It's the middle of March, when four teams travel to the little town of Lake Placid and add a new chapter to the storied history of 1980 Olympic Ice Arena. Yes, it's time once again for the ECAC hockey championships.
The first semifinal in this year's tournament pitted the top-seeded Golden Knights of Clarkson against the Princeton Tigers, fresh off their upset of third-place Vermont. Princeton managed to contain the Knights' attack through a scoreless first period, but Clarkson opened it up in the second. Hobey Baker finalist Todd White started the scoring shorthanded in the first minute of the period, stealing the puck from Dominique Auger at the Clarkson blue line and skating in alone on Erasmo Saltarelli for the goal. White made it 2-0 later in the period when Saltarelli failed to cover a loose puck in the crease, and Jean-Francois Houle put the Knights up 3-0 going into the second intermission. Princeton got on the board in the third when Clarkson's Mikko Ollila, trying to break up a 2-on-1, ended up taking goalie Dan Murphy out of the play. Jason Given shot the puck over their bodies into the net. The goal was reviewed on instant replay, newly instituted this year for the ECACs, but was allowed to stand, despite a Princeton player apparently in the crease. Clarkson added two more goals, including another by White to complete the hat trick, to prevail 5-1.
The late game saw a battle of Red teams as the second place Cornell Big Red faced off against the fourth-place RPI Engineers. Cornell got off to a 2-0 lead in the first six minutes with goals by Chad Wilson and Kyle Knopp, but Rensselaer got one back after three straight Cornell penalties. The Big Red killed off a full power play, and most of a second before being called for another one. They also killed the resulting 27-second two-man deficit, but gave up a goal on the third of the power plays, cutting their lead to 2-1. Jamie Papp restored the two-goal margin in the last minute of the period by going top-shelf on Joel Laing with his own rebound. Scott Prekaski replaced Laing in net for RPI to start the second, but Papp scored on him as well to make it 4-1 Cornell a couple of minutes into the period. But the rest of the second belonged to the Engineers, who outshot the Red 17-5 in the period. RPI once again scored on the third of a string of power plays, with Battaglia getting his second goal to close the margin to 4-2. RPI made it 4-3 on another controversial goal. With Matt Garver on the ice in front of the Cornell crease, Eric Healey shot the puck several times along the ice and hit Garver each time. Finally, as Healey slid behind the goal line, Garver lifted his body off the ice and the puck went in the net. The play was sent up to the replay booth for review. As Healey was not in a position to have shot it, it seemed that Garver must have thrown the puck into the net, but the replay was ruled inconclusive by the official, and the goal stood. RPI almost tied it on a shorthanded rush in the third, but Cornell's Ryan Smart scored the final goal at the end of the same power play to put the Red up 5-3. RPI, spending much of the period on the penalty kill, were unable to score again, and Cornell escaped to the final.
After an 8-4 RPI victory in the consolation game, the league's top two finishers, Cornell and Clarkson, met for the championship. In each of their two regular season meetings, the Big Red had scored first, only to give up the game in the second. So they knew better than to get overconfident when defenseman Jason Dailey beat Clarkson's Dan Murphy high on a power play in the first. Cornell still managed to frustrate the Knights' attack into the second period and the tension leaked out in ten separate penalties, five for each team. The Big Red converted one of their power plays, getting their second goal from another defenseman, Steve Wilson, on a long shot from the point. The Big Red had finally survived a second period against the Knights, and led 2-0. Clarkson went on the attack for most of the third period, and Wilson didn't help his cause by taking the only two penalties of the period. The Cornell penalty kill proved up to the task, finishing a perfect 6-for-6 against the league's top power play, but Clarkson kept attacking after the end of the last penalty, and J-F Houle scored 24 seconds later. Elliott, who shut out the Knights last year in the semifinals, gave up his first Lake Placid goal against Clarkson after over 113 minutes of play, and the score was now only 2-1 Cornell. Cornell managed to keep it that way for the last six and a half minutes, and retained their title as ECAC Champions. Elliott, with 36 saves Friday and 31 Saturday, was named tournament MVP for the second year in a row. The last player to do that was another Cornell goaltender, the legendary Ken Dryden.
This weekend in Lake Placid the ECAC also gave out its annual awards. The player awards were unsurprising, with Todd White winning player of the year, Union's Trevor Koenig taking the Dryden award for outstanding goaltending, and Harvard goalie JR Prestifilippo claiming rookie of the year. First-year Union head coach Stan Moore won coach of the year, escaping the rookie curse that cost Cornell's Mike Schafer the award last season. The all-conference team featured Koenig in goal, Steve Wilson and Clarkson's Mike Pagnutti on defense, and White, Colgate's Mike Harder, and Vermont's Martin St. Louis up front. White, Harder and St. Louis were also the ECAC's three representatives among the ten finalists for the Hobey Baker Award for the best player in college hockey. White is considered one of the favorites, along with Brendan Morrison of Michigan, and possibly Boston University's Chris Drury.
The seedings for the NCAAs were announced on Sunday, and as expected, three ECAC teams made the field. Cornell will play in the West Regional in Grand Rapids, MI, facing Miami University (the one in Ohio) on Saturday. If they win, they will play WCHA Champions North Dakota on Sunday. Clarkson received the top seed in the East Regional in Worcester, MA, and they have a first-round bye, and will play Saturday against the winner of Friday's Colorado College-New Hampshire game. Finally, Vermont qualifies as an at large team on the basis of their #6 ranking in the final NCAA pairwise rankings, which you can see at US College Hockey Online, www.uscollegehockey.com. They will play the University of Denver Friday in the East Regional; if victorious, they will face Hockey East champion Boston University on Saturday.
For the second year in a row, the regional games will not be available on television, but if you have RealAudio capabilities, you can listen to radio broadcasts of them at http://www.audionet.com/schools/ncaa/hockey. Friday's Vermont-Denver clash begins at 3pm Mountain Standard Time. On Saturday there may be a triple-header of games involving ECAC teams: Cornell takes on Miami at 1:00, overlapping a bit with the Clarkson game at three, and finally, the Vermont-BU game, should the Catamounts get that far, will start at 6:30. And if Cornell is victorious Saturday, Sunday's Cornell-North Dakota game will begin at noon Mountain Time.
The Extravaganza is going on a one-week hiatus for Spring Break, so we won't have a regional report next week, but I'll be back in two weeks with a rundown of the NCAA tournament. Until then, this is Joe Schlobotnik with the ECAC Hockey Report.