This week brings us to the unofficial halfway point in the season. Based on what amounts to about an average of a 25 game schedule per team, this weekend puts most teams across the halfway mark and really turns the focus on making an impact in league play.
As Colby coach Jim Tortorella puts it: “Your team is playing for placement in January and for the final standings on the last weekend of the season where it usually comes down to some kind of tiebreaker.”
No doubt playing each team in the interlocking schedule just once puts a premium on the single match-up as a potential tiebreaker in the conference standings and January is loaded with interesting weekend match-ups in both leagues, which are already tight at the top among several teams in each league. In the ECAC East only two points separate first and fourth place while in the NESCAC conference it is just a single point separating four teams at the top headed into the weekend.
For teams looking to build momentum, the break is over and the rush to improve play and position in the standings is a priority. For those teams at the top, Coach Tortorella believes “that you don’t want to play to hold on to first place, you want to play first place hockey as you look to be playing at your best in February coming down the stretch.”
They all count for two points, but some match-ups mean more than others this week that will probably show later in the year. Getting on track and staying on track is the key this month and lots of teams fit into both categories — let’s see who can put it all together in the second half!
Thoroughbreds Getting on Track
At 0-6-1 in the conference, you might think Neil Sinclair’s Skidmore squad is basically out of the running in the ECAC East. One of last year’s surprise teams, the Thoroughbreds have struggled this season and look to rebound starting this week on the road against Tufts and Conn College.
“We really forgot about how hard we worked last year to be successful,” commented Sinclair. “We haven’t competed in the defensive end where we are getting outshot by large margins and have taken too many penalties that have come back to cost us on the scoreboard. We need to increase our defensive intensity when we play 5-on-5 hockey and have that translate on to our special teams.
“The power-play goals against us have largely been on the people in front of our goalie. Teddy (Levine) has done a pretty good job for us and we need to play better and start doing the little things for each other. Turning this around is about the players being accountable to themselves and there is some progress being made.”
Just last week, Skidmore’s number one goalie, DJ Delbuono, left school and the team to pursue other opportunities. The team has moved on with what it needs to focus on for a successful second half of the season. Senior Ted Levine has stepped into the void and provided stability for the team in the net but now other improvements are needed to help Skidmore climb the conference ladder.
“We are not going to sneak up on anyone anymore,” noted Sinclair. “It’s definitely harder the second time around and our kids are learning that. We have really simplified the focus right now to one shift at a time, one period and dividing the game into five minute segments. No, the results overall aren’t there yet but we are playing better and in much longer stretches than where we were at the beginning of the season.”
Leading the re-focusing efforts are a core group of players who battling through the early season adversity and committing themselves to making things better in the second half while rallying their teammates.
Juniors Mike Gibbons (5-8-13), Phil McDavitt (5-7-12), and captain Teddy Gowan (1-3-4) are leading the team by example and trying to improve overall team play including the offense which has produced just 41 goals in their first 13 games and just five in their last three games.
Sophomore Anthony Ferri (4-6-10) and freshman Alex Myolenko (4-6-10) represent the young talent that needs to gel at Skidmore to consistently perform at the high level needed to compete in the league year in and year out.
“Alex has a European style and is really gifted offensively,” said coach Sinclair. “He’s a very talented skater and brings a lot to this team. He’s exciting to watch and we are excited to have him here at Skidmore.”
The last of the core players is sophomore forward Chris Webb (2-1-3) who does a lot more for the team than what shows up on a score sheet.
“Chris is really overlooked on this team but he is out there making contributions all over the ice in every game,” said Sinclair. “We need that kind of effort every night from everyone on the roster and I hope we can continue to make strides as a young team and see some results.”
The Thoroughbreds hit the road this weekend and coach Sinclair for one is happy to see the road trip:
“It’s good to be on the road this week. Our students aren’t back yet and they have been terrific in supporting the team. Being away will give us the chance to have clear thoughts and focus on the task at hand.”
The good news is that Skidmore is just four points out of fifth place in the conference. With no need to panic, it’s time to put things together in the second half.
Mule Train Rolling On
At 6-5-0 overall and 2-2-0 since the break, Colby has not yet found the consistency it’s looking for to make a push in the conference. However, holding a 5-2-0 record in the conference has the Mules in their accustomed position near the top, as they get healthy and ready to make a run against some of the league’s best in January.
In one of the more interesting statistical stories so far this season, Colby has had three players surpass the 100-point mark for their careers this season with Arthur Fritch (100) joining teammates Josh Reber (118) and TJ Kelley (106) in reaching the century milestone.
Add in the recently graduated Greg Osborne who achieved the feat last season and Colby has produced four 100-point scorers in two seasons where only 16 have achieved that lofty goal in the school’s illustrious hockey history.
There’s no doubt the big four — including senior Joe Rothwell (74 career points) — are needed to have Colby make a run and having a healthy Arthur Fritch is already paying dividends since the start of the New Year.
“Arthur has been sidelined with some nagging injuries so far this season,” noted coach Tortorella. “We have tried to make things less demanding on him and put him in some situations that make it easier for him to contribute.”
Apparently it has worked as the big defenseman had just one goal and one assist to show on the score sheet in the first seven games but has exploded for three goals, six assists and nine points in his last four games to get back into the mix offensively for Colby.
“Arthur’s biggest strength can also be his biggest weakness,” said Tortorella. “He has a huge shot that sometimes he gets too picky with location on. We just want him to let it go on net and let good things happen around the goal.
“TJ Kelley has a mindset that every time he touches the puck and shoots he thinks it’s going in – we’re trying to get Arthur there with his confidence in just letting it go — so far the second half looks better being somewhat healthy and having some success offensively.”
Colby has gone through some changes this year but have come to rely on something old and something new to be successful this season. The old is a power play unit that has worked together for going on four years with the core group adding sophomore Michael Belliveau to the mix this season.
At 29%, the group is experienced and can change momentum in a game quickly with their ability to read the opposition’s style and defensive tactics.
“We call it R&R — repetition and recognition,” noted Tortorella. “The thing that is cool about these guys is the recognition of things on the ice at a very high speed. They have the ability to have different looks and adjust to what the defensive group is giving them real-time and creating different options out of puck movement among the five players. It’s really fun to watch and obviously very effective.”
The new component has been the addition of freshman goalie Cody McKinney who has stepped in to take the starting job and has won the confidence of his team and coach in the process.
Himself a former goaltender, Tortorella said “[t]he thing that impresses me about Cody is that he plays every game the same, He carries himself with a real sense of responsibility and purpose. I really like the way his game is developing and the maturity he displays. He has been aggressive, sometimes too aggressive but I would rather see that in a goaltender. Cody has kept us in games and really made the big save when we have needed it. The “when” save as I call it. The guys out front have confidence in his abilities back there and that allows us to play a high-level aggressive style with confidence.”
Colby travels this week to face Williams and Middlebury and coach Tortorella expects a couple of very hard fought battles.
“Williams always plays us very tough particularly at their place which is a credit to coach Kangas and his program: they just seem to have our number so we know we are going to be challenged on Friday and then have to come right back and face a strong Middlebury team on Saturday. We want to be playing our best hockey in February but will need to start that process now where the NESCAC vs. NESCAC games carry a premium on points and position in the standings.”
Everybody is looking to make things happen in January and it doesn’t really matter where you are in the standings today — it’s about where you can put yourself come February that is what these next six weeks are going to be all about.
Can you feel the excitement? Drop the puck!