At 10-1-1 in conference play, the Castleton Spartans know they have a lot riding on their success in the final six games of the regular season in the ECAC East. It may be some basic math, but coach Alex Todd’s squad is in full attack mode in looking to sure up their best possible position for the conference playoffs at the end of the month.
“One of the kids figured out that if we went 0-6 in our remaining games, the worst we could finish would be seventh,” said Todd. “Obviously, we wouldn’t be happy with seventh, but with each win we basically guarantee moving up a spot, so every one of these games right down to the final whistle against Skidmore in three weeks is probably going to have an impact on whether we finish first, second or have a home ice spot come the playoffs.”
There are a lot of reasons why the Spartans are unlikely to go 0-6 down the stretch, including great offense, strong goaltending and terrific special teams. Led by sophomore forward Dan Lazorko, the Spartans attack has put up 94 goals this season in just 19 games, outscoring their opponents by a 58-goal margin. Lazorko, who has 18 of the goals and leads the team in goals and points, has been a major catalyst this season, and his confidence started before the first game was ever played.
“Dan came to me before the season and said that this was going to be a good year for him,” stated Todd. “He said it was his second season and he now understood what he needed to do, and spent a lot of time over the summer skating with kids from the D-I and professional ranks fine-tuning his game. You could really just see the confidence in him, and that has translated directly to the ice. He has been a very efficient player for us this year. He works hard and puts himself in good positions with the puck. He doesn’t shoot a lot, but when he does he usually scores — one and done.”
The other side of that spectrum can be found in Castleton’s most prolific shooter and power-play scoring specialist, junior Ben Schoeneberger. So far this season, Schoeneberger has scored 13 times, 12 of which have come on the power play. Overall, the Spartans are 33-for-95, or almost 35 percent success with the man advantage, which can create a lot of problems for other teams that can’t or won’t stay out of the penalty box.
“We look to win the special teams battle every night,” said Todd. “We want to outscore or not surrender anything and have a plus goal differential in the comparative power play or penalty kill every night. We have been very good in both situations, and certainly Ben has been a key contributor to our success with the man advantage this season. Unlike Dan, Ben shoots a lot of pucks in the course of the game, and while his percentage isn’t as high, he has had great success on the power play, where there is a little bit more room on the ice and things slow down just a bit for him. I think has had better opportunities on the power play as compared with five-on-five shifts, and his numbers show that he finishes pretty well when he gets good chances.”
Of course goaltending is a key to any team’s success in today’s college game, and Castleton is no exception in receiving some big play from one of the smallest guys on their roster. Sophomore Erick Cinotti is just 5 foot 7 inches tall, but plays much bigger. He has surrendered just 23 goals for the season and sports an impressive .937 save percentage and 1.91 goals-against average.
“Erick isn’t the biggest goalie around,” stated Todd. “He really plays well positionally, and because he doesn’t take up a lot of room he does get beat outright by some shots — he’ll tell you that himself. What he does take particular pride in is not letting pucks get through his body. He never gets beat on a shot that he can see and get in front of — no bad breaks off his body, pads or arms for goals. So defensively we really focus on making sure he gets good looks at pucks, and he knows to smother everything he can for a whistle. We will gladly take faceoffs over giving the other team secondhand scoring chances, and Erick has done a great job of smothering the puck after making the initial save.”
Sitting just one point out of first place in the ECAC East standings, the Spartans have a very clear goal in mind as an outcome for the remaining six games of the season: They would like to win the regular season crown, and know that to do that they are going to have to win virtually all of their remaining games, including next Saturday’s matchup with the first place Norwich Cadets.
“We had very high expectations coming into this season,” said Todd. “It is a little different playing everybody twice this season on the schedule, but we know that to finish first it’s not about one game against Norwich. We played Babson early in the season last year and beat them 6-1 in November. We played them again in the playoffs and lost, so we know you can’t put a lot of stock into what happened the first time around. Babson has been playing really well the past few weekends, and is not like the team we beat 6-1 this season back in November. We have to be ready to play everybody, and that is what I am reminding the team about as we head out on the road against two teams we beat earlier in the season. We have a lot to play for, just as they do, so we need to go out and play our game and stay focused on what we need to do to be successful each night.”
The end of 2011 and beginning of 2012 saw Castleton play back-to-back games with Plattsburgh as part of the Cardinal Classic, and then a scheduled nonconference game. The Cardinals took both games by scores of 3-2 and 2-1, the only consecutive losses the team has endured this season. In fact, all three losses are to top five teams this season, with the other loss coming earlier to Norwich in the first meeting between the two conference foes.
“The Plattsburgh games really showed us where we need to be against the best teams coming into the part of the season where the games mean the most. I thought we limited their offensive chances, but so did they limit our chances. In playoff hockey, you are going to get chances; they are just going to be fewer in number, so you need to cash those in. Those goals are the difference in winning 3-2 or losing 2-1. I think the games with Plattsburgh really showed us the value of taking advantage of opportunities and the hard reality of what happens when you don’t.”
If the script holds true for the conference standings to be finalized in traditional fashion, expect the final games on Saturday, February 18, to dictate the playoff seeding. Coach Todd has no illusions that this year will be any different, and knows the final home-and-home series with travel partner Skidmore will seal their position overall.
“We have been looking at a lot of the conferences that play teams back-to-back on consecutive nights just to give our team an idea of how things play out,” noted Todd. “Whatever the outcome on Friday night is, Saturday seems to be the opposite. So if Friday is a 5-0 blowout, Saturday tends to be a 2-1 nail biter. I don’t want the kids feeling comfortable that the outcome of the first game of the weekend dictating their assumptions about the return game on Saturday. You know whomever loses the first game is going to come out hard in the second game, and they will have learned from the first game in trying to do so certain things on the ice that work to their favor or take certain things away from you to limit your success. It’s not the same team the second time around, whether it’s a month, week or day apart.”
So February is here and the Spartans want to keep their winning ways going, with key matchups this weekend against Massachusetts-Boston and Babson. Points keep them advancing to their coveted goal atop the league standings, and so far very little has slowed this hockey army down.
Castleton on the march — drop the puck!