Bloodied But Unbowed
Three weeks ago, the story surrounding Vermont was that it was ranked sixth in the country while being sixth in Hockey East.
Now, that half-empty, half-full perspective has given way to double half-empties. The Catamounts are still in sixth place, but with the rankings having given way to the PairWise, they’ve tumbled to a tie for 23rd nationally.
Heading into this past weekend, Vermont was stinging from a sweep at the hands of Boston College and a disappointing split at home with Merrimack. BC shut the Catamounts out on the first weekend, 3-0 and 2-0. Then the Warriors invaded Gutterson Fieldhouse and threatened to duplicate the sweep. Merrimack won the opener, 4-2, and took the second game three minutes into overtime before Jeff Corey’s goal salvaged the split.
“As much as we were playing against good teams, we were kind of fighting ourselves in terms of confidence from an offensive perspective,” UVM coach Kevin Sneddon says. “We ran into an extremely strong goaltender in Cory Schneider. The Saturday night game against Boston College, we felt we played very well and had some great scoring opportunities. The combination of his ability and our inability to find the back of the net really hurt us.
“And obviously Boston College is the premier team in our league this year and one of the top teams in the country. But we felt that as much as they beat us, we kind of beat ourselves a little bit.”
Offensive struggles snowballed into lapses in the other end.
“We weren’t scoring so then all of a sudden we started trying to do too much and gave up some pretty bad defensive mistakes against Boston College,” Sneddon says. “That [continued] into the next week when we even saw it at practice. Guys were struggling to score and finish plays.
“The confidence is down and guys start gripping the sticks a little tighter. Against Merrimack we threw everything we had against [goaltender] Pat Watson. He played a great game. Once again, missing wide open nets and pressing too hard led to some really bad defensive mistakes and Merrimack certainly capitalized Friday night. Saturday it got a little better, but again we make a really bad mistake late in the game.
“That was the big challenge to our team. We talked about the fact that the waters have been pretty smooth for the Catamounts this year, that we hadn’t been extremely challenged by adversity. This was our time to fight through things together and hopefully make us stronger.
“I thought we responded in overtime, pulled our socks up and got it done and from that point on we’ve seen that confidence build again. So that’s where we’re at.”
Having stepped back from the precipice of back-to-back sweeps, the Catamounts faced one of the league’s best teams, Providence, on the road. Would the overtime win over Merrimack be a blip in a downward curve or the portent of good things to come?
As it turned out, Vermont came away with three points and almost took four. The Catamounts rolled to a 4-1 win on Friday night and led on Saturday until a six-on-three Friar goal with 59 seconds remaining in regulation resulted in a 3-3 tie.
“Providence is a great team and we’ve had some great games with them this year,” Sneddon says. “Tim Army has done an unbelievable job with them.
“Going into the weekend, we felt like, ‘Hey, this is a big challenge for us. Can we build off the momentum of that overtime win against Merrimack and carry some confidence into the weekend?’
“Certainly over the course of the weekend there were momentum shifts, but I felt on Friday night we played a pretty solid game overall and came away with a big 4-1 win. We finished our chances and looked like we got our confidence back in terms of making plays.
“Saturday was actually a little bit disappointing in that we had a 3-2 lead late and then [faced] pandemonium with three penalties real late in the game to give them a chance to go six on three with a minute left.”
Coach, you don’t regularly spend practice time on six-on-threes?
“Yeah, ever since we saw it in the  national championship game I can’t believe that we haven’t worked on it more,” Sneddon says with a laugh. “It’s the first time in my career that I’ve tried to coach that. They made a nice play down low and it actually went off one of our defensemen’s skates and in.
“The scary thing is that we had to kill almost two full minutes of five-on-three in overtime. It was a tough situation to be in, yet we again we were faced with adversity and at least battled through it and again came away with an important tie. I give our guys a lot of credit.
“I thought it was a good sign in our locker room that the guys were really, really down and disappointed in the way the game went. Putting things in perspective, to go on the road to take three out of four against one of the top teams in Hockey East [was a positive.] That they were disappointed that we didn’t get all four is a good sign that we weren’t satisfied or complacent.”
Arguably, the dearth of scoring is the only complaint Sneddon and UVM fans can have with their team, at least in the big picture. Within Hockey East, Vermont ranks first in team defense (1.79 goals against per game) and second in both power-play percentage (20.2) and penalty-kill percentage (90.6). Only the team offense (2.79 goals per game) lags, having dropped to sixth.
Often a strong power play can carry an offense, but that hasn’t been the case to date. Five-on-five scoring, difficult throughout college hockey, has been especially scarce for the Catamounts.
“There are some fantastic goaltenders in our league,” Sneddon says. “If you look top to bottom, it seems like everybody in the league has strong goaltending and it is hard to score.
“[At least during the tough times] we were getting opportunities. I’d be real concerned if we weren’t getting any chances. But the fact that we were having looks at wide-open nets and bunting it wide just tells me that our guys are in a funk right now.
“As a coaching staff, we’ve go to show confidence in them. We did a lot of different things with them in terms of helping them get through that time. The last thing they needed was a coach yelling at them. We try to become a little bit more of cheerleaders and keeping things light, having some fun in practice and just trying to get them through that stage.
“We’ve got a great group of guys and great leaders and I think they’ve become stronger because of that.”
Fresh off the confidence-building weekend at Providence, Vermont now looks ahead to hosting Maine for two games.
“We know we have our challenges ahead of us,” Sneddon says. “Maine is one of the premier programs in the country and any time you line up against them it’s going to be a real tough game.
“The fact that we were able to come away with a win in their place is probably not resting too well in their memory. I know they’re going to come out and be hungry. They had a good split against UNH last weekend so they’re playing well.”
The following weekends include games against Massachusetts, Boston University and Massachusetts-Lowell. For a neophyte fan that might translate into a see-saw schedule: tough this weekend against Maine; a bit easier against UMass; really tough against BU and a bit easier against Lowell.
Sneddon is having none of it and he expects the Gutterson faithful to reject the see-saw logic, too.
“Our fans for the most part are very well-educated up here in Vermont,” he says. “They saw a hard-fought series against Northeastern and an unfortunate loss against Merrimack at home. Those teams really, really battled hard.
“You look at those two programs, Northeastern and Merrimack, and their kids are competing like crazy right now. If they’re the teams that are struggling in our league, they’re still pretty good hockey teams. That’s what great about our league right now, that you have to be on your game every weekend. That’s really going to help our teams at the end come playoff time and then hopefully in the national tournament.
“So for us to look at a UMass-Amherst and show any signs of feeling that those games would be easier than any others would be a huge, huge mistake on our part. They walked into our building and beat us so we know that the next four weekends are going to be incredibly tough but at the same time very exciting.”
Although the PairWise remains extremely volatile, the better place to focus attention on is the Hockey East standings. There’s home ice to be won, for starters.
“As far as the PairWise goes and all that, we’re really trying not to get wrapped up in that,” Sneddon says. “During those times when we lost confidence, I think our guys were looking at that and getting frustrated by it.
“The simple fact of the matter is that a lot of it is out of our control. We’ve gone 8-1 in nonconference play, but a lot of the teams that we earned wins against in the first or the second weekend of the year have unfortunately not done too well. We can’t control that.
“The only thing we can control is our next game. I think our guys have done a good job on refocusing on that part of it. We’re more worried about points in the standings right now than we are about the national tournament.”
And even though the Catamounts are still in sixth place, there’s lots of room for movement.
“There are four weekends and 16 points left and right now we’re three points out of third,” Sneddon says. “There are plenty of games left. Right now it’s kind of dangerous to start worrying too much about it.
“If you look too far ahead or too far behind you’re not doing the right thing. We have to focus on that first period against Maine on Friday. That’s the most important thing to our program right now.”
Ups And Downs
Just when you thought it was safe to climb aboard the River Hawk bandwagon….
On the morning of Jan. 28, Lowell stood 4-0-1 in its last five games and those who had been bullish about the team’s chances began to think, “Now this is what I expected!”
Then came one of those what-if losses to Boston College. The River Hawks led 3-2 with eight minutes left in regulation only to see the Eagles score to force overtime and then get the game-winner just 49 seconds away from a hard-earned point.
Thereafter followed 5-1 and 5-2 losses to Boston University and UMass, respectively.
From 4-0-1 to 0-for-3.
“When you’re dealing with college athletics, the teams can change almost daily,” UML coach Blaise MacDonald says. “We’re a team that when we play well, we can really beat anybody; we’re very good.
“But it seems like when we struggle, it’s a collective effort. A lot of guys have off nights. It’s not due to their intentions or efforts; it’s oftentimes just one of those things. The harder you try sometimes, the worse are the returns.
“We were 4-0-1 and I thought we played an outstanding game and deserved the victory over BC. But we got some unfortunate bounces and didn’t come out with the win.”
Arguably, the BU game was decided either in a 19-second sequence in the first period or when BU scored early in the second. The Terriers have been playing far too well of late to spot them three-goal leads.
“I thought we carried play the first 10 minutes of the game and all of a sudden BU got two goals in 19 seconds,” MacDonald says. “We got through that and settled down to finish the period, but they scored four minutes into the [second]. Essentially, they were real bad turnovers, plays by us that led to BU goals.
“So now we’re 3-0 against BU. Curry made some huge saves to keep us at arm’s length. We just couldn’t battle back.”
Losing a heartbreaker to BC and then a turnover-riddled game to BU is one thing. Both are nationally ranked powers that sit atop Hockey East. But playing poorly against UMass is another thing entirely. The Minutemen and the River Hawks are on roughly a level playing field. There’s no uphill climb here the way there is against BU and BC.
“We’re very similar teams,” MacDonald says. “UMass can beat UNH and BC and go up to Vermont and win, but they can also lose some games. That speaks of the quality of Hockey East and the teams that are just trying to find some consistency.
“But the UMass game was really a gift-wrapped victory that we gave them. They have a terrific team with some good forwards that make you look bad, but collectively I thought our entire defensive corps had one of their worst nights ever.”
Defense. Aye, there’s the rub.
In the 4-0-1 stretch, Lowell gave up an average of two goals a game: two, three, one, two and two. In the last three losses? Four, five and five.
“We really are at a major, major loss without Cleve Kinley in the lineup,” MacDonald says. “He’s been out three weeks now — [and will be out another two] — and it’s just a struggle for us to find consistency without him. He’s a 35-minute-a-game guy.
“And on top of that, we do have some good forwards, but we’re just having a hard time lighting the lamp.”
On the surface, this weekend and next represent Lowell’s best opportunities to pick up points. The River Hawks travel to Northeastern on Friday and a week later play a home-and-home series against Merrimack. Those three games against teams below them in the standings precede two games each against Boston College and Vermont to close out the regular season.
All of which is far too long-term for MacDonald.
“Really, our stretch run is no more or no less than Friday night against Northeastern,” he says. “We’ve got a lot of stretch runs of 60-minute games. We can’t look beyond any of that.”
The injury situation doesn’t help. Not only have the River Hawks been without Andrew Martin for most of the season and Kinley of late, but they’re also going to be at Northeastern without Elias Godoy.
“Our margin of error is very small,” MacDonald says. “We know it’s going to be a huge battle against Northeastern. And Merrimack’s playing very, very well, too.
“There are no easy games for us. They’re all 60-minute, playoff-type games for us.”
As it stands now, Lowell seems almost certain to finish either seventh or eighth. There’s a big gap between eighth and ninth place just as there’s a big one between sixth and seventh.
A few weeks ago, there seemed to be a big payoff for finishing seventh. That one extra spot meant no matchup against Boston College, then the lone dominant team in the league. Since then, however, BU has come on like gangbusters so the difference between the two finishes has faded.
Arguably, the final position in the standings won’t mean much to the River Hawks as long as they don’t have to face Maine, the team they have matched up against most poorly in the recent past. With Maine – Lowell first-round scenarios highly unlikely, the main goal will be to enter the playoffs healthy and in peak form.
“Each team in the league has some tough matchups, some inherently tough games,” MacDonald says. “For us, we just want to be playing well, playing our game and controlling our destiny in terms of how we play, regardless of who the opponent is.
“Pick your poison: BC, BU, UNH, Providence, or Vermont or Maine, they’re all relatively dominant. Some road trips are easier than others, but we just want to be healthy and be playing well at the end of the season.”
The Year In A Microcosm
In many ways, Northeastern’s Beanpot loss captured the essence of the team’s 1-19-6 season. There were some ugly moments — a five-on-three power play in which the Huskies couldn’t muster a single opportunity — but also a level of substance that belied the end result.
“You look at our record, but people that watch us play certainly identify with the effort that’s there every night,” NU coach Greg Cronin said after the 5-2 loss. “When you have adversity like this, there’s an opportunity, particularly for a new coaching staff, to identify people who will emerge through the adversity. And not just freshmen, everybody.
“Let’s face the facts. Northeastern lost seven guys last year and three of them were on the All-Hockey East team and they all drove that ship. In the absence of those people, somebody had to come in and fill those roles.
“I always say that absence creates an opportunity. And when you have an opportunity, some people thrive on it and other people sink.”
One who thrived in the Beanpot spotlight was freshman Dennis McCauley. His goal, a clever move on the doorstep to beat Cory Schneider, brought the Huskies back to within two. McCauley also had one the previous week against Maine and now has four on the season.
“That was a big-time goal,” Cronin said. “The good thing is that a guy like McCawley has gotten better and better as the year has progressed. He seemed to pick up his pace around mid-January.”
There were other individual positives.
“[Ryan] Ginand made a heck of a play on the first goal,” Cronin said. “You’d have to be blind not to notice Joe Vitale. And our defensemen have done a terrific job. The young kids have done really well.”
“The frustrating part for me as a coach is that our prime-time guys that should have been visible tonight and should have had an impact on the game did not have an impact on the game,” Cronin said. “When you have eight to 10 freshmen in the lineup, including the goalie, you’ve got to have some veteran leadership jumping over boards imposing their will on the game. I didn’t see that from some of our older guys.”
In the end, BC did what they do to so many teams.
“The bottom line is they had two power-play goals, a shorthanded goal and a faceoff goal,” Cronin said. “A team like BC, when they get those chances, they’re probably going to score on half of them. It’s going to probably take us four times as many chances to get the same number of goals.”
College hockey doesn’t get that many shots at ESPN’s Top Ten, so it was great to see BU freshman Chris Higgins earn the number two spot with his highlight reel Beanpot goal.
I won’t bother trying to describe it. If you haven’t seen it yet, Tivo the Beanpot preview show this Monday. If they don’t show the goal multiple times, the producers are dumb as rocks.
What does merit comment is that Higgins isn’t one-dimensional.
“He’s a very, very clever guy who can make those type of plays, but the thing that’s really great about him is he’s very, very good defensively,” BU coach Jack Parker said after the game. “I’ve said this since about the fourth game of the year: if the puck is on his stick, no matter what zone it is, I can relax. There’s never going to be a turnover.
“He knows how to get the puck out, get it in, make a play. He’s an extremely smart player in all three zones and he’s a very, very dangerous player because of his cleverness.”
I was originally going to include a lot more from the Beanpot, but when I went through the rest of the USCHO.com coverage, there just wasn’t, as the phrase goes, much meat left on them bones.
My colleagues have pretty much picked the Beanpot clean. Check out all their good stuff. (Of course, please finish reading my swill first.)
How ‘Bout Them Cardinals?
The boys from Wesleyan have two more weekends to make a difference, but they’re on a roll right now. They’ve taken five out of the last possible six points and can make a huge statement with a strong weekend on Friday and Saturday against Colby and Bowdoin.
There have been heroic performances amidst great adversity. Keep it going, Cardinals!
Last week’s question pertained to the Beanpot. As almost everyone knows, BU coach Jack Parker owns the best winning percentage of all coaches with at least two tournament appearances. The challenge was to name the two who most closely trail Parker.
I considered adding the hint that the two shared something in common, but figured that might make it too easy. Little did I know that without a hint most found the question far too hard.
Going into last weekend, Parker stood at .766 (49-15) while Jack Kelley (BU, .750, 15-5) and Snooks Kelley (BC, .650, 26-14) trailed him most closely.
Sean Pickett was the winner, which certainly is no surprise to those who have visited his website. (See, for example, his compilation of Beanpot records.)
Sean’s cheer is:
This week’s question also has ties to the Beanpot and is a two-parter, one easy, the other difficult.
The easy half pays homage to BU’s 22 wins in its last 23 Beanpot semifinal contests. Name the result in the Terrier’s lone consolation game appearance in that stretch. Give the year and score.
The difficult half relates to Parker’s post-game comments regarding Chris Higgins, which began with the words, “I saw him play when he was a sophomore at Pingree and I thought he was a very, very clever guy.”
If Evil Dave had his way, the trivia question would ask who Higgins’ center was in that game. (The answer would be my son Ryan.) However, Sort-Of-Evil Dave is in charge this week so the question asks what Pingree alumnus has scored the most points while playing for a Hockey East (men’s) team.
Even if you only know the easy half, e-mail my trivia account with your answer. The winner will be notified by Tuesday; if you haven’t heard by then you either had the wrong answer or someone else beat you to it.
As always, you can also submit suggested trivia questions to the same email address and if your question is used, you’ll get a cheer as long as you were first to submit it. Please include something like “SUGGESTION” in the subject line.
And Finally, Not That It Has Anything To Do With Anything, But…
I’ve admitted before that I am a slob. But the latest evidence has even me shaking my head.
My cubicle is cluttered with paper from wall to wall and all over the floor. The cleaning people have given up on vacuuming because so little of the rug is visible.
My excuse, of course, is that I’m too busy to be neat. Believe it, if you will.
Until recently, the most notable indicator that I am of Oscar Madison’s ilk is that a good-humored boss once wrote in my performance evaluation that “no one has been killed in Dave’s office. Yet.”
However, I recently topped that milestone.
While searching through various mounds of paper, trying to avoid setting off an avalanche, I uncovered an unused book of first-class stamps. Unfortunately, the denomination of those stamps was 29 cents.
How long had that book of stamps been sitting there while clutter stacked up around it? I knew it had to be a long time, but a quick check of the Internet gave no indication.
Bemused, I was relaying the story to some of my co-workers when one of them became excited.
“Can I have one of those stamps?” he said. “I’d love a 29 cent stamp. That was what was used for first class when I came to this country from Russia.”
Before fetching this piece of memorabilia, I asked the question which would provide the measuring stick of my slob-osity.
“What year was that?” I asked with mounting dread.
The answer, which I’m certain can’t possibly be correct, set off gales of laughter from my friends.
My Russian co-worker replied, “1992.”