Three games into the season, things have played out pretty much according to expectations for the Vermont Catamounts. If the team knew there would be a challenge entering the season, it would be goal scoring.
Still, at 0-1-2, the Cats’ record is hardly as bad as it may look. A 5-3 loss to Denver to open the season was the only downfall. Responding the following night to tie a talented Pioneers team and then earning another tie last weekend against a feisty Merrimack club leaves coach Kevin Sneddon feeling pretty good about his squad.
“I love them,” Sneddon said when asked what he thinks of his club thus far. “We knew we had some challenges going into this season, losing some goal scoring up front. We’ve shown some great signs in every game we’ve played. We’ve had a ton to work on.”
The biggest positive thus far has to be the play of goaltender Rob Madore. Sneddon was confident heading into the season that his junior netminder would be back to freshman form when he led the team to the Frozen Four. A year ago, Madore had a bit of a sophomore slump, but solid offseason progress has Sneddon ultra-confident in his netminder.
“We’re built from the net out with Madore playing really well for us,” Sneddon said. “He had great numbers and carried our team to the Frozen Four as a freshman and he made some mistakes in how he prepared for the second season.”
Sneddon said that Madore was by far too attached to getting better. He recounted the story of the day after returning from the Frozen Four two seasons ago when he found Madore in the weight room.
“He’s the hardest working goaltender we have, but mental rest is as important as physical rest,” Sneddon said. “Long seasons when you’re carrying the ball, you have to take some time off.”
Sneddon said that this past offseason Madore took more time away from the ice to refresh his mental state, something that was obvious when he returned to training camp.
“In seeing him take more time away from the game, he seems like his old self,” Sneddon said.
Getting his goaltending house in order, though, is only part of Sneddon’s challenge. Having lost a major part of its offensive punch of the last two seasons, Sneddon’s club is challenged to score goals.
One partial highlight was Wahsontilo Stacey, who recorded a hat trick — all three of Vermont’s goals — in the season opener versus Denver. That night, though, he blocked a shot and, though dressed, he was far below 100 percent for the last two games, according to Sneddon. He will be back ready to go, though, this weekend, Sneddon said.
Stacey’s return could help the Vermont power play, something that needs to get going to spur the offense. The Catamounts have scored just once in 14 tries with the man advantage this season — that one goal coming off Stacey’s stick. Still, Sneddon isn’t discouraged by numbers as he feels the club is getting the right opportunities with the man advantage.
“I thought our power play did some great things against Merrimack and created scoring chances,” Sneddon said. “You’re worried about guys taking shots and not trying to make the fancy play, puck possession and things like that. We saw all that last week. If we keep doing these things, [power-play goals] will take care of themselves.”
This weekend, the Catamounts will face a stiff challenge against a Maine team that swept then-No. 2 North Dakota last weekend, using the power play to ignite the offense.
“We’ve got them red hot,” Sneddon said. “They’re extremely dangerous offensively.”
Particularly with the man advantage, which means Vermont will need to remain disciplined to keep the Black Bears’ chances on the power play to a minimum.
“We talk about discipline every week, regardless the opponent,” Sneddon said. “We have to be one of the least penalized teams in the country out of the gate. We know if you’re going to take a penalty, make sure it’s a good penalty, one that you had to take.”
With all these ties, watch for the S-word
A rash of ties that has been mentioned by my colleague, Dave Hendrickson, over the past week has at least one coach bringing up that oftentimes taboo word.
That’s right, we’re talking about shootouts.
Vermont’s Sneddon is one who says he favor the shootout, and that was before his club twice skated to deadlocks in its first three games.
“I’ve always been a fan of solving ties,” Sneddon said. “I’d like to match the NHL — four-on-four and then a shootout. I know there isn’t a majority in college hockey that feels that way. There is so much at stake nowadays and there are so many teams playing well defensively that goals are at a premium. We see a lot of one-goal games.”
Oh, and a lot of ties, Kevin. Plenty of ties.
This writer joins Sneddon in the minority that would like to see college hockey replicate the NHL. The four-on-four overtime certainly creates more offense and thus more excitement for the fans. And the shootout is a skill that should never decide, say, a championship (hello, in-season tournaments) but is a great mechanism for adding entertainment to the often tedious (I’ll stop short of saying boring) regular season.
The opportunity to add a point similar to the NHL, in my opinion, works. Teams that have skilled players who can score breakaway goals can benefit from it. (Anyone who remembers Northeastern in the early 1990s remembers their success when Hockey East initially experimented with the shootout — I believe it was a perfect 10-0!) And no matter what, the fans go home feeling like there was an exciting conclusion to the game rather than leave with the, “I just sat here for three hours and no one won” feeling that ties create.
I think it’s still far away from Hockey East and even farther away from being something that is used across the NCAA (and would count when considering NCAA berths). But, like Sneddon, I’m a fan of solving ties.