As the outsiders that the vast majority of us are, it can be difficult to appreciate exactly how much the hockey season — especially the end of the season — means to each of the players and coaches we follow so avidly all winter long. There is no “next year” for many of the seniors that you’ve watched develop over the past four years, and that can be a very difficult pill to swallow for them and their teammates.
So I will risk excessive sentimentality and misplaced responsibility to thank Brown, Clarkson, Princeton and St. Lawrence for their passion, effort and determination. Good luck and extra gratitude to the graduating seniors, whose names we all hope to read again in the papers as soon as possible.
“It’s not easy to end another team’s season,” St. Lawrence coach Joe Marsh told me a few years back.
It’s even harder having yours end. Eight teams are up against that reality again this weekend.
Colgate brushing off fumbled finish
Colgate didn’t exactly soar into the postseason this year. It didn’t claw its way in, either.
The Raiders qualified for a bye by virtue of a strong season as a whole, but the way the team finished the regular season — four straight losses — you’ll have to forgive Raiders fans for feeling as though the team flopped fanny-first into the four seed, and can only thank beneficent fates for a much-needed week off.
“We certainly talked to our guys about the body of work and securing the bye, no matter how we ended up doing it,” Colgate coach Don Vaughan said. “Of course we would’ve preferred to get a win in one of our last four games, but it didn’t happen. Like we’ve always done, we learned from some of the mistakes we made in those games, and we move forward. That’s all you can do. You can’t dwell on what’s gone on behind you.”
That said, Vaughan didn’t feel as though his team sleep-walked its way into the playoffs.
“We certainly did [play well enough to win],” he said of the squad’s last four contests. “I thought Clarkson played us very tough. … They got an early lead on us, and we weren’t able to come back. The other games were all close. We spotted St. Lawrence a lead and had to scramble to get back into it. I thought we played OK at home the last weekend. We fired a lot of pucks at the RPI goaltender [Scott Diebold], he made some huge stops, and they played hard. They got a lead and did a really good job with a lead on the road. We still had a really good chance to tie it up late, but weren’t able to score. And Union — Union’s a very good team. There was an empty-net goal, it was a one-goal game [otherwise], and our effort was there.
“In all of those games, the mistakes we made were very costly. They were very bad mistakes: turning the puck over in our own zone, missed assignments coming back on a backcheck, those kinds of things that you just can’t have happen anytime really, but they certainly get magnified this time of year heading into the playoffs. So that’s been a big focus for us, this last little while.”
One minor advantage of finishing fourth — as opposed to first, second or third — is the knowledge that if the favored fifth seed defeats the league’s last-place team, you will automatically play No. 5.
“We knew, with a win, that Quinnipiac would be our opponent,” said Vaughan, “but there are certainly no guarantees in this league, so the coaching staff — we probably prepared as much as we possibly could with video prep and that kind of thing in terms of getting ready to play Quinnipiac, but we also knew that we couldn’t put that in front of the team because we just didn’t know. So we did a lot of other stuff: We worked on our own game. We worked on our power play, on our special teams overall. We got a couple days’ rest, which was certainly good for a couple of our guys. Now that we know our opponent, this week we can start to zero in on the tendencies of Quinnipiac and get to work on some of that sort of stuff.”
But win the Bobcats did, so Vaughan and his staff are confident that they know where to focus the Raiders’ attention for the next few days.
“It’s a very skilled hockey team. They like to possess the puck, and they’re very good at it. We have a lot of respect for their skill set. We know that if we put them on the power play too often, it’s not going to be good for us. We’ve got to solve a goaltender who’s played very well against us, too [Eric Hartzell], so it’s a good hockey club and we’re going to have to play our best, and we know that. I think special teams play, as it always is this time of year, is going to be critical, and maybe even a little more so playing this Quinnipiac team.”
Big Green breaking through frustrations
Dartmouth underwhelmed this year.
There, I said it. It’s not a stunning stance, nor an epiphany. Dartmouth has simply not achieved the level of success that many expected them to entering the season … and the head coach knows it, too.
“You talk about adversity,” veteran coach Bob Gaudet said. “I’ve been doing this for, y’know, 20 — what, 29 years as a coach. Twenty-four as a head coach. We’ve played with a lot of key guys out of the lineup for stretches of time, but everybody did. You don’t make excuses, you just find a way to fight and claw.
“It’s not like we were ecstatic at where we were at the end of the regular season, but I was proud of the way the guys were fighting together, they were battling hard, and the league is so tight that you’re a couple of games out of a home-ice bye, and that’s kind of how we look at things.”
The biggest bits of adversity to which Gaudet referred were injuries to critical contributors at critical points of the season. Junior forward Dustin Walsh has played only eight games all season, and sophomore sniper Matt Lindblad missed a number of key contests late in the regular season.
And the list goes on beyond that.
“Jesse Beamish, as a good freshman player for us, is done for the season. Rick Pinkston’s done for the season: He got hurt on Friday night and Beamish has been out for a few weeks now.”
But by far the biggest hurdle has been Walsh’s absence up front.
“He’s done for the year,” the coach sighed. “He played maybe five or six games, and he was playing really, really well. We thought he was probably going to be a 40-point guy this year. And then there was a stretch — he got banged up, and kind of reinjured an old injury — but he was back on the ice for a stretch each week, so each week going in we’d work on the power play, and he’s a pretty key guy. He’s like a point guy, and we’re thinking, ‘Geez, Dustin will be in this weekend,’ and then, you know, it was another week, and then, ‘Geez, he looks good this week.’ … It went a while, and what happened is it was too tough on him to continue on like that. He’d come out skating, look pretty good, and then there’d be a twinge, and so [he saw a doctor]; it is really important that he gets this squared away for the future, so he’s done for the season.”
Even one of Gaudet’s top goalies has been playing through pain all year, a fact that was clearly not advertised.
“[Senior James] Mello has been injured most of the season,” he said. “It’s hampered his game, but he’s not the type of kid who’s going to say much about it.”
Despite the obstacles, Gaudet feels that his team’s chemistry is exceptional, and that his players have learned a lot about themselves and each other while facing down numerous personal and group challenges.
“As difficult as it’s been in terms of trying to get a lineup on the ice, it’s been a lot of fun, too, because you see kids grow,” Gaudet said. “One of the things we’re proud of is the development of our guys: You take a kid like [Eric] Robinson, a kid who had three goals last year as a freshman, has 12 this year. [Brandon] McNally has 10 goals, [Tyler] Sikura’s got 10 goals, both freshmen. Doug Jones has really stepped up his game even more than his previous three years. He’s done a great job for us. I’m really proud of the development of these guys.
“It’s been an interesting year, but it’s been fun. In 24 years, I haven’t faced this type of a season … but it’s hockey adversity. It is what it is; it’s a game. We’ve battled, but I like where we’re at. I like the mentality of our team, and I like the style of play we’ve developed.”
Apart from the injuries — as though one could reasonably separate a team’s performance from its personnel — the Big Green have struggled mightily on special teams. Dartmouth’s power play is mediocre at best, scoring on 15.5 percent of opportunities so far this season. The penalty kill has been downright horrific, successfully surviving barely 72 percent of Big Green penalties. Yet looking back on last weekend’s surprising first-round sweep at St. Lawrence, Gaudet and the Green aren’t terribly concerned.
“Stats are interesting. It’s not like I don’t follow statistics at all, because obviously you have to, but what I’m really interested in is getting the job done,” Gaudet said. “St. Lawrence was 0-for-10 on the power play last weekend. That’s all that matters to me, and I know that over the course of the season statistically [the kill] wasn’t great, but we’ve learned a lot of things. We’ve found some personnel, and obviously goaltending’s a key thing, and Jody was outstanding, and I thought our kids played with a lot of energy and a lot of confidence. We sacrificed, we blocked a lot of shots, we did the right things, and we’ve had stretches where we’ve been really good. Statistically, not great during the course of the season, but last weekend we were absolutely outstanding.”
As for the man advantage, Gaudet said perhaps his PP isn’t up to snuff because it hasn’t had enough opportunities to get things humming.
“It’s interesting, you know I’m not a statistics guy, but if you look at the 58 teams in the country, we have the fewest power plays of anyone,” he said. “So it’s not like we get a lot of opportunities. Our kids are playing the right way: We don’t dive. We do not dive, and we won’t dive. And what happens is, we don’t get a lot of power plays.”
As for this weekend’s trip to ever-intimidating Lynah Rink, the Big Green feel secure in their knowledge of Cornell as well as their own blossoming abilities.
“I like what we’ve built here. We know we’re going in as the underdog, but I like our team,” Gaudet said. “We’ve played two really good games against ‘em. We came out on the short end both times — one-goal games — but I think our team competed really well.”
Awards season begins
Just a quick-hitter here: The league is beginning to release its list of finalists for its various annual awards, the first release naming the contenders for Tim Taylor coach of the year honors.
Rick Bennett guided Union to its second consecutive Cleary Cup in his first year at the helm and has the Dutchmen in solid position for an NCAA at-large bid, if not more. At Harvard, Ted Donato coached the Crimson to their best finish and first bye in four years. Another newcomer to the league’s head-coaching fraternity rounded out the finalists, as Casey Jones pulled all the right strings in Potsdam to lead a poorly regarded Clarkson team to a competitive seventh-place finish, the program’s best record in four years (16-17-6, 9-9-4 ECAC), and nearly a first-round bye.
There will be plenty more award finalist announcements coming in the next week. Stay tuned.
USCHO covers the ECAC all week long on the ECAC Blog, with weekend recaps on Monday, picks on Friday, and updates during the week.