This Week in the ECAC West

Not Our Legacy

Gut check time.

It has been said so many times in sports that it has almost become cliché. A team finds itself in a certain situation where they need to either dig deep from within to overcome the obstacle, or collapse like a house of cards.

Cliché or not, the Utica Pioneers found themselves in just such a situation as they played Hobart last Saturday night after the Statesmen scored two quick goals midway through the first period.

For only the second time in its history, Utica had lost two consecutive home games entering Saturday’s contest. The Pioneers have never lost three home games in a row, but found themselves on the verge of it, when the seniors on the team took control of the locker room during the first intermission.

“To get down two early, it was a turning point to which way you are going to go as a team,” said Utica coach Gary Heenan. “I am really happy that the team responded and came together between periods with ‘is this going to be our legacy here as seniors?’ We just came out with an edge and really dominated the second period against a really good hockey team. We actually sent four guys on our fore check and bottled them up.”

Utica dominated the second period by getting back to the kind of physical hockey the Pioneer faithful enjoy watching, out shooting the Statesmen 28-11 and scoring two even strength goals to win the game, 3-2.

“We responded in the second period with just playing more of what Utica College hockey has been defined as since our inception, which is getting back to banging bodies and playing simple hockey,” said Heenan. “It was the first time that we have played 60 minutes of physical hockey.”

Gut check passed.

But despite the victory to pull in to a three way tie for second place in the league, the Pioneer offense continues to struggle. Three goals is the magic number for the Pioneers. If Utica scores three times, put a win in the books; if the opponent scores three, another tally goes in the loss column.

“There is definitely truth to that, and we are aware of it,” said Heenan. “We were really pleased with our skill level going in to the year and this is without question the most talented team that I’ve had. There is a learning process here.

Something I’m learning is that maybe we went away from some grit as well. We’re trying to get some more skilled guys playing grittier. We’re back to the same place we seem to be every year, which is first in penalty killing, first in team defense, but last in the offensive categories. We know we’ve got to correct those things. Our offense just needs to kick in.”

Special teams illustrates coach Heenan’s point as the Pioneers have killed an outstanding 88.2% of its penalties, but has only scored on 10.4% of its power plays.

For the last three seasons, Utica has been a one goaltender team. Senior Adam Dekker quickly took over the starting role in his freshmen year and has played almost ever game since then. But this year, as Dekker plays his final season, coach Heenan is looking toward the future and getting sophomore Anthony Luckow game experience.

“Dekker has been our guy, and is our guy, but we have to prepare for post-Dekker hockey as well,” said Heenan. “And that is why we’ve been giving Luckow some games and he is earning the right to play games now. Both goalies are deserving.”

Luckow has answered the call in the five games that he has played, amassing an outstanding .939 save percentage, 1.62 goals against average, and is undefeated including backstopping the Pioneers against Hobart last Saturday.

“[Luckow is] ready for playing time and against Hobart was the first big game we’ve given him,” said Heenan. “He’s deserving of that because he’s playing so well. He plays the puck so well and has given us a big boost against teams like Hobart that dump the puck so much.”

Crucial Defense

Elmira continues to roll through the competition. Despite playing four of its eight games against nationally ranked teams, the Soaring Eagles are 7-0-1, lead the league at the holiday break, and share the top spot in this week’s USCHO poll with Plattsburgh — whom they beat three week’s ago.

The team’s latest test, and perhaps toughest to date, came this past weekend as Elmira beat Utica (5-2) and Manhattanville (4-3) on the road in front of very hostile crowds.

“It was a huge weekend for us,” said Elmira coach Tim Ceglarski. “Even before the season, I thought those games would be the crucial league games for us in the standings.”

Normally, a team leading its league, undefeated after eight games, and receiving number one votes would also be ranked near the top of the national team and player statistics in areas such as scoring, defense, power play percentage, or even goals and assists. But remarkably, Elmira’s name is nowhere to be found.

“We have broken down our stats against the top 15 teams in the country, and in most of the stats we are fifteenth,” said Ceglarski. “I think it is a combination of extremely good goaltending and limiting the quality chances our opponents are getting. We have a great team concept going right now. It is a fun group to watch play but also a fun group to coach.”

But it isn’t luck or magic that has gotten the Soaring Eagles to the top of the heap. It is a solid defensive corps, steady goaltending, and a group of forwards that have bought in to a system that is working.

“We probably have the best group of defensemen that I have seen in the 11 years I have been here,” said Ceglarski.

“They are poised with the puck. Their decision making and ability to cover people in our zone, combined with the work our forwards are doing in our zone, is shutting people down. One of the stats that they don’t keep track of is shots against, and we are averaging only allowing 22.8 shots against per game.”

“Elmira is as good as there is right now,” added Utica’s Heenan. “I am extremely impressed with their defensemen.”

Elmira’s opponents have only scored three or more goals in two games this season. The Soaring Eagles, including goaltender Casey Tuttle who has played every game in net for Elmira, has limited every other opponent to two goals or fewer.

“Casey Tuttle is a real steadying force in net and has only let in one soft goal all season,” said Ceglarski.

Leading the defensemen is junior Nicolas Dumoulin, who is tied for the team lead in points (11) and goals (six) for Elmira.

“Nick has really stepped up his play and has grasped the team concept,” said Ceglarski. “He is not only scoring some goals for us but is moving the puck very well, making good decisions, and has cut down on his penalty minutes.”

Those good decisions have the Thunderdomes rocking again at Elmira.

Holiday Greetings

During this time of cheer, I would like to take this opportunity to wish everyone a very happy and healthy holidays, full of friends and family.

This is the final ECAC West column for 2007 as USCHO takes a break for the holidays. The ECAC West column will return in January to watch the teams start the stretch run towards the playoffs.