January is the time of year when many teams are starting to put it all together. The moving pieces of new players integrating with those returning has happened and most everyone understands their role on the team. For the most part, the non-league games are done so now its a matter of focus and effort as every conference game means points, position in the standings, and — with head-to-head wins — possible tiebreakers looking at seeding for the conference tournaments at the end of the season. Here is a look at three teams that have either already found the answers or are starting to find them at the right time of the year.
All Aboard the Mule Train
For last years team from Colby College, the season was both difficult and very unusual compared with the consistent performance seen in Waterville during the tenure of head coach Jim Tortorella. Their overall record of 6-15-3 was disappointing as far as the results were concerned but there were a lot of positives that are clearly reaping benefits this season.
We would have liked better results for sure, said Tortorella. When we look at our goals for the season it is less about the results and more about the development of the players in their game and as maturing student athletes and I believe we achieved those more important goals.
I think that every year is different. This year we are certainly seeing the benefits of going through what we did last year as the kids have brought a different level of work ethic that translates from practice to the games and with that the results take care of themselves.
Three players that are leading the way for the White Mules on the ice and in the locker room are junior Billy Crinnion (six goals, nine assists, 15 points), Wil Hartigan (6-6-12), and sophomore Michael Doherty (4-6-10). Among the team leaders in scoring, the three forwards have helped develop the teams focus on the task at hand during practice, in the locker room, and during the games.
The biggest change I see is the teams maturity and the attention to what creates the outcomes not the discussion of results, said Tortorella. I go in the locker room now and hear the conversations focused on effort and work ethic and doing the little things with intensity and not discussions worrying or planning outcomes.
A football coach once said to his players that they needed to play every play like it was their last play. These kids have taken that philosophy to the ice and have instilled in the team to play every shift like it was their last shift. So far the results have been pretty good.
Another key to the success of this years Colby squad has been the emergence of the freshman line employed by Tortorella. Forwards Michael Smigelski (4-3-7), Cory McGrath (2-8-10) and Nick Kondiles (3-7-10) have provided energy and set the tone in many of the Colby games this season with their enthusiasm and physical play.
The name Smigelski may be familiar to those who follow the NESCAC conference as Michaels older brother Alex is a senior at Williams College and is enjoying a very good season for the Ephs. While Michael has chosen a different school, he is also a different player than his brother and is finding his niche on the ice for Colby.
Michael or Spike is a big kid, chided Tortorella. He is very strong and creates room for himself in tough areas on the ice. He has been a nice fit with Cory and Nick and they have continued to play well and be productive so far this season.
This past weekend the White Mules tied St. Michaels on Friday night 5-5 and skated to a 1-1 deadlock with unbeaten Norwich the next evening. While the outcome of the games were the same, the head coach noticed some differences in the level of play and — more importantly — how the team responded against one of the best teams in the country on Saturday night.
The best example of how this team is focused and doesnt dwell on the past or the future can be seen in our goalie Cody McKinney, noted Tortorella. He is very good at staying in the now. While I know he would like to have a couple back from Friday night, he quickly adjusted and moved on mentally that Saturday was just about Saturday and Norwich and he played outstanding for us in that game.
McKinney did a lot of homework on his game during the summer as the coaching staff sent him home with film clips of every shot and puck touch from the prior season for his analysis and improvement. The general intent was to understand tendencies in certain situations but focused on Codys becoming more astute about his game, his rhythm and not the robotics or mechanics that most people revert to trying to fix.
To date it is difficult to argue with the results: McKinney brings a 2.07 goals against average and .929 save percentage as a backstop to the Mules who will be on the road this week against the ECAC East schools form Maine: Southern Maine and the University of New England.
Unbeaten in their last eight games (6-0-2), Colby is looking for still more improvement and hopes to take advantage of very predictable home-and-away cadence of the next six weeks.
The structure of the season really helps, said Tortorella. We have a nice stretch in January and the players can get into a routine with only games on the weekends. We know there are no easy games on the calendar so we are committed to continuing the work ethic and effort that has got us this far and we will see how far it takes us.
Embracing Change at Castleton
Alex Todds teams at Castleton have developed quickly since his arrival to take over the program.
His teams have been historically known for their physical style of play and aggressive pursuit of the puck in all three zones. With last years graduations of the his first recruiting class, a change was in the air about how Todd saw Castleton competing in the league moving forward and the style of play he wanted to modify with his team for this season.
We really wanted to improve on our team speed, said Todd. We wanted to become much more of a skating team and promote movement without the puck as opposed to the system which emphasized stationary or positional play in the past.
We didnt really change anything about our coaching style in terms of our consistent messaging and teaching to the kids on the ice about what we needed to see executed during the games but the fact was we werent doing the things we needed to do to be successful.
Having started the season at 1-6-2 overall and 0-4-1 in the league, there was the obvious opportunity to express concerns or doubts about his team but Todd was confident in his teams ability to find its own identity and wondered when it was going to kick-in.
Of course there was some frustration, said Todd. I was really more confused and started questioning myself relative to instruction and talent evaluation. At the end of it all I really like this group of kids and the attitude they bring to the rink every day. We really just wanted to start seeing the actions on the ice mirroring what we have been coaching and teaching and I think the turning point for the kids came after our game on New Years Day against Plattsburgh.