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This Week in Hockey East: Feb. 14, 2008

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On Jan. 19, the Vermont Catamounts’ record stood at 4-9-6 and it sure looked like a season to forget. They were giving up goals by the bushel and not scoring all that much themselves. A “rebuilding year” seemed like the best euphemism available.

Now, just a few weeks later, the Catamounts are launching a legitimate bid at home ice. They’re 4-2-1 in their last seven games and last weekend came within 16 seconds of taking three of four points from then 12th-ranked Providence. On the road.

How times have changed.

“We still, unfortunately are making some mistakes that are costing us at times,” UVM coach Kevin Sneddon says, “but the difference is we’re getting contributions from all three of our offensive lines, as well as some very good play from our fourth line.

“You have to have solid goaltending, and Joe Fallon has started to play like he has been over the past three years. He went through such a tough first half, but we feel like we’ve got him back and that’s exciting for our team, especially with a young defensive core that does still make mistakes in games. Knowing they have a guy between the pipes that’s going to make up for some of those mistakes is huge for us.

“I love our energy. The team is probably skating better than it’s skated all season. The trials and tribulations of the season both on and off the ice have really formed a nice character and identity for this team, and hopefully we’re starting to play our best hockey as we head into the most important time of the season.”

A key contributor has been Viktor Stlberg, who has collected points in seven of the last eight games. Stlberg leads a “third line” that has produced like a top one.

“They’ve just been sensational in making things happen at really both ends of the rink, and have been a threat every game, if not every shift,” Sneddon says.

“Viktor is a special player, at 6’3″ our fastest player, one of the fastest players in the league. I think he’s starting to learn, more and more, the North American game. Taking the puck to the net hard, using his speed to drive the net, being able to play strong along the wall.

“He’s starting to learn and grasp the concepts of a more tight checking game than what he might be used to in a Swedish League. I think he could be a very special player not only this year, but certainly in the future for us.”

In Vermont’s first two years in Hockey East, its success came early in the season. The Catamounts attracted attention in the national rankings, sat pretty in the league standings, and then had to weather the stretch-run charges. Both seasons, they failed to hold onto home ice.

This year has been a different story. When you’re 4-9-6, you’re not distracted by national rankings, the PairWise or holding onto home ice berths. You’ve got to be focused purely on winning the next game.

“Our first two years, we fought to stay in that home ice playoff spot,” Sneddon says. “I think that the pressure kind of got to the guys. Instead of applying pressure, we let the pressure affect us and kind of slid down in the standings because of that. You can’t get too worried about power rankings and NCAA tournament bids, and home ice.

“This year, we’ve come from the bottom of the league, slowly climbing our way up. I’ve never felt that our team has even thought about national rankings, or the NCAA Tournament, or anything.

“We’re just trying to get better every weekend. As a result I think we’ve been able to chip points away in league play just by focusing on one game at a time and that’s certainly now more important than ever.”

Still In The Hunt

It might be tempting to dismiss the Merrimack Warriors this year, thinking some interesting talent among the underclassmen, but hey, they’re in last place, five points out of a playoff berth. Wait till next year.

Hello, McFly? Been watching what’s been happening in the league this year? Five points out is not the end of the season.

“We need to take points every week,” Merrimack coach Mark Dennehy says. “It becomes more and more crucial with the fewer games you have left. It’s a challenge. Our players are looking forward to being in the mix, being only five points out with eight games to go. We wish we were in better shape, but you are what you are, and we need to go from here.

“This is the time of the year that matters the most. Points are hardest to come by. Home ice and playoff opportunities are decided. It’s the time of the year when best players have to step up.”

Aside from top scorer Rob Ricci, two of those best players are sophomores Matt Jones and J.C. Robitaille, both of whom have taken major strides forward from their freshman season.

Jones, a classic power forward, leads the team in goalscoring with 13 goals and four assists. He’s scored goals in three of the last four games. It’s a major leap in production from his six points as a rookie.

“A lot of our freshmen were left on their own last year and had to compete against other teams’ top lines,” Dennehy says. “There was a lot of on-the-job training.

“We noticed a distinct improvement in Matt’s game between the beginning of last year to the end of last year. He took that into the summer, came into this season and got off to a great start.

“Even without playing with Rob Ricci as he is now, he still is one of the best players on the ice every night. It’s a tribute to his play.”

Similarly, Robitaille has recorded nine goals and four assists. Since Jan. 6, he’s totaled seven goals in nine games.

“J.C. Robitaille came into college from Quebec and never really committed to the strength and conditioning one would expect of an incoming Division I freshman,” Dennehy says. “He could play hockey, but he was not physically prepared.

“He quickly understood what he needed to do off the ice, and he did that and then some. It’s helped his skating and his strength down low. He was put in a position last year where he probably was not ready for it, but now as we move forward with this program, the experience that he and the other underclassmen have gotten will pay off down the road.”

Goaltender Andrew Braithwaite, another sophomore, earned Hockey East Defensive Player of the Week honors two weeks ago for his 78-save weekend, especially his 49 stops to steal a 1-1 tie with Providence. Braithwaite (2.39 GAA, .918 Sv%) recorded only three decisions last year but has played every minute in 2008.

“We want to start from the net out as we build this program,” Dennehy says. “We took him on a team that had two established goalies last year because you can never look by goaltending, especially at Merrimack where you can be the star of the game at times.

“He hasn’t looked back since coming off the bench on December 30th. He’s another incredibly intelligent young man and he knows what he needs to do.”

Dennehy points to a few specific areas for his young team to improve in.

“We’ve got to figure out a way to take fewer penalties, and not in clusters,” he says. “It completely debilitates your bench. A lot of times your better players have to kill penalties, and you go into a third period being physically and mentally exhausted.

“Having said that, when you take penalties, you have to kill them consistently and we’re only at an 81 percent clip right now, which needs to improve.

“We need to finish our chances offensively. We had 33 shots last Friday against Northeastern and two first-period breakaways and we didn’t finish. Teams are very good defensively and you have to convert your chances.”

Still On Top

The New Hampshire Wildcats continue to be the league’s top team, having now won their last nine league contests.

“If the team plays the way we are playing now, we’re happy,” UNH coach Dick Umile says. “The last month of the season, we’ve been playing solid two-way hockey. We’ve got production from a lot of people.

“Goaltending has been strong for us, our seniors, our best players, have been playing real hard hockey for us and younger kids, freshmen, have chipped in.”

UNH’s lead —

USCHO covers Hockey East all week long on the Hockey East Blog, with weekend recaps on Monday, picks on Friday, and updates during the week.

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