It wasn't that long ago that a common February question was whether ECAC Hockey would get more than one team into the NCAA tournament field. But for the past three seasons, ECAC Hockey teams have represented the league well in the tournament.
Clarkson was a No. 1 seed in 2007 and advanced to the second round in 2008. St. Lawrence (2007) and Princeton (2008) joined the Golden Knights in the NCAAs those years, and three ECAC Hockey clubs were among the nation's last 16 this past spring.
Not only were Cornell, Princeton and Yale in the tournament, but each had reasonable expectations of winning at least one game in its regional. Cornell was the only team to do so, but the Tigers were one bad minute away advancing and Yale was playing a virtual home game in Bridgeport. All three of those teams return strong squads with designs on returning to the NCAAs and making runs at the Frozen Four.
It's no secret that ECAC Hockey is a goalie's league, and those three teams had three of the best netminders going in Cornell's Ben Scrivens, Princeton's Zane Kalemba -- a Hobey Baker finalist -- and Yale's Alec Richards. Fellow Ivy League team Harvard gets Kyle Richter back on the roster after a one-year absence. As a freshman, he was the league's Ken Dryden Award winner as the best goalie in the league.
The past several seasons seem to have quieted those questions about more than one ECAC Hockey team being in the NCAA tournament. This spring, a more popular question might be whether an ECAC Hockey team will be in the Frozen Four.
Don't be fooled by last season's eighth-place finish or sub-.500 league record, Union was a team nobody wanted to play and earned a reputation for being one of the tougher teams in the league to play against.
Close games went the Dutchmen's way, as they were 7-4-0 in those 11 contests but just 3-5-0 in eight games when holding their opponents under 20 shots on goal. If you flip that record, Union's overall record would have been 21-15-3 and the team would have been in the conversation for an NCAA tournament berth. A quarterfinal series loss at Princeton led Tigers coach Guy Gadowsky to praise the Dutchmen one week later at the league's championship weekend. Union returns its top four scorers, plus touted goaltending recruit Keith Kincaid to tandem with junior netminder Corey Milan, who set a school record with 19 wins in goal last season.
Primed for a Fall
In a defense-minded league, veteran blueliners can make a huge difference. St. Lawrence skated out four senior studs on defense last season in Zach Miskovic, Shawn Fensel, Matt Generous and Jared Ross ,who combined to play more than 540 games in their college careers. Fellow veterans Jeff Caister and Derek Keller return as seniors this season, but the Saints have a lot of job openings on defense.
Forwards Brock McBride, Kevin DeVergilio and Casey Parenteau also were lost to graduation. Senior forward Mike McKenzie and goalie Alex Petizian are nice pieces to build around, but there is a lot of building to do.
Pressure to Perform
Harvard is a storied program that spent most of the decade among the top teams in ECAC Hockey and made five straight NCAA tournament appearances from 2002 through 2006. The Crimson were a middle-of-the-pack team in the 2006-07 season but rebounded with a good season in 2007-08, finishing third in the league and advancing to the league's championship game (despite a 10-game winless streak in the middle of the season).
Last season was a relative disaster for a Crimson program that has been accustomed to success. Harvard won just nine times in 31 games. None of those came outside ECAC Hockey play or away from Bright Hockey Center. The Crimson lost 10-1 on home ice to North Dakota. The team's leading goal scorer lit the lamp just eight times, and Harvard averaged barely better than two goals per game. To cap it all off, Harvard was shut out twice in the first round of the playoffs by last-place Brown, which won just three regular-season games.
As mentioned earlier, Kyle Richter is back, and a highly touted recruiting class bolsters a lineup that already included a decent amount of talent. It's time for results in Cambridge.
Toughest Act to Follow
If a team achieves the greatest season in program history, it has done great things. When that claim can be made for a program with a history that spans more than 100 years and 2,200 games, it means a little more. Yale won the ECAC Hockey regular-season and playoff championships and rattled off 24 wins in 34 games along the way. Significant talent returns, including a superb group of forwards led by Sean Backman, Mark Arcobello, Broc Little and Brian O'Neill. Last season's starting goalie, Alec Richards, is lost to graduation, and the Bulldogs will have find a new No. 1 among returning veterans Billy Blasé and Ryan Rondeau or newcomers Nick Maricic and Jeff Malcolm.
David McIntyre, Colgate
McIntyre is the most dangerous forward in ECAC Hockey and one of the best overall players in the nation. He was a Hobey Baker finalist as a junior with 21 goals and 22 assists for 43 points. He gained all this notoriety despite playing on a team that rarely plays on national television, finished in 10th place and had 12 wins in 37 games. Expect Colgate to be better this season, partially because McIntyre is that good and partially because another year of experience for key support players should pay dividends.
Louis Leblanc, Harvard
Freshman forward Leblanc was the darling of the 2009 NHL draft, as the Montreal-area native was selected in the first round by his hometown Canadiens in the Habs' home rink. A highly touted skater and scorer in the U.S. Hockey League for the Omaha Lancers. He joins a Crimson team that could use some scoring punch up front after scoring just 68 times in 31 games.
Clarkson tapped a junior, forward Scott Freeman, as its captain in the upcoming season, and some people around the program expressed some concern about that -- in that the Golden Knights didn't give Freeman that type of leadership responsibility sooner. He's the first non-senior captain for Clarkson since Nick Dodge and has a positive presence on and off the ice. He's also pretty good at the game. Freeman was Clarkson's leading scorer last season as a sophomore with 29 points. The playmaker had 23 assists but might be looked at to score a few more goals after the graduation of Shea Guthrie and Chris D'Alvise.
1. Which Quinnipiac players will step up their scoring?
The team's top two scorers from last season, Bryan Leitch (12-47-59) and David Marshall (22-24-46), graduated.
2. Can Dartmouth's young players continue to improve?
Many of the Big Green's best players are underclassmen. The team's top four scorers from last season were sophomores or freshmen, and rookie goalie Jody O'Neill won the starting job in net as a true freshman.
3. Which Yale goalie will step into the starting role?
Senior Alec Richards was spectacular last season with a 19-5-1 record, 2.06 goals-against average and .923 save percentage.
Mark It Down
Five things you can take to the bank in the ECAC this season.
1. Brown will be a much better team this season behind new coach Brendan Whittet. His first priority is to establish a competitive attitude and positive approach. Behind stellar goalie Mike Clemente and a better work ethic, the Bears will be tough to play against.
2. The first task the Rensselaer coaching staff took on when Seth Appert was hired four years ago was to improve the team's overall talent. The staff has done that, and the Engineers add two more highly touted freshman forwards this season with Jerry D'Amigo and Brandon Pirri. Now it's time to see some results. Expect RPI to challenge for a first-round home playoff series this season.
3. Goalie Ben Scrivens, defenseman Brendon Nash, and forwards Colin Greening and Riley Nash get most of the attention for Cornell, but look for a big year from senior forward Blake Gallagher -- the kind of campaign Evan Barlow had last season to supplement Cornell's offense. Gallagher played through significant injury last season for the Big Red in the postseason. When healthy, he's tough for opposing defenses to handle.
4. The last year of the ECAC Hockey championship weekend in Albany, N.Y., (for now) will feature important and exciting games. The top half of the league is as strong as it has been in several years, and when those types of quality teams get together with a championship at stake, great hockey is sure to be on display.
5. We're all interested in what happens in college hockey and pay close attention to how things go on Friday and Saturday nights -- none of us more than the players and coaches. But at the end of the night, it's not the biggest deal in the world, and Quinnipiac captain Jean-Marc Beaudoin will have an even greater perspective on this. He and wife Candace are welcoming a son, Roderick, who was born just before the start of the season.
For more on college hockey, check out Inside College Hockey.