The stretch drive of the ECAC Hockey season begins tonight.
Most of the league’s teams, including Union and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, have eight games remaining. With the chances of catching ECACH-leading and unbeaten Quinnipiac (12-0-2) nearly impossible, teams will be jockeying for byes or home ice in the first round of the ECACH tournament.
But the Dutchmen and Engineers are more concerned about how they are playing and not the standings. They both want to keep improving as the regular season winds down and the postseason begins on March 8.
The Capital Region rivals begin the final month of the regular season this weekend with a trip to the North Country. Union (6-4-5 ECACH, 13-8-5 overall) faces Clarkson (5-6-3, 6-13-7) tonight at 7 at Cheel Arena, and then takes on St. Lawrence at 7 p.m. Saturday at Appleton Arena.
The Engineers (5-6-3, 10-11-5) will play the Saints (5-5-4, 12-10-4) tonight at 7 and the Golden Knights at 7 p.m. Saturday.
Barring a major collapse by Quinnipiac, the two-time defending Cleary Cup-champion Dutchmen won’t win a third straight regular-season title. They are 10 points behind the Bobcats.
However, the Dutchmen are tied for third place with Dartmouth and have a game in hand on the Big Green. Both teams are three points behind Yale.
After Quinnipiac, the standings are tight. Six points separate second place from 10th place. Clarkson is in a five-way tie for sixth, three points behind Union and Dartmouth.
But the Dutchmen, who are 3-0-1 in their last four games, can’t see those standings in their locker room because coach Rick Bennett took them down a while ago.
“It would be nice to be in the top four [for a first-round bye],” Bennett said. “But at the same token, just like what we’ve been doing all along, we’re just worrying about the next practice, and then we’ll worry about Clarkson [tonight]. If we really want to jump ahead, we need to take care of business in the next eight games. We have four home and four away. It’s a pretty nice setup.
“It’s in our hands.”
And the Dutchmen know that.
“You really want to play those playoff games at home,” Union junior defenseman and team captain Mat Bodie said. “Our crowds have always been great, and they’re great come playoff time. But more importantly for us is these last eight games is preparation for the playoffs. First place might be a little bit out of reach, but we wanted to be playing our best hockey come playoff time. The way the college playoffs are, it’s pretty short and pretty fast. If you get on a roll, you never know what could happen.”
The Engineers are in a five-way tie for sixth, two points behind the Saints in fifth and three points behind Union and Dartmouth.
After starting ECACH play 0-5-1, the Engineers have gone 5-1-2 in their last eight league games. They have won their last four ECACH games.
RPI is only three points out of a first-round bye spot. But Engineers coach Seth Appert isn’t worried about that.
“I guess I really don’t care about that. Really, I don’t,” Appert said. “For 21⁄2 months, we haven’t talked once, not one second about the standings. Of course, they’re aware of it. They’re not naive. We’ve got young, smart men in that room. But we don’t talk about it, and I’ve made sure that they understand that it’s not something we’re going to concern ourselves with at all.
“We started the season 0-5-1 in the league. You don’t climb out of that by worrying about the standings and looking long term. . . . Games seven and eight don’t matter. Game two doesn’t matter. The first game against St. Lawrence is all that matters and our preparation for it.”
The Engineers have never had a first-round bye in Appert’s first six years as head coach. As tight as the standings are, the chances are good for the Engineers to earn that.
“Anything’s possible,” RPI senior defenseman Nick Bailen said. “You’ve got to look, as coach has always said, one game at a time. That’s what we’ve been able to do this year, as compared to years’ past.”