BURLINGTON, Vt. — Few expected that a team, which was winless in its first thirteen games and was the last team in Division I to garner a win, would be peaking at the end of the season.
Vermont completed its second consecutive weekend sweep, the first at home in quite some time, with a 4-1 victory over Princeton at sold-out Gutterson Fieldhouse, Saturday.
Both Jeff Miles and Brady Leisenring contributed a goal and an assist. Chipping in two assists, Ryan Gunderson continued his steady play on the blue line, as well.
“The guys, right now, expect to win,” said Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon. “And that’s a big step in our mindset, when we approach games. We step on the ice expecting to do good things, and that’s the difference [from] where we were at at the beginning of the season.”
The Catamounts took a two-goal lead with a little over nine minutes elapsed. Arguably the hottest goaltender in the ECAC, Travis Russell made it stand up with another excellent game in the nets. He finished with 21 saves, and now has surrendered just four goals in the last four games.
“You know for sure when your goalie is confident that you have a chance to win any hockey game, “said Sneddon. “When the guys see him make a couple of big saves early on, now the team doesn’t sit back. They know they can take some chances and play creative, and I think that is what you are seeing out there. It’s pretty fun hockey for these guys to be playing. We’re getting a lot of offensive chances, a lot of odd-man rushes, and I think the crowd has been entertained.”
With the win, Vermont leapfrogs the Tigers in the standings, as the Cats now own a record of 8-19-4, and 6-13-1 in league play.
Vermont came out of the gates flying and scored an early goal at the 1:00 mark of the period. Tim Plant potted his seventh of the season off a rebound of a shot from Phil Youngclaus. Scott Mifsud also assisted on the goal which got the jam-packed house to their feet.
The Catamounts added to their lead eight minutes later. Ryan Gunderson at the center point found Jeff Miles. Miles sent it down low to Brady Leisenring on the left wing. He walked out of the corner and beat Princeton goaltender Eric Leroux (19 saves) at 9:03. It was Leisenring’s sixth power-play goal of the year and 13th overall. Vermont went one-for-four with the extra man on the night.
Princeton (5-20-2, 5-13-2 ECAC) had some chances later in the period, especially on the power play, but Vermont had excellent defensive coverage in the zone and kept Princeton to the perimeter. When the puck did get through on goal, Russell was in position to make the saves.
To improve its penalty kill, Vermont is trying a new alignment. Sneddon put three forwards out with only one defenseman and it seems to be working.
Vermont denied the Tigers with the man advantage the entire night, holding the visitors scoreless on five attempts.
“We’ve worked a lot on the penalty kill as of late,” said Sneddon. “The guys have done a great job. They’ve picked it up quick.”
In the second period, the Catamounts continued their aggressive play. With a little over five minutes gone in the period, Miles stole the puck in the defensive zone on the penalty kill. He kicked it from his skates to his stick and broke away from a Princeton defender and in on Leroux. The goalie made the save on a low shot.
Vermont extended its lead when Derek Wagar, who joined the rush after making a great defensive play at the opposite end of the ice, skated down the left side. He dished to Dan Owens and the puck glanced off his skate and into the net before Owens himself slid into the net at 7:22. For the freshman, it was his second of the year.
“[Wagar] made a heck of a defensive play,” Sneddon said. “Sliding and then he jumps up into the play and finishes it off. It was a highlight reel all in one shift.”
The only blemish for the Catamounts came with less than two minutes remaining in the period. Princeton’s Patrick Nuendorfer cut the lead to two goals at 3-1 when he blasted a hard shot beating Russell cleanly five-hole for his seventh goal, unassisted, in the final two minutes of the second period.
“It was sloppy game , I thought both teams had a lot of chances,” said Princeton assistant coach Mike Bois. “Especially in the second period I thought we carried the play and had a number of two-on-ones and three-on-ones that we just didn’t capitalize on. UVM was able to capitalize on their chances early, and I think that was the difference in the game.”
Princeton made a late charge in the third period couldn’t get any closer, as Miles, one of three seniors (with Oriel McHugh and Tom Child) playing in their last game on home ice, tallied an empty-net goal from Leisenring and Gunderson at 19:33 to seal the deal.
Vermont hits the road next weekend and is at Harvard on Friday and Brown on Saturday. Princeton returns home to host Rensselaer and Union.
“We’re rolling at the right time. We’re peaking at the best time,” Miles said. Hopefully we can carry it into next week and into the playoffs.”