Lakers seek third consecutive Frozen Four trip

It’s fitting that the Oswego State men’s ice hockey team dropped the puck on its 2011-12 campaign against Elmira College and now has the opportunity to end the Soaring Eagles’ season on Saturday night at the Campus Center Ice Arena in the NCAA Quarterfinals.

The Lakers are appearing in the NCAA Tournament for the third consecutive season and are seeking their third consecutive trip to the Frozen Four, the last two coming at the expense of the Bowdoin Polar Bears. The Soaring Eagles earned their fifth straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament, but have not reached the Frozen Four since defeating Trinity back in 2008. They lost to Plattsburgh in the NCAA Semifinals the following weekend.

The two teams have met twice this season, albeit at the very beginning of the season. Oswego State won both matchups in the annual home-and-home series, winning the season opener in Elmira, 7-3, before completing the sweep in Oswego, 6-2. Oswego State has won the last its last five games against Elmira, the last loss coming on Oct. 24, 2009 at the Murray Athletic Center.

Junior forwards Luke Moodie and Tyler Leimbrock and junior defenseman Jesse McConney all scored twice in the two-game series and received goal contributions from 10 different players to open the season 2-0-0.

The first period of the season opener sent shockwaves through the Oswego State community, as senior goaltender Paul Beckwith went down with a knee injury that kept him out for the rest of the season. In his place came junior goaltender Andrew Hare, a transfer from Division I Niagara University, who made 51 saves on 54 shots faced to earn a pair of wins over the Soaring Eagles. Hare has exceeding expectations, compiling a 19-3-2 record with a 1.77 goals against average and a .929 save percentage. Hare’s goals against average is fourth in Division III, while his save percentage is tied for sixth. His play, along with the defensemen, has helped the Lakers to the third-best defense, allowing just 1.81 goals per game. The Lakers have allowed more than three goals just twice this season, game’s in which Oswego State won.

The Oswego State offense has been tough to stop as of late, although Plattsburgh found a way to limit the Lakers to just two goals, one of which was pretty much an empty netter. Junior forward and assistant captain Jon Whitelaw is having a memorable season, leading the team in scoring with 40 points on 19 goals and 21 assists. Whitelaw’s 19 goals are seven more than his career high for a season. Whitelaw is tied for fifth in Division III scoring and is tied for the most points among SUNYAC players with Potsdam’s Sy Nutkevitch. Whitelaw has tallied a goal in seven straight goals and a point in 13 straight contests.

Linemates Paul Rodrigues and Moodie are second and third on the team in scoring, respectively. Rodrigues has amassed 36 points, while Moodie has recorded 32 points. Whitelaw, Rodrigues and Moodie are all averaging more than a point per game. Ten of the top 11 scorers on the team are juniors.

Despite the recent success against the Soaring Eagles, the Lakers are 34-43-5 in the all-time series.

Elmira started the season slow and limped into the NCAA Tournament. The Soaring Eagles tied Neumann University to end the regular season before dropping their first game in the ECAC West Tournament to the same Neumann team. The Knights, 15-8-3, did not qualify for the NCAA Tournament after dropping the championship game to Hobart. The Soaring Eagles, who had the exact same record but won the conference regular season title at 8-2-2, received the lone at-large bid for the conference.

The Soaring Eagles are led by a trio of seniors. Kevin Willer leads the team in scoring with 33 points on 12 goals and 22 assists. Willer leads the team with seven power-play goals. Darcy Vaillancourt is second on the team with 29 points on eight goals and 21 assists. Brendan Sanders is the third member of the team with at least 20 points this season, registering 25 points on 13 goals and 12 assists. Sanders had six power-play goals this season. Five of the top six scorers on the team are seniors. Elmira’s offense is ranked 17th in Division III at 3.73 goals per game. The Soaring Eagles scored six or more goals five times.

The Elmira defense allows roughly a goal more than the Laker defense, ranking 30th at 2.88 goals per game. The Soaring Eagles allowed six and seven goals once each this season, both of which came against the Lakers. They did not shut out an opponent.

Junior goaltender Darren McDonald is the starting goalie on the roster, playing in 20 of the team’s 26 games. McDonald has an 11-7-2 record in net with a 3.01 goals against average and a .892 save percentage. McDonald has been pulled just once, which came on the road at Oswego State.

The Lakers have a sizable advantage in both aspects of the special teams. Oswego State converts on 26.8 percent of power plays, while the Soaring Eagles converts on just 17 percent of power plays. On the penalty kill, the Lakers kill of 86 percent of opponents’ power plays, while the Soaring Eagles kill of 79 percent of opponents’ power plays.

A spot in the NCAA Frozen Four in Lake Placid, N.Y., is on the line when third-ranked Oswego State hosts 11th-ranked Elmira on Saturday night at the Campus Center Ice Arena.

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