December 7, 2012

ECAC Journal: Big Red righting the ship

ByDan Guttenplan

In mid-November, an unnamed coach of an ECAC Hockey team scanned down his schedule before getting stuck on a pending game against Cornell.

“I think we're catching Cornell at the right time,” said the unnamed coach.

One of the biggest surprises of the opening month in ECAC Hockey was the fact that opposing teams were actually looking forward to playing Cornell. After all, the Big Red came within a few minutes of earning a trip to the Frozen Four in last year's NCAA tournament, before falling to Ferris State, 2-1. Cornell went 12-4-6 against ECAC foes last season.

Still, Cornell's five-game winless stretch in mid-November inspired confidence in its future opponents. On the heels of a strong ECAC season, the Big Red struggled to a record of 1-3-2 in their first six conference games.

“We had a rough go of it with ECAC teams in the beginning,” said senior forward John Esposito. “We weren't playing together. We were a collection of individuals on the ice. We had individual players who had good games, or lines would score together, but it would never all happen on the same night. We couldn't get four lines to play together.”

The Big Red appear to have righted the ship over the last two weekends. The turning point came Nov. 24 in a 5-1 victory over Michigan at Madison Square Garden. Cornell followed that up with a pair of 3-1 wins over Clarkson and St. Lawrence last weekend.

“Beating Michigan at MSG was an important game for us,” Esposito said. “We started strong and finished the game out. That's what we hadn't been doing earlier in the season. We feel like all of the non-conference games are important, but that was a big one.”

Much of the preseason attention in the ECAC went to Cornell and Union, last year's two representatives in the NCAA tournament. The Big Red appeared to justify the hype by starting 3-0-1 in their first four games, including two wins over Colorado College, before going 0-3-2 in their next five.

The early-season malaise could have certainly been attributed to Cornell's late-season push last winter. The Big Red played five postseason games, extending the season until March 24. Still, Esposito doesn't consider that an excuse.

“In college hockey, it's two games a week with 35 to 39 games a season,” Esposito said. “It's easy to get up for games. We practice all week, and we're sick of it by the time the games roll around. We should be up for every game.”

Adopting that philosophy, Cornell appears to have found its way out of an early-season slump. Don't expect any ECAC rivals to be circling games against the Big Red with high expectations in the near future.

Player of the Week

John Esposito, sr., F, Cornell

Esposito scored the winning goals in both of Cornell's victories last weekend, netting shots against Clarkson and St. Lawrence. He scored his fourth power-play goal of the season to give Cornell a 2-0 lead over the Golden Knights, then clinched the 3-1 victory with the ?nal goal late in the third period. He scored on a breakaway with 5:45 remaining in the Big Red's 3-1 victory over St. Lawrence Saturday. It was his team-leading sixth goal of the season.

Game of the Week

Princeton at Quinnipiac, Dec. 7 (7 p.m.) at TD Bank Sports Center

Quinnipiac is the lone remaining undefeated team in the ECAC. The Bobcats have the nation's best scoring defense, allowing just 1.60 goals per game. Princeton ranks fourth in the ECAC with a 2-1-3 league record. Princeton's power-play unit ranks fourth in the nation (10 for 38, 26.3 percent).

Power Rankings

1. Quinnipiac (10-3-2, 6-0-0): This is Quinnipiac's year to make a deep run. The Bobcats' top four scorers are seniors – Jeremy Langlois, Clay Harvey, Russell Goodman and Jordan Samuels-Thomas. Senior goalie Eric Hartzell had a 1.41 GAA.

2. Dartmouth (7-2-2, 4-1-1): The Big Green will have an in-state showdown with the nation's top-ranked team of the moment, UNH, the next time they hit the ice on Dec. 30. The tough task will be staying sharp for 24 days between games.

3. Yale (6-2-1, 2-2-0): The Bulldogs have won four in a row with their last loss coming on Nov. 9.  That would explain Yale's recent entry into many of the top-20 polls.

4. Cornell (6-3-2, 3-3-2): In Cornell's next game, the Big Red will play a rematch from last year's NCAA tournament quarterfinal. They will meet Ferris State, a team that beat them 2-1 in March.

5. Union (8-3-2, 3-2-1): The bad news: The Dutchmen went 0-1-1 last weekend with a loss to Quinnipiac and a tie against Princeton. The good news: They are hitting the road this weekend, where they are 14-3-2 in their last 19 ECAC Hockey road contests, dating back to the end of the 2010-11 season.

6. Harvard (4-3-0, 3-3-0): The Crimson will visit Merrimack Friday night. Harvard's leading scorer, freshman Jimmy Vesey, is the son of Merrimack's all-time leading scorer Jim Vesey, who had 244 points in 140 career games from 1984 to 1988. .

7. Colgate (7-7-2, 3-4-1): Say this about the Raiders: They are conditioned. In a 5-4 overtime win over Clarkson on Saturday, the Raiders held a 39-20 shot advantage on the game, 12-2 in the third period, 6-0 in overtime.

8. Princeton (3-4-3, 2-1-3): Senior Mike Condon has started all but one game in goal. He has made 264 saves on 290 shots for a .910 save percentage and a 2.75 GAA.

9. Clarkson (3-7-5, 3-3-1): The Golden Knights posted a 4-1 victory in the annual showdown with St. Lawrence in Canton on Wednesday. They will face the Saints again on Saturday in a non-league encounter at the 1980 Herb Brooks Arena in Lake Placid.

10. St. Lawrence (7-6-2, 1-4-2): The Saints have won only two of their last nine games. .

11. Brown (3-5-2, 0-3-2): Looking for their first win in ECAC play, the Bears host Union Friday night. That's not bad news for the Bears, who gave Union fits last season, becoming the only team to sweep Union in conference play over the past two seasons.

12. RPI (3-6-3, 0-5-1): Including this weekend’s games, five of RPI’s 10 different opponents — seven of the 14 games — will have been nationally-ranked at the time of the game.

Dan Guttenplan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @thx4playing.