As we bite our nails over election reutrns, here’s thoughts from another weekend that was in college hockey. And what a weekend it was.
We’ll start with Bowling Green, where with seven suspended players, the Falcons ran out of gas in a loss to Lake Superior on Friday. But despite short rest — Saturday’s game was in the afternoon — the Falcons responded with a huge win. After starting the season 2-0, and set to face the bottom-feeding Lakers, Bowling Green was poised to have a tremendous start to its season. But the suspensions threatened to destroy all of that. By winning the second game of the series, the Falcons — with still a lot of tough games ahead — potentially salvaged the type of season they are hoping to have.
Also in the CCHA, Ferris State, looking dead in the water early on this season, and facing a team that many believe will be in the Frozen Four (at least), and having been smoked by them the night before, defeated the Michigan Wolverines, 1-0, in overtime Saturday night. Adding to it, the Bulldogs won on the first shot of the season from Mike Rutkowski, taking advantage of a strange bounce to defeat Al Montoya. Montoya’s counterpart, Mike Brown, remains one of the nation’s more underrated goaltenders. “Michigan is a bit of a homer,” said one CCHA coach, “but it’s hard for anyone to sweep these days. We say it every year, but the parity is there in college hockey more than ever.”
Appropriately enough, it was Massachusetts that flip-flopped its play from Friday to Saturday. One day after getting swamped by Providence, 6-2, the Minutemen were the comeback kids, winning the next night by a 2-0 shutout.
Clarkson staved off disaster when prized recruit Shawn Weller was cleared to play by the NCAA at 3 p.m. last Friday. The Clearinghouse initially declared him ineligible because of some complexities in the types of classes Weller had taken in high school. But on appeal, Clarkson finally got him cleared. Not without sweating it out, though. The 2nd round Ottawa draft pick could easily have gone to major junior if he was declared ineligible. But with Weller finally in the fold, all he did was go out and score two goals in his first game, just hours after finding out he was allowed to play. He’s another part of what was a very good recruiting season for the ECAC. Dartmouth and Cornell also brought in a couple studs, and Harvard and St. Lawrence also have their share of good new talent.
Playing one of the most difficult non-conference early-season schedules in the nation, Northeastern is on a mission to prove itself. And the person most trying to prove himself is coach Bruce Crowder, who has been said to be on the proverbial hot seat. The Huskies continued their impressive early-season play with a 3-3 tie against North Dakota on Saturday. Yes, the Huskies are just 2-3-1, but they have beaten Colgate and Michigan, with losses to Miami, Denver and RPI.
Unfortunately, the Sioux cannot be nearly as satisfied with the tie, especially after being up 3-1 in the third period. It was another night without a complete-game performance for new coach Dave Hakstol’s Sioux. The night before, North Dakota had a disappointing performance at Boston College, playing undisciplined hockey for two periods and carrying over from the previous weekend’s 6-0 Saturday drubbing to the hands of Minnesota. When the Sioux put it together in the third period, they swarmed BC and almost fully recovered. Vowing to play a better game on Saturday and salvage the trip, instead the Sioux were tripped up by the nation’s latest upstarts.
Speaking of difficult early-season schedules, St. Lawrence’s was even more difficult than Northeastern. And the Saints came through even more brilliantly, too, sending a clear signal to the ECAC that they will be right there in the mix this year. And the other league contenders — Dartmouth, Colgate and Cornell — are saying “welcome aboard” to the classy program, knowing it can only be good for the league. In what was billed as a barometer weekend for both teams, St. Lawrence swept a two-game home series with Miami, which was ranked No. 10 coming in. Now, Miami was missing four key players, including one of the nation’s top scorers in Marty Guerin. But about St. Lawrence, Miami coach Enrico Blasi said, “They work hard all the time. They come at you in waves. And [Mike] McKenna is an oustanding goalie. … They are very balanced. … Joe Marsh has always been a great coach, even when his teams haven’t done very well.” Meanwhile, Blasi is hoping the team can hold down the fort until his injured players all return. “It’s all about the process,” he said.
It’s not an understatment to call Colgate’s loss to Army on Saturday ugly. Things started out great for Colgate, last year’s ECAC regular-season champs, with four non-league wins against CCHA foes. Then came an overtime loss to Northeastern, which in retrospect, considering how Northeastern has played, may not be so bad. Then Colgate defeated Sacred Heart, but lost to Army, a previously winless team that lost to Cornell the night before, 7-1. As a result, it’s hard to gauge Colgate right now. Those four CCHA wins are against Lake Superior and Ferris State, bottom dwellers. It’s a fascinating program which last year won the league with an interim head coach, who won the ECAC Coach of the Year Award, and is now their assistant again. Stan Moore stepped back to allow Don Vaughan to resume the reins after Vaughan spent a year as athletic director. It’s worth keeping an eye on the Raiders this year.
Another situation we are reevaluating in retrospect is Vermont’s two-game loss at the hands of Niagara the previous weekend. Because after the Catamounts went out to No. 1-ranked Minnesota-Duluth the next weekend and earned a win and a tie, what else can you do except reevaluate things? And Niagara went out and defeated Clarkson on Friday.
All of a sudden, you have to sit back and say, hey, Niagara’s a pretty darn good team and maybe Vermont isn’t really so terrible. Sure, it’s not good that Vermont got blitzed by the Purple Eagles, 6-1, at home, but let’s not forget how good Niagara is.
“The Niagara weekend will turn out to be very important to us in the process,” said Sneddon. “We forgot about the things we needed to do to give us a chance to win. It shows me we learned our lesson, now don’t forget that.”
Remember, Niagara is one of the schools that was considered for acceptance into the ECAC, and some coaches wanted them in, knowing they were the furthest along hockey-wise of any schools involved in the process. And now, after Niagara lost the follow-up game to Clarkson on Saturday, the Purple Eagles are 3-1 against ECAC competition.
But getting back to Vermont, the Catamounts’ athletic director, Bob Corran, used to be at Minnesota-Duluth. He came to Vermont last summer and hired Kevin Sneddon to coach the program, then steered the program towards Hockey East. How proud must Corran have been to be able to go out to his old stomping grounds — where many people thought his hockey team would be embarassed — and show off his program and coach he hired? And this coming after recent cancer surgery that Corran has battled through. It would be trite to say Vermont “did it for Corran,” but it was a nice bonus.
“It was nice to see him and his wife with a nice smile on their face. It was a special weekend for them,” said Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon.
So it was Minnesota-Duluth’s turn to perhaps take its opponent lightly in its own building last Friday. There were two game disqualifications and five-minute major penalties for hits from behind in the first period, both going against Duluth. Vermont turned that into two power-play goals. The calls sent the Duluth faithful into a tizzy. Sneddon said they were borderline between 2- and 5-minute penalties.
“They may have taken us lightly Friday. They’re discipline was not great. They played on the wrong side of the edge,” said Sneddon. “I know [Duluth coach] Scott [Sandelin] was upset about that. They were much more in control of their emotions [Saturday].”
The rest of the WCHA may be calling Sneddon to see how he figured out how to hold Duluth to just four goals on the weekend. But the big key was killing off all 15 UMD power plays. The Bulldogs clearly missed power-play quarterback Tim Hambly. Plus, Vermont blocked 20 shots on the power play alone.
“It’s a building block weekend and a great confidence booster,” said Sneddon.
Not to be outdone by Niagara, the team that actually was picked to enter the ECAC next season, Quinnipiac, showed it wasn’t any slouch either, bumping off Dartmouth, 2-1, on Saturday. Dartmouth, coming into this season with unusually high expectations, can be given a pass here, however. The Big Green outshot Quinnipiac 46-11, and Bobcats goalie Jamie Holden stole the game — as he’s almost done before against huge foes, such as Michigan last season. Holden said it was a statement game to the ECAC.
“I know it was on my mind coming in,” Holden said. “You want to make a statement: You’re going into the league, you’re the new team, and it definitely looks good to beat one of their top teams.”
QU coach Rand Pecknold wasn’t as interested in making those kind of statements, but was proud of his team nonetheless.
“Sure the kids think about, and the senior do because they won’t get to kick the can next year,” said Pecknold. “But as a staff, we haven’t focused on it.
“We did a really good job of clearing out in front and not allowing prime chances. We sacrificed the offense.”
Pecknold, whose school broke ground on a new facility Oct. 7 that will be ready by 2007, said he was nevertheless impressed with Dartmouth and believes they are a legitimate contender for an NCAA bid this year.
“They’re big. I was impressed with their size and toughness,” Pecknold said. “I like their mix of skill and grit.”
Freshman David Jones has been a pleasant surprise so far for the Big Green, playing on a top line with studs Lee Stempniak and Hugh Jessiman. Nick Johnson, who is playing with the continually-improving Mike Ouelette and Tanner Glass, was the more highly-touted of the two newcomers.
“Jones is a little older and seems to be more ready,” said Dartmouth assistant coach Dave Peters. “It’s a little bit of a surprise that he’s ahead of Johnson. But Johnson is pretty young.”
As for Jessiman, Peters said the junior is prepared for big things. After a breakout freshman season which made him a first-round NHL Draft pick, many observers were dismayed last season at Jessiman’s work ethic and propensity for bad penalties. When he didn’t sign with the New York Rangers in the offseason, it was a blessing to his development.
“He’s been much more consistent in practice, playing hard,” said Peters. “Remember, he’s still a 6-[foot]-5 guy out of prep school, he’s still skinny. Sometimes there are stamina issues with taller kids. But he has a good attitude, he’s a great kid, and his work ethic has noticably improved.”
The latest on the rules enforcement is that a lot of sides seem to be coming to grips with things, including, according to many coaches, the referees.
“What I saw this past weekend was a good effort to adapt during a series,” said Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon. “We’re all in favor of getting the clutching and grabbing out of the game. Coaches need to teach, players need to adapt, and referees need to adapt too, and not fearing if they’re not calling 20 penalties that they may not have a job next week. They have to have the trust of supervisors and commissioners that they can have judgment. They’ve gotta go into the game knowing they have everyone’s trust.
“I do see a much better effort out of student-athletes to the keep sticks [down]. We have a simple rule, if you backcheck, you can’t play for our program if your stick is in the air.
“I hope it filters down [to the youth level]. We’ve got a responsibility as leaders to help that process. Certainly we do need to encourage the skill, and how to coach defense the right way.”