February 29, 2012

ECAC Journal: Hard-earned ties yield bye for Harvard

By Dan Guttenplan

Union needed its final game of the regular season to clinch an ECAC Hockey regular-season title, so it only figures that in a season in which parity reigned supreme, ties served as the best anecdote to a first-round bye for the ECAC tournament. 

Harvard goaltender Steve Michalek (Hartford, Conn.) was in net for eight of the Crimson's 11 ties. (Dave Arnold Photography)

This best explains Harvard's lot in life as a No. 3 seed in the tournament. The Crimson (10-8-11 overall, 8-5-9 ECAC) are kicking their feet up in preparation for a first-round bye despite the fact that they only registered three road wins in 14 games this season. They also entered the final weekend of the season with just seven wins in 21 conference games.

But here's how Harvard earned a first-round bye for the first time since 2008: It registered an 8-5-9 record in conference and posted a 3-3-8 mark on the road.

“A good number of our ties came on the road," Harvard coach Ted Donato (Dedham, Mass.) said. "A lot of them came in comeback fashion. Any time you can get points on the road, that's a good thing. We try to go .500 on the road and make gravy at home."

The Crimson went 6-4-3 at home, but the final two wins came in the clutch -- on the final weekend against St. Lawrence and Clarkson. When all was said and done, it was impossible to make a case that Harvard didn't deserve its first-round bye. The Crimson registered a split or better in the season series with all nine ECAC teams behind them in the standings.

"We didn't lose many head-to-head matchups this season," Donato said. "We split wins, or split ties, but what we did was pretty impressive. As a team, we looked at it like we wanted to be in control of our own destiny. At no point did we lose control of that. We couldn't rest easy all season, but that was the case in most of the ECAC."

It was certainly the case at the top; Union and Cornell entered the final night of play tied atop the ECAC standings after Cornell registered a home victory over Union Friday night. The Big Red faltered the next night, falling to RPI, whereas Union clinched its regular-season title with a victory over Colgate.

In a further display of the ECAC's parity this season, Colgate earned the coveted fourth seed and final first-round bye with a league record of one game over .500 (11-10-1).

"This year, there was a lower point total to allow for home ice," Donato said. "Usually, you need 25 or 26 points to earn that home ice. This year, Colgate got it with 23."

Donato acknowledges that his team will likely need to claim an ECAC Hockey tournament title to earn an invitation to the NCAA tournament. An extra week of rest and rehabilitation can only help the cause.

"There are no ties from here on out," Donato said. "We've had a difficult year with injuries and a lot of extra periods. Every year, we enter the playoffs with the idea of winning the ECAC championship. That's the goal we set for ourselves. Getting into the second round with home ice is a nice first step. We'll have as close to a full complement of players as we've had all year, so we're ready."

Harvard last won the ECAC championship in 2006.

Games of the Week

No. 10 RPI at No. 7 Clarkson, Friday, Saturday and, if necessary, Sunday

Tough draw for the Golden Knights, who made their own bed on the final weekend by dropping from fourth in the standings to seventh after losses to Harvard and Dartmouth. RPI swept the season series with Clarkson, winning at home Nov. 4 and on the road Jan. 28.

What ECAC team would want to play the Engineers, who are coming off a weekend road sweep at Cornell and Colgate? This is my upset pick of the week, although I'm not sure it's much of an upset.

ECAC Hockey power rankings

1. Union (20-7-7, 14-4-4): Give the Dutchmen credit for coming off an emotional loss against Cornell Friday night and following it up with a victory at Colgate Saturday. It sure seemed like the winner of the Union-Cornell game would carry momentum into the next night's game and capture the regular-season title, but it worked out exactly the opposite way. Cornell lost to a dangerous RPI squad. Union beat an up-and-down Colgate team. 

2. Cornell (15-7-7, 12-4-6): Explain this one: The Big Red won a huge game over Union Friday night and needed only a win against the 10th-place team ECAC team in RPI Saturday night to clinch a regular-season title. They were playing at home on Senior Night, and they had six power-play opportunities to RPI's one. Somehow, the Big Red were outshot 23-16 and they lost, 2-1 in overtime.

3. Colgate (17-14-3, 11-10-1): The Raiders need the bye more than any other team in the ECAC. They are losers of their last four games -- their second four-game losing streak of the semester.

4. St. Lawrence (14-17-3, 10-11-1): The Saints played at Dartmouth Saturday night in what was a preview of the matchup between the No. 8 and 9 seed in the ECAC tournament. The Saints won 3-1 on the road, so they will host Dartmouth for a best-of-three set this weekend. You have to figure if the Saints can beat Dartmouth in a must-win on the road …

5. Clarkson (15-15-6, 9-9-4): The Golden Knights would be sitting at home this weekend if they had beaten Harvard Saturday night in what turned out to be a battle for a first-round bye. Taking a step back, it's not a bad season for Clarkson, the team picked to finish 11th in the preseason coaches poll.

6. Yale (13-13-3, 10-10-2): Strong finish to the season for the Elis, who secured a home series in the first round of the ECAC tournament by going 3-0-1 in their last four games. A first-round matchup with No. 11 Princeton looms for sixth-seeded Yale. I like the Elis in two games.

7. Harvard (10-8-11, 8-5-9): So the Crimson entered last weekend with 10 ties in their previous 20 games. They had only one four-point weekend to their record all season. And they sat in fifth place in the league standings. So what did they do? They picked up four points with wins over Clarkson and St. Lawrence and earned a first-round bye in the ECAC tournament. Tough to tell how the Crimson will fare in the postseason when ties are removed from the equation.

8. Quinnipiac (17-11-6, 9-8-5): The Bobcats needed a victory over Yale Saturday night to earn a first-round bye in the ECAC tournament. They outshot the Elis 43-30 but came out with a 2-2 tie. The Bobcats' 23 points tie them for fourth in the ECAC standings along with Colgate. But the Raiders won the tiebreak so Quinnipiac will host No. 12 Brown this weekend.

9. Dartmouth (11-14-4, 8-11-3): Brendan McNally (Saugus, Mass.) led all freshmen in goals in ECAC play with 10. As a group, Dartmouth's freshmen accounted for 25 goals in league play. The team's youth and inexperience may best explain Dartmouth's late-season skid, which could have been the result of tired legs. The Big Green finished 2-6-2 in their last 10 games.

10. Princeton (8-14-7, 6-12-4): Not a great first-round draw for the Tigers, who match up with Yale, a team that outscored them 11-4 in two defeats this season. Yale's most recent victory over Princeton came at home on Friday night by a 5-2 margin.

11. RPI (10-21-3, 7-12-3): The Engineers are 7-5-3 in their last 15 games. They closed out the season with victories at Cornell and Colgate. Last year, Colgate made it to the ECAC semifinals as a No. 12 seed. I have RPI making a similar run as a No. 10 seed this season.

12. Brown (8-16-5, 5-13-3): The Bears haven't won since Jan. 21.

Dan Guttenplan can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com.