LOWELL, Mass. — “Believed to be extinct since the mid-1800′s …”
That’s what many in the state of Vermont hold to be the fate of the “Catamount,” an almost-mythical catlike creature that is the moniker and mascot of the state university in Burlington and that hasn’t been seen in almost 200 years.
At one point, some feared a similar fate for Vermont hockey. But a new coach and an admission into the Hockey East Association later, and people once again are talking in the Green Mountain State about the state of Catamount hockey.
On Saturday, the No. 18 Catamounts won their eighth game in a row, defeating hard-nosed Massachusetts-Lowell, 2-1, at Tsongas Arena, to improve to 9-4-1 (6-1-1 Hockey East). The River Hawks lost their fifth consecutive game to fall to 3-7-3 (2-5-2 HE).
While UVM may not yet resemble the juggernaut Catamount teams of the mid-1990′s that featured current NHLers Martin St.Louis, Eric Perrin and Tim Thomas, they are giving notice that they are contenders not only for the Hockey East championship, but a national title.
Ironically, Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon didn’t think his Cats looked anything like a championship-caliber club on this night.
“I didn’t think we played well tonight,” said the four-year coach. “I thought they outplayed us most of the game. We did not execute well. I didn’t think that we had much zip tonight.
“Lowell played great. We minimized their Grade-A opportunities. We were lucky to come away with a win tonight.”
UML coach Blaise MacDonald liked what he saw from his team, despite the fifth straight loss.
“It was a tightly contested game. We got some great opportunities against a good defensive team like Vermont. I thought our energy level was high all night. I love the effort,” he said.
Make no mistake — despite Sneddon’s comments, the Catamounts are for real, and Vermont showed why it came into the game ranked second in the country in defense: after the first 10 minutes, Massachusetts-Lowell had just one shot on goal. However, the River Hawks held the Catamounts to just one shot on goal as well over the first 10 minutes.
With neither team asserting itself in the first period, Vermont caught a break when Patrick Cullity’s wide shot from the Lowell blue line was deflected chest-high by teammate Chris Myers, who was credited with his second goal of the season.
Lowell’s best chance to get on the board came minutes later, when senior Jeremy Hall intercepted a pass, walked in along on Vermont junior goalie Joe Fallon, and sent a wrist shot that Fallon was just able to get his stick on.
The River Hawks came out strong in the middle stanza, outshooting Vermont 7-4. During a scrum in front of Fallon, senior captain Jason Tejchma got his seventh goal of the year.
“I went in as hard as I could from behind the net. I saw the puck between (Fallon’s) legs, andI just banged it in,” said Tejchma.
UML continued to buzz around Fallon, causing Sneddon to call a timeout. The stoppage proved to be the cure for Vermont, as less than three minutes later, freshman Brayden Irwin scored his first collegiate goal, picking up a loose puck and beating UML freshman goalie Carter Hutton with what proved to be the game-winning goal.
River Hawk Paul Worthington had a golden opportunity to tie the game midway through the third period, but his shot went over the crossbar.
“I tried to put it up top, and missed. Fallon did a nice job of sliding over at the last second. You’ve got to put away those chances. You have to bury them,” he said.
Added MacDonald, “Earlier in the game, we made a perfect tip pass, and Fallon somehow makes the save. Then they send one three feet wide, and one of their guys gets a stick on it and scores.”
Vermont outshot Massachusetts-Lowell by a slim 19-18 margin.
Did Sneddon attribute his team’s lackluster play for much of the game to looking ahead to their huge, early-season showdown with No. 2 New Hampshire on Sunday?
“No way. We have too much respect for this league to look ahead of this game tonight,” he said.
Indeed, the Catamounts will be tested on Sunday when they travel to Durham, N.H., to take on the Hockey East-leading Wildcats. Game time is at 3:00 p.m. Lowell will get a crack at the Wildcats themselves on Wednesday, when the River Hawks host New Hampshire at 7:00 p.m.