Playoff atmosphere starts early for men’s hockey and ECAC peers

For most teams in the ECAC men’s hockey league this season, there has been no such thing as a comfortable position in the standings. Princeton learned that the hard way this weekend, sliding all the way from third place to seventh with two 3-2 home losses, but such large changes have been common in one of the wildest editions ever of the ECAC. Just look at a chart of every team’s standing after the last nine weekends of conference play:

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(Graph by Kevin Whitaker ’13)

Bear in mind, that crazy graph starts a full month into conference play, by which point every team had played 5-8 games and the standings should have stabilized a bit. Instead, they’ve only become more chaotic. Quinnipiac ran away with the league lead by winning its first 10 conference games, but five different teams, including Princeton, have held second place in the last two months.

Cornell opened the season ranked sixth nationally and was still in fourth place when the calendar turned; after a seven-game losing streak, it dropped to 11th within a month. Harvard was also nationally ranked as late as Dec. 17, five weeks before falling into the basement. On the other side, six straight victories propelled Rensselaer from 11th place to second in a three-week span, an almost unheard-of leap this late in the season.

Those jumps reflect a season of preposterous parity — every team can beat almost anyone, so the standings have formed a tight band right around .500. Entering Friday, the middle eight teams were separated by a mere four points, the difference between a good and bad weekend; even after a relatively orderly week, a four-point range still contains teams two through eight. “It seems like it’s always really tight [in past years], but this is pretty incredible,” head coach Bob Prier said.

If the ECAC Tournament had started last week, Princeton would have been the No. 3 seed, getting a first-round bye before playing a home game in the quarterfinals. If it started today, the Tigers would be seeded eighth, having to beat a solid Brown squad in the opening round for the right to visit national No. 1 Quinnipiac.

Of course, with the standings still so close, Princeton could bounce back as high as second place with a strong showing against Brown and Yale this weekend. With only four games remaining, every team except Harvard is still mathematically in the running for a top-four seed and first-round bye in the ECAC Tournament. “When that many teams are fighting for a bye that late in the season, these are really playoff-type games already,” Prier said.

The Tigers allowed two goals in the final six minutes of Friday’s game against Clarkson for a disappointing 3-2 loss — two goals that, at the time, meant the difference between being tied for second place and tied for sixth — and then watched their own two-goal rally fall short against St. Lawrence on Saturday when they trailed by three. Though a first-round bye in the ECAC Tournament would be nice, seeding may not be all that important this year: After a season in which chaos has been the rule, it would be fitting for an underdog to come out on top.

Quick takes

In the biggest Ivy League MEN’S BASKETBALL game of the season to date, Princeton was no match for Harvard, losing 69-57 in Cambridge. The visitors stayed close during a back-and-forth first half, but they struggled to make close-range shots against Harvard sophomore center Kenyatta Smith, who had a breakout weekend with a whopping 16 blocks in two games. At 5-2 in Ivy play, Princeton is now 1.5 games behind the 7-1 Crimson, but it still controls its own destiny. The Tigers must win the rematch at Jadwin Gym March 1 (where they have 23 straight wins over Harvard), and they won’t have a cakewalk through the rest of the league, with five of their other six remaining games on the road.

Head coach Courtney Banghart said Friday and Saturday marked “a separation weekend” for WOMEN’S BASKETBALL. The Tigers did exactly that, beating traditional powerhouses Harvard and Dartmouth to extend their lead over the rest of the league to a full two games. Princeton uncharacteristically struggled to pull away in both first halves, but the hosts eventually won both games by double digits, extending their Ivy win streak to 31 games.

WOMEN’S HOCKEY got its biggest victory of the season Friday night, shocking No. 7 Clarkson 4-1 on the road. Even with a 4-2 loss at St. Lawrence the following day, the weekend split was enough for Princeton to leapfrog Colgate for eighth place in the ECAC. Only the top eight teams make the women’s conference tournament, but the Tigers have given themselves a good chance with a one-point lead on Colgate and a two-point edge on Brown with one weekend remaining; they’ll visit the Bears and 11th-place Yale next weekend to keep their season alive.

WOMEN’S SQUASH entered the Howe Cup as the No. 1 seed, but it stumbled, losing its unbeaten record and championship hopes with a 6-3 loss to Trinity on Saturday and eventually finishing fourth at the season-ending tournament. After winning three straight national titles from 2007-09, the Tigers haven’t reached the finals since.

 

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Kevin Whitaker ’13 is an economics major and former Daily Princetonian sports editor.