As March Madness gets underway, the hockey world is preparing for the Frozen Four. In the absence of Cornell and seven other teams — five Ivies and Union and Rensselaer — this season saw limited competition for the ECAC’s coveted Championship and automatic bid to the men’s hockey national tournament.
After finishing the last two seasons at the bottom of the ECAC standings with a combined total of just five wins, St. Lawrence men’s hockey did the improbable on Saturday — upset league-leader Quinnipiac in the ECAC Championship to bring home its first conference title in 20 years.
As a result of COVID restrictions at many of the schools in the ECAC, St. Lawrence’s only competition was Clarkson, Colgate and Quinnipiac. Even with the reduced number of teams, a conference title for St. Lawrence seemed unlikely considering that Clarkson and Quinnipiac finished second and third, respectively, behind Cornell in the regular-season standings last year.
The Saints, led by second-year head coach Brent Brekke, actually doubled their win total from last season, jumping from two wins to a 4-8-3 record. St. Lawrence ripped off an impressive start to the season, only sustaining one loss in the first six contests, but the team slipped down the stretch, failing to notch a single victory in its final six games, while also being unable to play due to a COVID shutdown starting on Feb. 27.
Despite limping into the ECAC playoffs, the Saints only had to win two games in a row to grab the conference crown — which they were able to clinch.
The first win came against a familiar foe in Colgate. Thanks to the limited pool of opponents, the Saints had squared off against the Raiders six times over the course of the regular season, going 2-3-1, with only one of those contests being decided by more than one goal.
Their first-round matchup was close. St. Lawrence entered the third frame trailing by one goal, but it erased that deficit and built a small lead thanks to two unanswered goals.
Colgate forced overtime with a score by Tyler Jeanson midway through the third. During the extra period, Cameron Buhl played hero for the Saints, forcing a turnover and then capitalizing on it by sending a shot past Raiders netminder Carter Gylander.
“We were extremely proud of the team as a staff,” Brekke told St. Lawrence Athletics after the contest. “They are resilient. I use that word a lot with this team, but they truly are. It’s pretty special and we’re very proud of them.”
St. Lawrence faced a tough challenge in Quinnipiac for the ECAC title game. Out of the four ECAC teams competing, the Bobcats established themselves as the top team in the new conference pecking order, rattling off 17 wins during the regular season.
Though the Saints faced a tall task, they responded to the moment, grinding out their second overtime victory in a row to take the title and book a trip to the NCAA Tournament.
In the close contest, Quinnipiac took a 2-1 lead going into the last period, but the Saints responded with forward Justin Paul tying the game at the end of the third period, burying a rebounded shot in the back of the net.
Having already scored two goals on Quinnipiac’s Keith Petruzzelli —the ECAC goaltender of the year— the Saints bumped that total to three in overtime, with David Jankowski’s wrister finding the back corner of the net.
“We were getting near the end of a shift there in the offensive zone, we were having some good looks and a lot of possession time,” Jankowski said. “The puck came to me on the half-wall and our coaching staff talked a lot about cutting to the middle and trying to get something on net and that’s what I tried to do. I tried to pick a spot, and I fell down, I think. I didn’t really see it go in.”
The unorthodox season of ECAC play, which saw two-thirds of teams unable to participate, ended with its most unlikely champion in recent memory with St. Lawrence hoisting the hardware. In an additional turn of events, St. Lawrence announced after the game that it could not compete in the NCAA tournament due to a positive COVID test. Despite being the runner up in the conference, Quinnipiac will receive the ECAC’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
Taking advantage of a limited pool of competitors and demonstrating its tenacity during the tough season, St. Lawrence came to play when it mattered most in the ECAC Tournament. With a large swath of teams itching to return to play next season — including Cornell — this feat may be unlikely to be repeated, but the Saints have still added another title to their name.