Thursday, February 7, 2019

Chasing Championships

As league races for Princeton teams go, TigerBlog hasn't seen too many ever that match up to what's going on in the ECAC women's hockey standings right now.

It'll be a great stretch drive involving three, or possibly four, teams. And yes, TB has seen that many times in many different sports involving Princeton through the years.

What makes this one different is that all four teams are ranked in the top 10 nationally. And the three who are sort of wedged together at the top - three teams separated by one point - are also ranked fourth, fifth and sixth in this weeks' poll.

It's certainly going to be a fascinating three weeks on the women's side, where each team has six league games left to play.

The current standings have a tie for first between Princeton and Cornell with 27 points (out of a possible 32, by the way), followed by Clarkson with 26. In the national rankings this week, Clarkson is fourth, Princeton is fifth and Cornell is sixth.

There are huge incentives to finishing first in the regular season, since, if you can then get past the first round of the playoffs, you get to host the semifinals and final. That's something Princeton has never done.

Presumably, the other benefit to finishing first would be having the other two play in the semifinals, avoiding them until the championship game. On the other hand, the fourth place team is Colgate, with 22 points, and Colgate just happens to be ranked 10th in the country, not to mention is last year's national runner up.

Princeton had its 20-game unbeaten streak snapped last weekend against Clarkson, falling 3-1 after a thrilling 5-4 win in overtime against St. Lawrence Friday night. Princeton had a late lead get away in the final two minutes before Maggie Connors won it with three seconds left in the OT.

As TB said, the women's hockey team has three regular season weekends to go. This weekend is a trip to Brown and Yale, followed by a home weekend against Union and RPI and then a trip to Clarkson and St. Lawrence.

Clarkson hosts Cornell and Colgate this weekend, so there are still plenty of head-to-head matchups to go before the end of February. The first tiebreaker is head-to-head, which Princeton holds over Cornell but cannot hold against Clarkson, where a win in the rematch would mean a season split. The second tiebreaker, then, would be league wins, of which Cornell and Clarkson both have 13 right now while Princeton has 12.

The big prizes are the ECAC title and then the NCAA tournament, but there's another one out there for the Tigers as well.

The Ivy League crowns a champion in men's and women's hockey, and it uses the games the league teams play against each other to create separate Ivy standings. Princeton heads into this weekend in  control of the Ivy race.

Because there are six Ivy schools who play hockey, there are 10 games that count towards the standings. Princeton is now 6-0-2, with 14 points. Cornell, at 5-2-1, has 11 points, and both have two league games remaining (against Yale and Brown).

Should Princeton get a win in either game, then it would have the outright championship. If Princeton goes 0-1-1 in those games, then it gets no worse than a tie.

Of course, no game is a gimme, and Princeton finds itself in the situation it does in the Ivy League in part because of Cornell's 4-3 loss to Brown earlier this year. Yale is tied with Quinnipiac for eighth place in the ECAC with 13 points, one point behind seventh place Harvard, as those teams chase the final playoffs spots. Unlike the men, only eight teams reach the ECAC women's playoffs.

Also unlike the men, the women's NCAA tournament is only an eight-team event. TB figures three ECAC teams will make it, but you never know with a field that small.

For now it's all about the last three weekends of the regular season. Princeton has put together a great year so far, and it's no fluke. The Tigers are fast, deep and relentless, and they have genuine stars, including their dynamic freshmen Connors and Sarah Fillier.

It's been fun to watch this team play so far. And it's all led up to where the team now finds itself, and that's doing what any team wants to be doing when it gets to this point of a season - chasing championships, with one on the line this weekend.

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