February 9, 2012

ECAC Journal: Focus on fun sparks Colgate's turnaround

By Dan Guttenplan

The Colgate hockey team’s season seemed to be slipping away Jan. 14 when the Raiders fell to Quinnipiac, 7-1. 

Colgate's Austin Smith leads the nation with 30 goals this season. (Colgate Athletics/Bob Cornell)

It was Colgate’s fourth straight loss – a winless streak that marked the opening of 2012 – after a strong first semester. Two weeks earlier, the Raiders had even managed to climb into the top 20 in the national rankings.

But on Jan. 14, the Raiders seemed to resemble the Colgate squad that finished 12th in ECAC Hockey last year as opposed to the first-semester Colgate squad that opened the season 12-4-2.

Colgate coach Don Vaughan had a decision to make on that bus ride home from Quinnipiac. Would he step on the gas, demanding more of his players? Or would he ease off at the midway point of the season, giving the players a chance to recharge the batteries?

Vaughan chose the latter, and it’s worked. He canceled a weight-lifting session planned for the Monday following the loss to Quinnipiac. He also canceled practice. In its place, he scheduled an afternoon of pond hockey just off the Colgate campus.

“We got home at 3 in the morning after losing 7-1,” said Colgate forward Austin Smith, who leads the nation with 30 goals. “A lot of coaches would schedule a tough practice and a lift the next day. (Vaughan) said, ‘Let’s go have fun.’ He canceled the lift, and we had a 3-on-3 and 4-on-4 tournament on the pond.”

The next weekend, the Raiders (15-10-3, 9-6-1 ECAC) played better, taking two games to overtime in a tie against Harvard and a loss to Dartmouth. The Raiders have certainly gotten back on track since. They swept a home-and-home series with Cornell in the last weekend of January. Last weekend, they outshot Union in a 3-1 loss and posted an 8-3 victory over suddenly resurgent RPI.

“We’re playing good hockey moving into February, the most important month,” Smith said.

It is not unprecedented for many of this year’s Colgate players to peak late in the season. Last year’s team earned the No. 12 seed in the ECAC Hockey tournament after a brutal regular season, but went on to upset No. 5 RPI and No. 1 Union. This year’s road to an ECAC tournament championship figures to be a little easier; the Raiders are currently in third place in the league standings.

“More than anything, last year’s experience gives us confidence that we can do it at the right time,” Smith said. “That’s what we want. We want to be in Atlantic City, and the ultimate goal is to make it to the NCAA tournament. It’s my last chance at it. We all know that once we get in, anyone can win it.”

Vaughan may want to plan a trip to the pond for later this month.

Game of the Week

Yale at Cornell, Saturday

It’s a rematch of last year’s ECAC tournament championship, which Yale won, 6-0. This year’s version of the Elis (10-11-2, 7-8-1 ECAC) is not expected to challenge for an ECAC championship, although they have been gaining momentum with two wins in their last three games.

Cornell (11-6-6, 8-3-5 ECAC) took the first meeting between the schools, 6-2, on Nov. 4. However, the Big Red’s ECAC championship hopes are slipping away. They are winless in their last five games.

ECAC Hockey power rankings

1. Union (16-6-7, 10-3-4 ECAC): The Dutchmen are proving to be the class of the ECAC, logging a record of 7-1-2 against league foes this semester. The 4-4 tie against Cornell Saturday night was much better for Union than Cornell. The Dutchmen have a three-point lead in the ECAC standings with five games to play.

2. Cornell (11-6-6, 8-3-5): Trouble brewing in Ithaca. The Big Red are 0-2-3 in their last five league games after starting the season 8-1-2. A home set against Brown and Yale this weekend should get Cornell back on track.

3. Colgate (15-10-3, 9-6-1): The Raiders opened 2012 with an 0-5-1 record and are 3-1-0 since. Credit coach Don Vaughan for righting the ship.

4. Harvard (7-7-9, 6-4-7): I’m going to save this breakdown and reuse it every year in the first week of February: Harvard felt as if this was finally the year it would return to the Beanpot championship for the first time since 1993. Unfortunately, the Crimson were no match for Boston University.

5. Quinnipiac (14-9-5, 6-6-4): The Bobcats hadn’t taken the ice since Jan. 14 when they fell to Harvard, 6-3, Friday night. Credit them for rebounding the next night with a 2-1 victory over Dartmouth. In that game, Foxborough, Mass., native Eric Robinson had the game-winning goal in the first period. Perhaps he was hoping the Patriots would carry the momentum the next day in the Super Bowl.

6. Clarkson (13-12-5, 7-6-3): Clarkson’s a tough school to figure heading into the ECAC tournament. On one hand, goaltender Paul Karpowich is capable of keeping the Golden Knights in any game. The senior is the program’s record holder for career saves. On the other hand, Clarkson doesn’t really have a quality league win on its schedule this season. The Golden Knights have not beaten a team ranked ahead of them on this list.

7. Yale (10-11-2, 7-8-1): The Elis have not earned more than two points in a single weekend all semester. In a developing trend, they won one and lost one last weekend, falling to St. Lawrence Friday before beating Clarkson Saturday. The Elis can reset their goals from an ECAC championship to a home series in the preliminary round of the league tournament.

8. Dartmouth (9-10-4, 6-7-3): The Big Green had a chance to make a move in the ECAC standings last weekend, and instead, they picked up one point with a tie against Princeton and a loss to Quinnipiac. Playing in a must-win situation at Quinnipiac Saturday, the Big Green were outshot 38-21 over the game’s first 50 minutes.

9. RPI (7-19-2, 4-10-2): The Engineers are technically in last place in the ECAC, but they’ve played as well as any team in the league besides Union, Cornell and Colgate this semester. The Engineers, who have only suffered three losses in their last nine games, overcame a 2-0 deficit to earn a 2-2 tie against Cornell Friday night.

10. Princeton (7-10-6, 5-8-3): The Tigers are 2-0-2 in their last four games, which is all the more impressive when you consider that streak includes a win over Colgate and a tie against Cornell. Side note: Another broken glass panel at Hobey Baker Rink delayed Saturday’s game against Dartmouth by an hour.

11. St. Lawrence (10-15-3, 6-9-1): Whoa. After going 0-6-1 in their previous seven games (and getting ranked last on this list last week), the Saints swept a road set at Yale and Brown last week. Do you suppose they might have had extra motivation after reading this blog? Humor me.

12. Brown (8-12-3, 5-9-2): The Bears seemed primed for a late-season run when they beat Union Jan. 21. They have since lost to Dartmouth, Harvard, Clarkson and St. Lawrence. A road set at Cornell and Colgate is on tap for this weekend. Yikes.

Dan Guttenplan can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com.