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The Promised Land

After 45 league contests, four teams have reached the promised land of the ECAC West playoffs this weekend. Manhattanville clinched the regular season title last Friday and will host the extravaganza. But not only will the Valiants play host to the men’s tournament, they are also hosting the women’s ECAC East playoffs as well.

Six playoff games in three days sounds like an exciting way to spend the weekend for any college hockey fanatic. Manhattanville is taking advantage of the unique opportunity to cross-market the tournaments between fans of each league.

“We are advertising it as one tournament,” said Manhattanville coach Keith Levinthal. “The program will contain both men’s and women’s, our advertising will be both for men’s and women’s, on down the line. We think that doing it that way will help get people who are here for men’s games to see the women’s and vice versa. It should help the whole atmosphere and use this opportunity to bring it all together.”

Manhattanville is also going the extra mile to ensure that everything goes smoothly for each of the eight teams competing at Playland Ice Casino.

“We are excited about the opportunity to host,” said Levinthal. “We are really taking this thing seriously. We will have full time staff members assigned to each team that will be with that team at all times to make the event run a little smoother.”

While the women’s tournament is interesting, this column only really cares about the ECAC West men’s playoffs, so let’s take a look at the matchups for the two semifinal games.

#1 Manhattanville Valiants vs #4 Utica Pioneers
After meeting for a pair of games just last weekend, Manhattanville and Utica will take the ice again in the semifinals. The Valiants won both of those games, by identical 4-3 scores, but it took overtime in Saturday’s game to finally decide it. With a 1-1 tie earlier in the season at Utica, it is pretty obvious that Manhattanville and Utica are evenly matched.

“Utica always plays well here,” said Levinthal. “They are well coached and make very few mistakes. They work their tail off. Because of the way they play here, they are going to be competitive with anybody that they play. No matter who you play in this tournament, if you don’t play well you lose.”

“We are optimistic about our chances,” said Utica coach Gary Heenan. “We know we have our work cut out for us. Manhattanville has had a tremendous year and are one of the best coached teams there is. We have always had extremely well-played, competitive hockey games with them, even since our first year. That hasn’t changed this year. They have twelve seniors and play like that. They don’t give up, never panic, and are very disciplined in their systems play.”

Manhattanville has been on top of the league standings all season. The Valiants swept through the first half of the season, ripping off ten straight wins before finally stumbling against St. Thomas in the first round of the Times-Argus Invitational.

The Valiants then went 10-3-2 during the second half of the season, being ranked in the top five of the USCHO poll almost every week. A big part of Manhattanville’s success is the ability to defend its home ice. The Valiants are 10-0-1 at the Playland Ice Casino this season, but coach Levinthal downplays that factor against Utica on Friday.

“I don’t think [home ice] matters all that much,” said Levinthal. “It is better to be home than away, but we have actually played better at Utica than we have played home against Utica. Maybe more than any ECAC West tournament that I can recall, this might be the most parity. All three games, regardless of who is in it, anybody can win.”

Utica, on the other hand, has been stumbling towards the finish line. While the Pioneers had trouble stringing more than a couple of consecutive wins together in the first half of the season, they still managed to put together a 7-4 overall record before the holidays.

But a 5-6-3 record since then has caused Utica’s stock to fall both in the national poll and the league standings. Certainly the way the league schedule worked out this year hasn’t helped.

“We played extremely good hockey at home,” said Heenan. “The league schedule wasn’t in our favor at all this year. To play two at Hobart, two at Elmira, and two at Manhattanville, it doesn’t get any tougher than that. Next year, it will certainly be to our advantage. There is home ice advantage in this league, I think for everybody.”

The Pioneers have relied on team defense to get through the difficult road schedule during the second half of the season. Utica has the top rated defense in the league, allowing only 32 goals in fifteen games this season.

“Our team speed is our best asset,” said Heenan. “Second to that would be team defense. We hold the best defensive numbers statistically in the league. I am really happy with our six defensemen, who have been real solid for us. Goal scoring has been a challenge, but fortunately for us has come alive of late.”

Limiting offensive opportunities will be key to defeating Manhattanville this weekend.

“Playoff hockey is goaltending and special teams, and they beat us in both those categories this past weekend,” said Heenan. “We know we have been in those games. We have to outplay them in goaltending and special teams. I would anticipate another close game, as they always have been. We are the fourth seed for a reason.”

Each of the three games between Manhattanville and Utica have been close, hard fought, one goal (or less) affairs, and I would expect nothing less in this semifinal game.

#2 Hobart Statesmen vs #3 Elmira Soaring Eagles Hobart and Elmira got to the ECAC West playoffs via very different paths. The Statesmen overcame a spate of injuries early in the season, and then have played consistently since.

Hobart dropped two critical league contests against Utica and Manhattanville right at the start, and also saw three of its six starting defensemen carted off the ice with injuries. For many teams, that could have ended the season before it ever really got going. But Hobart tapped into its depth and was able to win the next eight straight games to finish 9-2 by the Christmas break.

“Two weeks into the season, we were out three of our top six D, and we had other guys step to the plate and helped us keep winning hockey games,” said Hobart coach Mark Taylor. “A lot of different guys have risen to the occasion and allowed the program to do some pretty good things. We have some very good players in the league, but at the same
time there have been contributions from a lot of different guys that play a lot for us, but also many that don’t play a lot for us but have stepped in at different times.”

Elmira, on the other hand, has struggled back into the playoffs after being down and out at mid-season. Just six weeks ago, fans and pundits of the Soaring Eagles were making tee times for early March. Elmira had a 1-5-1 league record on January 24th, and was all but mathematically eliminated from the playoffs.

But one thing that has been proven over the past few years is you can’t count an Elmira team out of the playoffs. Senior captain Brandon Rose held a team meeting in late January and almost single handedly saved the Soaring Eagles’ season.

“It was a concerted effort by our captains who really took this team by the scruff of the neck and put everything right on the line to them,” said Elmira coach Tim Ceglarski. “They showed them the way to go. Brandon Rose should be commended for how he has kept this team together, especially a very young team. They took a disciplined approach to team defense, staying out of the penalty box and not shooting ourselves in the foot like they seem to have done in the past.”

Since that point, Elmira has gone 7-1, all in league play, and with five of those games on the road. The Soaring Eagles chose a perfect time to get red hot and earned a third place seeding in the league playoffs. The Soaring Eagles finally clinched their playoff spot last Friday, after beating Lebanon Valley and hearing the Hobart had defeated Neumann.

“It was a long way coming, based on the way we started,” said Ceglarski. “It was a great feeling [last] Friday night, after hearing the other score than enabled us to get a spot. It culminated a pretty good run there at the end.”

Hobart won the first game against Elmira early in the season, but the Soaring Eagles captured the last two, including beating the Statesmen on the road for the first time in four years.

“I’m not sure if beating them earlier helps us or hurts us,” said Ceglarski. “[Coach] Mark Taylor and the Hobart staff do a great job of coaching their team. We have our work cut out for us.”

The semifinal game between Hobart and Elmira should be a great one as it contrasts the red hot play of the Soaring Eagles against the steady, workmanlike success of the Statesmen.

“Being in the playoffs is a goal that we had from the beginning of the year, so it is nice to be there,” said Taylor. “We are excited about it. It should be a great tournament. Each team has a little bit different thing going for it that you have to give respect to. One team might have a game breaking goalie, or another team that is hot at a certain time of the year, or another that is just very potent, or one that is just good defensively. Each has a strong suit that you just have to respect.”

At the End

Here we are at the beginning of March and another year of ECAC West weekly columns has come to a close. This year certainly has been filled with many exciting games, great stories, and a dramatic race to the playoffs. I would like to thank all of the fans, parents, and players that have read my column throughout this season, especially those who have taken the time to send an email with your thoughts. I always enjoy corresponding with you via email or chatting at the rinks, and that is one of the things that makes this job such fun.

I also must extend my deep appreciation to the ECAC West coaches and Sports Information Directors. Without your continued willingness to set aside some time in your busy schedules every week to chat, this column wouldn’t be nearly what it is today.