Thursday, February 24, 2011

Women's Hockey - 2011 Playoff Preview

While the men gear up for the final weekend of the regular season, the women’s teams of the ECAC are set for the quarterfinals of the ECAC playoffs. With Colgate, Yale, Brown, and Union finishing in the bottom four and missing the playoffs, the seeds were established for this weekend’s matchups:

No. 8 RPI at No. 1 Cornell
No. 7 St. Lawrence at No. 2 Harvard
No. 6 Clarkson at No. 3 Dartmouth
No. 5 Quinnipiac at No. 4 Princeton

Let’s take a look at the other three series before we get to RPI’s challenging trip to Ithaca.

No. 5 Quinnipiac at No. 4 Princeton

Head-to-head: Tied 1-1 (5-2 QU in Hamden, 3-0 Princeton in Princeton)

Quinnipiac’s Record: 12-9-1 (20-11-3 overall) (5-3-2 last 10)
Princeton’s Record: 13-8-1 (16-12-1 overall) (8-2 last 10)

Princeton has been an interesting case this season. In their first 14 games, they went 3-10-1, before finding their game in early December and finishing the season on a 13-2 tear. Their two losses in the final 15 came to Clarkson (3-2) and Dartmouth (7-0!). Quinnipiac has been much more hot-and-cold, managing to win five and four in a row only one time each this season – and each came with the benefit of a gimme game against Sacred Heart.

Perhaps most perplexing is Quinnipiac’s final regular season weekend. Entering the weekend in fourth place, the Bobcats proceeded to lose to 10th place Yale, tie 11th place Brown, and promptly surrender home ice to Princeton who handily defeated both teams.

While Princeton has had playoff woes, losing in the quarterfinals for four straight years, the combination of a Tiger squad that’s found its stride, a streaky Bobcat group, and home ice should tilt this series in Princeton’s favor, although we wouldn’t be surprised if the Bobcats take it to three games with Victoria Vigilanti in net. Vigilanti has posted an impressive 1.68 GAA with a .933 save percentage and 8 shutouts. Princeton’s Rachel Weber nearly matches Vigilanti’s numbers with a 1.79 and .930, however.

No. 6 Clarkson at No. 3 Dartmouth

Head-to-head: Tied 1-1 (3-2 OT Clarkson in Hanover, 3-1 Dartmouth in Potsdam)

Clarkson’s Record: 13-15-6 (10-8-4 ECAC) (5-2-3 last 10)
Dartmouth’s Record: 19-9-0 (15-7-0 ECAC) (9-1 last 10)

Dartmouth has the benefit of entering the playoffs having won 10 of 11 since being swept in the North Country in the middle of January. The Big Green’s lone loss in that span came in a shutout by Quinnipiac where the Bobcats scored one goal shortly after a 5-on-3, one goal on a 5-on-3, and an empty netter en route to a 4-0 final tally. Clarkson, like Quinnipiac, has been inconsistent during the season. The Golden Knights have had an off season just a year after taking Cornell to overtime in the ECAC championship game.

Ending the season in the Top 10 of the USCHO poll, Dartmouth carries all the momentum into the playoffs and has enjoyed large crowds at home. While the series isn’t lopsided by any means, it’s Dartmouth’s to lose.

No. 7 St. Lawrence at No. 2 Harvard

Head-to-head: Harvard 2-0 (2-1 in Boston, 3-2 in Canton)

SLU’s Record: 16-16-2 (11-11-0 ECAC) (5-5 last 10)
Harvard’s Record: 15-10-4 (14-5-3 ECAC) (5-3-2 last 10)

St. Lawrence has been a thoroughly average team this season. A .500 record overall, a .500 record in league, .500 in their last 10, and a +4 goal differential across 34 games. Now two seasons removed from a string of NCAA tournament appearances, the Saints are stuck in a bit of a rut, and that’s not a great position to be in when facing a Harvard squad that had your number in two games during the regular season. While the games may have been decided by a single goal each, Harvard outworked and significantly outshot SLU in each, and that type of game is draining on a team in a best-of-three series.

While Harvard has hit some road bumps late in the year, going 3-3-2 in their final 8 games, they should be favored to win this series without too much trouble. If the Saints want to stand a chance of moving on, their most likely hope is behind solid play from goaltender Maxie Weisz, who has been more impressive than Harvard’s Laura Bellamy over the course of the regular season. It was Weisz who posted 31 saves against RPI in the final game of the season, holding the Saints in a game where they were outworked.

No. 8 RPI at No. 1 Cornell

Head-to-head: Cornell 2-0 (6-1 in Troy, 6-0 in Ithaca)

RPI’s Record: 10-16-7 (8-12-2 ECAC) (1-8-1 last 10)
Cornell’s Record: 26-2-1 (20-1-1 ECAC) (8-1-1 last 10)

We’re not going to sugar coat this one. Cornell has run roughshod over the ECAC this season, much like the Harvard squad of three years ago which went undefeated in ECAC play. In their two head-to-head games, the Engineers were outshot by the Big Red 77-25 and outscored 12-1. Cornell is a relative lock for the Frozen Four, and RPI has done little this season to show they pose any threat to the #2 ranked team in the nation.

Limping its way into the playoffs, RPI has dealt with a short bench in many of its games, dressing just three lines and two defensive pairings at times. With a roster full of some of the top players in the country, Cornell has outworked one team after the next and wore them down for win after win. RPI doesn’t have the depth to roll a full lineup against the Big Red, and that’s going to hurt over the course of a weekend.

Last year, RPI battled back from a 5-1 hole in the ECAC semifinal to draw within one against a Cornell squad that went on to win the ECAC title. That near-comeback was sparked by Whitney Naslund and Laura Gersten, both of whom graduated. And perhaps more importantly, it came in a single elimination game. Drawn out over a best-of-three, the hopes of such a disparate matchup resulting in an upset becomes that much smaller.

However – as former RPI captain Laura Gersten said on the air for WRPI last weekend – “There’s nothing better than an upset.”

Friday’s game (7pm) will not be carried by WRPI as it conflicts with the men’s game against Princeton. However Saturday (4pm) and Sunday (4pm if necessary) will be carried live from Ithaca by WRPI. Live video will be available for purchase from Cornell, along with live stats and live tweets from Without a Peer at http://www.twitter.com/without_a_peer.

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