In this week’s NCAA men’s hockey U.S. College Hockey Online poll, Union — which holds a 3–7–4 conference record — received four ranking points. Cornell, which holds just a 0.500 conference winning percentage at 6–6–2, is a ranked team, clocking in at No. 17.
At first glance, that may seem unusual. But both of those teams, along with No. 11 Yale and nine other schools, compete in ECAC Hockey, which has become a dominant force in the NCAA hockey landscape in the last three years. That competitiveness is perhaps more apparent now than ever, with the conference currently laying claim to four of the top 15 teams in both major national polls.
The ECAC’s rise, its current strength and its atypical parity can be traced to a recommitment to collegiate hockey from its members themselves, and a motivation for reform that originated a decade ago right down the road from Ingalls Rink.
At the end of the 2004–05 season, Vermont left the conference to join Hockey East, and the ECAC welcomed Quinnipiac as its new 12th team. The Bobcats were in the midst of a major investment into their sports programs, highlighted by the 2004 groundbreaking for its TD Bank Sports Center, a $52 million complex housing a basketball court and a hockey rink.
According to No. 14/15 Rensselaer head coach Seth Appert, Quinnipiac’s dramatic entrance sparked a major reinvestment in the league, spurring multimillion-dollar projects and program renewals across the conference.
“Almost every team has made an upgrade to their commitment level, whether that be in facilities, financial aid [or] coaching staff [since Quinnipiac joined the conference],” Appert said. “Through that, our league has gradually become the top league in the country right now.”
This included the 2007 expansion of Cornell’s Lynah rink, as well as renovations of RPI’s Houston Field House and Yale’s Ingalls Rink in 2007 and 2009, respectively. According to Appert, the end result of these program changes was increased appeal to student-athletes.
That appeal has made its mark on the ice: After having no teams make the Frozen Four between 2006 and 2011, the ECAC broke into the national semifinals in 2012, 2013 and 2014, winning national championships in 2013 and 2014.
“[The ECAC is] markedly different in competitiveness and professionalism than it was when I first walked in the door … and it seems like every year the level gets a little bit tougher,” Yale head coach Keith Allain ’80, who took the helm in 2006, said in December.
Indeed, this year may be the toughest one yet.
On Jan. 3, the then-No. 1 and defending national champion Providence Friars, a member of Hockey East, made the two-mile trek to Brown. The top-ranked team in the country left Meehan Auditorium three periods and an overtime later, having been not only defeated, but significantly outshot and decisively outplayed by a Brown squad that currently sits in the basement of the ECAC Hockey standings.
“I think a lot of times, that’s how you can evaluate a league: How good are some of the bottom teams?” Quinnipiac head coach Rand Pecknold said. “Our league is really good at the top and it’s really good at the bottom. We’ve got some great talent and top-to-bottom, it’s an outstanding league.”
On the other extreme of the table, the conference’s wealth of ranked teams includes No. 1 Quinnipiac, which holds the top spot in both polls. Harvard, which did not make a single NCAA Tournament appearance between 2007 and 2014, is currently the No. 7 team in the country.
The conference’s prominence has positioned it well for postseason relevance. Sixteen teams make the NCAA Tournament, including six conference tournament champions, who receive automatic bids. The other 10 are determined by the NCAA Tournament selection committee, which utilizes the PairWise Rankings, an algorithmic ranking system whose exact details are not publicly known but are well-approximated by USCHO.
Currently, the ECAC has six of the top 16 teams in the PairWise — more than any other conference and a significant jump from its mark of three before the 2014 and 2015 NCAA Tournament.
“I think this season we’re pushing to be the best conference in college hockey,” Pecknold said. “We have so many teams in the run for the top spots in PairWise, and had a lot of success nonconference.”
In fact, only three ECAC teams hold a sub-0.500 mark in nonconference play, and multiple teams scored high-profile wins in those games. Quinnipiac owns twin victories against No. 3 St. Cloud State University, defeating the Huskies 5–2 and 4–1 in October. Cornell recorded a win against No. 6 Providence during a trip to the Florida College Classic and a tie with No. 9 Boston University, which Yale defeated just before the winter break.
As the schedule has turned from nonconference to ECAC play, it has become apparent just how competitive the conference truly is as its teams battle one another each weekend.
A quick look at the top and bottom of the ECAC standings might not do much to back up Pecknold’s words about the strength of the bottom of the league. His Bobcats sit undefeated in the conference and first in the PairWise, seemingly a world away from Brown, which has lost two-thirds of its league games.
But a longer analysis of those teams’ play on the ice — and that of teams from across the league — tells a vastly different story. Seven of Quinnipiac’s 14 conference contests, and eight of Brown’s 15, have been one-goal games or ties.
Leaguewide, more than half of ECAC games — 51.8 percent — have ended with the teams separated by just a single or zero tallies. By contrast, Hockey East, which owns five of the top 16 PairWise teams, has had 42.7 percent of its conference games end up that close. The National Collegiate Hockey Conference, holding four of the other five top-16 spots, has seen just 29.7 percent of intraconference contests fall into that same category.
And when the ECAC’s first and last place actually faced off against each other, Brown outshot the current No. 1 team in the country 11–4 in the initial frame. In that contest, a 3–0 Bobcat win, the two teams each managed an equal 20 pucks on net. In other on-paper mismatches, Quinnipiac beat 11th-place Colgate by just a single goal, and just a day after defeating 10th-place Princeton 6–0 in New Jersey, the Bobcats had to claw back from a two-tally deficit before knocking off the Tigers again in Hamden.
“I think it’s certainly something that’s noticed by the coaches and players,” Harvard head coach Ted Donato said. “On any given night, we’re playing against teams that have great nonconference records and have the talent to be able to beat you and knock you off.”
Directly below Quinnipiac is a veritable logjam of teams, making the ECAC as a whole as tight as any conference in the country. Just six points in the standings separate second-place Harvard and eighth-place Clarkson, a small enough gap that more than half the conference could swap positions in only three games.
And as the postseason looms ever closer, the 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th spots in the PairWise are all held by ECAC teams, highlighting just how close play across the league has been — and how competitive the final four weekends of the regular season are shaping up to be.
“[The parity] is challenging, but it makes you better,” Appert said. “As a coach, you embrace it. It prepares you for the [postseason] because if you take a period off on the weekend, you’re going to lose.”
The ECAC’s 12 teams will try to avoid that fate when conference play resumes on Friday. The day’s slate is highlighted by two ranked matchups, including No. 20 Dartmouth at No. 11 Yale.