Then, there were eight. Four teams of ECAC Hockey played their last games of the 2013-14 season last weekend. The home-standing favorites St. Lawrence and Yale advanced with sweeps. Clarkson needed a third contest, but the Golden Knights were victorious over the Tigers in the second and third games of the series. Dartmouth, with some help from noteworthy bench coaching from Gaudet in game three, rallied from a one-game series deficit and two-goal hole in game three to upend the Engineers at Houston Field House. All higher seeds advanced save for RPI.
An improving and impressive Dartmouth squad journeys to Messa Rink with the hopes of arresting Union's slog toward the program's third-ever Whitelaw Cup. Don Vaughan, a deserving nominee for ECAC Hockey's coach-of-the-year award, leads his Raiders against the Saints of his alma mater. Quinnipiac will seek a modicum of redemption in ending Yale's national-title defense in a quarterfinal series at High Point Solutions Arena. At least one of the series seems ripe to go to three games while others seem capable of presenting upsets. Casey Jones, after an early playoff misstep, brings his Knights to Lynah Rink. This is the time of year for which Cornell and the Lynah Faithful live.
Cornell enters the series with two complete weeks of rest in its legs. Coach Schafer is accustomed to the week off. It is part of his well regarded and often successful stratagem of bringing Cornell postseason success. It has yielded five Whitelaw Cups and more NCAA Tournament victories than any coach active in the Conference. The first step was getting the coveted first-round bye that, along with home ice, eluded the Big Red last season. Now that the first step was taken, Cornell hopes to capitalize on its benefits. The first opponent that Cornell will meet in the 2014 ECAC Hockey Championships is Clarkson.
The playoffs are a new season. Clarkson began the playoffs last weekend while the Red prepared. Ammon of Princeton defeated Clarkson at home in the first round. Jones said that calm and poise returned to his line-up in the second game. The Golden Knights controlled the series after then. The third game was a closely fought affair, but the 4-0 victory over the Tigers last Saturday was far from it.
Clarkson, a program that prides itself for its historically high winning percentages, celebrated the series-winning victory as it guaranteed that the Knights could not finish the season below 0.537. From a more Cornellian lens, Clarkson advanced for the first time in the ECAC Hockey Tournament since 2007. That seems a sad statistic. Consider that in 2007 Clarkson capped off its playoff run with a comeback victory over Quinnipiac for its fifth Whitelaw Cup. Jones likely has similar designs.
What carried Clarkson through the early goings of the playoffs? In two words, it was special teams. Clarkson scored only five goals on even strength over three games against a Princeton team that was allowing more than four goals per game headed into the series. The Golden Knights's goal production was only 74.4% that of the average opponent that played the Tigers. Jones's team relied on special teams for 44.4% of its goals. Clarkson entered the playoffs relatively impotent on even strength.
Potsdam's power play, with the top four seeds idle, roared to life in the series against Princeton. No power-play unit, not even that of St. Lawrence, was more dominant in the first weekend of the post-season. Clarkson made Princeton pay for four of the Tigers's 14 infractions over the weekend. The Golden Knights relied on two power-play goals to clinch the final game by a 3-2 margin. Clarkson did not go a game without scoring a power-play goal.
Penalty killing for Clarkson lapsed in 22.2% of its times taking the ice. A drop-off in penalty killing against the league's third-worst power-play unit exposes a possible Achilles's heel of Casey Jones's playoff squad. Goaltending may shore up that weakness. Steve Perry took both wins while Greg Lewis recorded the loss last weekend.
Perry recorded an impressive 0.957 save percentage last weekend on 47 shots faced over two games. The team lobbing those shots was the worst team in ECAC Hockey in terms of offensive conversion rates. Perry's outstanding save percentage allowed Princeton to convert on only 4.3% of chances while Princeton is accustomed to converting on only 7.4%.
Cornell's victory or dominance in this quarterfinal match-up with Clarkson will depend on the Big Red's power play. Borderline terrifying special-teams play has been the hallmark of Schafer's championship teams. Cornell was the worst team in ECAC Hockey on power play after the semester's break. It was in the basement by a large margin. A new season begins. The power play on East Hill will need to prove it is as good as it was at the beginning of the regular season, not as snake-bitten and sometimes hapless as it was against teams like RPI.
The penalty kill of the Big Red needs to continue as it left off before the final weekend of the regular season. The Big Red allowed one-quarter of its power-play goals against during its season-ending clash with archrival Harvard. That needs to be proven early and often to have been an aberration. Otherwise, the potential of this team and the desires of its senior class will go unfulfilled. Poise and calm are prerequisites this early Spring.
Cornell generated considerable offensive chances against Union, Quinnipiac, Princeton, Dartmouth, and Harvard. Notwithstanding the inability of officials to count to seven or eight, Cornell emerged victorious from only two of those contests. Finishing chances and continued balanced scoring is required. This is the moment that players like Cole Bardreau, Rodger Craig, Brian Ferlin, Joel Lowry, Dustin Mowrey, John McCarron, and Joakim Ryan can grab immortality. The likes of Matt Buckles, Jeff Kubiak, Patrick McCarron, and Jake Weidner can begin adding to their young legacies.
It became apparent in the Union and Dartmouth games in particular that frustration took its toll. Only in the Dartmouth game was the phenomenal performance of an opposing netminder the predominant reason Cornell could not score. The coaching staff hopefully has instilled calmness and poise where angst found a home at the close of the regular season. If sticks are not gripped too tightly, this squad can do what Cornell teams have done like no other for generations.
Dominating the contest early with reminding the Lynah Faithful and Golden Knights that they are in fact in Lynah Rink will be essential. Clarkson dominated Princeton at Cheel. Let karma play its hand. Jones's team obliterated Prier's Tigers with averaging nearly 38 shots per game over the weekend and outshooting Princeton by an average of more than 12 shots per game. This reflects the territoriality of the contests as well. Cornell at Lynah will not abide this.
Take a deep breath. This is the playoffs; the most wonderful time of the year. Let's enjoy the run.