Vermont’s opponent wasn’t at all a common one. The third-seeded Catamounts don’t play the East Regional’s No. 2 seed, Yale, regularly — not since UVM joined Hockey East prior to the 2005-06 season, anyway.
Still, UVM coach Kevin Sneddon’s game plan strangled the Yale forecheckers, forcing them to play a game he knew his Catamounts could win.
Even with the recent unfamiliarity with the Bulldogs, Sneddon knew he’d seen the Bulldogs in another team — one a little more familiar. Sneddon compared the Yale offensive system, predicated heavily on aggression and fast, smooth transitions through the neutral zone, to New Hampshire.
“Coming into this weekend, we talked a lot about [the similarities between Yale and New Hampshire],” UVM freshman goaltender Rob Madore said. “They’re really good in transition, and they like to get shots off the rush.”
Hockey East boasts four teams in the NCAA tournament, tied for the most of any conference in the 2009 bracket. Only the Catamounts took the ice on Friday — Boston University, New Hampshire and Northeastern begin their Frozen Four quests Saturday afternoon — but Vermont’s 4-1 win over the host Bulldogs suggests to the rest of college hockey that Hockey East teams don’t have to look too far beyond their own schedule to find the stoutest competition they’ll see.
Aside from the four teams in the NCAAs, playing in Hockey East meant three games against defending national champion Boston College, eventual league finalist Massachusetts-Lowell and Maine, the only team to beat Boston University since January.
But throw a system at Sneddon and give him a week to prepare, and he’ll shape his trap to disrupt any opposition’s plans.
“I told our guys in the locker room that was probably the best game of the year. We closed gaps on both sides of the puck, and made it difficult for Yale to really create offense,” Sneddon said following the game. “That’s their game; they’re a very good transition team. I don’t think we allowed any odd-man rushes if any.”
Even the atmosphere of Friday night’s game didn’t seem odd to the Catamounts. Nearly every Hockey East game meant a two-point swing in the standings; so by the time February rolled around, every team had something to lose. Whether it was home ice, a more favorable matchup or even qualifying for the Hockey East tournament, everyone had something to play for.
“I think, personally, we were really well prepared for this weekend,” Madore said. “It’s more hockey. It doesn’t change the game where we’re playing. It definitely benefits us to play in such a deep league with a playoff-type atmosphere every night with big crowds. I thought that definitely helped us out there.”
Yale forward Matt Nelson commented that the Bulldogs typical plans didn’t result in the quantity or quality of scoring chances they’re accustomed to.
“We just couldn’t sustain that for a long period of time, which is a way to wear our opponents down,” he said.
Against Vermont, a team that has competed against a series of different offensive approaches on a nightly basis, a team reliant on one aspect of offensive hockey can’t manufacture consistent opportunities.
The Bulldogs’ failure to sustain pressure on the offensive end eventually led to the odd- and even-man rushes the Catamounts hope to create off their deliberate, defense-first system.
UVM’s first two goals — scored by wingers Peter Lenes and Viktor Stalberg, respectively — came on one-on-one wristers off Yale giveaways in the neutral zone.
“Vermont was a very good transition team. They had a nice flow through the neutral zone,” Yale coach Keith Allain said. “It was an uphill battle. Our reaction time wasn’t what it normally was during the season.”
Judging strictly by the seeding — UVM as the No. 3 and Air Force as the No. 4 — the Catamounts stand as the favorite in Saturday’s regional final. The Falcons know how to win games, though, and they still feel like they have something to prove. They’ll throw everything they have at Vermont Saturday night, and the Catamounts will be ready for it.
No matter what it is.