CANTON St. Lawrence Universitys senior class has now reached the quarterfinals of the ECAC Hockey playoffs three times in their careers.
While this group leads the Saints back into familiar territory, the team has a prime opportunity to make a splash and reach the leagues final four, which will make a return to the north country as the tournament semifinals and title game will be at Lake Placid for the first time in 12 years.
But first, eighth-seeded St. Lawrence (15-17-4) will have to tangle with No. 17 and second-seeded Colgate (17-12-5) as the best-of-3 quarterfinal series opens at 7 tonight at Starr Rink in Hamilton. Game 2 is scheduled for Saturday and a third game, if necessary, will be played Sunday, both also at 7.
The talk at the end of practice (Thursday) was about how our goal at the beginning of the year was to make it to Lake Placid, St. Lawrence coach Greg Carvel said. I thought that was a legitimate and realistic goal. Now we have one more step and one more hurdle. Its a big hurdle, but I think its within our reach.
Herb Brooks Arena at the Olympic Center in Lake Placid last hosted an ECAC Hockey championship weekend in 2002. To achieve their goal, the Saints must secure a pair of victories this weekend.
Our goal since the start of the season has been to win an ECAC championship, Saints senior winger Greg Carey said.
St. Lawrence swept Colgate last year in the first round of the playoffs in Canton before it was ousted in two games in the quarterfinal round on the road by eventual national champion Yale.
Three seasons ago, the Saints also reached the quarterfinals and, after winning the first game at Yale, were eliminated by the Bulldogs.
Its going to be fun, St. Lawrence senior goalie Matt Weninger said. Its going to be our third time there and were going to try and break the goose-egg weve had in (the quarterfinals).
This year, the Saints will face a primarily young Colgate team that rallied down the stretch to finish in second place in the league, securing a first-round bye.
Were going to go in there just like we did against Brown, we know theyre going to be tight games, Carvel said. But if we dont play right, Colgate has the ability to score goals theyre fast and they have good skill. And they have guys on the back end that can really control the game for them.
Last March, St. Lawrence swept the Raiders in the opening round of the postseason decisively by scores of 4-2 and 4-1. But since then, Colgate won both meetings with the Saints in the regular season in convincing fashion 5-3 on Nov. 15 in Canton and 7-3 on Jan. 25 in Hamilton.
Im going into this weekend confident that were going to play well, Carvel said, and well be much different than we were when we played down there about a month ago.
St. Lawrence advanced to the round of eight with a pair of 3-2 wins against ninth-seeded Brown, including a Game 1 triumph in double overtime.
Browns a real good team and is very physical, Saints senior captain Kyle Essery said. And if we can play like that in this round, we can beat any team. We just have to come out strong.
The Saints have faced the Raiders in three quarterfinal series, with the Saints winning two, including two-game sweeps in 2007 and 2010.
Its going to be tough, but were healthy going into it and thats a lot more than we could say last year, Weninger said. I think we went into Yale with like only four healthy defensemen.
Weve got a game plan and we also know well have our hands full, Carvel said. But we also know that were going in there not feeling like an underdog. We just know that well be playing a real good team, and weve beaten some good teams on the road this year.
The Saints defense has tightened up in recent weeks and just in time for the playoffs as theyve allowed only four goals in their past three games, including two in each of the first-round victories over Brown.
St. Lawrence has also allowed fewer than 30 shots on goal in seven of its past 10 games, including an average of over 22 shots in the past three.
For the last third of the year whats been really important for us is how well weve played defensively, Carvel said. ... Since the start of the year weve had to make adjustments with the type of players we have and I think its paid off.
Weninger has won four of his past six starts, including a pair of shutouts (4-0 at RPI on Feb. 21 and 5-0 against Princeton on March 1 in Canton).
When a goalie gets confidence, the team gains confidence as well, Carvel said of Weninger, who, in 14 career playoff games, is 7-6 with a 2.83 goals-against average and a save percentage of .910.
Weninger, who has eight career shutouts, which ranks him second in program history, leads St. Lawrence all-time in career appearances (130), minutes played (7,421 minutes and 21 seconds) and saves (3,360).
SHARP SPECIAL TEAMS
St. Lawrences power play remains the nations top-ranked unit with 46 goals, as well as efficiency (27.5 percent).
The Saints penalty killing, which has struggled at times during the season, has improved lately. It successfully killed off all six Brown power plays last week.
Our power play has been consistent all season and our penalty killing has been better, Carvel said. Thats another area where Colgate is very good, I think their power play is very skilled and their penalty killing is very aggressive.
Greg Carey remains at the top of the national scoring scene, ranking second in points (54) and tied for second in points per game (1.50). The senior winger also leads the country in assists (38) and assists per game (1.06).
A Hobey Baker Award finalist last year, Carey is again a strong candidate for the prestigious honor. The top 10 finalists will be announced Thursday.
Carey stands alone in fifth place in career points (182) at St. Lawrence, while he is fourth in goals (81) and eighth in assists (100).
Chris Fitz Gerald covers St. Lawrence University hockey for the Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org