The way Vermont began and ended last season is exactly how head coach Mike Gilligan wants to begin this year.
Following a shortened schedule the year before, the Catamounts — fueled by a keen sense of emotion and redemption — surprised the college hockey world by vaulting to the top of the league and into the national spotlight. The Cats almost pulled off upset victories over ranked teams such as New Hampshire and Boston University to start the year, but followed that up with a run of five straight ECAC league wins to start the season at 5-0 in the ECAC. Although the dream season didn’t come to fruition as the Catamounts struggled through the middle of the year, the players did end on a high note by knocking off top-seeded Clarkson during the first round of playoffs and earning a trip to Lake Placid.
“We were 5-0 and surprised a lot of people. I’m not sure if it was all the energy from sitting still or that they didn’t know what we were up to the year before,” explains Gilligan. “We were a solid team and we ran into a January funk and that is something that we are trying to change a bit. We gave them two weeks off in December and that really hurt us in January.”
The success at the beginning of the year and the experience at Lake Placid will surely help the Catamounts, but so will the return of six of the top eight scorers and junior goaltender Shawn Conschafter. Conschafter had already been pegged as the eventual replacement for mainstay Andrew Allen, but no one — not even the Vermont coaching staff — expected the changing of the guard to happen when it did, during the final regular-season game of the year. Conschafter, who saw spotty action throughout most of the season, entered the St. Lawrence gave in relief of Allen, who had struggled all game long.
Fifteen saves later, Conschafter had earned the starting job. In the ensuing playoff series against Clarkson, the 5-9 netminder further solidified his No. 1 spot by collecting a remarkable 106 saves in three games. He tacked on another 33 saves in a losing effort against Dartmouth in the ECAC Preliminary game at Lake Placid.
“Goaltending should be fairly strong. The boy we went with late last year, I put him on my golf team so he wouldn’t be hurt,” joked Gilligan. “He has been working hard this summer and is always in great shape. He has played some in [his hometown of] Buffalo, but most of summer he just played golf. He is in solid form. I knew that he was the heir apparent, but I didn’t know it would happen while Andrew was here.”
Conschafter will have some support in front of him with the return of four regular defensemen. Mark Gouett — not known as a prolific scorer — will provide leadership for a corps that will welcome four new faces to the fold. Returners Thomas Hajek and Oriel McHugh will see plenty of action once again this season, while Dustin Corbett and Mike Erensen will log more minutes as well. Gilligan points out that he will need a few of the incoming freshmen to make an immediate impact in order for the defense to have the necessary depth and strength to last an entire season.
“I am a little worried about defense and playing as many as four rookie defensemen,” said Gilligan. “The way that they adjust will be a major factor for us.”
Last season, it was seniors Andreas Moborg, from the blue line, and J.F. Caudron who provided the offensive spark that catalyzed the team to such an outstanding start. As the season wore on, new faces began to appear on the scoring sheet — names like Bryson Busniuk and Jeff Miles. Miles, a ninth-round draft pick for the Chicago Blackhawks in June, finished as the second-leading scorer with eight goals and 23 assists. Among his season highlights, Miles was the one who delivered the game-winning goal in the first playoff game against Clarkson. He also went on to score the team’s first goal the next night, proving that he has the potential to be big-time scorer like his predecessors.
Miles was paired for most of the year with fellow sophomore Patrick Sharp. Look for those two players to see considerable ice time together once again this year. In fact, those two, along with Busniuk, head into this season with a clear bulls-eye on their collective backs as the number-one line for Vermont.
“I think that we’ll be in good shape. I feel good about the forward lines,” said Gilligan. “We expect the Sharp line to be the most productive line. Sharp and Miles are fabulous players and Busniuk is right along with them, That is the group that we expect the most from, although you might hear from the Cox line as well.”
Gilligan is of course referring to captain Ryan Cox, who collected 21 points, including three short-handed tallies, last year. The 5-10 forward, however, won’t be flanked by fellow senior Graham Mink this time around. In a disappointing turn of events last fall, the Vermont coaching staff announced that Mink would not be a part of the 2001-02 squad. The loss of Mink’s 29 points as well as his three years of experience as a Catamount will be sorely missed up front. That places even more of an onus on the incoming freshman class to fill the void.
“It was no fun losing him, but there are opportunities that come with that,” said Gilligan. “I also think that it was very important for us to get to [Lake] Placid after the six one-goal losses we suffered last year. We have had bigger wins for the program, but it was a nice weekend. It meant that we played well over a longer period and that meant more to us than anything.”