Back On Top: Men’s Hockey Gains Control Of ECACHL

Alex Clark

This year’s brand of Colgate men’s hockey has the chance to be one of the most successful in school history. With only one loss in their last 10 contests, the Raiders have dropped only five games all season. The men hit the home stretch with a flurry of conference games over the next few weeks, beginning with a pair of league match-ups at home this weekend. When we last saw the Raiders, their most recent victims had been ECACHL opponents Princeton and Yale. Since then, Colgate racked up five victories and one exhibition win en route to its current first place standing in the league.The Raiders’ first chance to prove themselves in the new year, however, did not begin well. In a non-conference rematch with Hockey East’s Northeastern at the Denver Cup, Colgate laid an egg and continued its streak of never having reached the championship game of a tournament in five years. “It’s hard to talk about the good without talking about the bad,” Colgate head coach Don Vaughan said, “and that really disappointing Northeastern game is motivating us now. We went to that tournament very much expecting to win that game and play [defending NCAA champion] Denver, but we played very poorly. I didn’t realize we were capable of playing that poorly.”A 5-1 loss at the claws of the Huskies left Colgate vying for third place with a struggling Air Force club. Despite two periods of scoreless hockey, the Raiders clearly regained their focus and buried the Falcons, 3-0, with a third period flurry.”After the loss, we dominated Air Force the next night and have now put together some nice games,” Vaughan said. “The puck’s bouncing for us. You can’t look at the game without realizing that you do have to get some of those breaks. But the harder you work, the luckier you are. So that’s where our efforts have been focused.”Colgate recommenced its ECACHL schedule with important road games against Harvard and Brown on January 7 and 8. The Crimson entered the contest as hot as any team in college hockey, ranked 12th in the nation. The Raiders swept the season series with Harvard for the first time since 1998-99, however, with a 3-1 victory. They knocked off Brown the following night by the same score to take all eight points from the normally tricky travel pair.With a pair of games remaining on its six-game road swing, Colgate trekked north to Albany last week to face Rensselaer and Union. The Raiders jumped out on top of the Engineers last Friday, taking a 4-1 lead into the third period thanks to two goals from first-year Tyler Burton. In the six games since we last saw Colgate’s first scholarship player, he amassed five tallies and an assist and is currently tied with junior Jon Smyth for the team lead in goals scored.”Tyler has a real passion for the game,” Vaughan lauded. “Certain guys seem to have more than others, and he clearly loves the game. He comes to the rink every day with a smile on his face, he’s not afraid of hard work and he’s tenacious around the puck. He darts in and out of holes better than a lot of guys at this level. I know he’s not satisfied, and he demands more of himself. He’s our first scholarship player and he’s proving that he’s the kind of player that we can go out and attract now.” Colgate’s 4-2 victory over Rensselaer, coupled with a 1-0 blanking of Union the following night, vaulted the team to a 9-1-0 ECACHL record, best in the league. The team also earned national respect, climbing to eighth in the USCHO/CSTV poll and ninth in the USA Today poll despite what some claim has been a relatively weak non-conference schedule.”Every weekend we have to try to prove ourselves,” Vaughan said. “We’ve risen in the national polls, but there are always going to be the naysayers out there talking about strength of schedule. The way our guys look at it is that we’re in there, we want to stay there and the only way we can stay there is if we continue to win.”Last weekend brought some bad results as well, however. For the first time all season, Colgate suffered setbacks in the way of injuries that could cripple the team for a few weeks. Sophomore defenseman Mike Campaner slammed into the boards feet first last Friday, forcing teammates to assist him off the ice. Last year’s member of the ECAC all-rookie team sat the next night against Union and is day-to-day. Meanwhile, junior forward Kyle Wilson broke a small bone in his foot when an errant Union shot hit the side of his skate. The Dallas Stars draftee will be sidelined for at least two weeks as trainers monitor his improvement.”We dodged the injury bug early on, but you can’t get through the entire season injury-free,” Vaughan said. “[Campaner’s injury] gave other players a chance to step in and play, and I think [junior] Eric Main did a great job. We’ve got guys waiting for their opportunity, and I’ve got every confidence that they’ll step up.”This weekend, the Raiders welcome two of the ECACHL’s best in Vermont and Dartmouth. The Catamounts take credit for the lone blemish on the Raiders’ league record and currently sit just two points back of Colgate in the standings. Meanwhile, following a slow start which included a loss to the Raiders, the Big Green have won four of their last five games, scoring 29 times in that span.”A lot has changed,” Vaughan said. “We’re all playing better than we did in November. When we played Vermont up there, they were for real. They don’t give up a lot of grade-A chances, so we’re going to have to work for what we can get. And I thought we dodged a couple of bullets up in Dartmouth. They weren’t scoring early on, but they certainly are now. We’re playing better too, though. Our power play is playing with a lot more confidence and we’re rested.”Make sure to get down early to each of the games this weekend, as the Raiders defend their regular season crown from last year and play to hold on to the top spot this season. Games tonight and tomorrow night begin at 7 p.m.