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No. 7 Clarkson Heavy Favorite in Parity-Laden Conference

Pouring over the teams in men's hockey for the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference (ECAC) is likely to induce a case of dj vu.

All the teams look about the same and they become hard to distinguish from one another. There is so much parity within the conference that it seems like the same preview is written for each team. Moreover, this has been the case for the past couple of years.

All the teams appear equal, that is, except for Clarkson.

The Golden Knights, which perennially challenge for the conference title, is the clear class of the league. With a deep team led by junior sniper Erik Cole and superbly coached by Mark Morris, the rest of the conference will be hard-pressed to unseat the defending ECAC champs this year.

While Clarkson's catbird seat should be quite familiar to it, some teams will find itself in new positions in 1999-2000. The biggest drop-off should come from New Jersey. Princeton has finally graduated the last of a superb talent cycle that forged the fabled "Orange Line" anchored by Jeff Halpern and Scott Bertoli.

This should be the year that Dartmouth climbs out of the lower rungs of the conference. It endured a miserable season in 1998-99, but provided last year's terrific freshmen class with a wealth of experience that should pay off this season.

As for Harvard, well, after a disappointing finish last year the coaches tabbed it to finish in fifth place. Considering that the Crimson will need a couple of months to adjust to new Coach Mark Mazzoleni's system, that prediction probably is about right.

With all the parity in the league, an exciting regular season will come down to the wire with all teams besides woeful Union having a shot at a playoff spot. Most will have some chance at being one of the five teams to host the first round of the playoffs.

Once the postseason comes around, almost all teams will have a legitimate shot to win their quarterfinal series and advance to the Lake Placid round.

The ECAC tried to alter its look this year by introducing a new logo, but despite the patch that sticks on the player's jersey, the product will be the same on the ice. Here is how the teams should finish the season, according to the preseason coaches' poll.

1. Clarkson

No. 7 Clarkson (25-11-1, 18-4-0 ECAC, 1st place) simply is the class of the ECAC this year. Already ranked in the top ten in the nation, it should have no difficulty claiming first overall in the conference. Cole, Brent Huskins, and Shawn Grant were named to the preseason All-ECAC roster.

Cole (22g, 20a) leads the Golden Knight attack and, after bagging 42 points last year, should only improve. While its other two top scorers graduated after last season there are plenty of other players who should pick up the slack.

On defense, the Golden Knights' best blueliner, Willie Mitchell, signed with the New Jersey Devils. But with Huskins and the offensive-minded Phillipe Roy (9, 13) it will be just fine. Grant, a member of last season's ECAC All-Rookie Team emerged as one of the top goalies in the conference, garnering a .901 save percentage

2. St. Lawrence

St. Lawrence (23-13-3, 15-4-3, 2nd) is a team that surprised everyone last year, claiming first place for most of the season before regional rival Clarkson overtook it down the stretch. The Saints rode the back of their dominating goaltender Eric Heffler (2.11 GAA, .934 save percentage), the ECAC Player of the Year in his senior season.

Without Heffler, the Saints probably will take a couple small steps backwards, possibly making the coaches' ranking a little high. The inexperienced, but highly touted, Jeremy Symington takes over between the pipes and his success will determine his team's fate.

Symington will benefit from a very experienced defensive core led by captain Justin Varney and Dale Clarke. It boasts a very unbalanced attack led by Eric Anderson (10, 30) and ECAC Rookie of the Year Brandon Dietrich (20, 19). If teams can find a way to shut down the Saints' top line, however, there is not a lot of goal-scoring depth at the forward position.

3. Rensselaer

Last year's RPI squad, which eliminated Harvard in the first round of the playoffs, could be reduced to one word--offense. The Engineers (23-12-2, 13-7-2, 3rd) were above and beyond the best attacking team in the conference, which compensated for any defensive deficiencies. But they've graduated 146 points of total offense and production that isn't readily replaceable.

RPI still has plenty of punch left as Matt Murley (17, 33) leads a trio of top wingers along with Brad Tapper (20, 20) and Pete Gardiner (17, 21) They will be expected to shoulder even more of the load on a team weak at center.

The Engineers hope to be more aggressive on a defense that will be led by captain Brian Pothier. They have the luxury of having two No.1 goaltenders in seniors Joel Laing and Scott Prekaski. The combination of offense and goaltendng will keep the Engineers at the top of the division, but shouldn't be enough to make the NCAA.

4. Colgate

For the past two seasons, Colgate (19-12-4, 12-8-2, t-5th) has been one of the rising stars in the ECAC. Two years ago it had a stunning late-season collapse, and last year it remained strong through a postseason ride that ended at the conference semifinals in Lake Placid. This could be the year the Red Raiders return to the NCAA playoffs.

Colgate did not graduate anyone of significance last year, meaning that it still has captain Andy McDonald (21, 25). McDonald is being touted as a Hobey Baker Candidate and while he certainly is not the best player in the nation, he is among the elite.

From top to bottom, the Red Raiders have an experienced squad which has really grown together over the years. Shep Harder and Jason Lefevre provide an excellent goaltending tandem combining to allow only 2.43 goals per game.

With McDonald's offense and the overall team defense, Colgate's prospects look bright and the Red Raiders could swap places with the two teams listed ahead of it.

5. Harvard

Please see preview p. S1

6. Cornell

Plagued with injuries, Cornell (12-15-4, 9-10-3, 7th) was decidedly mediocre a season ago and, despite being healthy this year, it should not move much higher in the standings. It graduated its best offensive player, Kyle Knopp and defensive player, Jeff Burgoyne.

The Big Red had difficulty scoring goals last year and will rely on a balanced attack in order to put the puck in the net this season. Ryan Moynihan (12, 15) and sophomore Denis Ladoucer (14, 14) are the top returning scorers and, along with a couple other players who posted at least 20 points in 1998-99, will have to shoulder the offensive load.

Ladoucer is the best candidate to making the jump into the next echelon of goal-scorers, but most likely nobody will star.

Cornell does have an experienced defense, losing only Burgoyne, but it gets hurt a little in goal with only above average tandem of Ian Burt and Matt Underhill. All this adds up to a roller coaster season at noisy Lynah Rink, but probably not a return to Lake Placid.

7. Yale

Yale (13-14-4, 11-7-4 t-5th) is powered by arguably the best offensive player in the league, co-captain Jeff Hamilton (20,28).

The fleet skater gives the Elis almost enough goals to win each game by himself, and he'll receive enough support from seniors Jay Quenville (7, 15) and Jeff Brow (16, 20), a second team All-Ivy pick. Brow will be expected to produce, as he was second to Hamilton in scoring last season.

But it's not the offense that places Yale low in the preseason polls. The Elis' defense leaves much to be desired.

Without strong defense, the Elis' already weak net will be even more vulnerable. The Bulldogs take a huge hit with the loss of defensive weapon Alex Westlund between the pipes. They look to senior Trevor Hanger and sophomore Dan Lombard to pick up the slack.

8. Vermont

After a strong 4-2 start last season, the Catamounts (13-18-2, 7-13-2, 9th) muddled through the rest of the season at 3-11-2, much to the dismay of Coach Mike Gilligan.

The heart of the Catamounts is undeniably goaltender Andrew Allen.

Allen, who registered a .910 save percentage and a 2.59 goals-against average in 24 games last season, proves to be a perennial force between the pipes.

Senior Andreas Moborg (2, 17), one of the top defensemen in the ECAC, will anchor the defense in front of Allen. But the Catamount corps will start the season a little depleted with an injury to Martin Wilde.

Moborg's group will have to be sharp because, though Vermont returns seven of its 11 top scorers, only three of those players--Kevin Karlander (12, 10), Stephane Piche (5, 17) and B.J. Kilbourne (6, 14) had at least 20 points last season. To compete this year, Vermont will have to get more production from these players.

9. Dartmouth

After being denied post-season play for four consecutive seasons, the Big Green (10-17-2, 6-14-2, 11th) is looking for an upset. And after three long rebuilding years, it may be Dartmouth's time to break out of the cellar.

Offensively, Dartmouth will suffer from the loss of Ryan Chaytors and Curtis Wilgosh, who combined for 45 points last season. Sophomore Jamie Herrington, a member of the ECAC All-Rookie team, is expected fill the gap after coming off a very productive 23-point freshman season.

Weakness arises on defense after losing four veterans. Captain Ryan Burkart (1,7) brings his physical presence to the ice to anchor a youthful defense, including highly anticipated freshmen Trevor Byrne and P.J. Martin.

Goaltender Eric Almon will return for his second consecutive year between the pipes for the Big Green. The anchor of the Dartmouth defense, he finished last season with a 3.58 goals-against average.

10. Brown

All grit and no glory, the Bears (9-16-6, 5-12-5 10th) battled their way into the playoffs last season, only to suffer a heart-breaking elimination to top-seed Clarkson.

Wrapping up last year with a disappointing record, Brown hopes to capitalize on the fact that only three players were lost to graduation.

Unfortunately, two of those players were Adrian Smith and Paul Giblin. But 12 returning forwards, including co-captain Mike Bent (14, 9) and Tyler Garrow (3, 4), should be able to patch the holes on offense.

Senior netminder Scott Stirling will once again be the star for the Bears. Ranked 5th in the nation with a .922 save percentage and a .266 goals-against average that placed him 12th in the country, Stilring will be expected to hold down the fort for Brown.

11. Princeton

Though the Tigers (20-12-2, 13-8-1, 4th) came within inches of claiming the ECAC title last season against Clarkson, don't expect to see a repeat performance. It will be a rebuilding year for Princeton as the Tigers scramble to replace the nucleus of their team.

Having lost stars Jeff Halpern, Scott Bertoli, and Syl Apps to graduation, the underclassmen will assume a much greater role, especially sophomores Josh Roberts (1,1), Brad Parsons (3,3) and David Del Monte (3,0). If they don't radically improve their numbers it will be a long year.

The Tigers will also turn to Benoit Morin (12, 12)for scoring. The only returning player to score 20 goals last season, he should lead Princeton's attack.

The Tigers suffer an equally huge blow on the blueline with the graduation of the ubiquitious Steve Shirreefs. Co-captain Darren Yopyk, with his size and experience, hopes to partially fill the gap.

At least Princeton returns its top two netminders, Dave Stathos and Craig Bradley, who will platoon until the one who salvages any wins for the Tigers emerges.

12. Union

Rounding out the ECAC preseason poll are the Skating Dutchmen (3-26-3, 1-19-2, 12th). Battling back from the worst start in program history since Union made the jump to Division I, the Dutchmen, if nothing else, hope to cause a few upsets.

Under the guidance of Coach Kevin Sneddon '92 for the second consecutive year, the Dutchmen should show some signs improvement over the long term.

However, without scoring ability up front, it's likely that Union will spend another season as the bottom-feeder for the ECAC.