The ECAC brands itself as one of the most competitive, wide-open conferences in college hockey. While not one of the powerhouse leagues, the ECAC’s claim to fame is that, more than any other conference, anything can happen on a given night.
Cliche? Indisputably, but just read the conference mission statement.
Evidence? See Princeton’s 2-1 stunning win over Harvard at the Bright Center on Saturday afternoon. The Tigers brought their 1-10 conference record onto ECAC-leader Harvard’s home ice for the matinee and pulled off the upset, though the Crimson are still atop the ECAC with 22 points, seven points in front of Brown, their closest challenger. The Princeton win shows that the ECAC is anything but decided near the midpoint of the schedule, despite Harvard’s current cushion.
The Crimson and Bears have played the most games to date, with 10 and 11 left to contest, respectively. Yale and Cornell are tied for third with 14 points, but Yale (7-5-0) has played four more games than the Big Red (7-1-0). Two other squads have winning records to date: fifth-place Clarkson (5-3-1) and sixth-place Dartmouth (5-4-0). While Princeton-like upsets can happen at any time, it is likely that the current top-six colleges will battle for four first-round byes in the newly configured ECAC tournament.
Handicapping the field, Harvard is currently on top of the standings for a more significant reason than simply playing the most games. With 58 goals in 14 conference games, the Crimson goals per game average is only slightly behind Yale’s 55 goals in 12 tilts. The Cantabs’ defense has been solid: the 2.29 goals per game is third amongst the top six in conference play, behind Cornell’s 1.62 and Clarkson’s 1.78 averages. But couple Cornell’s stingy defense with a potent offense — 35 goals in eight games — and Cornell, when all is said and done has to be the favorite, with Harvard a close second.
While Brown, Yale and Clarkson are by no means out of the conference title race, none of those three squads have all facets of their games working as consistently as Harvard and Cornell do at this point. Despite their 6-4 win over Yale on Saturday, Brown’s offense, at three goals per game, does not possess the firepower to roll off a healthy winning streak. And the Bear defense, while allowing less than 2.5 goals per contest, is not dominant enough to carry the offense through slow times.
Like Cornell, the Clarkson defense has been stellar, allowing less than two goals per game. Unfortunately for the Golden Knights, their offense has been somewhat Spartan, averaging only three goals per game. Dartmouth, at 5-4-0, actually has a negative goals for/goals against ratio, with 34 tallies to their opponents’ 35. Defensive struggles keep the Big Green from climbing too high up the ladder.
It has been a tale of two Yale’s thus far. A distant memory are the plethora of one-goal decisions the Elis faced a season ago. In their seven ECAC wins, Yale has outscored opponents 40-15, an average score of roughly 6-2. But in Yale’s five losses, opponents have outscored the Bulldogs 29-15, an average score of 6-3. On the positive side, despite being swept this past weekend, Yale possesses one of the best offenses in the league, with their worst conference scoring outputs being two goals on two occasions.
But the Bulldogs need to get their house in order defensively during their next three games, all fortunately out of conference. Consistent execution in net and at the blueline position will be key. The goaltending and team defensive play has been spectacular at times but shaky of late.
Special teams performance is also an area of concern, though it looks to be on the rise. After an 0-17 streak with out notching a power play goal, Yale’s man advantage showed signs of improvement this weekend with three tallies.
Of the Brown, Clarkson and Yale trio, the Elis have the most potential for success.
All this being said, the ECAC would not be what it is unless some big surprises happen over the remainder of the season.