January is the time of year when many teams are starting to put it all together. The moving pieces of new players integrating with those returning has happened and most everyone understands their role on the team. For the most part, the non-league games are done so now itâ€™s a matter of focus and effort as every conference game means points, position in the standings, and — with head-to-head wins — possible tiebreakers looking at seeding for the conference tournaments at the end of the season. Here is a look at three teams that have either already found the answers or are starting to find them at the right time of the year.
All Aboard the Mule Train
For last yearâ€™s team from Colby College, the season was both difficult and very unusual compared with the consistent performance seen in Waterville during the tenure of head coach Jim Tortorella. Their overall record of 6-15-3 was disappointing as far as the results were concerned but there were a lot of positives that are clearly reaping benefits this season.
â€œWe would have liked better results for sure,â€ said Tortorella. â€œWhen we look at our goals for the season it is less about the results and more about the development of the players in their game and as maturing student athletes and I believe we achieved those more important goals.
â€œI think that every year is different. This year we are certainly seeing the benefits of going through what we did last year as the kids have brought a different level of work ethic that translates from practice to the games and with that the results take care of themselves.â€
Three players that are leading the way for the White Mules on the ice and in the locker room are junior Billy Crinnion (six goals, nine assists, 15 points), Wil Hartigan (6-6-12), and sophomore Michael Doherty (4-6-10). Among the team leaders in scoring, the three forwards have helped develop the teamâ€™s focus on the task at hand during practice, in the locker room, and during the games.
â€œThe biggest change I see is the teamâ€™s maturity and the attention to what creates the outcomes not the discussion of results,â€ said Tortorella. â€œI go in the locker room now and hear the conversations focused on effort and work ethic and doing the little things with intensity and not discussions worrying or planning outcomes.
â€œA football coach once said to his players that they needed to play every play like it was their last play. These kids have taken that philosophy to the ice and have instilled in the team to play every shift like it was their last shift. So far the results have been pretty good.â€
Another key to the success of this yearâ€™s Colby squad has been the emergence of the freshman line employed by Tortorella. Forwards Michael Smigelski (4-3-7), Cory McGrath (2-8-10) and Nick Kondiles (3-7-10) have provided energy and set the tone in many of the Colby games this season with their enthusiasm and physical play.
The name Smigelski may be familiar to those who follow the NESCAC conference as Michaelâ€™s older brother Alex is a senior at Williams College and is enjoying a very good season for the Ephs. While Michael has chosen a different school, he is also a different player than his brother and is finding his niche on the ice for Colby.
â€œMichael or â€˜Spikeâ€™ is a big kid,â€ chided Tortorella. â€œHe is very strong and creates room for himself in tough areas on the ice. He has been a nice fit with Cory and Nick and they have continued to play well and be productive so far this season.â€
This past weekend the White Mules tied St. Michaels on Friday night 5-5 and skated to a 1-1 deadlock with unbeaten Norwich the next evening. While the outcome of the games were the same, the head coach noticed some differences in the level of play and — more importantly — how the team responded against one of the best teams in the country on Saturday night.
â€œThe best example of how this team is focused and doesnâ€™t dwell on the past or the future can be seen in our goalie Cody McKinney,â€ noted Tortorella. â€œHe is very good at staying in the now. While I know he would like to have a couple back from Friday night, he quickly adjusted and moved on mentally that Saturday was just about Saturday and Norwich and he played outstanding for us in that game.â€
McKinney did a lot of homework on his game during the summer as the coaching staff sent him home with film clips of every shot and puck touch from the prior season for his analysis and improvement. The general intent was to understand tendencies in certain situations but focused on Codyâ€™s becoming more astute about his game, his rhythm and not the robotics or mechanics that most people revert to trying to fix.
To date it is difficult to argue with the results: McKinney brings a 2.07 goals against average and .929 save percentage as a backstop to the Mules who will be on the road this week against the ECAC East schools form Maine: Southern Maine and the University of New England.
Unbeaten in their last eight games (6-0-2), Colby is looking for still more improvement and hopes to take advantage of very predictable home-and-away cadence of the next six weeks.
â€œThe structure of the season really helps,â€ said Tortorella. â€œWe have a nice stretch in January and the players can get into a routine with only games on the weekends. We know there are no easy games on the calendar so we are committed to continuing the work ethic and effort that has got us this far and we will see how far it takes us.â€
Embracing Change at Castleton
Alex Toddâ€™s teams at Castleton have developed quickly since his arrival to take over the program.
His teams have been historically known for their physical style of play and aggressive pursuit of the puck in all three zones. With last yearâ€™s graduations of the his first recruiting class, a change was in the air about how Todd saw Castleton competing in the league moving forward and the style of play he wanted to modify with his team for this season.
â€œWe really wanted to improve on our team speed,â€ said Todd. â€œWe wanted to become much more of a skating team and promote movement without the puck as opposed to the system which emphasized stationary or positional play in the past.
â€œWe didnâ€™t really change anything about our coaching style in terms of our consistent messaging and teaching to the kids on the ice about what we needed to see executed during the games but the fact was we werenâ€™t doing the things we needed to do to be successful.â€
Having started the season at 1-6-2 overall and 0-4-1 in the league, there was the obvious opportunity to express concerns or doubts about his team but Todd was confident in his teamâ€™s ability to find its own identity and wondered when it was going to â€œkick-in.â€
â€œOf course there was some frustration,â€ said Todd. â€œI was really more confused and started questioning myself relative to instruction and talent evaluation. At the end of it all I really like this group of kids and the attitude they bring to the rink every day. We really just wanted to start seeing the actions on the ice mirroring what we have been coaching and teaching and I think the turning point for the kids came after our game on New Yearâ€™s Day against Plattsburgh.â€
The Cardinal Classic saw the Spartans match up with the host team in the opening game of the tournament. The outcome was a disappointing 8-1 loss to the Cardinals in which the players realized that something had to change.
â€œWe had Trinity the next weekend to start back with the regular season,â€ Todd said. â€œWe stayed and watched Plattsburgh play Trinity in the tournament final and watched them play so much better and at a higher level against Trinity than what we saw the previous night. They beat Trinity 9-0 and played a dominant game of hockey.
â€œThe realization for our team was that as good as Plattsburgh is, they werenâ€™t at their best against us and still humiliated us because we beat ourselves. They hung four goals on us and we hung four goals on ourselves and after watching film in a long team meeting back at school, I think the light went on and the players had enough of playing poorly.â€
In addition to the skating and motion game, the Spartans have focused on tightening up the team defense.
â€œWe watched film and saw that we had a lot of team breakdowns defensively,â€ said Todd. â€œYou can ask your goalies to make two or three back-to-back saves at points in games but it canâ€™t be five or six saves in a row on rebounds and play in front of the net and yet that was what the film showed we were asking our goalies to do.
â€œWe do want to have better play in goal but with the team playing better in front and limiting the grade A and second and third chances we should see more consistent play like we have seen in the past week.â€
Last weekend the Spartans swept home games against Trinity and Wesleyan by scores of 3-1 and 5-0, respectively. A Tuesday night tie with Geneseo saw the Spartans with a significant shot advantage but with a lot of pucks not getting to the net or missing which has challenged the offensive output.
â€œWe had 40 shots on goal,â€ said Todd. On top of that we had 15 shots that missed the net and another 17 shots blocked by the opposition. Thatâ€™s a lot of opportunities that we are missing out on and we are going to have to find a way to get more pucks to the net.â€
With just 36 goals in their first 13 games, the offense could use a boost.
Over half of the teamâ€™s output has been scored by three players. Freshman Josh Harris (4-10-14) leads the team in points while senior Nick Bolduc (5-4-9) and junior Stuart Stefan (10-3-13) have been the other most prolific players at finding the back of the net.
â€œWe definitely need some other guys to step up,â€ said Todd. â€œWe have players like Cody Ayers (1-2-3) who scored last year but really hasnâ€™t got it going yet this year. Tyler Atkins (0-4-4) has had great scoring chances where he has been robbed by the goalie, hit iron or just missed. He has been snake-bitten so far but we hope that he will breakthrough and just keep on going after the first one.
â€œChase Laukuf (1-1-2) just scored his first goal and we are definitely looking for more from him. He is a big kid that likes to go to the net and play in those tough areas that a lot of players donâ€™t want to go to find some space or work for the tough goals. We have the talent and I think when we get a few bounces and some goals start going in, the confidence will be there to keep producing.â€
One of the other contributing factors to Castletonâ€™s slow start has been the lack of performance from the special teams. With opponents clicking at over 23% and the power play unit struggling at 14%, Todd has had to focus his energy on adjusting priorities and the teamâ€™s focus.
â€œI would pay any amount to play just 5-on-5 hockey,â€ said Todd. â€œI really donâ€™t want to see us on the penalty kill or on the power play. In focusing on getting our game back on track we have spent very little time on special teams so far this season but I think with our style and skating coming together we will see better performance on the special teams and we will need to work on it moving into the back half of the season as the power play and penalty kill will have a big influence on the outcome of games late in the season and certainly in the playoffs.â€
This week the Spartan players performed an exercise where they wrote down what needed to be done to maintain the level of play that they performed at this week in obtaining their first points in the league this season. Memorializing the details will help the Spartans stay focused on moving up in the standings and this week presents an opportunity to move up with games on the road against conference foes, UMass-Boston and Babson.
January is the month to make your move, get in a groove and fine tune the game for February and the playoff run. Some teams are already in the zone while others are still looking to find their proverbial â€œmojoâ€. Or, as Austin Powers would say, about finding our re-discovering his mojo: â€œThatâ€™s very groovy, baby!â€
Breaks for the student bodies are almost over for all so rinks should be rocking this week.
Drop the puck!