This Week In The ECAC West: Jan. 26, 2007

No Wheels?

Entering last weekend, things seemed to be rolling along for the Hobart. The Statesmen had ripped off twelve straight undefeated games, and while mired in the lower half of the league standings, they were still within easy striking distance of the top.

Friday’s game at Manhattanville wasn’t particularly good hockey by either team, but Hobart managed to earn a tie against the Valiants with a third period goal from Jason Merritt.

“Friday night was decent, but we didn’t play our best hockey,” said Hobart coach Mark Taylor. “We have to play better hockey than we played, that is for sure.”

But getting a tie, on the road, against the No. 1 team in the country, when not playing very well, isn’t such a bad result, right?

Wrong. Overnight, the teams went in opposite directions. Manhattanville played much better Saturday night, and Hobart might as well not even have showed up. Despite giving Hobart three power plays in the first period, including almost a minute of five-on-three time, the Valiants threw in three goals to open the game on the way to a 10-0 romp.

“Sometimes the wheels come off,” said Taylor. “They looked pretty darn good and we looked pretty darn bad. We didn’t show up the way we needed to show up, or be ready the way we needed to be ready. They sure the heck were.”

With a couple of days since the game to reflect on it, maybe there is at least a glimmer of good that Hobart can take out of the game.

“A couple of years back, we got shellacked up at RIT 7-1 and went on to win the league,” quipped Taylor. “Everybody has had bad games, but we haven’t had a game like that where everything is off against a good team where everything was on.”

Helping the Statesmen gain a little perspective on the walloping is the large group of upperclassmen that are leading in scoring. Seven of the eight players on the team with double digit points are juniors or seniors. Leading Hobart is senior Conor Bradley with eleven goals and thirteen assists, including five of those goals on the power play.

“Most teams rely on their upperclassmen,” said Taylor. “Hopefully your juniors and seniors are getting it done for you. But we are not going to rely on any handful of guys to get it done for us. It has to be a team effort.”

So what do you do when all the wheels have fallen off your bus and you are skidding towards the edge of the cliff with your season in jeopardy?

If you play in the ECAC West, you jump right back in to an important pair of games the next weekend. Hobart hosts league leading Neumann College this weekend.

“They are all huge games at this point,” said Taylor. “In our league, every single team is saying the same thing.”

If Hobart can sweep both games from Neumann, a tall order to be sure, it would put them back in the hunt. Getting swept would practically eliminate the Statesmen from contention for the regular season title. “Huge” might be an understatement.

Looking at the remaining four weeks of the regular season, Hobart has the most favorable schedule. Six of its last eight games are all in the friendly, but frigid, confines of The Cooler, and include home-and-home series with Elmira and Utica that are right in front of the Statesmen in the standings.

“Hopefully the schedule will come in to favor for us,” said Taylor. “Sometimes there is less of a home advantage when you have two games at home, than one game at home. You can drop your guard the second night, or be looking at the second game.”

Hobart can ill afford to let its guard drop again this season.

Bread and Butter

It is no secret that Utica has been struggling to score goals. The Pioneers have tallied two or less goals in six their last nine games. But it is not from lack of trying.

The coaching staff brought in several freshmen this year specifically to help with putting the puck in the net, and have put in systems right from the start of the season to open up the game. Unfortunately, the result of this has been to increase the opponents scoring more than their own.

“If you look at [goaltender Adam] Dekker’s numbers, they are down, but it certainly is not an indication of him playing poorly,” said Utica coach Gary Heenan. “It is the team giving it up and getting a little loose in front of him, trying to bulge the twine at the other end.”

The home series last weekend against Elmira is a perfect example. On Friday, Utica battled to a 2-1 lead midway through the game only to see Elmira storm back with three straight goals to win the game 4-2.

“We changed defensive systems on Friday to try and spark some offense, get more breakouts and odd man rushes,” said Heenan. “Elmira outplayed us. They were the better team, no question. They solved our penalty kill, which had been very good, getting three power play goals and that was the difference.”

Saturday, it was back to basics for Utica, returning to its roots of defensive zone play first, offense second. For over 59 minutes, it worked as the Pioneers held on to a one goal lead through most of the game. However, for the third time at home this season, the Pioneers gave up a late extra attacker goal as Elmira stole a tie.

“On Saturday, we spoke about going back to playing good solid in-zone defense,” said Heenan. “We went back to our old school, tightened things up. That has been our bread and butter since we have existed, and we have gotten back to that.”

The “back to basics” approached carried over in to Tuesday’s game against previously undefeated Oswego. The Pioneers chipped in three first period goals, including two by freshman Brandon Laidlaw as he was on the way to a hat trick, and then clamped down on defense to win 5-2.

“We have some freshman that we brought in to score some goals, so that was a good thing to see,” said Heenan.

The tie with Elmira and win over Oswego were the first time that Utica has gone undefeated over a two game stretch since a home and home series with Hamilton in early December.

The biggest demon for the Pioneers this season is stringing two well-played games together.

“We are certainly capable of beating the best,” said Heenan. “It is consistency that is our number one enemy right now. Everybody is as excited as heck today about the Oswego game, but the way it has been going it may be a disaster next game. Williams should be excited, because the pattern is we are going to play a stinker. We will be reminding the guys about that.”

Utica plays Williams in its next game on Jan. 30.

Off the ice, coach Heenan dismissed junior Nick Lynch from the team last weekend. Lynch played in 59 games for Utica in over two-plus seasons, scoring 21 goals and 32 assists.

“[Lynch] just wasn’t fitting in, and wasn’t going to work out here,” said Heenan. “There was no specific incident. I couldn’t coach the kid to play to his ability. He struggled to do the things we asked him to do on the ice, and it came to a head.”