Astedt providing an answer for Plymouth

With 26 players returning from last year’s squad that went 17-9-1, including 12-5-1 in the MASCAC, first-year Plymouth State head coach Craig Russell had every reason to believe this season could be just as successful.

However, while their are still some kinks to be worked out (the Panthers are 7-1, but have four ties on the year, including Sunday and Monday to Wentworth when they led entering the final minute), an improvement of one of the team’s few weaknesses from last year has Plymouth State primed to be in the thick of things once again.

“Goaltending was our biggest weakness last year,” Russell said prior to the season. “We were searching for consistency in that position all year, but were unable to find it. Jack Astedt proved in a couple of games last year that he has what it takes to be a dominant goalie in this league, and I fully expect to see him bring that to the table more often this season.”

Russell’s prediction has held true so far, as the sophomore from Sweden has made a major leap in his second year of college hockey.

“He’s stepped up huge,” Russell said of Astedt following Monday night’s tie at Wentworth. “He’s played all but 80 minutes this year. Not that [freshman backup] Tyler Ingerson isn’t capable, but Jack has far exceeded anyone’s expectations. He’s working hard on and off the ice. He’s doing well in the classroom; he’s a very well-rounded kid. It’s nice to have him back there.”

Astedt played in 13 games his freshman year, posting an 8-4 record but a 3.37 goals-against-average and .899 save percentage. This year, his GAA (2.00) and save percentage (.928), rank 11th and 15th nationally, respectively, while his conference numbers rank among the top three in the MASCAC. He is also the only goaltender to record a shutout in conference play thus far.

“The entire season I’ve felt a lot more comfortable,” Astedt said following Monday’s game. “I know what college hockey is about. It’s not Swedish junior hockey anymore. I feel like you can see that in the results.”

Astedt’s comfort level and communication with his defense was apparent in Monday night’s game at Matthews Arena. The Panthers were forced to kill off a host of early penalties, many in rapid succession, but wound up denying Wentworth on all seven of its power play chances, including a brief five-on-three.

“I’m more relaxed this year, and not just because of the school work,” Astedt said. “I realize I can take it easy instead of [getting stressed]. It’s making it easy and helping the defense.”

PSU will need Astedt and the rest of the team to firing on all cylinders as they begin their 2011 conference portion of the schedule by traveling to upstart Worcester State Thursday night. As detailed last week, the Lancers closed 2010 with a bang, knocking off several of the conference’s top squads.  The teams have already met once this season, a 3-3 tie at Hanaway Rink on Nov. 23. The Lancers currently sit one point ahead of Plymouth State in the conference standings.

“Worcester State is a scary team at home,” Russell said. “It’s a whole different game at Horgan Rink. It’s a lot smaller and and lot uglier and that’s the kind of team they are. They’re a blue collar team and they’re going to try and outwork you. It’s not something where you can roll into the game and look at the past. We tied them earlier, although we shouldn’t have. We had a bit of an injury bug then, so we won’t really know how good they are against our team when we’re at our best. Thursday will be a great test, and I’m looking forward to it.”

Pieces still coming together for Wentworth
After a strong finish to the first semester, it was bit was a bit of a hectic start to the second half for Wentworth, mostly due to outside factors. Head coach R.J. Tolan said his team barely had enough players for the Codfish Bowl at the end of December due to weather-related flight cancellations. And some of those that did make it to Massachusetts-Boston for the opening game were hustled straight from Logan Airport, in similar fashion to Doug Mirabelli’s dramatic return to the Red Sox several seasons ago.

With Wentworth’s coop program, the team has lost several of its juniors for practice time due to their jobs in Boston. While Tolan said the program is good for the students, he admitted it did make the coaches’ jobs a bit tougher. The Leopards will have a tough test when No. 12 Utica travels to Boston on Sunday, but while their record has slipped to 6-5-4, they’re 3-1-1 in ECAC Northeast play, only one point behind first place Johnson and Wales.

“We’re a young team with some older guys on coop,” Tolan said after Monday night’s game against PSU. “We’re just trying to be patient and play hard the next couple weeks before we get back into the league.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum

First place Johnson and Wales and Wentworth are the only two ECAC Northeast teams with an overall winning record. Defending conference champion Curry is 2-1-1 in ECAC play, but 5-5-2 overall, and the Colonels are in the midst of a brutal four-game stretch which saw them visit No. 12 Utica and No.1 Oswego over the weekend, losing to each by a three-goal margin. Next up is a pair of games at home against No. 4 Manhattanville on Thursday and Hobart, a team which received several votes in the latest poll, on Saturday. On the flip side, the MASCAC features only two teams (Framingham State and Westfield State) with a losing overall record. Fifth place Fitchburg State is 3-3 in the MASCAC, but 9-3 overall. However, it could be argued that the MASCAC hasn’t quite played opponents with the pedigree of those faced by the ECAC Northeast.

ECAC Northeast Weekly Honors
Player of the Week: Casey Shade, Wentworth. Shade recorded at least one point in all four of Wentworth’s games since the last report, scoring a pair of goals and adding five assists for seven points. Shade had a goal and an assist in the Leopards’ 8-6 loss to Fitchburg State in the opening round of the Codfish Bowl before assisting on two goals in a 6-1 win over Assumption in the consolation game. Against No. 4 Bowdoin, he assisted on one goal in a 5-3 loss before closing out the week with a goal and an assist in a 2-2 tie against Plymouth State. His goal came with 58 seconds left in regulation, 13 seconds after the Panthers had taken a 2-1 lead.

Goalie of the Week: Matt Cooper,Johnson and Wales. Cooper has won his last three games for the Wildcats, including a 32-save performance in the 3-0 shutout win over Becker on Sunday afternoon. He tallied 38 stops in the 4-2 win against St. Michael’s and added 28 saves in the 10-2 victory over Southern New Hampshire.

Rookie of the Week: Guillaume Cyr, Johnson and Wales.
Cyr scored his first collegiate goal and added an assist in the Wildcats’ 3-0 win over Becker in an ECAC Northeast contest on Sunday.

Loose Pucks
By far one of the best Christmas gifts I received (outside of “Inception” of course) was “The Best  American Sports Writing of 2010.” Guest edited by Peter Gammons (one of my all time favorites), the book is about more then simply just sports. I’ve been captivated by the first two selections, which have dealt with college softball and boxing, two sports I’d hardly consider myself a fan of. Definitely a recommended read.