an NCAA Tournament berth last season, but the Engineers lost more than Union did, and struggled most of the year. Junior C.J. Lee is the team's top goal scorer with eight. Junior Bryce Merriam is a bright spot in net with a .912 save percentage.

Prediction: Union in 3.

No. 2 Cornell (15-7-7) vs. No. 9 Dartmouth (13-14-4)

The sense is that Cornell is one year away from being dominant again. But despite growing pains this season, including a stretch where it was uncharacteristically losing many third-period leads, the Big Red still find themselves on the cusp of an NCAA bid. Some tough non-league losses, such as the OT heartbreaker to Boston University at Madison Square Garden, and to Massachusetts in the Florida tournament, set back Cornell. But it still has a chance if it can get through this round. Another uncharacteristic part of Cornell's season is that its special teams have been mediocre. But 5-on-5, this is a strong, well-round unit, and Andy Iles is solid in goal.

Cornell's only loss since Jan. 28 was to RPI in the last regular-season game of the year, in overtime, a game that cost the Big Red first place. Cornell has played 11 overtime games this season, and one of the wins came against Dartmouth on Jan. 20. Cornell also won an early-season meeting.

The Big Green followed a seven-game winless streak by winning four of the last five entering this weekend, including last week's two-game sweep at St. Lawrence. Dartmouth has had a lot of players put up disappointing offensive years — players they thought they could count on coming into this season. It's made for a disappointing campaign. But lately that has shown signs of perking up. If it continues, this will be a long series. Someone it didn't expect was sophomore Eric Robinson, who wound up leading the team in goals to this point with 12. Senior Doug Jones only had seven goals by mid-February, but has scored four since then.

Prediction: Cornell in 3.

No. 3 Harvard vs. No. 6 Yale

Harvard has had one of the more strange seasons, breaking the NCAA record for ties with 11 despite playing only 29 regular-season games, the lowest of anyone in the nation because of Ivy League restrictions. Despite not being able to get over the hump in some big games, Harvard has done well in the league and surged to third place this season when many picked another season in the bottom half. Steve Michalek petered out between the pipes over the season, when the freshman was expected to lead the way. But the Crimson got a huge boost from the play of sophomore Raphael Girard down the stretch, and it's his job right now. Harvard boasts as good a defensive unit as anyone, with junior Danny Biega and his 30 points to go with super-freshman Patrick McNally, who has 22. And Alex Killorn is a do-everything dynamo up front, with 18 goals, including nine on the power play.

Yale was mired in mediocity this year, and will need to win the ECAC Tournament to record its fourth straight trip to the NCAAs. Last year, when it went in No. 1 overall but flamed out against Minnesota-Duluth in the regional final, left a bad taste in their mouths, but with a lot of losses to graduation, they haven't been able to get that taste out. It's particularly pungent for senior Brian O'Neill, who has had a stellar career despite slipping under the radar nationally, and was the team's catalyst for the better part of two seasons, but was tossed out of last year's NCAA loss minutes after scoring to try to kick-start a rally. This year, he's put up 20 goals, but hasn't had as much help. When Yale is going on all cylinders, however, it can still a very good team. It is liable to crank it up at any time.

Prediction: Harvard in 3.

No. 4 Colgate vs. No. 5 Quinnipiac (19-12-6)

Colgate's resurgent season stalled down the stretch with four straight losses, jeopardizing a bye to the quarterfinals and Austin Smith's Hobey Baker Award candidacy. Colgate got the bye, and has to put talk of Smith's candidacy on hold while it battles for its lives here, in what should be a grueling series against Quinnipiac. Smith had a hat trick against Quinnipiac in the first meeting this season, a 3-1 win, but the Bobcats returned the favor by clobbering Colgate, 7-1, later in Hamden. When things aren't going well, Colgate has the tendency to give up a lot of goals. It's a high-risk, high-reward attacking system.

Quinnipiac got off the deck from a loss in Game 1 to Brown last weekend, and won two straight. The Bobcats have been known to be an enigma over the years. It took the ECAC by storm when it first entered the league, and in 2007, was up 2-0 in the third period of the ECAC Championship game before collapsing against Clarkson. Since then, QU has won a first-round series every year, but not a quarterfinal series. And despite numerous good starts, and huge non-conference wins, hasn't been able to put together a full ECAC season from start to finish. As a result, Quinnipiac is still searching for an NCAA bid as an ECAC member. This team is capable of making a run, with freshman Matthew Peca leading the way with his 35 points, and twins Connor and Kellen Jones with 37 and 34 points, respectively.

A key for both teams is the goaltending. Both Colgate's Eric Mihalik and QU's Dan Hartzell have shown the ability to have great games, but not as consistently as you'd want. You may see senior Alex Evin in there quickly for Colgate if Mihalik can't keep it together.

Prediction: Colgate in 3.

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