Hockey in the Garden State: The ECAC Tournament in Atlantic City

ecac

Though we’re a Devils blog here at DevilsInsiders.com, we’re a fan of all kinds of hockey. One of which is NCAA Division 1 men’s college hockey. . The ECAC Hockey Conference Tournament is taking place this weekend at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City.

Don’t know much about college hockey or the teams that are in the ECAC? We’ll fill you in.

We’re lucky enough to have the great ECAC blog writers from USCHO.com (United States College Hockey Online) helping us out by answering some questions. Brian Sullivan and Nate Owen know the league better than anyone, and were gracious enough to lend us a hand by answering some questions.

We’re down to four teams out of the twelve in the conference who are vying for the Whitelaw Cup, given to the tournament winner. The semi-finals are slated for Friday, and the third-place game and finals will be on Saturday.

If you’re looking for something to do that’s fun and cheap, you can catch the games that are taking place this weekend. Not to mention, it’s in AC so there are plenty of other fun things to do once you’re down there!

Featured in the tournament this year are three nationally ranked teams: Quinnipiac University at #2, Yale University at #11 and Union College at #18.  Brown, the only unranked team left, has been playing well and looks to be the spoiler.

Friday:  No.7 Brown vs. No. 1 Quinnipiac 4:00pm, No 4 Union vs. No.3 Yale 7:30pm 

Saturday: Third-place game 4:00, Championship game 7:00pm 

For information on tickets, check out the ECAC’s page here.

Boardwalk Hall, Atlantic City/(Jeben51- wiki commons)

Boardwalk Hall, Atlantic City/(Jeben51- wiki commons)

We talked with Brian Sullivan, who gave us the inside scoop on the league.

1. For newcomers to NCAA or ECAC hockey, can you give a little insight into what we see from ECAC hockey? It’s a league that has produced NHL players and had recent success with Union and Quinnipiac…is this a conference that is on the rise? 

Generally speaking, the ECAC has been the tightest league – top to bottom – in Division I over the past few years, and its top teams are finally making noise in the NCAA Tournament as well (see Yale, Cornell, Union). It’s almost two separate leagues, really – the Ivies play fewer non-conference games and don’t offer athletic scholarships (nor does Union, for that matter) – so those seven schools, and therefore the league as a whole, faces tougher challenges than the other “Big Four” leagues of Hockey East, the CCHA, and the WCHA.

Tough to say from a couple short years whether or not ECAC Hockey is on the rise, but it’s hard to argue that it’s falling behind: Union’s Frozen Four appearance last year was the league’s first such showing since Cornell in 2003. Yale and neighbor Quinnipiac have each been ranked No. 1 in the nation in the past few years, and the conference definitely held its own in inter-league play this season (which is in itself a feat, as many ECAC teams are forced to hit the road if they want to play top-quality opposition).

2. People know the North Dakotas, Boston College’s and so on when it comes to college hockey, but what are the top programs in the ECAC?

Depends on the year! Cornell has been the most consistently dominant team in the league for the last decade-plus, until this year, when they pulled in ninth. Union has been strong of late, Yale before that, and Princeton and Clarkson before them. As I said earlier, it’s a very tight league, and it only takes one good class – arriving or departing – to swing the balance of power.

This year, of course, Quinnipiac is the team to beat, setting a league record for margin-of-victory with a 10-point separation between itself and second-place Rensselaer. Overall though, I’d say that Harvard, Cornell, RPI, and Clarkson have been the most historically powerful teams in the conference, but that’s a 50-plus-year time frame we’re talking about.

3. With Union’s run last year in the tournament and Quinnipiac holding the #1 spot up until this week, is the league getting a lot more notoriety and do you think that will translate into better recruiting classes moving forward?

It should, but that depends on the whims and needs of the recruits and the salesmanship of the coaches. Union doesn’t offer athletic scholarships, so even though there are other ways to make the school affordable and attractive to prospects, it doesn’t help the cause. Quinnipiac is certainly in the spotlight now, and that’ll never hurt, but what will really matter is proven long-term success. The Bobcats have been competitive for a while and are enjoying a new high for the program this season, but a lackluster campaign next time out will deter ambitious recruits. You’re only as good as your last title, last game, last season.

4. There are a few good NHL players who have come from the ECAC, can you talk about some of them? i.e Tanner Glass, Ben Scrivens, Matt Moulson, Lee Stempniak etc. 

What about Andy McDonald, Rich Peverley, Craig Conroy, Erik Cole, Doug Murray, George Parros, just to name a few? The league has a reputation as a defense and goaltending-heavy conference that lacks significant offensive depth or talent, but that is quickly becoming outdated… if for no other reason that the current set of rules encourages offense and limits the bounds of defensive tactics. Glass, Moulson, and Stempniak are three great examples for how diverse the league’s talent truly is: Moulson and Glass are both a hair above 6’1″, but Moulson is a bigger presence physically, whereas Glass is more slippery. Stempniak is listed at 5’11”, and is more valuable as a two-way forward than as a scoring threat – the Dartmouth grad has put up pretty decent +/- numbers on some pretty unimpressive teams over the past few years.

5. Keith Kinkaid had a great career at Union and now he’s in the Devils system, can you share some info on him? Do you expect him to find his way to an NHL roster one day?

I am biased, but I rarely agree with players leaving school early to sign pro deals. I understand, of course: Every amateur game played includes a risk of losing any shot at professional play, but especially with goalies, the more practice you get, the better you’ll become. Goalies mature later than skaters by and large, and I worry that Kinkaid sacrificed one of perhaps the greatest years of his social and athletic life for a sizable but short-term windfall.

Will he find his way onto a pro roster? Well hell, as long as Jose Theodore is on an NHL contract, there’s hope for anyone.

5. With the two other goalies that have made it recently, do you think Eric Hartzell could be next on that list? 

Goalies are very tough reads at this level. Hartzell is making the most of his senior year, for sure, but scouts are trained to look beyond the numbers. He has absolutely earned himself a shot at the next level, but he is still far too young and untested to ascertain his ceiling… in my humble opinion.

6. What current players are most likely to make it to the NHL?

Well, look down the leader board: St. Lawrence’s Greg Carey is sure to get his shot, and Kyle Flanagan has already signed. Kenny Agostino and Andrew Miller at Yale are big-time players, and I really like the way teammate Antoine Laganiere plays, too. He can skate like he’s on fire. RPI defender Nick Bailen deserves a look, and his rookie goalie – Jason Kasdorf – has turned some heads this winter, too. Brown sophomore Matt Lorito might be a candidate for league MVP, if it weren’t for his own goalie – Anthony Borelli – and Hartzell. You know, I’ve been burned plenty of times before by this question, but these are a few names that come up over and over again. Every team has a player or two that will get a sniff; what they do with their tryout opportunities is up to them.

7.  Matt Killian of Yale, who’s a jersey kid, can you talk a bit about him? He attended the Devils developmental camp this summer.

To be honest, he has not come up on the radar this year. He only played 18 games as a sophomore defenseman, after playing 31 last year. The much more impressive Garden State Bulldog is Agostino… though he’s a Penguins prospect.

 8. With the league possibly putting four teams in the tournament this year, including a number one seed, what do you think it means for the league to be so well represented? 

What’s wild is that – should the cards fall a certain way – the league could have as many as five teams in the NCAA Tournament next week. Three would be considered tolerable (it’s about what we’re used to), four would be good, five would be downright miraculous. It shows that the member programs are worth watching, worth scheduling, and are just as competitive as teams in any other league.

9. A lot of  big name teams won’t come out East to play, but do you think that the ECAC is getting close to being able to compete with the big names on a regular basis? 

My take has been that the best teams in ECAC Hockey may not be as good as the best teams in the other top leagues…but that the bottom teams in the ECAC will generally be stronger than any other leagues’ bottom teams. As I’ve said, it’s a very tight league. Therefore when it comes to competing with other leagues, the expected outcome depends on the matchup, but also – as you indicated – location. The ECAC is home to small rinks with a lot of history, and teams that cannibalize each other’s PairWise status.

Until any team establishes itself as an annual contender – see Cornell, sometimes Harvard, lately Yale and Union – bigger programs, whether they be Eastern or Western, have little incentive to visit. In the end, the league doesn’t even matter all that much: Northern Michigan, in the powerhouse WCHA, only played one non-conference home game this year, while playing five on the road.

10. For someone considering going to the ECAC tournament down in AC this year, why would you suggest they go and what will they experience? 

First, it’s very very competitive hockey at the second-highest-level in the state. These teams are big, fast, and exciting, and three of the four are very likely to be playing on the national stage in a week and a half. Quinnipiac is all but assured of being the top-seeded team in the country come NCAA selection time, and college hockey in general is as different from the pro game as, well, college football or basketball are from their respective professional leagues. Bands, student sections, clever and organized cheers, and a real fraternal atmosphere found in few other sports give college hockey a unique and downright addicting flavor.

Beyond that, this is the last year that the event will be held in Atlantic City, at least for the foreseeable future… and Lake Placid (where the tournament will be next year) is a much further drive for those south of NYC. Boardwalk Hall is historic in its own right, the arena experience is exquisitely, even bizarrely unique for a hockey venue, and – hey – convenient gambling! If you’ve never been to a college hockey game and you’re reading this blog, you owe it to yourself to go. If you’ve ever been to a Princeton game, you know what to expect – but on a grander scale… and you, too, owe it to yourself to go.

Brian is one of the co-writers of the ECAC blog on USCHO.com that you can find right here.

You can also follow him on twitter: @SullivanHockey