ECAC HOCKEY

1.Cornell

The cries of "Thank you Schafer" should once again below in the confines of Lynah Rink. With his top three scorers back for another year, including last season's Ivy League Player of the Year Kyle Knopp (32 points), Cornell Coach Mike Schafer will most likely collect his third-straight ECAC Championship Trophy come March.

Fifth-year senior Vinnie Auger obviously hasn't had his share of collegiate hockey just yet and is back to cause trouble for opponent's power play. Auger tallied a team-high six goals with a man advantage.

The one suspect area will be the defensive corps, which lost three skaters who logged a combined 352 games over four years. Captain Jason Dailey (21 points) and junior Jeff Burgoyne (15 points) are back, however, and when you place them in front of potential Hobey Baker candidate Jason Elliot, your defense doesn't look so bad. Elliot, whose 2.73 goals-against-average was the sixth-best in the country, won his second consecutive ECAC tournament MVP award last season.

2. Clarkson

It's a team that you neither hate nor love. It's not flashy nor incredibly boring, but Clarkson is unfailingly solid and should be once again this year.

Granted the loss of Hobey Baker finalist Todd White (47 points) and Jean-Francois Houle (36 points) will wreak havoc on early scoring production, but when you return one of the best goalies in the nation (senior Dan Murphy), things can't be that bad.

Murphy, who logged more than 1,100 minutes (second to only Vermont's Tim Thomas), collected 17 wins and a .919 save percentage last year. He should feel extremely comfortable this season considering that the majority of his defensive group is returning.

So deep are the Golden Knight blueliners that Coach Mark Morris bumped Buddy Wallace up to forward. Then again, with only three seniors returning up front, youth will indeed be the watchword of the Clarkson offense. Chris Clark, who tallied a respectable 34 points last year, will be forced to shoulder the majority of the offensive burden.

3. RPI

It would be hard not to place the Engineers somewhere up at the top of the ECAC. How could you not when they are returning every single one of their players?

The last time something like this happened was in 1993-94 when the team lost only two players and subsequently cruised through the regular season en route to the NCAA playoffs.

Is that an omen? It indeed could be such, especially in light of the fire power that it possesses. Look no farther than the Engineer's first line. On one wing you have Matt Garver (44 points), who will be centered by Alain St. Hillaire (44 points). And don't forget the other wing, which is taken up by last year's ECAC leading scorer and All-American Eric Healey (56 points). In essence, RPI possessed what could be considered the nation's most potent line.

The one element which could hinder this offensive juggernaut will be its composure. Boston University had no trouble ratting RPI earlier this year with a 6-0 blowout. The Engineers are too talented to be defeated in such embarrassing fashion, even if it is B.U.

4. Colgate

They have already beaten No.2 Michigan this season, so the question remains--how will they do against the ECAC?

In many ways, the Red Raiders are experiencing a changing of the guards. Powerful skaters such as Mike Harder, Dave Debusschere and Mike Steeves have all moved on, leaving the torch for seniors Rob Mara and Tim Loftsgard and junior Dan Wildfong.

Not only was Harder a Hobey Baker finalist, but he will also go down in the record books as Colgate's all-time leading scorer (88 goals, 126 assists). In sum, the graduating class took with them 50 percent of last year's total offense, which averaged 3.94 goals per game.

Whether or not Colgate can make up for that offensive hole could be less consequential if senior Dan Brenzavich can repeat the stellar 3.11 GAA of his sophomore year.

After missing most of last year with a broken arm, Wildfong returns this season to center a line with Mara and Loftsgard.

5. Princeton

Much like RPI, Princeton's returning group will determine its future. Immediately following the 1997-98 season, the outlook appeared glaring for the Tigers, but then Dominique Auger--a member of the ECAC All-Rookie Team--decided to depart from New Jersey in favor of the Canadian junior hockey system.

That 23-point loss puts increasing pressure on the top returning line of Casson Masters, Scott Bertoli and Jeff Halpern. But, newcomer Benoit Morin, fresh from the junior A program, is projected to be an offensive gun.

The goaltending situation is one of the oddest yet most of effective systems. No one is quite sure who will get the full-time job, but between Erasmo Saltarelli, Nick Rankin and Craig Bradley, the net should be well taken care of.

6. Harvard

It was the youngest team in Division I hockey last year, and it may rival that status again this season.

With seven freshmen looking to see considerable action, the Crimson will have to unearth the talent it claims to possess.

Leading team scorer Rob Millar returns, but he topped an offense which managed meager stats of 2.6 goals a game and a 10 percent power-play efficiency.

Senior Henry Higdon as well as junior Craig Adams and sophomore Trevor Allman will all have to find the back of the net more consistently.

Defense will have to be the key. And with last year's ECAC Rookie of the Year, goaltender J.R. Prestifilippo, between the pipes, that tactic could just work.

7. SLU

The Saints had their fair share of troubles last season--both on and off the ice.

St. Lawrence's ECAC preliminary round loss to Harvard epitomized its disappointing 5-12-5 league record. In addition, goal-tender Clint Owen missed the first half of the season for violating team rules and has now decided to forego his final year of eligibility after signing a professional contract.

Junior netminder Eric Heffler should be able to step right in, but the loss of Owen creates a depth problem in net.

Offensively, towering 6'5" Joe Prpic graduated, leaving Paul DiFracesco, Bob Prier and Derek McGrath to carry the offensive burden. Last year, DiFracesco was fourth in league scoring with 14 goals and 18 assists.

8. Vermont

Ou vont-ils les garcons francais?

That is the question the Burlington faithful is dealing with these days. The loss of Eric Perrin and Martin St. Louis (The French Connection) as well as goaltender and Hobey Baker finalist Tim Thomas--all All-Americans--has decimated the Vermont offense.

It sure didn't help that long-time assistant coach, Roger Grillo, also departed the Catamounts in favor of the head coaching position at Brown.

The loss of St. Louis and Perrin ends an era of Vermont domination. The speedy Frenchmen were unarguably the most feared two some on the ice. Gilligan is just hoping that players such as Stephan Piche (33 points) and Martin Wilde can step up and lead a promising crew of freshmen.

Thomas' presence in the net is irreplaceable, but the defensive void is much greater. Of the four returning defensemen, for instance, only Simon Tremblay and Jason Reid have had significant playing time. The other two, Alex Roomet and Brad Hamel have played only one game between the two of them.

It appears Vermont has entered a rebuilding period.

9. Yale

Return is the name of the game for Coach Tim Taylor and his Yale Buildings.

With 13 of its top 14 scorers back, including the top eight point-getters, Yale should improve on last year's 10th place ECAC finish. By the end of last year. Yale was showing signs of improvement as it defeated Colgate in a 1-0 thriller in the preliminary Tuesday night game of last season's ECAC Tournament. The Bulldogs couldn't find a way past quarterfinal opponent Clarkson, but it had indeed shown some hope.

Spearheading the Bulldog offense will be Jeff Hamilton, who amassed a team high 10 goals along with top point getter Keith McCullough (24 points).

And the defensive end offers little apparent weakness as well. Captain Ray Giroux is perhaps the most dominant returning defenseman in the league and will offer an offensive spark as well. The second-team All-ECAC member tallied nine goals and 12 assists to finish third on the team in scoring last year.

10. Union

The Skating Dutchmen shocked the pundits last season with an 11-win, fifth-place finish in the ECAC.

The determining factor for this team, however, resides between the pipes. Goaltender Trevor Koenig returns to Union's lineup after a 1996-97 season in which he dominated play.

His most noteworthy accomplishment was the ECAC record which he set for the most consecutive shutout minutes (198:44), becoming the first ECAC goaltender since 1984 to post consecutive shutouts.

Unfortunately, however, while Koenig can dominate, he can not carry the entire team, and that is where the Skating Dutchmen will falter. Even Union Coach Stan Moore has called his current coaching endeavor, "the process". Obviously even Union believes it is at least one year away.

11. Dartmouth

It has a new coach and 18 players back. Can Dartmouth finally establish itself in the top of the ECAC?

Probably not.

Bob Gaudet left Brown in order to return to his alma mater, and with him he brings a newfound excitement and hope for the struggling program.

Unfortunately, the team may need a little more help after posting a pathetic 1-13-2 record following Christmas break last season. The loss of Alex Dumas and Owen Hughes creates difficulties as well, since they combined for a total of 30 points and a strong blueline presence.

On the upside, four of the Big Green's top scorers are back for more. David Whitworth (38 points), Jon Strugis (30 points), Ryan Chaytors (28 points) and Jeremiah Buckley (21 points) will constitute the bulk of the offense. That will at least give Gaudet something to work with.

12. Brown

The team's new coach, Roger Grillo, who defected from the Vermont system, is maintaining a positive attitude, and who wouldn't? After a season in which the Bears garnered only four victories and scored 40 fewer goals than their opponents, it couldn't get much worse for the Bears and their fans.

Hey--at least Brown returns the team's top scorer from last year in Damon Prescott. But Prescott, who was the first Brown player to break the 20 goal mark since 1977, is unfortunately joined at the hip with a mediocre offense including Jade Kersey (17 points), Adrian Smith (15 points), Brent Hoiness (12 points) and John DiRenzo (11 points). Not exactly a powerhouse unit, but at least they are veterans.

The only semi-promising aspect to this team is its goaltending situation where Jeff Holowaty and Scott Stirling will challenge for the starting nod. Then again Holowaty had only two victories last year while Stirling has yet to find his first "W".