Wednesday, February 29, 2012

ECAC First Round Capsules

It's crunch time again as the ECAC Playoffs get underway on Friday. The first round beckons, and it has been the land of upsets in recent years - three road teams won their first round series last year, and all three at least pushed their quarterfinal round to three games. In each of the last three seasons, at least two of the road teams have managed to advance to the quarterfinals, and in both of the last two playoff seasons, one of them advanced to the semifinals - so nothing can really be taken for granted this weekend.

The action's all pretty centralized - two series in southern Connecticut, two series in the North Country. In an interesting twist, three of the series feature matchups which took place in the final weekend of the season. Perhaps less than coincidentally, the higher ranked team won all three games.

Without further ado, the capsules:

#12 Brown at #5 Quinnipiac
* Bobcats won season series 3-1: tied 2-2 in Providence on Jan. 7; won 4-1 in Hamden on Feb. 24
* Last playoff meeting: 2011 First Round: Quinnipiac 2, Brown 0 (Best-of-three, Hamden, CT)
* BU in February: 0-6-2
* QU in February: 4-3-1

This is the lone rematch from last year's first round, which was the only matchup to end with the home team advancing. The Bobcats squashed the Bears with back-to-back 4-0 shutouts, torching Mike Clemente for 7 goals on 36 shots.

Taking a look at this year's series, it's hard to imagine that much is going to change, especially given the Bears' putrid record of late, having gone winless in 10 straight games to finish the season - they haven't won since completing the improbable season sweep of Union on Jan. 21, a win that had them back to .500 at 8-8-3. Since then, they are 0-8-2. They tied Princeton 2-2 on the last day of the regular season, that notably snapped a nine-game streak of giving up at least three goals per game, which underscores Brown's problems.

Quinnipiac, meanwhile, produced a strong finish and nearly nabbed themselves the first round bye for the first time since joining the league in 2005-06. They instead had to settle for a 4th-place tie and the #5 seed for the second time (which they also did in 2007, the only other ECAC team never to earn the bye, RPI, has also done that twice). The Bobcats haven't had a problem scoring goals, picking up at least two per game in 12 straight contests.

The Bobcats put 48 pucks on net against the Bears this past Friday, and put the game away with a 3-for-4 showing on the power play in the 3rd period (including a pair of 5-on-3 goals after Brendan Whittet showed Chip McDonald who was number one). They outshine Brown in every facet of the game, and unless the Bears can stay out of the box and get some good bounces, this could be a short weekend down I-95. Quinnipiac does look to have a very favorable path to Atlantic City, given that Colgate (who backed into the bye with four straight losses) would beckon next.

#11 Princeton at #6 Yale
* Bulldogs swept season series: won 6-2 in New Haven on Jan. 7; won 5-2 in Princeton on Feb. 24; teams tied 2-2 in a non-conference game in Hanover, NH on Oct. 28
* Last playoff meeting: 2008 Quarterfinals: Princeton 2, Yale 1 (Best-of-three, Princeton, NJ)
* PU in February: 1-4-2
* YU in February: 4-3-1

The former travel partners and eternal Ivy League rivals have been in some lopsided affairs recently and they've all been in Yale's favor. The Tigers haven't picked up a victory over the Bulldogs since February 21, 2009, and they haven't won in New Haven since January 11, 2008 - and bear in mind that Princeton has had at least a couple of decent seasons since then. Since their last win, Princeton has been outscored 34-17 in games against Yale.

Anyone who saw Princeton's demolition of RPI on Senior Night in Troy two weeks ago could be excused for thinking that the Tigers were an OK, if not overly stellar team, but the truth is that was by far their best game since returning from January exams. After raising eyebrows with a 3-point home weekend against Colgate and Cornell, Princeton has done practically nothing since.

On the home bench, Yale was in the middle of an awful season after dropping their fourth straight game on January 27th, but they have done rather well since, clawing back into things with five wins in their last nine games, riding into the playoffs on a four-game unbeaten streak. In each of their last five wins, the Bulldogs have scored at least five goals per game, which is very impressive. When their defense isn't up to snuff, however, things have been difficult. That's a big change from the early part of the year, when the Yale defense was airtight and the offense sometimes struggled.

The Tigers are going to have to come loaded for bear if they are to shake off their recent struggles against Yale. They came close last Friday, answering the bell twice to score tying goals in the first and second periods and even weathering a 23-shot barrage in the second period to reach the final 20 down just a goal. If the Bulldogs don't come out strong, especially on defense, a concerted effort by Princeton could put them in this series, but they are still definite underdogs.

#10 RPI at #7 Clarkson
* Golden Knights swept season series: won 4-1 in Potsdam on Nov. 4; won 3-2 in Troy on Jan. 28)
* Last playoff meeting: 2002 Consolation Game: RPI 4, Clarkson 3 (Lake Placid, NY)
* RPI in February: 3-3-2
* CU in Feburary: 3-4-1

This is an interesting matchup of teams whose fans are certainly tired, at this point, of first round exits in the playoffs. RPI has famously dropped two straight first round matchups at home and has just one playoff series win since 2004 (at Dartmouth in 2009), but Clarkson has lost four consecutive playoff series (two of which were at home, another of which was down the road at St. Lawrence) since winning the ECAC title in 2007. Something will have to give this weekend in Potsdam, where the long-time rivals meet for only the second time in a playoff series, and the first time ever in a best-of-three.

These teams couldn't have possibly finished the season any differently. The Engineers picked up the only road weekend sweep at Colgate and Cornell in the league this season to pull themselves up to the #10 seed, while Clarkson was looking at a weekend off and fell twice at Dartmouth and Harvard. They did pick up three wins in February, but all three were against teams in freefall - Brown, Princeton, and Colgate (winless in four straight).

That said, the Engineers have been hard-pressed to put together solid back-to-back weekends all year. They came closest in mid-January, sweeping Brown and Yale on the road and then beating St. Lawrence at home, but Clarkson won a hard-fought game on the second Saturday to force a home split and start RPI on 4-game winless streak.

Of all the road teams in the first round, RPI is arguably playing the best hockey overall right now. The question really is which RPI team will show up. If it's the one that swept the toughest road weekend in the league last weekend, Clarkson is in for a serious battle, especially given the closeness of these teams' last meeting. If it's the RPI that was embarrassed at Freakout and Senior Night, it's going to be a short series.

#9 Dartmouth at #8 St. Lawrence
*Season series split: Big Green won 3-1 in Canton on Nov. 18; Saints won 3-1 in Hanover on Feb. 25; teams tied 2-2 with Saints winning shootout 3-2 in a non-conference game in Hanover on Dec. 31
* Last playoff meeting: 2007 Consolation Game: St. Lawrence 5, Dartmouth 3 (Albany, NY)
* DC in February: 2-5-1
* SLU in Feburary: 6-2-0

The other matchup in the North Country promises a pretty solid amount of intrigue as well. A couple of teams that seemed to pass each other frequently in the standings going in opposite directions met on the final day of the regular season with the winner poised to host the loser in the first round in most scenarios, and that's exactly what happened after St. Lawrence's 3-1 win (with an empty netter) in Hanover this past Saturday.

St. Lawrence resurrected their season on three occasions, which speaks to their resilience. After a horrifying October against some difficult competition, the Saints came back in November with five wins in six games, then dropped four straight. That was followed up with a stretch in which St. Lawrence was unbeaten in six of seven, then they dropped four straight again, including a horrible weekend in the Capital District that saw the Saints outscored 10-0. Since then, however, they've been a tough team all around, winning six of their last eight games, dropping only a pair against two bye teams, Cornell and Harvard.

Dartmouth, meanwhile, has spent much of the season trying to keep their heads above water. After sweeping the first weekend of the regular season at home against Quinnipiac and Princeton, the Big Green have picked up at least one loss in every subsequent league weekend. They were only swept twice, however (both times at home), which kept them in the hunt for home ice up until the very last gasp. Since an overtime win over Colgate, Dartmouth has just three wins - two against last place Brown, one against Clarkson.

If one looks at the three games these teams played this year, they were all very close, so Dartmouth clearly has some hope in this series, especially if St. Lawrence takes a fourth turn for the worse and the Big Green can pick up some defense, which has been sparse of late. Momentum-wise, however, the home team looks to have a big advantage.

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