Monday, March 16, 2015

Men's Hockey - ECAC Quarterfinals (13/14 Mar)

The Engineers needed an outstanding effort if they were going to survive a second consecutive weekend in the North Country get to Lake Placid. They got one on Friday, but it wasn't enough to overcome a St. Lawrence team that was right back on top of their game as RPI endured a heartbreaking, literally last minute 1-0 loss. That loss that proved too difficult to bounce back from on Saturday as their season ended with a 5-1 defeat in Canton.

Game 1
Liljegren-Schroeder-Bubela
Melanson-Miller-Nanne
Neal-McGowan-Laliberte
Wood-Bourbonnais-DeVito

Leonard-Bradley
Curadi-Bell
Prapavessis-Wilson

Kasdorf

The conventional wisdom coming into the weekend had the play of Jason Kasdorf as the key for RPI - if he played up to his potential, the Engineers had a chance. On Friday night, facing off with the obvious choice for the ECAC's Ken Dryden Award given to the goaltender of the year, St. Lawrence freshman Kyle Hayton, RPI got the kind of play from Kasdorf that they needed to have that chance.

The RPI offense was grooving as well, controlling play and putting pucks on net. In fact, outside of a pair of penalty kills the Engineers needed to get through in the first 20 minutes, RPI had a pretty solid grip on possession throughout the first period. But while Kasdorf was playing well in net for RPI, so was Hayton for St. Lawrence. The freshman netminder made a number of acrobatic robberies throughout the first two periods to frustrate an Engineer attack that was otherwise functioning just as well, if not better, than it had for much of the season to that point.

No doubt, with the offense working hard, moving the puck well and taking shots, and with Kasdorf frustrating St. Lawrence's offense on the other end, RPI had the formula that they needed for victory. But Hayton's unrelenting play on the other end turned the contest into the consummate chess match as neither team wanted to be the one to blink first. In the first two periods of the game, each netminder made 21 saves on 21 shots. It was the very definition of a goaltender's duel.

Possession slowly started moving in the opposite direction midway through the second period, and where the Engineers had dominated the game early on, St. Lawrence began getting their opportunities later in the contest. But just as Hayton had generally weathered the storm well early, Kasdorf did the same for the Engineers. As time wound down, it became fairly obvious that the first goal of the game could well be the last as well, and that the tally would easily be the most momentous of the series, one on which the fortunes of both teams would rest.

RPI got their golden opportunity to be the one to score that goal with about 4:30 or so left in regulation. The Engineers, moving quickly in transition, took a shot that Hayton saved, but the rebound came free and a number of RPI players had the opportunity to pounce on it and potentially score. St. Lawrence captain Gunnar Hughes was not willing to let that happen, and he tossed the cage to stop play. That earned him a penalty for delay of game at a crucial point of the game, but the RPI power play was unable to capitalize.

As time drained away and overtime started to look inevitable, the game changed in a manner so common to hockey - a bounce. SLU's Chris Martin sent the puck weakly toward the net through traffic in an attempt to try and make something happen, and that's exactly what he got. The puck deflected off of Chris Bradley and into the back of the net with 51.5 seconds remaining in regulation, a bounce that St. Lawrence earned with strong penalty killing and the possession advantage late in the game.

The Engineers pulled Kasdorf from the net with 20 seconds left, but they were unable to get on past Hayton, who finished with 27 saves against 33 for Kasdorf.

Game 2
Liljegren-Schroeder-Bubela
Nanne-Miller-Gillespie
Neal-McGowan-Laliberte
Wood-Bourbonnais-DeVito

Leonard-Bradley
Curadi-Bell
Prapavessis-Wilson

Kasdorf

The ominous pre-game news was the loss of freshman forward Drew Melanson, the team's leading scorer, to an injury sustained the previous night. Kenny Gillespie, who had previously only seen time on the fourth line, slotted in on the right wing of Melanson's line, moving Lou Nanne to the left wing as Seth Appert sought to avoid disrupting the chemistry of the team's other three lines, which have been fairly static for the last couple of weeks.

RPI got their opportunity to put their stamp on a bounce-back effort early as SLU's Woody Hudson took a holding call 1:52, giving the Engineers a quick power play chance. That power play, however, went nowhere at all for an RPI team that would go 0-for-4 on the man advantage in Game 2 and conclude their season with just one power play goal in their final 17 games.

The Engineers certainly didn't back down after Friday night's loss. They sought to take the game to the hosts early, and for the second straight night, they peppered Kyle Hayton with shots in the first period, but once again, he was up to the task. Hayton made 16 saves in the first period alone, giving him 43 saves on 43 shots across the first four periods on the weekend. RPI was putting up a goose-egg on the scoreboard, but it wasn't for lack of trying.

Meanwhile, St. Lawrence took advantage of their opportunities in the first period, limited though they were. Another fortunate bounce for the Saints turned into the game's first goal at 5:45, and then a far more intentional redirection put SLU up 2-0 just 1:05 later, a devastating turn of events for an RPI team that had still been doing just about everything right on the weekend.

RPI finally got one past Hayton early in the second period as Mark Miller picked up his seventh goal of the year 2:02 into the middle frame to cut SLU's lead in half at 2-1. The Engineers were very much alive at that point, and they pressed looking for the equalizer. That was, however, destined to be the only puck they could get past the Saints' netminder on the weekend. Hayton made another 11 saves in the second period, and added 11 more in the third period, giving him 65 saves on 66 shots over the course of the weekend. As good as Jason Kasdorf was, Kyle Hayton was simply even better, and that was the difference.

The Saints iced the series with two more goals, one late in the second and another late in the third to make the score 4-1, then with the Engineers pulling out all stops, added an empty netter with about 15 seconds remaining to make the final scoreline 5-1. The Engineers, two steps away from Lake Placid, finished their season with a 12-26-3, but had little to be ashamed about for their final effort of the season.

Semifinal matchups
#1 Quinnipiac vs. #6 Harvard
#2 St. Lawrence vs. #4 Colgate

RPI at St. Lawrence
ECAC Quarterfinals, Game 1 - Appleton Arena (Canton, NY)
3/13/15 - 7:00pm

RESULT: St. Lawrence 1, RPI 0

RECORD: 12-25-3 (8-12-2, 18pts)

RPI at St. Lawrence
ECAC Quarterfinals, Game 2 - Appleton Arena (Canton, NY)
3/14/15 - 7:00pm

RESULT: St. Lawrence 5, RPI 1

RECORD: 12-26-3 (8-12-2, 18pts)

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Thank You

It's the end of a long, difficult season, and there's only one thing left to say.

Thank you.

#3 Kathryn Schilter - Aurora, ON - Business and Management
#4 Ali Svoboda - Arlington Heights, IL - Industrial Management Engineering (undergrad and grad)
#7 Delaney Middlebrook - Minneapolis, MN - Business and Management
#8 Taylor Mahoney - Cary, IL - Business and Management
#13 Mariana Walsh - Walpole, MA - Business and Management/Economics
#30 Brianna Piper - Oakville, ON - Biomedical Engineering
#31 Kelly O'Brien - Sussex, WI - Biomedical Engineering

--

#5 Luke Curadi - Cheshire, CT - Business and Management
#9 Matt Neal - Minesing, ON - Business and Management
#10 Curtis Leonard - Napanee, ON - Business and Management
#15 Jacob Laliberte - Rockland, ON - Business and Management
#21 Mark McGowan - Toronto, ON - Business and Management (undergrad)/Management-Finance (grad)
#34 Scott Diebold - Buffalo, NY - Industrial and Management Engineering

The Final Stand

It's heartache when you fight so hard and prove pretty much all the naysayers wrong, only to find yourself on the short end of the score due to a bizarro bounce - but that's pretty much the entire story of last night's epic game for the Engineers.

There's no shame, no shame at all in what happened last night. It was a goaltender's duel that any true student of the game would adore. St. Lawrence had the lion's share of the possession in the third period, so they earned the right to be in a position to benefit from a bounce off two players and into the net.

It was a performance to be proud of, but even if RPI had been blown out of the building last night, the situation would stand the same - down 1-0, staring into the end of the season for the second time in three games. There's only one thing to do now. Throw the sweater back on and prepare for war in the trenches once again. We saw last year that the road team can win games 2 and 3. Let's make it happen for us, this time.

Since it's the weekend of St. Patrick's parades and the theme (and the weather, in Troy at least) is about right... here's a solemn battle aire for tonight - a slower tune that can still send chills and adrenaline in a way only the Irish can.

Friday, March 13, 2015

House Money?

Week two. Another trip to the North Country. Another very low margin for error. Another chance to extend the season.

There's no pressure on RPI at all other than the pressure the team has on itself to achieve as much as they possibly can. Few observers think we have a prayer. Maybe they're right. But some of those same observers were delivering obituaries for this team in January and February. Oops.

There's no team out there that's still got a season in front of them that can't string together eight wins and lift the ultimate prize. It's true for everyone from North Dakota (25-7-3) to Niagara (7-26-4, although technically it's only seven for the Purps). How likely is that? It's not likely in the slightest.

But how about something closer to home? How about just going to Lake Placid? We don't need to take eight steps this weekend. Just take two - to a place we haven't been since a few scant months after 9/11.

There's always hope, especially if this team is peaking at the right time. They could give it their all and still come out on the short end. But what if we have yet to see this team at their best this season, and we get it now? That would be something.

No fear.


Thursday, March 12, 2015

Ride or Die

I don't want to give the wrong impression from yesterday's editorial. I'm not warning Puckman Nation to moderate their feelings on the season for the better just because we just knocked off Clarkson. On the contrary - soak it in, people. Enjoy it. It's been a tough year, we've earned the right to be happy about it.

One of the things I'm proudest of in WaP's coverage of the team this season is that almost at the same time, we got a couple of pieces of opinion from people complaining about said coverage. One was an e-mail that accused us of being a "cheerleader" for the team. The other was a tweet lambasting our "negative" coverage and questioning our loyalty.

That pretty much sealed it for me right then and there - we were getting it right. When those two criticisms came down in succession, I knew that our quest to be bluntly honest was getting it absolutely right.

Let there be no confusion at all. We're fans. All of us here are RPI fans - through thick and thin.

My favorite tweet of the year, I wrote the morning after the Freakout! was over. The weekend after the gut punch that was getting swept by Brown on the season and having Yale suck the energy out of a packed house early.
The frustration was destined to mount just a little bit more as the winless streak extended a further three games, but there we were throughout, hoping for the best, even as we criticized uneven play. That's all we've ever wanted to do here. We didn't want to be cheerleaders. We didn't want to be strictly dour, either.

And here we stand - on the other side of a season that at times was a long slog, on the precipice of a series no one thinks we're going to win.

That's why I want to take this opportunity to go out on a limb here.

We're going to go back to Lake Placid. If it's not next week, it's going to be soon, and we're going to win it all there.

We're going back to the NCAA Tournament. Probably not this year. But eventually.

That third national championship? It's coming someday.

I don't have any proof. I can point to Union winning it last year as proof that we (that is, anyone) can win it all, but it doesn't mean we're going to.

So how do I know? Because I'm a fan. I believe. Do you? If the answer's no... why are you a fan? What are you hoping for?

I've been blessed to be a part of this family called RPI Hockey for basically my entire life. I was too young to remember the '85 championship, but I remember the '95 title well. We have high expectations on our team because we know where they've been and what they're capable of.

Never forget that the team places high expectations on itself, and that every player in that locker room has the same hopes and dreams that their fans do. They want it even more, trust me.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

What Makes a Good Season?

(This is Part 1 - Stay tuned for Part 2 tomorrow.)

Last week, we called the ECAC Tournament "a new season." And it is, in almost every way that matters. The only thing that really carries forward from the regular season are the built-in advantages in the first two rounds. Home ice for the middle four teams in the first round. A week off for the top four followed by home ice. After you get past that, it's eight pairings of two teams trying to be the first to two wins until the league gets whittled down to four.

The tournament has drama and allure to it. Following the four month grind of the ECAC season, there's a three week stretch where anything can, and frequently does, happen. Everything is earned when a miscue at the wrong time means you're hanging up the sweater until next year, or for the last time if you're a senior, no matter how good or bad your regular season was.

So what's more important, then? Having a good regular season, or having a good tournament? If one is good, does it matter if the other is awful?

It's a fair question to ask, especially when it comes to RPI - a team that for years has pretty much only ever had a good season OR a good tournament, never both, rarely neither.

Growing up, I remember a time when RPI could practically do no wrong in the ECAC Tournament. Even during an age where getting to play in the tournament was never a given - the league admitted only eight of 12 teams following the Hockey East split until 1990, then 10 of 12 until 2003 - the Engineers always managed to find a way.

* The '87 Engineers finished in a tie for 7th, and ended up reaching the third-place game.
* The '92 Engineers finished 10th, and took eventual champions St. Lawrence to overtime in the semifinals after knocking off Vermont and Harvard in succession on the road.
* From 1992 to 2002, RPI missed out on the semifinals only three times.
* The '95 Engineers finished in 6th, and still became ECAC champions.
* The '02 Engineers resurrected their season at the very end, reached a home ice spot, and made their way to Lake Placid, finishing third.

That was quite a stretch. More often than not, RPI was either one of the top teams during the regular season and they translated that to the tournament, or they made up for lost time in the tournament.

Perhaps now, as we sit 13 years removed from that epic stretch, we can see that nothing should ever be taken for granted.

The numbers are stark. No home playoff series wins since 2004, a drought of five series in a row (Quinnipiac, Brown, Colgate, Brown, and Dartmouth). No semifinal appearances since 2002, coming within a single victory of playing in a semifinal in 2004 (Dartmouth), 2009 (Cornell), and 2013 (Brown), but coming no closer.

It's a heartache lane that has even the most stalwart RPI backer just waiting for the next hit sometimes. The ECAC's final four took place in Albany, literally down the road, for eight seasons. We never went. It moved to Atlantic City for three years. We never went. Now it's back in Lake Placid again, a place we rarely missed out on the last time the tournament was held there every year.

Here's a tale of two seasons for you to ponder: 2009 and 2013.

There were a lot of warm fuzzies coming out of 2009. The Engineers won a playoff series on the road at Dartmouth, their first playoff win in five years. They beat Cornell in Game 1 of the quarterfinals. It was Allen York's coming out party. The future looked a lot brighter. People felt good about the team again.

But that was five games. The team was 3-2 in those five games. It was a near sight better than the absolutely dreadful season RPI fans had to endure ahead of that, finishing next to last and in serious danger until the very end of the season of finishing dead last in the ECAC, something the team had never (and has never) done since the mid-1960s. Did those five games seriously make that season better?

Contrast with 2013. A wonderful regular season. Won 11 of their last 12 games, really rolling. Highest finish in the ECAC standings in 20 years. And then, disaster in the tournament. 1-2 in three games, ended their season prematurely. Did those three games seriously make that season worse?

The answer to both questions - yes. Games mean more - far more - in the tournament. But they don't ever erase what happened in the regular season. We shouldn't ignore the bad seasons that precede good tournaments, and vice versa.

I recall hearing from Brown fans that 2010, the year they beat RPI and then top-seeded Yale to reach Atlantic City, was one of the best seasons they'd had in years, and that they were "climbing the ladder." They finished 11th in the ECAC that season. They'd finish 9th and 12th in the next two years. Now, bear in mind that Brown is used to finishing in the bottom four (9 times in the last 10 years), but still... how can you apply two weekends worth of success to wipe out four months of futility? Sure, at least your last impression left you smiling, but... how long did it take you to get there?

It's just a little something to remember when you look back on this season. It's very, very acceptable to be happy with what happened last weekend in Potsdam. Hope springs that a Cinderella run is in store for this coming weekend and beyond. Hopefully at the very least we see, as in 2009 and 2012, hope for the near future. But when the book is written on 2015, it's been a rough season. It's hard to get beyond that.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Quarterfinal Breakdown

ECAC fans are in for a real treat this coming weekend. While the quarterfinal round typically produces some interesting matchups, this year has produced four very intriguing combinations, none of which should be completely open and shut cases (although there are some distinct favorites, as always).

Gary put together the matrix for the semifinals in Lake Placid. The highest seed and the lowest seed play each other in the early game on Friday, March 20 (the first day of spring), the middle two seeds play the nightcap - the concept being that the highest seed would have a little more rest before the title game on Saturday. In case you missed it last year, there's no more consolation game. Losers on Friday go home.


The quarterfinal round goes to chalk more frequently than the first round does - it has happened five times out of the 12 seasons under the current playoff structure, including twice in the last three seasons. Only one first-round bye team has failed to advance to the semifinals in that span (yup, yup). The reasoning is simple - they're the cream of the crop, and they have the added benefit of getting a week off to heal injuries.

Road teams in the quarterfinals have won just 10 of 48 series to date (20.8%). 20 home teams have swept (41.7%). Only 4 road teams have swept (8.3%).

#10 Union (18-16-2; 8-13-1 ECAC) at #1 Quinnipiac (21-9-4; 16-3-3 ECAC)
KRACH: Quinnipiac 12th (226.3); Union 32nd (110.4).
Since February 1: Quinnipiac 5-1-2; Union 5-5-0.
Season series: 4-0 Quinnipiac.
November 14 (Schenectady) - Quinnipiac 4, Union 3
January 10 (Hamden) - Quinnipiac 4, Union 3
Union on the road: 10-7-1; 5-6-0 ECAC
Quinnipiac at home: 11-4-3; 8-1-2 ECAC

This may well be one of the most interesting 1 vs. 10 matchups you will ever see, and it's rooted almost entirely in the fact that Union won the national championship last year and just took Cornell behind the woodshed. The Jekyll and Hyde act that the Dutchmen have been putting on pretty much all season turned again over the last two weekends as they spiked a five-game losing streak by turning it into a four-game winning streak, and doing it against some of the same teams against which they'd just lost. They're starting to look more like the team that went on a long run to national glory last year - just after looking a lot like a team that was finishing 10th in the ECAC.

Quinnipiac, on the other hand, has been remarkably consistent all year long. They saw a nine-game unbeaten streak snapped on the last day of the regular season (in a game that really only had national tournament implications), they won 14 of 18 games in a row from the beginning of November through mid-January. Their only major hiccup since the New Year was in being swept in a home-and-home weekend against Merrimack - their only overly questionable loss in league play was to Clarkson, and that was in Potsdam.

A top defense and a top-end offense has made the Bobcats tough to beat all season long. When they're playing well, Union can produce similar results. That's the kind of play Union needs to get if they're going to get a crack at defending their ECAC title in Lake Placid. If they are uneven at all, Quinnipiac is a team that can take advantage of that in a hurry. Spot mistakes kill against the Bobcats, so it's incumbent upon the Dutchmen not only to play error free, but to have that same kind of killer instinct on offense that saw them outscore Cornell 11-2 last weekend - not the kind that they displayed ahead of the final weekend of the regular season, when they were being outscored 14-2 in the five games prior.

Adding it all up, Union should be considered the underdogs this weekend, but not by nearly as much as you'd expect in a 1/10 matchup. Quinnipiac is in a position where they can lock up a berth in the NCAA Tournament by advancing to Lake Placid, so they've got the added motivation in that corner. But as far back as Union finished in the standings, it's never wise to count out the defending champions, especially since they've won this tournament three times in a row. Nobody on this team even knows how to lose in the ECAC Tournament - the Dutchmen seniors are 14-0 in tournament play across their collegiate careers, an impressive tally that any team, even one as strong as Quinnipiac this season, would be hard-pressed to overcome. That's what makes this series very, very intriguing from top to bottom.

#9 RPI (12-24-3; 8-12-2 ECAC) at #2 St. Lawrence (18-13-3; 14-7-1 ECAC)
KRACH: St. Lawrence 26th (139.9); RPI 42nd (56.6).
Since February 1: RPI 3-6-2; St. Lawrence 4-3-1.
Season series: Tied, 2-2.
February 6 (Canton) -  St. Lawrence 3, RPI 1
February 28 (Troy) - RPI 4, St. Lawrence 3
RPI on the road: 6-13-2; 2-8-1 ECAC
St. Lawrence at home: 9-5-1; 8-3-0 ECAC

By most national metrics (national polls, KRACH, PairWise), this is by far the weakest matchup of the four quarterfinal series. It matches the lowest ranked Top 4 team in KRACH and the PairWise against the lowest ranked quarterfinal road team in both of those ratings. For RPI, they have to be somewhat thankful that they ended up with St. Lawrence rather than any of the other options. For St. Lawrence, the feeling is definitely mutual.

This should be a matchup in which St. Lawrence has the advantage - as long as the Saints who were unbeaten in 11 of 13 ECAC contests after the New Year heading into the final weekend of the regular season shows up and not the Saints who appeared to sleepwalk through that final weekend in the Capital District, finishing their season by dropping two games to the travel pairing with the fewest combined points on the year.

Kyle Hayton was the key behind one of the stingiest defenses in the entire country, to say nothing of the ECAC, but he looked beatable down the stretch, giving up three goals in each of his last three contests, and allowing four against the Engineers, who looked confident shooting on him. For their part, the Engineers are again getting good goaltending from Jason Kasdorf, who basically did what Hayton did during his own freshman season in backstopping an unheralded team to a solidly outstanding year.

Kasdorf playing as well or better than he did against Clarkson is the only thing that's going to give RPI a shot in this series, considering St. Lawrence's well balanced attack. The Saints are probably going to score some goals - they were shut out only once all season - but limiting that total will be crucial for the Engineers. If they don't get goaltending, they're not going to have a ghost of a chance in this series. RPI looks to have been doing a better job of finishing on scoring opportunities over the last three weeks, but it's not going to matter unless they stay "in" games. They can't win a track meet.

One advantage that RPI may have coming into this one: its juniors and seniors know how it feels to be where St. Lawrence is. Two years ago, it was RPI shocking the conference, winning games left and right down the stretch, finishing second, and having an upstart bottom end team coming into town. They know that upstart team can win. They saw it happen to them. They've played SLU tough twice this year, and with everything on the line once more, they'll need to do it again this weekend to reach Lake Placid.

#6 Harvard (17-11-3; 11-8-3 ECAC) at #3 Yale (17-7-5; 12-6-4 ECAC)
KRACH: Yale 16th (195.6); Harvard 20th (166.6).
Since February 1: Harvard 5-6-1; Yale 5-1-2.
Season series: 6-0 Yale.
November 15 (Boston) - Yale 2, Harvard 1
January 10 (New York) - Yale 4, Harvard 1
February 6 (New Haven) - Yale 3, Harvard 0
Harvard on the road: 9-4-1; 6-4-0 ECAC
Yale at home: 7-3-3; 5-3-3 ECAC

This is a series which has a lot of potential to be the most exciting of the entire weekend. It's also got the potential to be much ado about nothing if current trends in this historic rivalry continue.

Yale-Harvard has been an intense athletic rivalry dating back to the mid-19th Century, but only recently has it begun to heat up on the ice. While Harvard continues to struggle to fill their home games, the nature of the historic aspect of the rivalry helped bring nearly 12,000 people to watch the two schools compete at Madison Square Garden this year. It's likely that we'll see some more non-conference games like that one in the future as the programs look to play off that historic element.

These past three seasons, however, Yale has certainly had Harvard's number. That isn't overly surprising in the past two seasons, both of which were relatively dreadful for the Crimson, but this year the Bulldogs have taken down Harvard three times, adding up to a 9-0-1 record for Yale against the Crimson across the past three seasons. That's even more dominating than the lopsided Union/RPI series before last season.

Ignoring that, however, the matchup pairs two teams that, in all honesty, have been two of the very best teams in the entire ECAC when they're playing well. Both are nationally ranked. Both are firmly in the bubble for the NCAA Tournament - which makes the stakes incredibly high for both teams in this series. Toss in the rivalry aspect and you've got a quarterfinal series that is certainly going to be worth the price of admission.

As their February record suggests, Yale has been firing on all four down the stretch, and while Harvard stumbled late, they bounced back well last weekend in fairly quickly disabusing the idea that Brown had a shot against them. Harvard's offense looked good and has for the duration of the season been the best in the league, but it'll have to be right on top of its game against Yale, who boasts the best defense in the nation.

Yale's mastery of their nemesis bodes well for them this coming weekend, but comparing these two teams this season when they were playing at their best, one would have to give Harvard at least a chance in this one - then again, Yale beat Harvard when the Crimson were at their best, and they did it twice: after the Bulldogs' victory in Manhattan, they accounted for the only two losses Harvard had suffered to that point. Factoring all of that in, it's hard not to give the edge to Yale, but it's likely to be fun to watch no matter what.

#5 Dartmouth (17-10-4; 12-8-2 ECAC) at #4 Colgate (19-11-4; 11-7-4 ECAC)
KRACH: Colgate 19th (168.8); Dartmouth 24th (157.1).
Since February 1: Dartmouth 8-2-0; Colgate 5-2-1.
Season series: 3-1 Colgate.
January 23 (Hamilton) - Dartmouth 2, Colgate 2
February 14 (Hanover) - Colgate 3, Dartmouth 0
Dartmouth on the road: 6-3-3; 6-3-2 ECAC
Colgate at home: 8-5-2; 5-4-2 ECAC

Nothing separated the Raiders and the Big Green from one another with the exception of Colgate's road victory over Dartmouth on Valentine's Day, the sole reason why this matchup takes place in Central New York rather than on the banks of the Connecticut River in New Hampshire. These two teams bounced back well in the month of February, resurrecting what had been middling ECAC campaigns and, in league with Harvard's dismal showing for most of the month, raced each other up the league standings in hot pursuit of that last bye.

More than any other pairing, this one perhaps is the best combination of two teams who have both been playing good hockey down the stretch consistently - it reminds me a great deal of the Dartmouth/RPI 4/5 pairing from 2004, which turned into a dogfight of a series, a chess match between two talented teams that both deserved to win (Dartmouth took an absolute war of a Game 3, 1-0). We would be fortunate to see something similar in Hamilton this weekend, and it's no stretch of the imagination to think that we could.

Colgate is definitely on the NCAA bubble and needs wins in order to have a shot at an at-large bid. Dartmouth is realistically outside the bubble and probably needs to win the ECAC title to advance to their first national tournament appearance in 35 years. Like the Yale-Harvard pairing, that adds to the win-or-else mentality that always exists in a playoff series.

The Raiders gave up just six goals in their last five outings, which included their shutout of Dartmouth in Hanover, only the second time the Big Green were shut out all year. That sentence betrays the strengths of these teams this year - Colgate's defense and Dartmouth's offense. With the lone exception being that home loss to the Raiders, the Big Green pumped in at least three goals in 11 of 12 games before scoring only two in their Game 2 win over a stingy Princeton that wasn't willing to go quietly on Saturday.

It's difficult to pick a true favorite in this one - Colgate's home ice advantage doesn't seem like enough to force things to lean in their direction. The key battle is going to be the Colgate offense, which underperformed to some extent this season due to injuries, and the Dartmouth defense, which didn't light the world on fire but was strong enough to get the job done most nights. More than the reverse, whichever of these units can gain the edge on the other is going to go a long way towards determining which of two very promising teams gets the chance to extend their season and which sees things grind to a sudden - and unexpected - halt.