ECAC Final Four Hockey Preview
By Dan Rubin
For the second consecutive year, the eyes of the college hockey nation will turn to the ECAC Hockey Championships. For the second consecutive year, the conference will play potentially large role in bursting the bubbles of conference hopefuls. And for the second consecutive year, a team ranked in the bottom two stands just two wins away from an NCAA tournament berth.
Last year, the Brown Bears rocked the college hockey world when they beat RPI in the first round, 2 games to 1, in Albany. That series win was enough to eliminate the Engineers from the bubble and effectively knock them out of tournament consideration. The Bears then knocked Yale out of consideration of a top seed by beating them in New Haven. Although Bruno lost in the conference semifinals, they won the consolation game, and the reverberations were felt throughout the nation with tense knuckles and sweaty palms.
All it takes is one team that’s “not supposed to win” to destroy a bubble team’s hope. This year, those teams have the same knots in their stomach thanks to low seeds in ECAC. Colgate bumped off RPI this year in the first round, then shocked top-seeded Union last week to advance to the conference championship weekend. It also opens the door for Cornell and Dartmouth to assume better positioning for a trip to the NCAAs. With the conference tournament moving this year from Albany to Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall, it’s fitting that the wild nature of this league sets up shop among the gaming tables and Wild West nature of the east coast’s playground.
#2 Yale Bulldogs
How They Got Here: [25-6-1], [17-4-1 ECAC], beat St. Lawrence, 2 games to 1 (3-4, 5-2, 4-0)
Why They’ll Win: This whole season has been about unfinished business for the Bulldogs. Following their Game 1 loss to the Saints, they were on pace to become the greatest team in ECAC history to NOT make the conference semifinals. This team ranked as high as #1 in the national polls, and they’re still among the leaders for a top seed. Odds are they’ll end up in Bridgeport, CT for their regional. It’s fitting that we talk about that as reasons why they’ll win – they’re one of the best teams in the nation. They didn’t just beat teams this year; they crushed them. There’s also a 5-3 exhibition win over the Russian National U-21 Team right before the World Junior Championships. They scored four goals 23 times, including playoffs. They scored five goals in each of their first five games. And despite all of this, the Elis ended up as the #2 seed in the conference tournament. They played Games 2 and 3 with the same edge they played much of the season. Of the four remaining teams, nobody can really touch this team on talent. And, if that’s not enough, it’s the entirely same core that came within a 9-7 defeat to eventual national champion Boston College in a regional final of last year’s NCAA tournament.
Why They’ll Lose: Despite the aura of being a top-ranked team with national title aspirations, they’re very beatable. They lost to Air Force, Brown, and St. Lawrence in the regular season. They got swept on a road trip to Union and RPI. And they lost in OT to the Saints in Game 1. You don’t so much as beat Yale on speed and talent; that’s just impossible. You beat Yale by beating them up. Brown physically dominated the Elis in last year’s playoffs. They sat back and forced Yale to play gritty, blue-collar hockey. Teams that do this – Brown, SLU, Union – beat the Bulldogs. Colgate’s going to need a miracle to beat them in the semifinals, but it can be done by not playing intimidated. Yale’s the team with the most to lose right now, and that makes their opponents dangerous. Even so, that’s still a pretty crappy reason to pick against them.
#3 Dartmouth Big Green
How They Got Here: [18-11-3], [12-8-2 ECAC], beat Harvard 2 games to 1 (2-3, 2-1, 4-3)
Why They’ll Win: They won the season series against top-seed Union by tying and winning. They beat New Hampshire. And they did it by flying under the radar. Adam Estoclet put up 15 goals on the season, joined by Scott Fleming’s 13 and Matt Lindblad’s 12. They scored the right goals at the right time, and the won the right games at the right time. Furthermore, the playoffs are about goaltending, and that’s the one area where Dartmouth really excels. James Mello posted a 93% save percentage, two shutouts, and won 65% of his games. He allowed an average of just over two goals per game. He made 35 saves in the series-winning game over Harvard. He also made 38 in a losing effort against Yale, which makes him a dangerous commodity if the Big Green makes it to the championship game. The key to winning for Dartmouth is to play tough defensive hockey and look for opportune goals. They spread the scoring around this year, and they’ll need a full team effort to win these games.
Why They’ll Lose: Dartmouth never really got hot this year. They never had a big, long winning streak. They never won more than four in a row, and they never won more than three in a row in conference. They beat UNH, but outside of that, they don’t have enough nonconference wins. The loss to Vermont hurts, and they don’t jump off the paper in comparison to some other teams. There really aren’t too many talking points about this team, not in comparison to their semifinal opponent and possible championship opponent
#4 Cornell Big Red
How They Got Here: [15-14-3], [11-9-2 ECAC], beat Quinnipiac 2 games to 1 (2-1, 0-1, 3-2)
Why They’ll Win: The wolf is in the hen house. Head coach Mike Shafer has led Cornell to several 20-plus win seasons. He’s won five conference championships, and they’re the defending league winners. When the pressure gets bigger, no team plays better. They have the championship pedigree, and they’re consistently in a position to capture the league championship. Joe Devin notched 17 goals and Tyler Roeszler scored 12. Their platoon goaltending combination of Andy Iles and Mike Garman each saved 92% of shots, and the fact that neither played 20 games means they’re the most rested combination to this point. Garman was in net for the two wins over Qpac.
Why They’ll Lose: This isn’t the same Cornell team from past years. They went .500 over the course of the season, and thanks to the lower seeds winning in the first round, they drew a favorable matchup in the second with Quinnipiac. They got swept by Brown this year for the first time since the mid-1990s. They don’t hold any signature wins this year, unless RPI qualifies as one. This is also the worst Cornell team since 2006-2007, but at least they avoided their first losing season since late-90s.
#12 Colgate Raiders
How They Got Here: [11-26-3], [4-15-3 ECAC], beat RPI 2 games to 1 (2-4, 5-2, 2-1), beat Union 2 games to 1 (1-4, 4-2, 4-3)
Why They’ll Win: Yale, Cornell, and Dartmouth don’t show up. Seriously, this team has been so bad this year that I can’t even figure out why they’re here. At least Brown was a team that ended last year at an over-.500 clip after opening the year 0-8-1.
But they’re the itch that nobody can seem to scratch. They’re the annoying, buzzing fly when everyone’s trying to sleep. They just don’t go away. They beat RPI in the playoffs, finishing off another year of Engineer chokes with a double-overtime winner in Game 3 after losing Game 1. They did the same thing to Union, a team vying for a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament. After losing Game 1, they rallied to win Game 3 in overtime. It’s ironic when you consider Union and RPI are travel partners and are located within a half hour of one another in the Capital District of New York. Francois Brisebois has 16 goals on the year, and Austin Smith has 20 assists. Erik Mihalik did the bulk of goaltending, with an about 90% save percentage.
Why They’ll Lose: Because if they win, it’s by divine intervention. They went on a 14-game winless streak from December 11th until February 4th. They finished last. The amount of in-conference wins can be counted on one hand. Their signature wins were over Army and Sacred Heart. And they draw their semifinal matchup against a team that is actually better overall than the top-seeded Dutchmen. All kidding aside, this is a team that’s a goldfish trying to swim with sharks.
Tomorrow comes the crown jewel of our week – the Hockey East championship and Dan Rubin’s Weekly Pick ‘Em, when I make a feeble attempt at trying to pick the conference championships. I’ll also poke fun at my inability to pick games from the past weeks, so you know exactly what not to believe. And I’ll take at least two more potshots at Dan Libon for being a Northeastern fan, but I do promise I’ll do a better job at it than The Situation. So enjoy your Thursday, put a t-shirt on, grab that grenade whistle, and fist pump your day away.