This Week in the ECAC West: Nov. 21, 2002

Utica Out of Camp

As detailed in this space two weeks ago, Utica took advantage of a two-week break to refocus the team and make changes to its game plans. Of particular emphasis was the power-play unit. In the first four contests of the year, the Pioneers had only scored three man-advantage goals on 29 chances.

The changes have paid immediate dividends. In the last two games, against Elmira and Cortland, the Pioneer power play has been clicking along above a 50 percent rate: four-for-seven, to be exact.

“We’ve got the personnel to do it,” said Utica coach Gary Heenan. “It looks like we’ve got guys settling in on the power play. We’ve revamped our entire philosophy and system, actually.”

Neumann Ups and Downs

The Neumann Knights had a mentally tough week. Coming off a satisfying two periods of hockey against RIT on November 16, Neumann faced three tough games last week.

The Knights opened the week against local rival Lebanon Valley, also rebuilding this year after graduating half of its team last spring. The mental boost from playing well against RIT seemed to be a distraction for the Neumann players, though, and combined with other logistical problems to throw off their concentration.

“It was tough to regroup after the RIT game,” said Neumann coach Nick Russo. “It was real tough to focus on Lebanon Valley after the RIT game. We had miscellaneous problems with the bus, and showed up to Hershey Park Arena late. Special teams killed us against Lebanon Valley. We did much better against them this year than we ever have in the past, but I wasn’t real happy with the outcome.”

Special teams, which require the most mental discipline in hockey, proved the undoing of Neumann in the contest. The Knights failed to convert on any of 12 power-play opportunities, while Lebanon Valley was allowed to tally three power-play goals and three shorthanders.

“If you look at our even-strength goals against, we aren’t doing too bad at all,” said Russo. “We are spending most of our week now working on power play and penalty kill. That is just a matter of guys getting used to each other. We are starting to get a little more stable in our personnel. We had real strong puck movement on the power play against Hobart. We are definitely working on special teams.”

Opponents have scored 25 special-teams goals (19 power-play, six shorthanded) against Neumann in only nine games this season. If the Knights can reduce that number, they will be another step forward in their bid to become competitive.

Neumann’s first priority this season is games against league opponents. Those 10 games form the core of its schedule, and Russo has been spending significant time in preparing for them.

“We really are trying to focus on our conference games,” said Russo. “We want to get better within the conference first, obviously.”

Their latest test came last Friday when Hobart visited the Ice Works. The extra preparation paid dividends as Neumann skated with Hobart throughout most of the game. Hobart jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead 2:24 into the contest. But after that, it was dead-even hockey.

“We were ready for them this time,” said Russo. “They got off to a 2-0 lead like a couple of minutes in to the game, but from then it was a pretty tight game. It just shows our inexperience being up and down, up and down. We are getting to the point now where we can play with teams in spurts. I think this was the best I have seen Neumann play in my five years here.”

One difference was Neumann’s penalty kill, which clamped down and didn’t allow Hobart any goals on its six power plays. The Statesmen did sneak in a shorthanded goal late in the first period.

Neumann enjoyed a little role reversal on Saturday against Scranton. Instead of being the dramatic underdog heading into the game, the Knights found themselves not only favored to win, but expected to win.

Neumann jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first period. The Knights don’t have much experience in that situation, and spent the rest of the game fighting off several Scranton comebacks. Once again, the Neumann penalty kill played well, shutting down the Scranton power play. However the Neumann power play wasn’t so good, allowing two Scranton shorthanded goals without scoring any of its own. Even though Neumann used several players who have only seen limited ice time, the Knights were able to tally the victory when Justin Riccardi scored 1:19 into overtime.

“It’s nice to get a win, particularly when you go on the road after a tough game against Hobart,” said Russo.

Neumann now has time off before hosting RIT the first weekend of December.

“We have a nice opportunity with a couple of weeks off to get ready for RIT at home,” said Russo. “One of the things that we have gotten back to now is conditioning. With this team, we need to stay in the weight room, stay in the gymnasium. I am taking the chance of these guys getting burned out. But we have this down time, due to how the schedule in our league works out.”

Officiating in Elmira?

Several complaints about substandard refereeing at the Elmira Thunderdomes have been aired this season.

Over the years that I have been covering the ECAC West, I have become less critical of the on-ice officials. Face it, referees have a tough, thankless job, and the biggest compliment you can give a referee is to say that “I didn’t notice the refs tonight.”

Sometimes I am amazed that there are dedicated individuals even willing to put on the striped jersey and take the abuse heaped on them.

However, when a series of reports surfaces from different people concerning different games and different situations — but all from the same arena — it is hard to ignore the pattern.

Elmira has played four home games over the last two weeks, and I have received negative comments about the officiating from multiple sources after each one.

So I guess it is time to go on my first rant of the season. What finally set me off was the Utica-Elmira game last weekend.

Utica appears to be the latest victim of poor officiating in Elmira. Trailing 4-2 with less than 10 minutes remaining in the third period, captain Jimmy Sokol scored to move Utica within striking distance. As most hockey players who just score do, Sokol threw his arms up in the air in celebration as his linemates gathered around.

“Tweet” goes the whistle of the referee, and Sokol is escorted to the box with a 10-minute misconduct for taunting.

“Sokol is like the ‘Lady Byng’ of the league,” said Heenan, referring to the NHL’s annual award for gentlemanly play. “To take my best player out of the game, for the last ten minutes, down a goal, for celebration is ridiculous. I’ve never heard of anything like that.”

Prior to the Elmira game, Sokol had only been called for one minor in four games.

The remaining minutes of the game got worse for Heenan and his players. Only two minutes remained, Utica was pressing, and the ref puts up his arm to call a delayed penalty against Elmira. The Soaring Eagles touched the puck, the whistle blew, and Utica thought they were going on a power play. Heenan put five skaters on the ice to get ready for the faceoff, when the ref signals Trent Flory from Utica to also get in the box to serve a holding penalty.

In the ensuing confusion, Utica mistakenly leaves all five players on the ice too long, and the ref tags them for delay of game before the faceoff occurs. All of a sudden, instead of a power play, Utica now is down a skater for the last two minutes of the game, and the Pioneers watched as the contest slipped through their fingers.

Heenan exchanged heated words with the referee as they walked off the ice, and the ref rewarded the coach a 10-minute misconduct of his own.

“I told the ref at the end, ‘You go talk to our kids because you are the one who took this game away from us’,” said Heenan. “I had a few choice words in there as well. This is the first hockey game that I saw where I can definitely say that the referee really made a direct impact on the result of the game.”

“It’s tough when you’re killing penalties most of the night. I thought it was a case, that for whatever reason, the referee wasn’t going to favor us whatsoever. We have been averaging under 16 minutes a game in penalties. When you get 42 minutes, and the other team gets 14, you know there is something obviously wrong there.”

Perhaps four straight games of inferior officiating at the same location is a statistical anomaly. Maybe it is a matter of assigning the wrong referees to the wrong situations. Or it might be something completely unexpected.

Whatever the cause might be, the ECAC should utilize the game tapes that have already been submitted to them by various teams to review the situation and correct any deficiencies.

Grudge of the Week

This week we rename the “Game of the Week” segment. There are two grudge games on the board this week that teams have been looking forward to since the middle of last season.

Elmira hosted Plattsburgh on January 12 last season. The Soaring Eagles won the contest, but words were exchanged in the heat of combat between players, coaches, and fans. Those words are still remembered by all involved, and they are adding heat to the meeting on Saturday.

RIT visits Wentworth on Sunday, bent on avenging its loss last season. Half the RIT squad was suspended for that game, but that really was no excuse. Wentworth played an excellent game and fully took advantage of the situation. This Sunday, the Tigers are looking to give the Leopards a little taste of what a full squad plays like.

“I don’t think there is any question that we would like to show Wentworth what we are all about,” said RIT coach Wayne Wilson.

Holiday Break

Due to the Thanksgiving holiday, I will not be writing next week. Look for the next installment to be published December 5. I would like to extend my wishes that you and your loved ones enjoy a safe and happy Turkey Day.