Erik Noack has been around enough hockey teams in his lifetime to understand the power of momentum. Win a few games, things start to snowball, confidence builds, and the next thing you know, a team’s season can turn around completely.
Look no further than Johnson and Wales.
Noack’s Wildcats — a proud group that needed a new identity after the graduation of the nation’s leading scorer, forward Jeremiah Ketts, and dominant defenseman Domenic Recchia — stumbled out of the box and were searching for answers. They opened with four consecutive losses, two of which were conference games, and just didn’t have the results to show for the work they were putting in.
Noack, who played in the ECHL after a memorable career at RIT, stuck to his philosophy, while the players refused to hang their heads. They knew there was plenty of hockey left. They knew that the fortunes could change. It was just a matter of doing it.
So, the Wildcats went out and did just that.
“We didn’t get the start we wanted, there’s no question,” Noack said. “It was tough for us. But we were playing tough, and we felt we had the right mix on this team. It was just a matter of getting it going, getting it in the right direction, and it was really nice to see how we played going into Christmas.”
Johnson and Wales indeed rang in the holiday season with a bang, piecing together three consecutive wins in an 11-day span, ending with a dramatic 4-3 overtime win over Stonehill on Dec. 12. The Wildcats also defeated Western New England, 4-1, in an ECAC Northeast game, and Southern New Hampshire, 9-0, as the confidence began to ooze out just in time for the new year.
“We won some games, and all of a sudden you have nine days off; you really hope that the kids keep it up, and work out when they get home,” Noack said. “But we helped that out a bit. We practiced after the Stonehill game. We did what we had to do to stay on the ice, and we went pretty hard.”
That strategy could pay dividends this weekend, when the Wildcats partake in the Codfish Bowl at the Clark Athletic Center in Boston. They will meet Fitchburg State on Saturday, and either Wentworth or Massachusetts-Boston on Sunday. The recent flurry gave Johnson and Wales a 5-7 mark overall, including a 2-3 mark in the league.
“You never know what kids are going to do on their break, but they got back here, we’ve gone hard for a few days now, and it really looks like they get it, like they went home and put some work in,” Noack said. “Obviously, that’s important because this is a high-level tournament.”
Either way, the Wildcats’ offense is clearly charging its way into the Codfish. Freshman forward Daniel Chang (14 points) is one of five players with double digits in points, and he has three goals in his last two games. Senior forward Danny Kaufman, coming off a dazzling junior year in which he posted 18 goals and 21 assists, is right behind Chang with 13 points, including three power-play goals. They lead a group of 12 Wildcats with at least two tallies this season. Senior goaltender Matt Cooper is 5-6 with an .885 save percentage, and has won all three of the games during the current streak.
“I think we have a deeper team than last year,” Noack said. “With Ketts up front last year, we relied on him a lot. And he came through a lot. There were many nights last year, where, hey, it was his show. And the same thing goes for Recchia. We put it on them, and they came through.
“When I look at our lineup now, the decisions are tougher. We roll four lines, and the six defensemen, and the depth is there. It’s just a much different philosophy than we’ve ever had. It took us awhile to get it going. But it’s funny how a few wins kind of make you forget about what happened at the beginning of the season.”
And it’s that kind of mindset that could lead to a Wildcats’ run when conference play returns. After the Codfish, Johnson and Wales will play a weekend set vs. Buffalo State before closing with eight league games starting Jan. 19 vs. Nichols. As weekend play begins, the Wildcats are four points behind frontrunning Western New England.
“You look at the teams in our league, and there’s a lot of balance,” Noack said. “Wentworth has a couple of losses, but I still think they are the most talented team. But Western New England is outstanding as well. I think in the past, there were always the top two teams … and then there was everyone else.
“I think this year, anybody can beat anyone. And I’ve said that a few times before in past years, and maybe not believed it. But this year, I do. It’s going to be very interesting down the stretch here.”
Which is a perfect trail for this team to blaze. With a new mix and a new strategy and some new challenges ahead, conference parity couldn’t have come at a better time for Johnson and Wales.
“The experience that these kids have over their four years here is something that is very, very important to us; it’s what they’re going to remember,” Noack said. “Obviously, you want to win every game, and you want to have a positive experience in every game. But when I think about my playing experience at RIT, I think about some of the other things: the camaraderie in the locker room, and the team meals and the road trips. That’s a big part of the experience, and it’s something I’ll never forget.
“So, we try to make all of those factors a big, big part of what we do at Johnson and Wales, too.”
A smart philosophy that’s netting strong results.