Thursday, March 4, 2010

ECAC Playoffs: The First Round

It's the first round of the ECAC playoffs already. I know, it seems like it was just yesterday we were debating how good Prince Edward Island was and what that game really told us about the Engineers.

Four teams will see their seasons end this weekend. This is crunch time. Win or go home.

#12 Clarkson at #5 St. Lawrence
(St. Lawrence won season series, 3-3 in Canton on 12/4, 4-3 in Potsdam on 12/5)

The Golden Knights (8-22-4, 4-15-3 ECAC) must have been ecstatic when they found out that their first round matchup would take them just 10 miles down the road. Despite dropping the league season series, the Knights did earn a home non-conference win over the Saints (15-13-7, 9-8-5 ECAC), and as is the case with many intense rivalries, quite often you can throw the records out the window, another aspect we're sure Clarkson was looking forward to. In fact, renowned SLU radio man and sports information director Wally Johnson was frank when the Saints were in Troy in early February - despite the Knights' struggles, Clarkson was the last team he wanted to see in the playoffs.

There's reason to think Clarkson could pull off the upset. Since the extreme low point of their season - an 11-2 waxing by Union that was their 7th consecutive loss, the Knights have been .500 ever since, including a home sweep of Princeton and Quinnipiac and an overtime loss to eventual regular season champions Yale.

Meanwhile, St. Lawrence, at the same time, struggled down the stretch. In the last month, the Saints went 1-4-3, with the one win coming last Saturday that ultimately earned them the 5th seed.

Clarkson is the trendy pick here - they're finally healthy (remember, they had two forwards playing defense when they played in Troy) and they're getting some offense. Since their 2-1 loss to RPI, the Knights have scored at least 3 goals in 4 of their last 6 after a stretch of 1 in 8. Three of those games featured 4 goals by Clarkson, which they hadn't previously done since November.

Meanwhile, Kain Tisi, ever since we touted him as a favorite for the Dryden Award, has become shaky. The Saints gave up at least 3 goals in 6 of their last 8 games, leading to some additional playing time for Alex Petizian. In their one win, the Saints were a goal away from blowing a 4-0 lead.

Since this is the ECAC...

Prediction: St. Lawrence in three

#11 Brown at #6 RPI
(Season series split, 3-1 RPI in Troy on 11/7, 4-3 Brown in OT in Providence on 1/29)

We've already broken down the Bears (8-17-4, 6-12-4 ECAC) - low on defense, some ability to score, love to trap. The defense was especially bad in February, giving up at least 5 goals in six of their eight February tilts, including 15 goals in two games last weekend

The Engineers (17-15-4, 10-9-3 ECAC), meanwhile, do still have the second best defense in the league despite a number of rough defensive showings in the home stretch, but they were at their best against Cornell last Saturday, a team which plays a similar style of hockey as Brown.

The intangible element here? The Engineers know all too well how easily an #11 seed can knock off a #6 seed, they did it themselves last season in a series in which they were given no shot whatsoever. Brown knows it too - they were given no chance as the #12 seed last season, and rode Mike Clemente to a pair of shutouts against Harvard.

They pretty much cancel each other out, then. We're not just being homers here - all signs point to the Engineers this weekend. If they don't remember the magnitude of what they accomplished last season, though, if they lose focus, the rebound season could end with reverse of last year.

Prediction: RPI in two

#10 Dartmouth at #7 Quinnipiac
(Season series split, 4-2 QU in Hamden on 11/14, 4-3 Dartmouth in Hanover on 1/29)

Like Clarkson, the Big Green (9-17-3, 7-12-3 ECAC) spent much of the season at the bottom of the ECAC table and very clearly started playing their best hockey of the season at the end. Their only losses in February were to Yale and Union, two bye teams, and included wins over RPI, Cornell, and St. Lawrence, all teams that had been expected to easily take 2 points from Dartmouth. The Big Green enter the playoffs as the hottest team in the league, riding a 5-game unbeaten streak.

The Bobcats (17-15-2, 11-11-0 ECAC) might have been the most wildly erratic team in the history of college hockey. They started off the season 12-1-0, and then finished 5-14-2. Fortunately, four of those five wins that have come after the month of November have come in the last seven games, and included a win in the final game of the regular season over first place Yale.

Perhaps even more so than the Clarkson-St. Lawrence matchup, this may be the most interesting first round matchup. We came into the season expecting that Quinnipiac might have question marks on defense, and although they seemed to have solid defense early in the season, it has been hard to come by even during their recent successes. During their hot streak, the Big Green haven't had much defense either - but they've had an awful lot of offense. They've been involved in shootouts, and Quinnipiac has the capacity to get into those easily as well.

This will come down to whichever team can bury their chances better. We like Quinnipiac's big scorers like Brandon Wong and Eric Lampe, at home, in a series like this to be the difference makers.

Prediction: Quinnipiac in three

#9 Harvard at #8 Princeton
(Princeton won season series, 3-3 in Princeton on 11/14, 2-1 in Boston on 1/29)

The Tigers (12-14-3, 8-12-2 ECAC) are dangerous right now. Widely expected to be off this week with the bye, Princeton struggled mightily early but rebounded enough late to slide into the final home ice berth. The Tiger offense quietly started exploding when the team returned from January exams and while senior goaltender Zane Kalemba has never quite put himself where he was last season when he was the ECAC Player of the Year, the offense, most nights, has been enough to make up for it, and he's still good enough to keep his team in most shootouts.

Harvard (7-19-3, 7-12-3 ECAC) underperformed all season as well, but unlike Princeton they are crashing at the wrong time. After a 3-point weekend in the Capital District in January made the Crimson unbeaten in 4 straight, some pundits pointed to Harvard as finally living up to their preseason hype as a potential bye team. They promptly finished 2-9-0 with atrocious defense and not enough offense to make up for it. The Crimson ultimately needed only a handful of points down the stretch to secure home ice, but lost their last four games by a combined score of 13-6 to end up on the road.

The 8/9 matchup is often one of the most closely matched series of the first round, but this year it's a match of two teams moving in opposite directions. Princeton is still in an "all hands on deck" mode thanks to a number of injuries that have plagued them all season, but they're finally sending out a full complement of skaters and they are better off for it. Harvard, meanwhile, has shown an inability to effectively counter a strong offense, and if Princeton's stays constant with its recent results, this series won't be close.

Prediction: Princeton in two

This is still the ECAC, and anything is possible. There were plenty of upsets last season - but never underestimate the advantage that home ice can bring. All eyes will be on tight matchups in Canton and Hamden, but don't count out the possibility for drama in Troy and Princeton.

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