In an unusual quirk of scheduling, Utica and Neumann played three straight games against each other over the last two weekends. The string began in the championship game of the St. Michael’s Tournament over the holidays and culminated with a pair of league games at the Utica Aud this past weekend.
But despite outshooting Neumann by a 50 percent margin across the three games, the Pioneers only managed to win one of those contests, and that win took overtime to achieve.
“It was a pretty emotionally charged weekend, based on playing [Neumann] in the finals [of the St. Michaels Tournament] the weekend before,” said Utica coach Gary Heenan. “There was some fireworks in that game, so both teams came out ready to play. Both games [last weekend] came down to the wire. As I have said all along, Neumann has arrived and you have to be prepared to play them. And they have a goaltender that plays well. Despite outshooting them every time we play, we are one for four.”
Since Thanksgiving, Utica has been caught in an alternating pattern of winning and losing games. The Pioneers win a game only to drop the next one, before winning again the following game. The last multi-game winning streak that Utica posted was a short two game string with a victory at Lebanon Valley and home against Hamilton in mid-November. Since then, the Pioneers just can’t seem to sustain any kind of a roll.
“We are just not scoring at opportune times,” said Heenan. “We are getting great chances. As a coach, I think I would be very frustrated if we weren’t getting chances. But we are, and aren’t scoring. All year we have struggled with scoring. We are strong in all of the defensive categories and the special team categories. But it is the five-on-five situations where our guys might be a little tight and young. It has been a tough schedule.”
Utica’s scoring potential took a huge hit right before the Christmas holiday when Jared Allison went down with a career ending injury. Allison, who is tied for the lead at Utica in goal scoring with four despite only playing in eight games this season, fractured his back during the last practice before the holiday break.
“He is retired. He re-fractured his back in the last practice before break,” said Heenan. “He had a fragile back to start with, and it just gave out on him. It will be a six month recovery. For him to try playing again, he risks not walking again. It is an unfortunate blow.”
Allison’s leadership off the ice will also be missed by the Pioneers, who were already slim on upperclassmen during this rebuilding year.
Playing three consecutive games against an opponent is not something that Division III coaches usually have to worry about. It can lead to some interesting challenges for game preparation, and also allows for incidents in one game to carry over to the next one.
But playing the same team two nights in a row is a new wrinkle to this year’s league schedule, and is one that all of the coaches are learning how to adjust to.
“It is a constant changing of systems,” said Heenan. “Each game you try and rely on what that team did the night before to prepare. And of course that team is going to change knowing that you know that. As a coach, it can drive you a little crazy. And then we come up with adjustments that fool them a little as well. It can be fun that way, but it can be frustrating as well.”
The non-conference portion of the schedule for the ECAC West is almost completed for this season. With the exception of Hamilton’s game at Elmira on January 24th, this weekend marks the end of the road for the ECAC West playing teams from other conferences.
The final non-conference results this year are shaping up to be much better than last year’s disappointments. The ECAC West’s record against the other leagues during the 2004-2005 season was abysmal compared to the average over the previous 10 seasons.
But this year, things appear to be back to normal. Even if the league got swept in this weekend’s games (no jinxing, please), the league is guaranteed to finish with a winning record versus all other leagues with the exception of the NCHA (no games against) and the MIAC. The 0-1 record against the MIAC is the result of Manhattanville dropping the semifinal game of the Times Argus Invitational.
Of course, since the ECAC West’s closest rivals are the SUNYAC teams (and because I love to tweak my USCHO compatriot Russell Jaslow), the record against SUNYAC teams is the most important. The ECAC West has had a stellar year so for in that category, going 19-9-1 prior to this weekend’s games.
That should pretty much settle the argument that last year’s aberration of the ECAC West losing to the SUNYAC’s was a one time occurrence. The universe has righted itself once again.
More Back to Back
Utica continues its scheduling theme of playing teams back to back this weekend. This past Tuesday, Utica needed overtime heroics by Colin Kingston to sneak by Fredonia 3-2 at home. On Saturday, Utica hits the road to Fredonia to return the favor.
But there is a little more emotion for the Pioneers when they walk into Fredonia’s Steele Hall on Saturday. Almost exactly one year ago to the day (January 15th to be exact), Utica looked to be on its way to beating Fredonia in Steele Hall before Blue Devil Matt Zeman scored with only eight seconds remaining in the third period to tie the game. Then Jim Gilbride sealed the Pioneers fate midway through the overtime period to give Fredonia the 4-3 victory.
“We’ve always played great games against Fredonia,” said Heenan. “Last year, we were riding a twelve game unbeaten streak going into their place, and with eight seconds left they tied it and then beat us in overtime. So there is a little bitterness in our mouth from that. They are a hard working team, that is always in your face all over the ice. And to be honest, that may be what gives us trouble.”
Last year’s game hasn’t sat right in the Utica locker room ever since, and the Pioneers have been looking towards this game all season as a means to erase that memory.