February 22, 2012

ECAC Journal: Yale gaining ground with late-season push

By Dan Guttenplan

Yale has been to the NCAA tournament each of the last three years, a streak that seemed destined to end this season -- that is, until last weekend. 

Yale captain Brian O'Neill (Dave Arnold Photography)

That's when the Elis (12-13-2, 9-10-1 ECAC Hockey) put together their first four-point weekend since Nov. 11-12, dominating Dartmouth and Harvard by a combined score of 12-4. The latter contest, a 7-1 beating of Harvard in Yale's final home game at Ingalls Rink, came before a crowd of 3,500. The outpouring of fan support could be due in part to the fact that the Elis are not guaranteed a home series in the ECAC Hockey tournament.

Heading into the final weekend of the regular season, Yale sits tied for seventh place with St. Lawrence in the league standings. Ninth-place Dartmouth is only two points behind Yale, and fourth-place Clarkson is only three points ahead. Thus, the Elis could end up with any one of a variety of paths in the tournament, from earning a first-round bye as the No. 4 seed, to hosting a first-round series as a No. 5, 6, 7 or 8 seed, to playing an opening series on the road as the No. 9 seed.

All of this will be decided after Yale finishes its season with a road trip to Princeton and Quinnipiac this weekend.

"There's a lot at stake," Yale coach Keith Allain (Worcester, Mass.) said. "It's big, but we'll be playing in the ECAC tournament no matter what. We have to be just as good or better then."

Early this season, few predicted that Yale would only be able to stamp its ticket to the NCAA tournament for the fourth year in a row by winning the conference tournament. Last year, the Elis were ECAC tournament champions before earning a top seed in the East Region.

This year's team struggled through the second semester, logging a record of 3-8-1 from Jan. 6 up until last weekend. Extended second-semester slumps rarely translate to postseason success, although Allain said he saw positive signs when his team was at its lowest.

"One of the things that impressed me about our group all year is that, as frustrating as the results have been, the players consistently showed up with a determined attitude," Allain said. "We stuck together and we still believe. From a coaching perspective, that's impressive."

Yale's late-season push is likely not lost on its ECAC counterparts, who watched the Elis catch fire in the conference tournament last spring. As the No. 2 seed, Yale cruised to a conference tournament championship, posting shutouts in its final three games. The Elis beat fourth-seed Cornell, 6-0, in the championship game.

"As a coach, my hope is that we'll get rewarded for sticking with it through tough times," Allain said. "One weekend isn't really the reward we're looking for. We're looking for something bigger."

Game of the Week

Union at Cornell, Friday

This could be labeled the game of the season in ECAC Hockey, as the two teams battling for a regular-season championship will face off on the final weekend.

Union (19-6-7, 13-3-4) will clinch the title with a victory, as the Dutchmen currently sit two points ahead of Cornell (14-6-7, 11-3-6). The Big Red could stay alive with a tie; it is not inconceivable that Union could fall at Colgate Saturday while Cornell beats RPI.

The first meeting between Union and Cornell, at Union on Feb. 4, resulted in a 4-4 tie.

ECAC Hockey power rankings

1. Union (19-6-7, 13-3-4 ECAC Hockey): The Dutchmen did everything they could to wrap up the ECAC prior to the last weekend, going 6-0-1 over their last seven games. But Cornell wouldn't cooperate, as the Big Red are unbeaten in their last six games. So it all comes down to Friday night. The Dutchmen will be looking to pick up at least a point at Cornell in hopes of claiming their second regular-season title in a row.

2. Cornell (14-6-7, 11-3-6): The Big Red are likely looking back at that home-and-away series with Colgate during the last weekend of January and wondering what happened. Cornell was swept that weekend, the one weekend all season in which it failed to record at least two points. A home win Friday against Union could erase any regret.

3. Colgate (17-12-3, 11-8-1): The Raiders have been the streakiest team in the ECAC this semester. They started 2012 with an 0-5-1 record in their first six games. Then they went 5-1-0 over their next six. Then they got swept at St. Lawrence and Clarkson last weekend. They'll need to stop that slide quickly, when they host RPI and Union this weekend, or they'll be playing on the opening weekend of the ECAC tournament.

4. St. Lawrence (13-16-3, 9-10-1): Not a bad showing for the Saints last weekend. They beat Colgate and took Cornell to overtime in a loss. Saturday's loss snapped a five-game winning streak, which came on the heels of a seven-game winless steak to start the new year. Who says Colgate is the streakiest team in the ECAC?

5. Clarkson (15-13-6, 9-7-4): The Golden Knights came away with three points last weekend after recording a tie against Cornell and a victory over Colgate -- both at home. They are in control of their own destiny when it comes to a first-round bye in the ECAC tournament, as they currently sit in fourth place. The season-finale at Harvard Saturday could decide which team rests the following weekend.

6. Yale (12-13-2, 9-10-1): Senior captain Brian O'Neill seemed to be everywhere on the ice for Yale in a 7-1 victory Saturday night. We've come to expect that of O'Neill. But the fact that Kenny Agostino and Kevin Limbert both scored twice in the win is a good sign for the Elis heading into the postseason. They'll need consistent play from players other than O'Neill, and goaltender Nick Maricic will need to be as sharp as he was last weekend.

7. Harvard (8-8-11, 6-5-9): Eleven ties for the Crimson? To put that in perspective, they are tied for last among ECAC teams in overall wins and tied for ninth in league wins, but somehow they sit fifth in the league standings. More fun with tie stats: The Crimson have tied 10 of their last 20 games. If they finish the regular season with ties against St. Lawrence and Clarkson this weekend, they'll have tied every team in the ECAC except for Yale.

8. Quinnipiac (16-11-5, 8-8-4): The Bobcats seemed to have a sense of urgency when they took the ice last Friday against RPI, knowing a tough Union team was waiting on the second end of the road set. They cruised past the Engineers, 3-1, before falling to Union, 5-2. The Bobcats have proven to be a middle-of-the-pack ECAC team. They are 4-4-0 in their last eight games.

9. Dartmouth (10-13-4, 7-10-3): The Big Green snapped a seven-game winless streak when they beat Brown, 4-2, Saturday night. February has not been kind to the Big Green, who have tallied only three points in six games. It doesn't get any easier for Dartmouth this weekend with Clarkson and St. Lawrence coming to town.

10. Princeton (8-13-6, 6-11-3): The Tigers will not be hosting a series in the ECAC tournament -- that much was confirmed when they lost to Union Friday night. In a 6-2 victory over RPI Saturday, the Tigers had their highest scoring output since their regular-season finale in 2010.

11. RPI (8-21-3, 5-12-3): The Engineers were 5-3-3 in their last 11 games before falling to Quinnipiac and Princeton at home last weekend. The biggest problem for the Engineers is the power play. They were 0-for-8 with a man advantage. RPI goaltender Bryce Merriam was benched during RPI's 6-2 loss to Princeton Saturday, allowing three goals on nine shots.

12. Brown (8-15-4, 5-12-3): The Bears found a remedy for their six-game losing streak Friday night. When you need a point in the ECAC this season, invite Harvard to town for a tie. Still, it's tough to rank the Bears anywhere other than the bottom of the league power rankings. They haven't won since Jan. 21 and, strangely, that victory came against Union.

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