Wednesday, March 7, 2012

ECAC Quarterfinal Capsules

It's on to Double Jeopardy!... er, the ECAC Quarterfinals, yeah!

The randomness that is the ECAC Playoffs doesn't end in the first round, no sir. In only three years since the format began - 2005, 2006, and 2009 - have the four home teams, they of the first round byes, all advanced to the semis. It's not the easiest thing in the world to accomplish, given that those top four teams are all coming off two weeks worth of healing from a brutal season and are playing at home to boot, but nine first round teams have managed to get through to the semifinals since 2003, when the 12-team playoffs began. Harvard, however is the only one to win the title (2004).

Champions from outside the Top 4 never came along very frequently, though. Since the ECAC became a 12-team league, the only ones besides the Crimson to pull it off were RPI in 1995 and Princeton in 1997.

As far as teams from the bottom four of the league moving on since 2003... it's been done.
2004 - #9 Clarkson (reached the championship game)
2010 - #11 Brown
2011 - #12 Colgate

C'mon, get cappy!

#5 Quinnipiac at #4 Colgate
* Season series split: Raiders won 3-1 in Hamilton on Nov. 18; Bobcats won 7-1 in Hamden on Jan. 14
* Last playoff meeting: 2009 First Round: Quinnipiac 2, Colgate 1 (Best-of-three, Hamden, CT)
* QU since Feb. 1: 6-4-1 (.590)
* CU since Feb. 1: 3-5-0 (.375)

The Bobcats' expected first round triumph over Brown took an unexpected turn when the Bobcats dropped Game 1 by a 4-1 score, but the Q rallied for 3-0 and 4-2 wins to salvage the series win and advance to take on the team that headed into the playoffs in the biggest slump - a team the Bobcats technically tied for fourth place at the end of the regular season, losing out on the bye on the second tiebreaker of total league wins.

Colgate was in a tailspin defensively in the final three weeks of the season. They returned from the Freak-rout to pick up a home win against Yale, but then needed every single one of the seven goals they scored against Brown the next night to pick up a 7-6 win - typically a seven goal night is an easy win. In fact, the Raiders have given up at least two goals a night - three or more in all but two of nine games - dating back to the back-end of a home and home with Cornell on January 28. That they've won four games in that span is a testament to their offense.

That's great news for a Quinnipiac team that's managed to score at least two of their own in every game they've played in 2012 with the exception of the Game 1 stinker last weekend. If the Bobcats' defense plays as strongly as it did for 119 minutes of Games 2 and 3 - Brown scored twice in Game 3 in just over a minute's time - there's definitely room for the Q in AC.

The Raiders, meanwhile, are going to need to have regained their focus to get through this one. Quinnipiac hasn't lost on back-to-back nights since November. Their bye was pretty much the very definition of "backed-in," given the team's sub-.500 record in 2012. As with any #4 vs. #5 matchup, this one could very well end with the road team moving on, as it has on four out of seven occasions that it's happened thus far in the 12-team playoff format. Interestingly, a four seed has never swept a five seed.

#6 Yale at #3 Harvard
* Season series split: Crimson won 4-3 in Boston on Jan. 27; Bulldogs won 7-1 in New Haven on Feb. 18
* Last playoff meeting: 2007 First Round: Harvard 2, Yale 0 (Best-of-three, Boston, MA)
* YU since Feb. 1: 6-4-1 (.590)
* HU since Feb. 1: 4-2-2 (.625)

Harvard has pretty much lived on the edge all season long - to go along with their NCAA record 11 ties, they also have six one-goal wins (seven if you include their empty-net two-goal win over Brown on Jan. 28) and three one-goal losses - at the end of the day, the Crimson are in most of the games they play, no matter who their opponent is. That pretty much makes their 7-1 loss to Yale late in the season something of an eye opener.

There's no question that Yale turned in one of the most disappointing all around regular seasons of the year. Expected to at least compete for if not take the regular season's top spot, the Bulldogs instead languished in the bottom half of the standings for a fair portion of the year, but they certainly turned on the jets at just the right time. The offense that was expected to remain one of the best in the nation came out to play again last weekend, and although it did endure a Game 2 loss, Yale still has at least four goals in six of its last seven games.

Stopping that onslaught is going to be job number one for Harvard. They were clearly unable to contain it on the penultimate weekend of the regular season, and for a defense that's given up more twos and threes than ones and zeros pretty much all season long, that may not be easy. The Crimson do have a bit of an edge offensively with the question marks Yale apparently has in net. Jeff Malcolm was the go-to-guy for much of the season in New Haven, but lost the starting job to Nick Maricic late only to then be given the Game 3 nod last week after Maricic allowed five in Game 2.

Although Malcolm got Yale through to the quarterfinals, it's never good to be trying to figure out who your starting goaltender is going to be minutes before an elimination game. The Bulldog offense has been good enough lately that it isn't much of an issue, but the question becomes what happens in those close games Harvard is oh-so-good at creating. If the Crimson defense can keep it close, that could give them an edge, but all in all the makings of a classic are definitely in the mix at Bright.

#9 Dartmouth at #2 Cornell
* Big Red swept season series: won 3-2 in Hanover on Nov. 12; won 4-3 (OT) in Ithaca on Jan. 20
* Last playoff meeting: 2011 Semifinal: Cornell 3, Dartmouth 0 (Atlantic City, NJ)
* DC since Feb. 1: 4-5-1 (.450)
* CU since Feb. 1: 4-1-3 (.688)

The Big Green last week proved the seemingly undeniable truth that anything can happen in the ECAC Playoffs. Limping into the postseason with practically no momentum against a team that seemed to be clicking at the right time, Dartmouth instead made short work of St. Lawrence, pulling the only two-game sweep of the first round with solid 6-3 and 4-1 victories over the Saints.

The difference maker was Jody O'Neill, who appears to have supplanted classmate James Mello in net. His defensive leadership allowed Dartmouth's still functioning offense to get through with what they put up, and they put up plenty. They played a pair of tight games with the Big Red this season and if their offense and defense work as well as they did against St. Lawrence, it's possible Dartmouth, like Yale, is simply clicking at the right time.

On the other hand, Cornell spent the end of the season steadily picking up points, almost grabbing the top spot before falling to RPI on the last night of the regular season for their only loss since January. They played five overtime games in February, however, which seems to point to a need for the offense or the defense to pick it up a little more on any given night. Is that a weakness? Perhaps. But they're also playing at home, where they've only fallen twice all season (ironically, in their first and last games of the regular season) and where Andy Iles put up a ridiculous five straight shutouts in November and December.

That home ice advantage may be difficult to overcome for the Big Green no matter how good their offense and defense may be playing right now. If they can steal Game 1 and make it a series from the get-go, they could pull the right card to move on, especially if the Big Red get sucked into another close contest where, like their last game, a bounce of the puck can determine who wins and who loses. That may give Dartmouth the impetus to jump on Cornell the way they jumped on the Saints last week.

#10 RPI at #1 Union
* Dutchmen swept season series: won 5-1 in Troy on Nov. 15; won 5-1 in Schenectady on Jan. 14; Union also won a non-conference game 5-2 in Lake Placid on Dec. 10.
* Last playoff meeting: 2003 First Round: RPI 2, Union 0 (Best-of-three, Schenectady, NY)
* RPI since Feb. 1: 5-4-2 (.545)
* UC since Feb. 1: 5-1-1 (.786)

The Engineers survived a pitched battle with their arch-rivals from Clarkson last week, picking up a pair of solid victories (5-1 and 4-1) around the 6th longest game in NCAA history, in which they fell 4-3. As a reward, they get their other arch-rival in the quarterfinals, a team with which they had even less success against during the regular season than they did with Clarkson.

Union will be hoping to reverse a recent trend of top seeds failing to reach the semifinals, but one factor in their favor should be the fact that they themselves were the most recent victim of this, falling to last-place Colgate in last year's quarterfinal round. They didn't miss much of a hitch in January and February, losing only twice in 2012, both by a single goal. The offense and defense has been chugging along nicely for the most part with few problems. Like Cornell, they've lost only twice at home, and it happened to be in one weekend.

Things do look good for the Dutchmen to break their six-game losing streak against the Engineers in the playoffs and pick up just their third playoff series win in program history, but you have to expect that Union was probably hoping for practically anyone else (with the possible exception of Brown, who managed an unlikely season sweep this year) given RPI's recent prowess on the road, and the recent unpredictability of RPI-Union games - before this season, anyway.

RPI definitely has their work cut out for them, but if they can weather Union's usual first period storm and keep things close, they'll give themselves a shot. Chances are they're going to need to play two perfect games to reach Atlantic City. They picked a good time to start playing their best hockey, but the Dutchmen have impressed all season and will be huge favorites in this series.

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