Thursday, February 25, 2010

ECAC Playoffs: The Elite Eight

It's playoff time in the women's ECAC. With Dartmouth's long fall from grace from league champions to 9th place, a new champion will be crowned. Of the eight teams vying for the ECAC title, only Harvard (2004-06, 2008) has ever won this tournament.

Dartmouth's failure to make the playoffs and the pack of seven different potential first time champions highlights the growing parity within the ECAC. The traditional top teams are no longer guaranteed their lofty heights - consider not only Dartmouth, but Brown (who has won 3 ECAC titles, played in the championship game as recently as 2006, and played in the national championship game in 2002) and their season series loss to lowly Union. Consider Cornell, who won a regular season championship while putting together their first winning season in over a decade.

With parity comes increased competition. RPI may have been a harbinger last season when they went on the road and took out Princeton before shocking Harvard on their own ice to reach the ECAC title game. This year, the way the brackets have shaken out, it seems as though anything is possible in a wide open race for the tiara and the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament that comes with it.

#8 Colgate at #1 Cornell
(Cornell won season series, 3-3 in Hamilton on 1/22, 6-0 in Ithaca on 1/23)

The Big Red (15-8-6, 14-2-6 ECAC) may have actually done themselves a disservice in winning the regular season and the #1 seed. While it puts them in as the favorites to become the new queens of the ECAC, it gives them a less than favorable matchup in terms of national placement - and the top seed in the tournament may well require an ECAC title in order to advance to the NCAAs.

Cornell sits in 11th in the Pairwise Rankings (ironically, tied with Hockey East's regular season champions, Providence, who are in the same pickle) and if the season was over today, they'd be on the outside looking in without the automatic bid that comes with winning the ECAC tournament. The problem is their lackluster record against other teams under consideration (TUCs), having put together a record of just 5-8-4 against Mercyhurst, Harvard, RPI, Clarkson, SLU, Quinnipiac, Niagara, Syracuse, and Providence.

Unfortunately, Cornell's games against Colgate (12-18-4, 8-10-4 ECAC) are not going to help them in this respect, as Colgate is not a TUC. That will give the Big Red a maximum of one more TUC win (in a potential semifinal matchup with anyone but Princeton) without earning the auto bid anyway. So in essence, they must win the ECAC title to play in the NCAA tournament. If they'd taken the #2 seed in the tournament, however, they would have been paired with St. Lawrence, a TUC, and a series win there could have given them hope for an at-large bid.

In terms of competition, this one, as would normally be expected in a top seed vs. bottom seed matchup, is probably the least compelling. Colgate had to fight tooth and nail just to make it into the tournament, just squeezing in on the last day. The Big Red lost only once at home to ECAC competition this season, and the Raiders would have to double that number to advance. It's not outside the realm of possibility that Colgate could steal a win, but Cornell is too strong of a team and in too desperate a situation for their season to end here.

Prediction: Cornell in two

#7 St. Lawrence at #2 Clarkson
(Season series split, 4-1 Clarkson in Potsdam on 10/27, 4-2 SLU in Canton on 2/2)

The North Country battle has always been fierce on the men's side, and it has taken a newly fierce turn on the women's side as well. St. Lawrence is one of the traditional powers of the ECAC, but this season their dominance on New York's Rooftop has been dislodged by a surging Clarkson team that has put together its finest season yet. But the Saints are no slouch, and that's part of what makes this an exciting series.

The Golden Knights (20-9-5, 14-5-3 ECAC) were far and away the class of the league for much of the season, but they stumbled down the stretch and could be in for a disappointing end to a very promising year if they can't find a way to turn things around this weekend. Clarkson managed only one win in seven games (1-4-2) to date in the month of February - at home against last place Union. No team wants to go into the playoffs like that.

The Saints (15-12-7, 11-8-3 ECAC) really weren't much better in their last seven, going 4-3 including a three-game slide that dropped them out of the hunt for home ice, but one of those 4 wins was a win over Clarkson, and SLU also took wins over RPI and Dartmouth, two teams the Knights couldn't put away.

Clarkson is presently in 6th place in the Pairwise, which would put them into the tournament (barely) if the season ended today. A series win over St. Lawrence (who, as we mentioned before, is a TUC) would probably punch the Knights' ticket for the national tournament, but completing the late season swoon with a loss to their arch-rivals would put their chances in serious jeopardy. The Saints, meanwhile, are 15th in the Pairwise and won't make the tournament without the ECAC championship.

This may be the first 2/7 matchup in recent memory in which a victory by the #7 team wouldn't be considered a massive upset. Still, look for Clarkson to right the ship enough at home to advance in a hard fought battle.

Prediction: Clarkson in three

#6 Princeton at #3 Harvard
(Princeton won season series, 2-1 in Boston on 11/14, 3-3 in Princeton on 1/8)

If not for the Engineers, the Crimson (18-6-5, 13-6-3 ECAC) would be riding an unbeaten streak that would reach back all the way to mid-January. Not counting the two losses to RPI, Harvard is 10-0-2 since January 15, and have only 3 losses total since dropping a home game to Princeton in the middle of November (the other one being a 1-0 loss at Quinnipiac). With their unbeaten non-conference record, including an impressive 3-point weekend against Minnesota, the Crimson are essentially the only lock in the league for the NCAA tournament without the autobid, even if they manage to lose this series against the Tigers.

Contrary to Cornell's lamentable draw against a team that isn't a TUC, Harvard probably doesn't mind facing a non-TUC in Princeton (although they would become one with a win). In the sometimes strange logic of the Pairwise, losing to non-TUCs is usually better than losing to TUCs, especially if you're protecting a solid record against TUCs as Harvard is.

Princeton (13-12-4, 11-7-4 ECAC) is tougher to draw a bead on. Two weekends ago, they swept Clarkson and St. Lawrence, a significant achievement. Last weekend, they managed to lose to then-last place Brown at home. The Tigers have been all over the map this season, one of four teams to win the season series against Harvard (along with Cornell, Clarkson, and RPI), they also managed to merely split the season series with two teams which did not make the playoffs (Dartmouth and Brown).

After being upset at home by RPI in last year's playoffs, Princeton will certainly be looking for a little bit of redemption. There's a little bit of hope in the fact that the Tigers were able to take 3 points from Harvard this season, but there's a big difference between a regular season game and a playoff series. Harvard remains one of the best teams in the country, and they should be able to take care of business at home.

Prediction: Harvard in two

#5 RPI at #4 Quinnipiac
(Season series split, 6-1 QU in Hamden on 10/31, 1-0 RPI in Troy on 1/29)

After six seasons with fewer than 10 wins in the program's first eight campaigns, Rick Seeley's magic tough has lifted Quinnipiac to its first ever winning season and within striking distance of the NCAA Tournament.

Seeley, who previously started now successful programs at D-III Manhattanville and at Clarkson, came to Hamden last season, when the Bobcats (18-8-8, 11-4-7 ECAC) suffered through one of their toughest seasons to date, winning only 3 games all season. This year, Quinnipiac has proven tough to beat, especially at home where they boast a 10-2-4 record, including an unbeaten 7-0-4 in ECAC play.

The Bobcats' meteoric rise is reflected in the Pairwise Rankings, where they sit in 9th place, just on the outside of the bubble. While Quinnipiac still probably will need to win the ECAC title in order to play in the NCAA Tournament, they aren't nearly in the bind that Cornell is in, as they sit very close to some of their nearest competitors like UConn and Northeastern. A sweep and a loss in the championship game could be enough to sneak the Bobcats into the tournament, but it wouldn't necessarily be a sure thing.

RPI, meanwhile, is a TUC, but is at the bottom of the Pairwise and must win the ECAC title in order to play in the national tournament. Like Princeton, the Engineers (14-13-6, 11-7-4 ECAC) have been all over the map this season, completing the only full season sweep of Harvard in the league and taking 3 points from Clarkson, but giving up 2 points to Yale and 1 to Brown. They were in the driver's seat for home ice heading into the final weekend, but collapsed after a hard-fought 2-1 loss to Cornell and then a 3-2 loss to a desperate Colgate team that they'd thoroughly trounced earlier in the season, 10-4.

The Engineers have shown that they have the ability to run with anyone in the league this season, but so have the Bobcats, who managed to take points from every single team in the ECAC this season, something only Cornell and Clarkson can also claim. Expect a hard fought battle.

Prediction: Quinnipiac in three

So there you have it. Yes, we did just predict a home sweep after announcing the narrowing of the parity gap, but we'd fail to be shocked by pretty much any result short of Colgate taking down Cornell. If there's one thing the last month or so of the ECAC schedule has taught us, it's that nothing is truly predictable. We're expecting all out wars in Potsdam and Hamden especially this weekend.

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