ECAC fans outside the northeast got a belated Valentine, in the form of Empire Sports Network's broadcast of Saturday's RPI-Vermont game. The two teams entered the weekend in a four-way tie for first place, and while the Engineers had managed to keep the pace by pulling out a 5-4 overtime win over Dartmouth on Friday, the Catamounts were shut out 2-0 by Union to drop two points off the pace.
Rensselaer, who surprised the Cats in their league opener back in November, controlled much of the game, and two goals from the stellar line of Eric Healey, Allain St. Hillaire and Matt Garver put RPI up 2-1 going into the third. As the game turned physical, Doug Battaglia floated one past Vermont's Tim Thomas to put the home team up 3-1. The rough stuff continued with a number of scrums in front of the goalies, the scariest of which came when UVM's BJ Kilbourne tried to leap over the stick of Brian Pothier, and landed on the head of sprawling RPI goalie Joel Laing. Laing was still shaking the cobwebs when the players were separated. With four minutes left to play, Kilbourne was called for elbowing Mark Murphy, which proved to be the turning point in the game. As RPI's Healey tried to start a play behind the Engineers' goal, he had the puck stolen by Stephane Piche, who gave it to a wide-open Eric Lundin for the shorthanded goal. With a minute and a half to go, Vermont's French Connection of Martin St. Louis and Eric Perrin, shut out for nearly four games against RPI and Union this year, combined for the tying goal. Thomas stopped all five Engineer shots in overtime and the game went down as a hard-fought 3-3 tie.
Meanwhile, the other two leaders, Cornell and Clarkson, swept their way through the Ivy League. Clarkson pulled out a 2-1 victory at Princeton when Hobey Baker candidate Todd White scored with 11 seconds remaing in overtime. The Knights followed it up with a 2-0 victory at Yale on Saturday. Meanwhile, Cornell defeated archrival Harvard for the fifth straight time under head coach Mike Schafer, 2-1, with the Crimson spoiling Jason Elliott's shutout bid seven minutes into the third. The Lynah faithful had even more to cheer the following night when the Red dismantled Brown 7-2.
In other ECAC action, Union completed the other weekend sweep with 2-0 victory over Dartmouth. Trevor Koenig stopped all 76 shots he faced on the weekend to earn ECAC Player of the Week honors. St. Lawrence levelled out with a couple of ties, 4-4 at Yale and 3-3 at Princeton, while Colgate remained at .500 with a split, outlasting Brown 10-7 and falling 5-2 to Harvard.
The crowd at the top of the ECAC standings spreads out a bit with four games to go. Clarkson and Cornell remain tied for the lead with 26 points, and will meet a week from Friday in Empire's final regular season telecast. RPI follow close behind with 25, with Vermont sliding back to fourth at 23. There's a three-point drop to the crowd gathering in the 5-8 slots. Princeton, with just three points in the last three weekends, have fallen into a fifth-place tie with Union at 20 points. Colgate and Harvard round out the field of teams assured of playoff berths at 18 points a piece. Four teams fight for the last two spots: St. Lawrence are currently ninth with 12 points, followed by Dartmouth with 11 and Yale with 10. Brown with 7 points still have an outside shot at making the postseason.
Looking at the national picture, we now find three ECAC teams in the Around the Rinks/US College Hockey Online poll: Clarkson climb from seventh to fifth, while Vermont drop from sixth to eighth. Cornell reappears in the poll, checking in once again at number 10. These same three teams show up in the NCAA's pairwise rankings top twelve, as calculated by US College Hockey Online, www.uscollegehockey.com. Vermont and Clarkson stay put at third and fifth in the nation, while Cornell climb to eighth.
This weekend's marquee matchups find Cornell and Colgate travelling to the Capital District to take on the ECAC's hottest travel partnership, Union and RPI. The biggest game will pit Cornell and Rensselaer Saturday night, but the other Saturday contest, Colgate at Union, will be the Empire Sports Network ECAC Game of the Week, and could determine who finishes in the top six and avoids the preliminary playoff game. Call me at 585-3449 after the report if you'd like to catch the game down at Iggy's Sports Grill. In other ECAC action, Vermont and Dartmouth host Yale and Princeton in a series which now looks to have bigger implications for tenth place than first, while Clarkson and St. Lawrence entertain the atypically weak partnership of Harvard and Brown.
And that's the ECAC hockey report for this week on the Joe Schlobotnik Extravaganza.