Men’s Hockey: A Competitive ECAC Will Challenge the Big Red
If you were to ask college hockey fans as recently as five years ago to name the sport’s power houses, it is highly improbable that they would even consider any teams from the ECAC Hockey Conference. However, two consecutive national championships later, and it is now unlikely that you will find someone who doesn’t consider any of the ECAC’s top programs. In a very short time, a conference that had not won the sport’s top prize in decades has become one of the nation’s most competitive leagues. The meteoric growth of this league was evident with the release of the ECAC preseason coaches and media polls earlier this week, in which the Big Red was ranked an underwhelming, yet deserving, seventh by coaches and ninth by members of the media.
Although both polls were in consensus regarding which teams deserved to be in the top six, they varied greatly in the order of these squads. While the coaches predicted reigning ECAC tournament champion Harvard to be the top team again, the media considered another strong Ivy League group, Yale, to lead the conference.
It’s not hard to understand why voters are expecting promising years for these longtime conference rivals. First, Harvard is coming off a season where it made a surprising run through the conference tournament to win the league title as the sixth seed. In that span, they demonstrated the extreme talent of a team that boasted the best goal per game average in the ECAC. Now, with the return of their Hobey Baker Runner-Up, Jimmy Vesey, this team is primed for another run at the league championship.
On the other hand, Yale is a very strong team that is built from its back line. With the return of the league’s best goaltender in Alex Lyon and a defense that allowed less than two goals per game, Yale is ready to, once again, top the conference. Together these two formidable teams will leverage their strengths and create plenty of matchup problems for the rest of the ECAC.
As I have already alluded to, the ECAC Conference will be very deep this upcoming winter. Therefore, there are a number of other teams that you should know about going into the year, most notably St. Lawrence and Quinnipiac. The Bobcats are a team that was somewhat overlooked — 4th in coach’s poll — despite making the NCAA Tournament for the past three years. The defending regular season champions will have a lot of fire power this season behind junior Sam Anas, the 2013-2014 National Rookie of the Year. However, unlike their Ivy League foes, Quinnipiac is a very balanced team, as they have a solid goaltender in Michael Garteig to complement their offense.
Similar to Quinnipiac, St. Lawrence is another complete team that should be a major player in the conference this season. They ranked in the top three in most offensive and defensive categories last season and will have a roster that remains largely intact. Look for the Saints to be a strong dark horse candidate to win the league’s Cleary Cup as regular season champions.
This raises the inevitable question: what does it mean for the Big Red’s chances this year? Well, although the crowded conference certainly complicates Cornell’s road to the postseason, it hardly makes it impossible. Like all teams led by Head Coach Mike Schafer, this one will put a strong emphasis on the defense and goaltending. The Big Red can be excited that five of their top six defenseman will return for the 2015-16 season, along with top goalies Mitch Gillam and Hayden Stewart. Cornell will need to continue its success on defense that made it very difficult for teams to score and allowed the Big Red to be nationally ranked in the top ten in penalty killing percentage (3rd) and in defensive efficiency (7th). As was the case last year, the biggest question for this team is where the scoring will come from. Luckily, the Big Red’s top two goal scorers from last season, Christian Hillbrich and Matt Buckles, will be back with the team this year. This squad desperately needs to improve on its minus 11 plus-minus ratio from last year. If this Big Red team is able to put the puck in the net with more consistency and continue its defensive prowess, then this year’s squad will have a chance at being competitive in this loaded ECAC Conference.