In an unusual Saturday/Sunday schedule, Manhattanville lost its first two games of the year, both in non-conference play. The Valiants dropped their first contest to Curry, 3-2, and then saw its weekend completely fall apart Sunday afternoon against Williams, losing 5-1.
“Curry and Williams played great road games,” said Manhattanville head coach Keith Levinthal. “They did what you need to do on the road: simple, smart, didn’t try to do anything out of the ordinary. They deserve a lot of credit for it.”
In both games, Manhattanville got in penalty trouble early, gave up three first period goals, and then tried to dig its way out of the hole the rest of the way.
The NCAA Ice Hockey Rules Committee released a memo in November emphasizing contact to the head during play. The Valiants, being a tall physical team, found themselves struggling to adjust to the new emphasis as they were repeatedly called physical penalties.
“We struggled adjusting to the memo from the Rules Committee that makes it very difficult to finish checks,” said Levinthal. “We are a big strong team that finishes checks. The Rules Committee comes out, three days after the NHL says they have an issue with head injuries, and all of the sudden you finish a check and get thrown in the box. We have to adjust to it. All of the sudden games are officiated differently than they have been officiated before. It is an adjustment that we have to figure out here.”
Manhattanville made adjustments during the intermissions, playing strong second and third periods attempting to climb back into the games. But the holes were too deep.
“Both games, the last two periods we really controlled the play and were generating a lot of chances,” said Levinthal. “Sometimes when you are playing from behind, you play a bit desperate. We needed to be a little more composed with the puck. Because we were desperate, we were sometimes too quick, rushed it, and as a result just missed our opportunities.”
Junior Mickey Lang scored all of the goals for the Valiants during the weekend, a pair against Curry and a solo tally versus Williams, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the early game problems.
“We lost those games because we were shorthanded,” said Levinthal. “It cost us the weekend. We are either going to adjust or we are going to keep losing.”
USCHO correspondent Russell Jaslow accurately described Utica’s weekend series against Potsdam as “a hard fought, hard hitting game which required a lot of ice packs afterwards.”
From various reports heard since then, that description was not an exaggeration. Both teams spent most of Sunday alternating ice packs and time in the whirlpool.
“It was a spirited game where the first night they took it to us,” said Utica head coach Gary Heenan. “The second night, we seemed to be taking it to them and then things got a little more spirited. It didn’t escalate to anything out of control but there were a lot of hard hits and a lot of aggression where both team had some injuries from really hard hits. It was a good series with two hard fought battles and the players were feeling it on Sunday.”
The town of Utica has been home to several minor league hockey teams over the years. Every team that called the Aud home was renowned for their physical play and the hard working townies became rabid fans. When things got physical between the Pioneers and Bears last weekend, the old time fans harkened back to the days of yore.
“It’s nice to see that our fans support us,” said Heenan. “When perhaps some liberties were being taken, they were definitely voicing their opinions.”
After a bruising split with Potsdam over the weekend, Utica traveled to nearby Hamilton on Monday to continue its tough non-conference schedule. Special teams ruled the game as every goal was scored with a team on a power play. Hamilton scored a pair of power-play goals to take a 2-0 lead midway through. Late in the second period, junior Kregg Guestin sandwiched a pair of tallies on the man advantage for the Pioneers around a shorthanded goal from Hamilton to finish the second period with Utica trailing 3-2.
Sophomore Tim Coffman tied the game 3-3 early in the third with another extra-attacker goal and that is how the game ended.
“It is always a great game and is a hard place to play up there,” said Heenan. “We played pretty well. Goaltending for Hamilton was exceptional. We showed some character battling back, sticking to what we were doing. Five-on-five their goaltender was just awesome but fortunately for us our power play did what it should be doing.”
Due to injuries suffered both during the Potsdam series and previously in the season, the Utica bench was pretty thin by the end of Hamilton game. The Pioneers coaching staff is trying to piece together a lineup, juggling new players into the special teams and shuffling lines to field a competitive team.
“We are beat up right now,” said Heenan. “I was very proud of our guys [Monday] night. We were down to three forward lines and five defensemen. You are going to see some significant changes to the lineup strictly due to injuries.”
It doesn’t get any easier for Utica this coming weekend.
In fact, after a bruising three games in four days last weekend, the Pioneers face another tough weekend having to repeat the onerous feat. In some ways, this weekend is even more difficult as Utica faces league foes Hobart and Elmira, followed by a contest against co-No. 1 Oswego on Tuesday.
Whose bright idea was it to schedule six difficult games in an 11 day span?
“I stand by the schedule. I did it,” admitted Heenan. “It is a brutal schedule right now, but we need to find a way. We want games at home, on weekends, and this year we wanted to play better teams. We have got to get ready for ECAC West play in February, which means we need to play the good teams now.”
But coach Heenan has felt the grind of this part of the schedule, watching his players battling on the ice then trying to heal up in time for the next game. While he has already signed up for another home-and-home series next year against always tough Oswego, an off weekend over the Thanksgiving holiday seems very appealing right now.
“As of right now, I’ve got Thanksgiving weekend off next year,” said Heenan. “We are re-thinking it a little bit and could have used a break that weekend.”
Game of the Week
A disastrous non-conference weekend has heightened the importance of this week’s games for Manhattanville. The Valiants play Elmira Friday night in a meeting of the last two teams who are undefeated in league play in the ECAC West.
“Elmira for us is always a big, big game,” said Levinthal. “Given our last weekend, it is a critical game. It is a playoff game both Friday and Saturday. There is a super amount of importance on these games.”
Elmira and Manhattanville have played some real barn burners the last couple of seasons as they battled for league titles and NCAA bids. While repeated playing between teams can breed a sense of familiarity, things are a little different this time around for Manhattanville as Elmira has a new coach in Aaron Saul. He is sure to throw a few new twists towards the Valiants as Elmira tries to gain the top spot in the league.
“With a new coach there, it is a little different with what they do,” said Levinthal. “When Tim Ceglarski was there, we really got to know each other’s programs really well. It is kind of a new feeling now and a new person coaching will probably do things a bit differently.”