October 11, 2012 PRINT Bookmark and Share

ECAC: What to Watch, 2012-13

by Alex Faust/CHN Reporter

A year removed from an NCAA tournament which saw three victories, a Frozen Four participant and a Hobey Hat Trick finalist (Colgate's Austin Smith), the ECAC has league-wide momentum in its favor. In terms of sheer number of wins, it was the most successful NCAA tournament campaign in a decade, and may serve as a harbinger of a recharged upper echelon of the league this year.

The offseason saw few high-profile defections to the professional ranks, as only Colgate's Chris Wagner (Anaheim) and Union's Jeremy Welsh (Carolina) elected to forego their remaining eligibility. Throw in a heralded return to Lake Placid for the 2014 league tournament, and it's tempting to consider the ECAC at the crossroads of a competitive renewal.

With that as the backdrop to the 2012-13 season, here are five early-season storylines:

1. Re-emergence of Harvard on the national stage.

The Crimson stormed through the ECAC Tournament last season, losing in the final to Union but capping off Harvard's best season since their last championship game appearance in 2008. Last year's campaign was built on timely goal scoring and perseverence in tight games. So close were Harvard's games that they registered 11 ties last season, breaking an NCAA record. While several teams will need to replenish offense lost to graduation, Harvard is only dealing with one significant loss: Alex Killorn. Killorn was one of best forwards in the nation last year (top 5 in points-per-game) and a key member of Harvard’s best-in-the-nation power play unit (27.3%). But even without him, the vast majority of the team's offensive corps remains intact.

Add this to the mix: goaltender Raphael Girard was sparkling down the stretch (1.97 GAA, .945 SV%) after returning to the starting lineup in February. Harvard is primed to contend for a league championship, and should make significant noise nationally as well.

2. Can Union continue the momentum?

Defending league champion Union will have to recalibrate its offense. The Dutchmen will be without last year's top two scorers — Jeremy Welsh, who seized the NCAA tournament spotlight with four points in Union's three tournament games, and Kelly Zajac, who helped set up nearly a quarter of the Dutchmen goals last year. While Daniel Carr, Wade Simpson and Kyle Bodie all put up 30-point seasons, the spotlight will undoubtedly be on star goaltender Troy Grosenick. Grosenick (featured below as a Player to Watch) backstopped Union en route to a thrilling run to the Frozen Four: in the second half of the season, Union allowed four goals in a game on only one occasion, in a 4-4 tie with Cornell. Preseason polls will peg Union with repeating as regular-season champions in the ECAC, and the majority of the task will fall to the team defense.

3. Greg Carvel takes over at St. Lawrence.

After long-time head coach Joe Marsh missed the 2011-12 season due to a medical condition, his retirement in March paved the way for Saints alumnus Greg Carvel to permanently assume the role of head coach this season. Carvel is the latest alumnus to take over his former team as head coach, having previously played under Marsh in the 1990s. Even though Carvel was behind the bench in a head coaching capacity last year, it was a struggle on both sides of the puck. St. Lawrence finished 10th in the ECAC in scoring offense (2.44) and last in the league in scoring defense (3.33).

Though not strictly a 'new' head coach this year, this will only be Carvel's second year behind the bench at St. Lawrence, as he joined the program following Bob Prier's departure to become head coach at Princeton. Carvel's task will be tough, no doubt: since winning the regular-season title in 2007, the Saints have finished below .500 three times in the last five seasons. But the successes of new coaches last year at Western Michigan (Andy Murray), Mass.-Lowell (Norm Bazin), and Providence (Nate Leaman) should provide ample optimism that the Saints can turn things around.

4. Stability in Troy

RPI had the daunting task of tackling Union in the second round of the ECAC tournament, and the Engineers were promptly swept in two games. It wasn't for a lack of effort. After a horrendous first half that saw RPI win only three out of their first 18 games, the Engineers went 7-6-3 to finish the regular season. Perhaps it's a sign of a turnaround. After making the NCAA tournament in 2011, the Engineers were quickly knocked out in a 6-0 drubbing by North Dakota, and the doldrums seemed to carry over into the next season. Making matters worse was the departure of then-Junior goalie Allen York over the off-season.

But with a season to recover and restock, Seth Appert has amassed a predictably solid recruiting class, and returns the vast majority of his top scorers. The Engineers will need the office — after finishing last in the league with just 78 goals on the season, RPI could use the stability heading into the new year to prove, at the very least, that 2011 was not a fluke.

5. Will Cornell get over the NCAA tournament hump?

It's difficult to put the last decade in the realm of disappointment for Cornell hockey. After all, since 2003 the Big Red have amassed three ECAC championships in six finals appearances. But the program has also been agonizingly close to a Frozen Four on numerous occasions, only to come up just short. Last year, after losing to Harvard in the semifinals of the ECAC tournament, Cornell seemed poised to make it to Tampa, upsetting Michigan in the opening round of the NCAAs. But the Big Red were knocked out by national runner up Ferris State. It brought back memories of 2009: after upsetting Northeastern in the opening round, the Big Red were knocked out by 16th-seeded Bemidji State. The list goes on, highlighted by overtime losses in back-to-back years against Wisconsin and Minnesota in 2005 and 2006.

So, turning to this season, once again Cornell will return a platoon of top offensive talent. However, like Union, the Big Red will likely be reliant on top-notch defense and goaltending to stay competitive. Andy Iles should be up to the task, after posting impressive numbers (2.12 GAA, .919 SV%) and starting in all 35 games last year. So it should not be a shock if Cornell is back in the dance come March. The thing to remember is this: making the NCAA tournament two out of every three years is nice, and no other program in the conference can even claim that much, but there's a bigger target in mind for the Big Red.

Mark your calendars – five big games

Harvard at Cornell (November 16) – More than just the rivalry, Lynah will be rumbling in an early battle of two title contenders

Michigan vs. Cornell (November 24) – Dubbed “The Frozen Apple,” for the first time the post-Thanksgiving game does not feature Boston University as the opponent. Instead, it’s an NCAA tournament rematch

Ferris State vs. Cornell (December 28) – While I’d rather not feature one team in three of these marquee games, it’s hard to ignore Cornell’s non-conference strength of schedule (Colorado College, Michigan, Ferris St., Denver)

Harvard at Union (January 22) – The second ECAC title game rematch of the season should be as intense as ever as the run to the finish begins.

Union at Colgate (February 22) – If our prediction below has any merit, this will be a big stage for Colgate to fight for a first round bye

Five players to watch

1. Troy Grosenick - Union (Jr, G)

Last year, Grosenick backstopped Union with a phenomenal 1.65 GAA in 34 games, helping the Dutchmen boast the best scoring margin and scoring defense in the country. If Grosenick can relieve the early pressure of preventing a post-tournament letdown, the Dutchmen sould be in fine shape to make another run to the tournament

2. Connor & Kellen Jones - Quinnipiac (Jr, F)

We'll lump the Jones brothers into one space since both will be poised to be at the top of the league in scoring. Both scored nearly a point per game last year, and Connor is the ECAC's top returning forward.

3. Danny Biega - Harvard (Sr, D)

The last of the remaining Biega brothers, Danny will be Harvard's top returning scorer, having posted a 10-25—35 line last season. Much of his contribution came on the power play (23 out of 35 points), which finished as the best in the nation with a 27.3 percent conversion rate (it was near 30 percent for most of the season). While Alex Killorn will no longer be on the top power play unit after graduating, having Biega as the anchor will help maintain Harvard's killer special teams play.

4. Shayne Gostisbehere (So, D)

It’s almost startling to think that Gostisbehere was a freshman last year. In the second half (from January onward), Gostisbehere had a plus-minus of +13. Augmented by his duties quarterbacking Union's top power-play unit for a good chunk of the year, Gostisbehere returns as undoubtedly one of the top defenseman in the league. Over the off-season, he was selected in the second round of the NHL Entry Draft by Philadelphia, bolstering his resume even further.

5. Andy Iles - Cornell (Jr, G)

While it would have been easier to add another forward to this list, the theme of good defense and goaltending at the top of the ECAC leads us to Iles who, like Troy Grosenick, will be entering his junior season. After posting the league's second best GAA last year (2.12, 10th in the nation), Iles will once again be counted on to backstop the Big Red.

Predicted order of finish

1. Union
2. Harvard
3. Cornell
4. Quinnipiac
5. Colgate
6. Yale
7. Clarkson
8. St. Lawrence
8. Dartmouth
9. RPI
10. Dartmouth
11. Brown
12. Princeton

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