This Week in the ECAC: Feb. 19, 2004

It’s been an emotional week for the Vermont Catamounts. In a season filled with peaks and valleys, the Cats were shocked into reality recently by netminder Matt Hanson’s frightening injury.

The sophomore goaltender was taking part in a breakaway competition after practice when, while diving for the puck, he collided with a teammate and broke the fourth cervical vertebra in his neck. He had surgery the next day and, thankfully, was released from the hospital on Monday.

“He’s back home in Peabody (Mass.) with his parents,” said Vermont head coach Kevin Sneddon. “He’ll be recuperating and then come back to school in a couple of weeks.”

As for Hanson’s chances of returning to the ice — a small issue in the grand scheme of things — Sneddon said it was a decision that has yet to be reached by the player and his parents.

In the meantime, his teammates have carried on with a new sense of purpose.

“We’re playing inspired hockey,” remarked Sneddon. “Matt’s a very comical young man who means a lot to the team. Whenever someone has to go through this you can tell just how much people like him.”

So much so that his teammates were especially focused on their recent road trip.

“The guys wanted to bring back a couple of game pucks for Matt,” said Sneddon.

Mission accomplished, thanks to the sweep of Clarkson and St. Lawrence — the Catamounts’ first wins away from Gutterson Fieldhouse this season. It was the first road sweep by UVM since 2000-01 and the first time the Cats have won a pair in the North Country since the 1996-97 season.

“It’s a tough road trip,” explained Sneddon, “but that’s a compliment to Clarkson and St. Lawrence. I like going up there, as a coach, because it really challenges you to get the best out of your players.

“It was a challenge for all of us because we had not won on the road much and this gives us some confidence.”

When asked if the victories were the most impressive wins of the season for the Catamounts, Sneddon didn’t hesitate.

“No question,” he said emphatically.

The win at Clarkson also marked Vermont’s eighth victory at Cheel Arena, the most of any other ECAC squad, and was the first Catamount shutout since Shawn Conschafter blanked the Knights on January 19, 2002.

While Sneddon, the first-year Vermont coach, has only been a part of one of those wins, he dismissed the idea that there’s anything other than luck involved in such a trend. However, he did admit that there is a long-term benefit to be had.

“One thing about Cheel and Appleton,” the coach explained, “you know it will be difficult, so maybe the players are more focused. As time goes on, though, and you have more success, you get more confident that you can play there.”

Vermont is 2-1-1 this month and 3-2-1 since allowing nine goals in a loss at Colgate. Of the two losses, one was a 1-0 shutout against Cornell and the other was a 3-2 in overtime to Rensselaer. Over that six-game stretch, the Cats have allowed one goal or less four times and, while they haven’t exactly been lighting up the scoreboard themselves, they’ve done enough to win some crucial games.

“It’s been a combination of things,” Sneddon said. “We feel we’ve played some pretty good hockey over the last month and in the last six games, [Travis] Russell has been very solid for us. He’s given us a chance to win each game. We’re pleased with his performance.”

Russell has allowed just nine goals in those six contests for a 1.47 goals against average (GAA) and .950 save percentage in that span. He’s allowed two tallies in his last three contests.

“Everybody forgets he’s a very young goalie,” remarked Sneddon about his sophomore netminder. “He didn’t play a lot last year (nine games), so it’s really like his first year. He’s going to have some inconsistencies, but in the second half he’s shown confidence and consistency.”

With four games left in the regular season, the race for playoff positioning is as complex as ever in the ECAC. The Catamounts, however, are not focused on the standings, an element that their coach reminds them they have no control over.

“We only have control over playing to the best of our abilities in the next four games. Yale is a well-coached, high intensity team. Princeton (winless in 2004) is very dangerous; we’ve been there. And then we go on the road to face two tough teams (Harvard and Brown).”

Vermont is 0-4-0 this season against its final four opponents, but all the losses came during its 0-11-2 start — when it was a much different team than the one that takes the ice these days. The Catamounts are 6-7-2 since that horrific beginning and seem to have found something extra to play for: a fallen teammate and a second chance at making some noise in the ECAC.

“The team is playing on emotion and added determination,” said Sneddon.

Cornell, RPI Gain Ground and Square Off

Joining Vermont in posting weekend sweeps were surging Rensselaer and Cornell.

The Engineers, winners of three in a row, are on a 9-3-0 run since snapping a three-game losing streak in early January. In fact, aside from a 1-5-0 stretch from November 29 to January 3, RPI is 16-6-2 and has already surpassed last season’s win total (12).

And while the Browns, Dartmouths, Cornells and Harvards have received most of the attention around the league, the Engineers have slowly climbed within striking distance (three points) of the first-place Bears and what they hope will be the fifth 20-win season in head coach Dan Fridgen’s 10 years behind the bench.

Perhaps one reason for the lack of attention is that this year’s squad doesn’t include high-profile players like Brad Tapper, Matt Murley and Marc Cavosie. Instead, Fridgen has a team that plays a hard-hitting, defensive game while receiving offensive contributions from multiple units and key blueliners.

The Engineers have allowed two or fewer goals an impressive 17 times this season, going 14-2-1 in those contests. Thus far in 2004, RPI has posted three shutouts, including wins at two of the nation’s toughest barns, Cornell’s Lynah Rink and Brown’s Meehan Auditorium.

That’s not to say that the Engineers do not have offensive weapons; after all, they are third in the league in goals per game (3.11). They’ve received balanced scoring all season with ten players in double-digits in points — four of them defenseman. Sophomores Kevin Croxton (13-18-31) and Kirk MacDonald (13-14-27) have emerged as a deadly one-two punch and key contributions from junior Nick Economakos (7-14-21) and senior Ben Barr (7-10-17) have added to the goal-scoring depth.

On defense, sophomore classmates Brad Farynuk (4-15-19) and Alexander Valentin (2-9-11) have been effective at both ends of the ice, but it is senior co-captain Scott Basiuk (9-12-21) who is the dominating force and one of the top blueliners in the ECAC.

“He’s a big, strong kid,” said Fridgen, “but he’s pretty mobile out there. He’s a great leader with a heavy shot that’s been finding the back of the net lately. The guys just know when to feed him [the puck].”

Basiuk is third on the team in scoring, but first in overall scoring among ECAC defensemen. Nationally, he ranks tenth in points per game by a blueliner (0.72) and is 12th in power-play goals.

He is also third in the league with six power-play goals, behind Croxton, who is tied for first with eight and is second in the country with 10 overall. Together, they’ve helped the Engineers assemble the second-best man-advantage squad in the conference (22.1%).

Of course, top-notch goaltending doesn’t hurt either and that’s where senior Nathan Marsters comes in. He is tenth in the nation in GAA (2.15) and in the top 20 with a .918 save percentage. In ECAC play, the Ontario native is third in GAA (1.93) and save percentage (.929). His play has also backboned the third-stingiest defense in the conference (2.11 goals allowed per game) and third-best penalty killing unit (86.3%).

Cornell, meanwhile, jumped out to a strong start to the season, losing just twice in its first 14 games (7-2-5). But a rash of injuries hit the team hard, especially on offense, and from January 10-31, the Big Red were 1-5-1, including a three-game losing streak to close out the month. They were shut out twice in that span and scored two goals in a game just once.

With the flip of the calendar and the return of some key forwards, including leader Ryan Vesce, however, Cornell is back to within three point of first-place Brown and is tied with the Engineers for third. The two clubs square off in a H-U-G-E contest on Friday.

The Big Red’s current four-game winning streak has been the product of their typically tight defensive system — which never gave up more than two goals in any game during the rough stretch and has only allowed four in as many contests — and the returning offense that has seemingly righted the ship. Thirteen goals in the last four games are proof of that.

Sophomore Matt Moulson, third in the ECAC in goals (11), has been the central figure in the offense much of the year, especially with Vesce’s injuries. Moulson leads the team with 15 goals and 30 points, followed by Vesce’s 24 points — off his career pace, but still more than a point per game. Rookie Byron Bitz has made a major impact as well, posting a second-best 14 assists and third-best 19 points for the Big Red.

Other contributions have come from sophomore Shane Hynes (9-8-17), a 6-3, 210-pound power forward who is starting to generate more attention from opposing teams, and the line of Cam Abbott-Chris Abbott-Greg Hornby. The hardest-working line in the league, the trio is often the most effective unit game-in and game-out.

Senior Ben Wallace (1-6-7) and junior Charlie Cook (1-13-14) are the team’s most impressive defensemen, but it’s the rookie between the pipes who has the flashiest numbers. Texan David McKee leads the ECAC with a 1.45 GAA, is tied with Yann Danis for shutouts (four) and ranks second with a .936 save percentage.

The cumulative defensive result? Cornell boasts a league-low 1.44 goals allowed per game and is second in the ECAC with a 91.7% penalty-killing unit.

Given the numbers we’ve tossed around, you will not want to miss Friday’s game between the Big Red and the Engineers. Find a ticket or listen online to a contest that promises to be one of the best of the season. It will certainly have an impact on the battle for first place and a first-round playoff bye, but may also serve as a preview of a game in March that could hold even greater importance.

AHCA Honors Colgate Staff

The American Hockey Coaches Association (AHCA) last week named the Colgate men’s and Dartmouth women’s coaching staffs as the AHCA Coaching Staffs of the Month for January. The ECAC has won every coaching staff award this season with the Brown men’ staff and Big Green’s women staff honored for their respective efforts in November.

The Raiders went 7-1-1 last month, including three consecutive weekend sweeps in league play — wins over Rensselaer, Union, Dartmouth, Vermont and Cornell. Colgate interim head coach Stan Moore, who has done a wonderful job since taking over the team a month before the season began, is assisted by former Raiders players Andrew Dickson and Shep Harder.

With four regular-season games remaining, Colgate’s 16 wins are one short of last year’s total and the second-most since the club won 24 on its way to the 1999-2000 NCAA Tournament.

Fans Will Be Focus of Albany Tournaments

March will be a busy time for New York’s Capital Region. In addition to Rensselaer and Union battling ECAC playoff opponents early in the month, the city of Albany will play host to three postseason tournaments.

The Pepsi Arena will house the MAAC basketball championships (March 6-7), the ECAC championships (March 19-20) and the NCAA East Regional (March 26-27). Highlighting the games will be three distinct “fan fests,” similar to what took place for the Frozen Four in 2001.

“Albany and the NCAA, MAAC and ECAC have truly developed a unique partnership,” said Bob Belber, general manager of the Pepsi Arena, at a Wednesday news conference that also included ECAC Commissioner Phil Buttafuoco and RPI Athletic Director Ken Ralph. The Engineers will serve as co-hosts of the NCAA East Regional.

Belber continued, “I think the student athletes, spectators, alumni and league administrators truly appreciate the team spirit of all the volunteers here in the Capital Region who forever strive to make the tournaments a full-scale, dynamic experience for all the fans.”

Each of the three fan festivals will be free to the public and take place on South Pearl Street, which lines one side of the arena. The events will feature pep squads and marching bands from the participating colleges and universities, face painters, strolling entertainers and live music. Food vendors will also line the streets, while fans will be able to keep warm inside a heated tent that will house a variety of family-oriented entertainment such as interactive basketball and hockey games; air hockey and foosball tables; a big-screen television showing highlights from previous championship games; and official league and NCAA merchandise.

The ECAC Championship Fan Fest will take place Friday, March 19 (2:30-10:30 p.m.) and Saturday, March 20 (3-11 p.m.). The NCAA East Regional Fan Fest will be held Friday, March 26 (3-11 p.m.) and Saturday, March 27 (4-9 p.m.).

In Case You Missed It

With five defeats in a row, Clarkson is mired in its longest losing streak in five years. Early in the 1999-2000 season, the Golden Knights lost five straight in the midst of a 0-7-2 stretch. A big reason for the existing troubles? Clarkson’s top line of Mike Sullivan-Mac Faulkner-Chris Blight has combined for only one goal in the last five games.

Since the 2001-02 season, the Knights have a 7-11-2 mark in February, including 0-4-0 this season. In the previous six campaigns, Clarkson had compiled a remarkable 45-4-0 mark in the year’s shortest month.

Colgate has now won 11 league games for the first time since 1999-2000 when it went 14-4-2.

Cornell’s win over Princeton on Friday the 13th gave the Big Red an 11-1-0 mark in games on the superstitious day.

Senior Ryan Vesce returned to the Cornell lineup over the weekend after missing three games with an injury. He scored twice on the weekend, including the game-winner versus the Tigers.

Dartmouth’s win over Clarkson in Potsdam was the Big Green’s first at Cheel Arena since 1990.

The three goals Harvard scored against Union on Saturday marked the first time the Crimson tallied in the opening period in four games.

Over those same four contests, Harvard has been called for just three penalties per game, dropping the team’s average to 12.6 minutes per contest. The downward trend makes the Crimson the least-penalized team in the ECAC.

With his team’s come-from-behind victory over Harvard, Rensselaer head coach Dan Fridgen moved past Ned Harkness for second place on the school’s all-time wins list with 177. Mike Addesa holds the top spot with 186 career victories.

When Yale defeated Colgate on Friday it snapped the Raiders’ eight-game unbeaten streak, the second longest such run in school history.

Colgate swept the season series with Princeton for the first time since the 1991-92. Even more impressive is the fact that the Raiders have also posted sweeps over first-place Brown and third- place Cornell this year.

Colgate junior Steve Silverthorn notched his thirteenth win this season on Saturday, equaling his total from a year ago. He also ranks seventh in the country with a 2.02 GAA.

Remarkably, Cornell earned only its first home sweep of the year in defeating Princeton and Yale. The Big Red were undefeated at home last season, but are 4-5-5 this year in Lynah.

The Tigers enter this weekend winless in their last 11 games dating back to December 16 when they defeated Harvard 2-1.

St. Lawrence’s tie and loss at home last weekend mark the first time since October that the Saints have failed to earn at least two points in a series at Appleton.

SLU is 7-1-2 when scoring four or more goals in a game and 9-4-2 when scoring three or more, but are 0-13-3 when scoring two or fewer goals.

The Saints, 7-6-3 at home, have outscored the opposition 52-44 in 16 Appleton contests. Of defenseman Ryan Glenn’s 21 points, 17 have come in Canton and goaltender Mike McKenna, who has started the last five games overall, is 4-2-1 with a 1.97 GAA and .930 save percentage at home.

St. Lawrence’s T.J. Trevelyan scored his nation-leading eleventh power play goal of the season on Saturday. His 20 tallies this season rank him seventh in the country.

Yale sophomore Jeff Hristovski has points in 14 his last 16 games and leads the ECAC with three shorthanded goals. The Elis have a conference-best six shorthanders on the season.

The Bulldogs are also tops in the league in scoring with an average of 3.28 goals per game, but have allowed 3.83 per contest — tied for last place with Princeton.

What’s On Tap

Sixth-place Yale (12-13-0, 10-8-0 ECAC) and 11th-place Princeton (5-19-1, 5-12-1) travel to face off against last-place Vermont (6-19-4, 4-13-1) and fifth-place Dartmouth (10-7-8, 8-4-6) this weekend.

The Bulldogs lead the all-time series with the Catamounts, 27-21-4, and have won four straight against them. Yale trails in its series against the Big Green, 75-93-12. The Tigers are 73-86-11 all-time versus Dartmouth, having lost three straight head-to-head, and are 14-34-2 against UVM, but defeated the Cats earlier this season.

Seventh-place Harvard (10-13-2, 8-9-1) and first-place No. 13 Brown (14-6-5, 12-4-2) visit Clarkson (11-14-5, 6-10-2) and St. Lawrence (10-17-5, 6-10-2), who are tied for eighth place.

The Crimson trail in its series against the Knights, 39-41-8, but has won twice in its last three games at Cheel. Harvard leads the all-time series against the Saints, 38-30-4, including two straight shutouts against SLU. The Bears trail the Saints 18-30-6 in their series, but are 4-1-1 at Appleton under Roger Grillo. Against Clarkson, Brown is 10-47-6 head-to-head, but is 2-1-2 in the last five against the Knights.

Third-place Cornell (12-7-6, 10-5-3) and second-place Colgate (16-9-5, 11-5-2) travel a short distance to battle third-place Rensselaer (17-11-2, 11-6-1) and tenth-place Union (12-13-5, 5-10- 3) in a crucial set of games.

The Big Red lead the all-time series against the Engineers, 47- 28-3, but lost earlier this year. Against the Dutchmen, Cornell is 19-8-4 all-time, including 4-0-1 in the last five match-ups. The Raiders lead the overall series with Union, 26-11-1, but are 8-9-1 in Schenectady and have lost the last four games in Achilles Rink since 1998-99. Colgate trails in its series versus RPI by a 40-50-2 margin, including 15-31-0 in Houston Field House, but has defeated the Engineers twice this season.