March 14, 2012

ECAC Journal: Union, top seeds dodge first-round upsets

By Dan Guttenplan

The ECAC Hockey regular season was anything but predictable. Each weekend seemed to provide instances of teams moving up and down the standings after the latest handful of upsets. 

Union goaltender Troy Grosenick (Photo courtesy of Union College Athletics)

So perhaps it was only fitting that in the quarterfinal round of the ECAC Hockey tournament, for the first time seemingly all season, everything went according to plan.

All of the home teams advanced, fresh off their opening-round byes. The top four seeds -- Union, Cornell, Harvard and Colgate -- will be playing in Atlantic City this weekend for the tournament championship.

That's not to say the quarterfinal round was boring. In the Harvard-Yale series, the third-season Crimson overcame a one-game deficit in the three-game series to battle back on their home ice. In typical Harvard fashion this season, two of the three games went to overtime.

Top-seed Union got everything it could handle from 10th-seed RPI, escaping with a 3-2 victory in Game 1. The sweep came the next night, but the Dutchmen were never able to relax in a 4-2 victory that was a tie game late in the second period.

Fourth-seeded Colgate needed three games to beat Quinnipiac, but perhaps the most exciting quarterfinal matchup was settled in a sweep: Cornell's series victory over Dartmouth. The second-seeded Big Red needed two overtime periods in Game 1 to escape with a 4-3 victory. They then carried the momentum of coming out on top of the 11th longest game in ECAC Hockey history by jumping on Dartmouth early the next night. They scored three first-period goals en route to a 3-1 victory.

"I think it is surprising all of the home teams advanced," said Cornell coach Mike Schafer. "Then again, having the bye is such an advantage. Look at the teams that had to play six games in 10 days. That's tough. But it is surprising based on the fact that there were so many upsets and so much parity this year. I think it puts more emphasis on the regular season to do a better job and earn that bye."

It's getting to be the time of year when unexpected heroes emerge. Such was the case at Lynah Rink Friday night. Locked in a 3-3 tie in the second overtime period, both Cornell and Dartmouth were battling dehydration and leg cramping as shifts were cut down to 20 to 25 seconds.

Cornell senior defenseman Sean Whitney deposited the game-winner with 2:20 remaining in the second overtime period. It was his first goal since Cornell's victory over Dartmouth in the ECAC Hockey semifinal on March 18, 2011. Before that, he scored against Union in the ECAC Hockey championship game on March 20, 2010.

"You just think about trying to make the right play," Whitney said, of his propensity to score goals in critical moments. "I wasn't thinking about scoring. I'm not a scoring defenseman; I'm more of a stay-at-home defenseman."

So while the higher seed emerged victorious in each of the four quarterfinal series in ECAC Hockey, it was another weekend when fans could expect the unexpected.

ECAC Hockey tournament schedule

Semifinals

Friday, March 16 (Boardwalk Hall, Atlantic City, N.J.)

No. 3 Harvard vs. No. 2 Cornell (4:30 p.m.)

No. 4 Colgate vs. No. 1 Union, Friday (7 p.m.)

Saturday, March 17 (Boardwalk Hall, Atlantic City, N.J.)

Third-Place Game, 4:30 p.m.

Championship Game, 7 p.m.

ECAC Hockey power rankings

1. Union (22-7-7, 14-4-4): Union goaltender Troy Grosenick appears to be the favorite among three finalists to collect the Ken Dryden Award as the annual ECAC Hockey Goaltender of the Year. Cornell's Andy Iles and Clarkson’s Paul Karpowich were also selected as finalists for the honor by the league’s coaches. Grosenick (11-3-1) ranked first in conference action in goals-against average (1.60); save percentage (.940); and win percentage (.767).

2. Cornell (17-7-7, 12-4-6): However, some might argue Iles is more worthy of the award because he did more with less around him. Iles started all 22 conference games for Cornell and let all ECAC Hockey goaltenders in starts and minutes. He was second among league goalies with a 12-4-6 record and .682 winning percentage. The sophomore had an all-time league-record shutout streak of 275 minutes, 3 seconds from Nov. 12 to Jan. 16.

3. Harvard (12-9-11, 8-5-9): I suppose we can't blame Harvard goaltender Steve Michalek (Glastonbury Conn.) for the team's string of overtime games this season. Michalek played in 12 overtime games during the regular season before losing his job to sophomore Raphael Girard. The sophomore, who posted a 2.39 GAA to Michalek's 3.19 during the season, played in two overtime games against Yale in the quarterfinals.

4. Colgate (19-15-3, 11-10-1): Walpole, Mass., native Chris Wagner took over the scoring load for Hobey Baker Award finalist Austin Smith in the series victory over Quinnipiac. The sophomore forward had five goals and an assist in the three games, giving him 50-plus points on the season. Smith has 36 goals on the season and is two away from tying Dan Fridgen '81 for the most in program history. He is also two points away from equaling Andy McDonald's point total in 1999-2000 

5. RPI (12-24-3, 7-12-3): Admirable finish for the Engineers after starting the season 1-9-0.

6. Yale (16-16-3, 10-10-2): It's apropos for Yale to finish at an even .500 because it was, for all intents and purposes, a mediocre season for a team many predicted would return to the NCAA tournament. The team never seemed to put last season’s finish behind it.

7. Quinnipiac (19-12-6, 9-8-5): Count the Bobcats as one of those teams that seemed to feel the brunt of playing six ECAC Hockey tournament games in 10 days. They dropped their Game 3 match-up with Colgate, 4-0, on Sunday.

8. Dartmouth (13-14-4, 8-11-3): The Big Green struggled to match Cornell's intensity right out of the gates in both games last weekend. Cornell led 3-2 after one period in Game 1 and 3-1 after one period in Game 2. Dartmouth played the Big Red evenly after that.

9. Clarkson (16-16-7, 9-9-4): Karpowich, a finalist for the Ken Dryden Award, had a league-best 638 saves, including two conference outings with 40-or-more stops. He registered two ECAC Hockey shutouts and is tied for third in the nation in shutouts overall with five.

10. St. Lawrence (14-19-3, 10-11-1): St. Lawrence coach Joe Marsh (Lynn, Mass.) announced his retirement last week following a 26-year career as the Saints' coach. He missed this entire season due to a condition that prompted him to take a medical leave. He will be replaced behind the bench by Greg Carvel, who will become head coach after sharing the coaching duties with Mike Hurlbut this past season. Hurlbut will continue in his role as associate head coach.

11. Princeton (9-16-7, 6-12-4): I'll say it again: Keep an eye on Princeton sophomore Andrew Calof, who finished with 14 goals and 12 assists for 26 points, good for fourth in the league. No other Princeton player ranked in the top 30 in the conference in scoring.

12. Brown (9-18-5, 5-13-4): The Bears did not have a strong finish to their season with one win over the final five weeks.

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