One of the worst feelings a WCHA coach can have has to be knowing that a season goes bad because of things out of his control.
That’s a feeling Scott Owens probably knows well by now. More often than not, when his Colorado College Tigers have fallen short in his first five years in Colorado Springs, it has been at least in part because of some notable injuries cutting deep into a small roster.
Then there was last season. All-American goaltender Curtis McElhinney had a bout with mononucleosis derail his season. The second half was an up-and-down struggle, with a five-game losing streak and no winning streak greater than two.
But the event that had the biggest impact on altering the Tigers’ course was the November car accident that left assistant coach Norm Bazin battling for his life. Bazin, driving through Washington on a recruiting trip, was badly injured in a crash on a snowy highway. The news, delivered to the Tigers on a road trip at Wisconsin, hit the team hard.
Bazin said his recovery is going “extremely well,” but he’s taking this year off to allow the Tigers to be fully staffed with a year-round recruiting coordinator.
“We had a lot of weird things happen: injuries, Norm’s car accident and a real rollercoaster ride the last six weeks of the season,” Owens said. “I’m hoping we are a little thicker-skinned and a little mentally tougher from some of our difficulties last year.”
But the Tigers can’t pin blame solely on the off-ice issues.
“The reality of it is we didn’t get things done at key times in our schedule and at key times within the game,” Owens said. “Some of our go-to guys just weren’t ready, weren’t old enough yet to step up the way they needed to.”
But now, with a clean sheet coming with the new season, a more experienced group that includes two all-league players from last season, and a larger roster to better deal with injuries, the Tigers could be in a legitimate position to make a run at the top of the WCHA ladder.
CC returns seven of eight defensemen from last season, including third-team all-league performer Mark Stuart; and both goaltenders — McElhinney and all-rookie selection Matt Zaba. The scorers are hungrier, Owens said, and if some of them can chip in a few more goals, the Tigers will be in a good position.
Two key issues remain, however. CC was only 12-8 at the World Arena last season. The Tigers lost a number of close games, some of them in that midseason five-game losing streak.
“We lost a lot of important games,” Owens added. “I’m hoping experience helps us a little bit there. We obviously need to have a little bit more goal production, and our special teams need to improve. We’re looking to get over the hump in that area.”
CC’s power play was ninth in the WCHA last season at 14.8 percent in league games. In the past, Owens said, those groups have been overloaded with left-handed shots, limiting their ability to spread things out. Now, he said, the team has some right-handed shooters with skill to add to the mix.
“It’s getting the right personnel in the right spots,” Owens said. “We never really unfurled it the way we wanted to last year. … We do think we have enough skill, but we just have to get them in the right spots to get them working together.”
The Tigers hope to get a little more scoring out of Brett Sterling, who dipped from 27 goals in his freshman year to 16 last season. Fellow juniors Marty Sertich, Aaron Slattengren and Joey Crabb will continue to see plenty of minutes, while Owens is hoping Scott Polaski, Trevor Frischmon and Braydon Cox step up and contribute more.
With a 28-player roster — the biggest in Owens’ tenure — the competition for playing time will be greater. “If there’s ever a time to make it as competitive as possible,” Owens said, “it’s coming off last year.”
With two accomplished goaltenders on the roster, the Tigers most likely will see a rotation for most of the season. Owens doesn’t necessarily buy into the theory that one has to be the No. 1 goalie.
“One’s a 2002-03 all-American and the other one’s the all-rookie goalie,” Owens said. “They’re both very good, and I think you’ll see both of them playing and then I’m hoping one of them will emerge and take charge. But historically, we’ve had good success with two goaltenders here.”
CC figures to have good success again with a defense led by Stuart, who is back for his junior season despite the run of first-round draft picks to sign with the pros.
“It really anchors our [defense] corps because he’s a guy that can play a lot of situations and a lot of roles,” Owens said. “He’s very reliable, he’s tough to play against. I think he’s also just a phenomenal leader. He was the captain of that world junior team, he has won a lot of games, and I think his leadership rubs off to everybody.”
The Tigers hope Weston Tardy can rebound from an average sophomore season, while senior Richard Petiot and sophomore Lee Sweatt keep pace.
CC had a great opportunity with the West Regional being in their building last season, but couldn’t take advantage after being left out of the 16-team NCAA party. With a tougher team between the ears, the Tigers will be chasing a NCAA spot this year, even though it won’t come with a home-ice spot.
“I think the fact that we didn’t make it to the NCAAs when we had an opportunity to host and we didn’t get home ice really didn’t sit well,” Owens said. “I think it will be a little bit of a motivation, especially as we start the year.”