ECAC Hockey Preview

Could the Yale Bulldogs capture the ECAC Division Crown in 2011?

By Dan Rubin

For a conference as storied as ECAC Hockey, it’s been a long time since they sniffed a national championship. The last time a team hoisted the hardware was 1989, when Harvard‘s “Cinderella Run” was capped in overtime over Minnesota. Nobody’s advanced to the national championship game since Colgate one year later, and the conference’s last Frozen Four participant was Cornell in 2003.

Last year, the Yale Bulldogs made a valiant attempt to climb the ladder.  Capping a second consecutive 20-win season, it looked like 2010 would finally be the year ECAC overcame the obstacle. But Yale slipped in the league tournament, losing to 11th-seeded Brown at home in a best-of-three series.  The loss knocked Yale down to a three seed in the tournament’s “group of death” alongside Boston College and North Dakota.  And although the Elis defeated the Fighting Sioux in the first game, BC outlasted the offensive juggernaut en route to the national championship.

This year, Yale opened up on fire, looking to take the national spotlight by storm.  By midseason, they ascended the top of the polls, garnering a #1 ranking and looking destined for a top seed.  But they’ve slid as of late, and the team ranked #3 in the national poll doesn’t even lead the conference standings heading into the final weekend.

Welcome to the topsy-turvy world of ECAC Hockey.

Yale enters this weekend one point behind first place Union.  The Dutchmen are enjoying their best season since transitioning to Division I in 1992, and they enter the weekend on a 9-game winning streak.  Over that stretch, Union defeated Yale to split the season series, and, by holding the overall win totals lead heading into final two games, have a chance to take the top seed into Schenectady.

Needing just a Yale loss to clinch the top seed, the Dutchmen face sixth-place Princeton and seventh-place Quinnipiac.  Yale, meanwhile hosts last place Colgate with the season on the line before wrapping up the season with third-place Cornell.  Yale will need to sweep the weekend and hope for a Union split in order to finish atop the standings.  There’s no question that, barring a massive upset, the race for first is coming down to the last weekend.  With a gun at my head, I think Yale wins both, but so does Union.  This means the Bulldogs enter the playoffs as the higher national rank but lower seed, with Union as the #1 and Yale as the #2.   But don’t take my word on this one.

For the rest of the playoffs, we’ll first introduce the playoff format.  Twelve teams make up the ECAC Hockey standings in a single table format.  The top four teams get automatic byes to the quarterfinals, while the bottom eight play best-of-three series at campus sites in the first round.  Seeds 5-8 host seeds 9-12, with the winners reseeding into the second round.  The final four then advance to single elimination games with a consolation and championship round following.  This year, the ECAC Final four leaves its former home of Albany, NY for the glitzy grounds of Boardwalk Hall and Atlantic City, New Jersey.

The tournament is no stranger to drama, especially when Brown is involved.  In 2009, the Bears knocked off Harvard in a two-game sweep in Cambridge.  Brown entered that series with a regular season record of 5-23-4, entrenched as the league’s worst team, yet they accomplished something that had never been done in the 110+ years.  Until that point, Harvard had never been shutout over an entire weekend in the history of their program.  It took a 12-seed in their coach’s last season to accomplish it.

Brown put Cinderella’s slipper back on last year.  Although the program improved to 13-20-4, Brown entered the playoffs as the 11 seed and traveled to Albany to play RPI.  The Bears shocked the Engineers in Game1, and then rallied to win Game 3 and head to Yale for the quarterfinals.  Brown shocked the nation by knocking off the Bulldogs, including a 44-save performance by their goaltender, Michael Clemente, in Game 3, holding an offensive juggernaut scoreless.

Brown this year is in a similar predicament.  Entering this week with three home games, they trailed Clarkson and Quinnipiac by four points for the final home seed.  The Bears shot themselves in the foot by losing to Harvard on Tuesday in a makeup game, and they’ll head into the weekend needing to beat both Cornell and Colgate while needing both Clarkson and Quinnipiac to lose both games.  Factoring in that Brown swept the Cornell-Colgate trip earlier this year, a feat not done since Ronald Reagan was President, it’s highly unlikely that the Big Red will lose on Friday.  Plus Brown hasn’t hosted a playoff series since the 2004-2005, so why start now?  Brown’s out of a home series in the first round.

So now it’s just a question of where Brown goes.  Brown has a one point lead over St. Lawrence heading into the weekend for the 9th seed (highest road seed in the playoffs).  St. Lawrence is travelling to Harvard and Dartmouth, and I’m just going to say, based on a record, that’s a split, although I wouldn’t be surprised if the Saints were swept.  If Brown splits and St. Lawrence splits, the Saints draw the 10 seed, and Brown travels to what would end up being Quinnipiac as the 9-seed.  That’s pure speculation since Quinnipiac and Clarkson could swap spots, but that’s just unfair since Hamden, CT is a lot closer to Providence than Potsdam, NY.

Among local teams, the only other team besides Brown is Harvard (well okay… I talked about Yale, but it’s a one-point race for the league’s top seed heading into the weekend.  How could I not?).  The Crimson spent most of 2010-2011 on a mind-numbing freefall, calling into question just how hot head coach Ted Donato’s seat truly was getting.  After losing 14 out of 15 games (and 18 out of 20 at one point), they’ve managed to win three of their last four heading into the final weekend.  That includes the Beanpot consolation game against Boston University and a 2-1 win at Cornell.  With the win over Brown on Tuesday, the Crimson enter the final weekend just two points out of 10th place and four points out of 9th.  But, I don’t see them winning both games against Clarkson and St. Lawrence, so they’ll enter the playoffs as the hottest 11-seed since, well, Brown last year. Don’t sleep on them in the playoffs, especially since I’m pretty sure Donato is still on the hot seat and teams with nothing to lose are the most dangerous teams to play.  That also means Harvard is heading for either RPI or Princeton in the first round.

The rest of ECAC should play out relatively smoothly, since teams cannot fall or drop several places as other conferences are showcasing into the final weekend.  But the seeds in years past rarely mean anything, since this tournament is usually among the most exciting.

We’ll return later in the week with a couple of looks at Hockey East, since the conference has two weeks remaining on its schedule instead of one.  We’ll also try to let the Magic 8 Ball predict the games and get you set for what should be a fantastic slate of playoff hockey.

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