NCAA Hockey 101: As ECAC winds down, it's anyone's league

Ryan Lambert Puck Daddy

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BOSTON, MA – JANUARY 5: Mike Vecchione #21 of the Union College Dutchmen warms up prior to a game against the Boston University Terriers during NCAA hockey at Agganis Arena on January 5, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Terriers won 5-4 in overtime. (Photo by Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images)

Hockey East has gotten a lot of attention for its tightening standings, because four teams are within five points of first place in the conference, and schedules are lining up to make those races even tighter.

Boston College plays Vermont and UMass Lowell to end the season, two tough battles. BU gets a mixed bag of UNH (easy) and Notre Dame (difficult). The Irish host Providence before visiting BU, both very stiff tasks. Providence returns from that trip out to Indiana to face UMass (guaranteed points). Lowell has a one-off with UMass before the BC weekend, and Vermont hosts Merrimack (not too bad) to end the year. Lots of points, lots of cannibalization to go around.

But for as tough as the final two weeks of the Hockey East schedule will be, it probably can’t match the ECAC for drama.

Four points separate fifth from first in Hockey East? Well, two points separate first from fourth in the ECAC, and for good measure the fifth-place team is six points back with four games left. That’s going to make things very interesting indeed, especially because a lot of these teams play each other down the stretch.

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The standings right now have Union at the top with 27 points, Harvard a point back in second, and both Cornell and St. Lawrence two back and tied for third. Quinnipiac — long a powerhouse in the conference — is four back of the last two, but has mostly cupcake opponents down the stretch and should make up some serious ground.

And like Hockey East, there’s a lot of schedule overlap, meaning plenty of four-point swings in the standings remain over the next two weekends.

Individual games are always difficult to predict. Harvard, now the No. 3 team in the country, understandably doesn’t have many losses on the schedule, but they include those to RPI (No. 56 in the Pairwise) and Dartmouth (38). But then again they just smoked Union on Friday night to narrow their gap in the first place. As discussed previously, the Crimson always seem to have a tendency to drop off at this time of year, but with a remaining league schedule that includes Yale, Brown and Clarkson (none in the top 25), as well as a final date with St. Lawrence, there are plenty of points they should win. Union’s road out is considerably more difficult.

What’s amazing is that no one has any sizable advantage over the other teams in this top-five. All have two home games and two road games, and the travel isn’t exactly easy for anyone. Moreover, all have very reasonable expectations of taking points from their remaining opponents, with only St. Lawrence even going .500 against its remaining opponents earlier in the season. Most dramatically outscored their opponents. Most are significantly better than their remaining opponents as well.

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As you can see, Quinnipiac has the easiest road out, but they also have the most ground to make up. Likewise, Harvard, arguably the best all-around team in the group, has just one truly tough contest remaining (hosting St. Lawrence on the last day of the regular season). Union has a very good chance to keep Harvard at bay, insofar as it only has to not-lose ground, and Cornell probably has a slightly better chance to leapfrog the Saints.

Moreover, all these games have huge implications for the NCAA tournament. Quinnipiac (currently No. 22 in the Pairwise) is effectively eliminated already unless it wins the conference tournament. St. Lawrence (No. 19) needs to win at least three games to even get into the conversation, while Cornell (No. 13) is a bubble team on the right side of the bubble but needs to pick up at least a few wins to be assured even a low seed. Union (No. 11) effectively only has to win another two games or so and it will be in. Harvard is all but assured an appearance as long as it wins one game the rest of the season.

Here’s the problem for Quinnipiac, too: The four teams in front of it also have the four best goalies (statistically speaking) in the ECAC. Chris Truehl leads the way for the Bobcats with just a .903 save percentage, which isn’t going to get it done most nights. But as far as goaltending is concerned, it’s worth noting that St. Lawrence poses a threat to Union and Harvard because Kyle Hayton (.933) is the best goaltender in the conference by far and can very easily steal four games; he’s .949 in-conference.

Union has the Spencer Foo/Mike Vecchione twin threat (101 points between them in 30 games), including 19 in the past six, and they get above-average goaltending. It’s a deadly combination.

Cornell, like Harvard, is just a solid all-around team with an offense that’s a little more, umm, pop-gun. Mitch Vanderlaan leads the Big Red with 10-10-20 in 25 games; Alex Kerfoot leads the Crimson with 10-20-30 in 24.

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Looking at things somewhat objectively, Union seems most likely to win the league, but you just never know. Harvard or even St. Lawrence could claw their way into that spot very easily. The only thing I think is particularly improbable is Cornell getting there. It’s impossible for Quinnipiac to do it without total collapses in front of them.

Point being, this is a season-long race for three or four teams that’s almost certainly going to come down to a bounce or two over the course of four games. Tough to have things play out that way over the course of five months of work, but that’s hockey.

A somewhat arbitrary ranking of teams which are pretty good in my opinion only (and just for right now but maybe for a little longer too?)

1. Minnesota-Duluth (idle)
2. Denver (swept a home-and-home with Colorado College)
3. Boston University (lost at Lowell)
4. Providence (swept a home-and-home with UConn)
5. UMass Lowell (beat BU and UMass)
6. Harvard (beat Union)
7. North Dakota (idle)
8. Union (lost at Harvard, won at Dartmouth)
9. Minnesota (split at Ohio State)
10. Penn State (swept at Wisconsin)

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist and occasionally covers the NCAA for College Hockey News. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

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