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ECAC Tournament Preview: Union looks to three-peat

The ECAC Championship is back in Lake Placid for the first time since 2002.

Quinnipiac forward Matthew Peca was a key contributor in last season's postseason run.
Quinnipiac forward Matthew Peca was a key contributor in last season's postseason run.
Matt Dewkett

LAKE PLACID, NY -- No team has three-peated as ECAC Hockey Tournament champions since Jack Parker's Boston University Terriers won four consecutive Whitelaw Cups from 1974-1977. The feat has only been completed by two teams, the Terriers and the Big Red of Cornell.

Union College will go for its third straight Whitelaw Cup this weekend at the 1980 Rink at Herb Brooks Arena. Third year head coach Rick Bennett has never failed to win the league's postseason tournament since taking over for current Providence head coach Nate Leaman.

Cornell, the historically most dominant team in the ECAC Hockey postseason, is the first team standing in Union's way of a three-peat. Mike Schafer also won the Whitelaw Cup in his first two seasons behind the bench at his alma mater in 1996 and 1997.

Colgate and Quinnipiac will square off in the second semifinal on Friday evening. The Bobcats, although the lower seed, are considered the favorites in the game by many observers, but the Raiders have excelled in the second half.

Regardless of what happens this weekend, Union and Quinnipiac will receive bids to the NCAA Tournament when the field of 16 is announced on ESPNU at 12 noon ET on Sunday. The Dutchmen are a virtual shoe-in as the No. 1 seed in the Bridgeport Regional while the Bobcats are likely to find themselves as a No. 2 or No. 3 seed in one of the four regions.

Cornell and Colgate likely need at least one win, and possibly two, to hear their name called on Sunday.

No. 1 Union vs. No. 4 Cornell

Union, the Cleary Cup champion, enters the semifinals with an 11-game unbeaten streak after suffering back-to-back losses to end the month of January.

Rick Bennett's team will look to use its speed and skill on the big sheet to further its advantage over the Big Red. Union won the two regular season meetings between the two clubs by scored of 3-0 and 4-1.

Union has the edge in skill and depth, but Cornell is a big and physical team that can take the Dutchmen off their game. That task will be far more difficult on the big sheet, but the top two lines of Cornell can play with any team in the country.

"From a size perspective they definitely have the advantage," said Bennett. "They seem to be one of the biggest teams in the country and I'm not sure we are," he continued.

"Using your size on that sheet is pretty difficult because of the extra 15-feet wide. We have to be able to use our size advantage in puck battles. Union is the second team in the country. They obviously know how to handle people with size. They're very good in battles, one-on-one battles offensively and defensively," said Cornell head coach Mike Schafer.

An interesting battle within the battle will take place in the crease at each end. Union's Colin Stevens was tapped as an ECAC Hockey First Team All-Star while Cornell's Andy Iles came in on the second team.

"Colin has kept a good level head. Colin is off to a pretty good start here in the playoffs, but he knows he can bring his game even higher as well through our run here. He works extremely hard with [assistant coach] Jason Tapp. That's where it starts and he brings it to the game. He's very competitive," said Bennett.

Iles, an Ithaca native playing college hockey in his hometown, has international experience, including attending the World Junior Evaluation Camp at Lake Placid in August of 2010. Iles, a former Salisbury School goaltender, played for the red, white and blue in the 2011 WJC.

"Andy has seen it all. He's been in a championship game and last year he played in the playoffs nursing an injury," said Schafer. "He's been an outstanding goaltender for us. His career statistics and his consistency has just been outstanding for his time at Cornell," added the coach.

No. 2 Colgate vs. No. 3 Quinnipiac

The Raiders and the Bobcats split their regular season series, and this game has the makings of an extremely entertaining college hockey game.

Both Colgate and Quinnipiac advanced to the ECAC Hockey semifinals with a sweep over their quarterfinal opponents. The Raiders took care of St. Lawrence in two games while the Bobcats dispatched rival Yale in two games in a rematch of last year's NCAA Championship game.

"We're coming off two tough games against St. Lawrence. I thought they played very well last weekend. Both games easily could have gone both ways," said Colgate head coach Don Vaughan.

"This past weekend we had a great series with Yale, a really good hockey team. Our kids competed hard and played well and got a couple good bounces along the way. It was two great games and we feel really fortunate to move on," said Quinnipiac head coach Rand Pecknold.

Young blue lines come together

Both teams trot out a very young defensive core, with Colgate dressing two freshmen, two sophomores and two juniors on most nights.

The sophomore defensemen, Ryan Johnston and Kevin Lough, have been two of the top blue liners for Colgate all season. Captain Spiro Goulakos is the team's captain and gets a lot of recognition for his offensive exploits, but the second year defensemen have been instrumental to Colgate's success.

"[Kevin Lough and Ryan Johnston] get overlooked a little bit because of all the dynamic forwards. It's a great class. The two guys on the back end have been very valuable for us this season," said Vaughan.

"The two sophomore defensemen skate so very well. They've been a big part of our success in our own zone. They close quickly, they take away time and space in a hurry and they limit other team's time with the puck. That's half the battle in your own zone. We're expecting them to use the big and be a big part of any success we have this weekend," said Vaughan.

Quinnipiac lost four defensemen to graduation off its roster that advanced all the way to the NCAA championship game in Pittsburgh last April.

"We got cleaned out last year. We lost four of our top six [defensemen]. Obviously we've had a good year. We're ranked fifth in the nation right now. A big part of that has been our freshmen. They've been really good. The two defensemen that have been huge for us are Devon Toews and Connor Clifton," explained Pecknold.

"They are two of our top four defensemen. It is really difficult for defensemen to step in as freshmen. They've been great for us. We usually play three freshmen defensemen a night, but in the Yale series we had four both nights. It's a big part of our success. We're excited to have those freshmen on board and they're impact kids," noted Pecknold.

The Bobcats young defense has been mentored by senior Zach Tolkinen, a non-roster invitee to last summer's New Jersey Devils Development Camp. The Lino Lakes, Minn. native has been solid at all facets of the game and has become more of a presence in the locker room in his fourth season in Hamden.

"Tolkinen has had a great year. He's really blossomed. He's always been a good player for us. This year he's really stepped it up. He's been excellent on the power play, great on the penalty kill and great five-on-five. We couldn't be happier with him," said Pecknold.

"He's done a nice job and really matured into a leadership role. Him and Danny Federico have brought those freshman [defensemen] along in a nice way," continued Pecknold.

The Matchup

Colgate and Quinnipiac are both terrific skating clubs, something both coaches noted in their conference call with reporters earlier in the week. The speed at both ends of the ice should make it a truly fun game to watch.

"They're deep. They have a lot of really talented forwards. The biggest thing when you play Colgate is trying to shut down the offense from their defensemen. [Spiro] Goulakos is a really high-end kid. [Ryan] Johnston has kind of blossomed this year. He's been special against us. It's just such a different dynamic when you have offensive defensemen who can jump into the rush," said Pecknold of his opposition.

Quinnipiac has been one of the best puck-possession teams in college hockey this season. The Bobcats have routinely kept their opposition to minimal time in the offensive zone and won the shots on goal category by a wide margin, something they did well against Colgate back in November.

"We know we can beat them because we did just about a month ago, but if we were coming in off the game we had here in November we'd be in a different place mentally. They might still have been the best team we played all season in that game in November. We hardly touched the puck. They were that dominant," said Vaughan.

Vaughan noted how important it is that his team has the last change as the higher seed and the home team. Colgate will look to match up against Quinnipiac's dangerous top three lines.

Jeff Cox covers college, junior and high school hockey, NCAA recruiting and NHL Draft prospects. Follow him on twitter @JeffCoxSBNation.