This Week in Hockey East: Feb. 19, 2009

The Quiet Conquerors

“Quiet” is a word that is pleasant to the ears of Vermont head coach Kevin Sneddon.

He himself is relatively soft-spoken. A Harvard graduate, Sneddon speaks authoritatively but with little pomp and circumstance. Behind the bench you’ll see a stoic yet focused coach.

His team, in a way, has assumed their coach’s personality. And that’s something that Sneddon really enjoys.

Quietly is the exact adverb that describes the Catamounts ascent to near the top of the national polls and rankings. While much has been made of the resurgence of Boston University and the Cinderella story of Northeastern, the Cats have tip-toed their way to a top spot among the national contenders.

“We have no problem with the attention being placed on other teams,” said Sneddon when asked about his team’s low-profile. “You know, that’s kind of how our program is and maybe even falls in line with our philosophies as coaches.”

Vermont’s rise — the Catamounts sit comfortably in third place in Hockey East, hold the No. 6 ranking in the College Sports poll and are have been as high as second in the PairWise — hasn’t been unconventional in any way. There haven’t been any extended winning streaks (the longest is six games), but equally important is that the Catamounts have posted back-to-back losses just once (a 3-2 loss at Boston College on October 24 and a 7-2 loss, the Cats’ worst of the season by far, to BU on November 1).

But the patchwork of a few wins here and there have brought Vermont to a 17-7-2 record with just six games left in the regular season and, barring a collapse, has positioned the club for its first NCAA berth since 1997. At that point, you’ll have to wonder if the Catamounts will be as bright a blip on the radar as their BU and Northeastern counterparts.

“I think BU and Northeastern certainly deserve the attention that they’re getting. BU’s had a tremendous season, and Northeastern. Greg (Cronin) deserves a lot of credit for what he has done with that program over the last couple of years,” said Sneddon. “So, we’re okay with that. The attention certainly deserves to be on those teams and again, that’s not a big part of what we are looking for anyway. So we just kind of go about our business and hope that it means good things for us at the end. We tend not to draw a lot of attention to ourselves, and I think that can be a good thing.”

One place where the Catamounts may soon need to find an identity is in the Hockey East standings. With 27 points, Vermont remains within striking distance of first-place Northeastern (31 points) and second-place BU (30 points).

But as nice as a pennant chase can be, worrying about a league title could bite the Cats in the butt. Take last weekend. Vermont entered the weekend perched closer to first place than fourth. But after a Friday loss at Merrimack coupled with a win by fifth-place Mass.-Lowell and a tie by fourth-place New Hampshire, suddenly the Catamounts were in a must-win situation to maintain their home-ice buffer.

It certainly taught a lesson — that any missteps down the stretch could not only dash Vermont’s hopes of a regular-season title but also send the club on the road for the Hockey East quarterfinals.

“We can’t [watch the standings],” said Sneddon. “Our focus has to be on the job at hand and the standings will take of themselves. Wherever we fit, we fit. If we continue to do the things we need to do to win, we’ll be fine, but we can’t look too far ahead.”

The Quiet Conquerors, No. 2 — Lowell

Vermont is hardly alone as a team quietly making noise. Though seemingly having come out of nowhere themselves, the Mass.-Lowell River Hawks are entrenched in a home-ice battle after last weekend’s series against Boston College, in which the perennial underdogs made a heckuva statement against the defending national champions.

Lowell hammered the Eagles, 6-0, on the road on Friday, dominating every facet of the game and scoring two power-play, two shorthanded and two even-strength goals.

A night later, the River Hawks were in position to sweep the series, grabbing a 4-2 lead heading to the third before the Eagles used-to-be-always-but-now-sometimes potent offense awoke. Boston College struck twice in the final stanza to earn a 4-4 tie.

After the two-game set, Lowell is two games above .500 at 11-9-1 and sits just a point in back of New Hampshire for the final home-ice spot. The River Hawks will have to move in front of the Wildcats in order to pass them in the standings, though, as UNH won the season series, two games to one.

That’s quite a turnaround for a team that did a nosedive between Dec. 5 and Jan. 10, losing six straight and scoring just eight goals over the span. Since then, the River Hawks are 6-2-1 and have scored three or more goals in all but one of those nine games.

Quite a turnaround indeed and one that has people standing up and taking notice.

“They impress me as a club,” said BC head coach Jerry York, whose club dropped the season series to the River Hawks, 0-2-1. “Blaise [MacDonald] has quietly done something special with that program. On the brink of eliminating hockey from the school, they have bounced back.”

York’s point is a good one. We’re less than two years removed from discussions by the UMass Board of Trustees about eliminating the program. Now the River Hawks are poised to be the ultimate darkhorse entering the Hockey East playoffs.

So what gives? Looking at this season under a microscope, one thing that’s easy to see is that Lowell has re-acquired a killer instinct. Though maybe missing in Saturday’s 4-4 tie with BC, it was certainly present the night earlier when the River Hawks took a two-goal lead into the third and came out with a six-goal victory, Lowell’s largest winning margin against BC in program history.

“We’ve been in a lot of one-goal games this season and unfortunately we’ve been on the wrong side of a lot of them,” said co-captain Ben Holmstrom. “We’ve tried to learn not to sit back when you get a lead … we’re trying to get better in the third period every game.”

If the River Hawks get home ice in the playoffs, they’ll certainly have earned it. They travel this weekend to Vermont for two games to face a Catamount team that has beaten Lowell four straight over the last two seasons. After that they’ll face first-place Northeastern in a home-and-home series and close with two games at home against Maine, a team that in recent years has owned the River Hawks.

Regardless, it’s highly likely that Lowell will enter the playoffs as an opponent no one wants to face.

A Bad Record to Break

Merrimack entered the record books last Saturday night, but for all the wrong reasons.

The Warriors, one night after upsetting then-No. 3 Vermont, 3-2, blew a two-goal lead in the second period and fell, 4-3, in the second game of the series.

The loss was Merrimack’s 12th one-goal loss of the season, a new school record.

With three weeks left in the season, the Warriors are nine points out of the final playoff spot. Though not mathematically impossible, Merrimack’s postseason aspirations at this point seem dim.

Which brings you to the one-goal losses. Ten of the 12 single-goal defeats came in league play. If you reverse half of those losses, Merrimack would amazingly be in seventh place, a point ahead of Maine and Massachusetts (and yes, I know, if I were Bill Gates I’d be rich).

But one has to wonder how a team can be on the wrong side of some many close games. Is it possible that a team simply may not know how to win the close games? You hear coaches talk about believability all the time — that the team believes in the fact that they can win.

Is that where Merrimack is?

“We’ve worked hard to avoid [allowing one-goal losses to affect the team],” said Merrimack head coach Mark Dennehy. “I don’t think there’s any mental issues in our locker room at all.

“As a team, we’re not getting frustrated. People ask me if I’m discouraged. To be honest, as tough as this year has been, I’ve had more fun this year than any other year.”

From here on out, fun may come in strange ways. It may not come in a playoff berth, that’s becoming clear, but in the ability to play the role of spoiler is something this team, given its ability, can truly relish.

The Hobey Push

Count Vermont as the first of the Hockey East schools to use the Internet to promote its Hobey Baker candidate this season. is a site dedicated to promoting forward Viktor Stalberg as a candidate for this year’s Hobey Baker Memorial Award. Though unique in name, the site is hardly the first. Among the players to have their own website in Hockey East was last year’s Hobey runner-up Nathan Gerbe, who had not only a school-sponsored site, but also a fan blog dedicated to his candidacy.

Yes, indeed, the Internet generation is booming in college hockey.

And Finally, Not That It Has Anything To Do With Anything, But …

As I awoke this Thursday morning, I turned on the news as I would any other day. Only this morning my head was turned as was I walking out the door by mention that the Albany River Rats’ bus had overturned on the Mass Turnpike Wednesday night on the way back from a game with the Lowell Devils.

As I write, I still don’t know the identity of the injured players or staff, but certainly all are in my prayers.

Something like this makes us realize how small the hockey world is. Though there are hundreds of professional players and coaches, it’s highly likely I or any of my colleagues will know someone involved in this accident. In fact, the first name associated, that of head coach Jeff Daniels, is familiar to me. Jeff was the captain of the New Haven Beast in 1997-98. At the time, I was the PR Manager for the team, the only year I ever worked in pro hockey.

It’s the smallness of the college hockey world, though, that helps in difficult times. It’s nice knowing that I’m just one of thousands who will offer prayers for these players. That’s what makes hockey so special.


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