A break “Houk” season for the Continentals

Alphabetically and every other way, a look at the top of the standings in the NESCAC finds Hamilton atop the conference and looking to stay there through the final weekend of the regular season.

“One of our goals this season was to earn a home-ice slot for the playoffs,” said third-year coach Norm Bazin. “We certainly know that if you don’t take care of your own business that you can drop a lot of spots based on how tight the race is and just how competitive the league is. Points are precious this time of year, so we are focused on playing our game, being prepared to get off the bus after a long ride and play Friday night against a quality opponent in UMass-Boston. They are playing for something too, so I expect a very competitive game and weekend, including Saturday’s game at Babson.”

This year’s edition of the Hamilton Continentals features a lot of balance in their scoring, as 16 different players have tallied goals and nine players have double digit points so far this season. Add in the outstanding play of sophomore defenseman Joe Houk, and you have a recipe for success on the ice.

Houk leads the team in scoring with 18 goals and 12 assists for 28 points, including three power-play goals and two game-winners for the Continentals. He has been the clear offensive leader from his position on the blue line, and showcases the team’s ability to score more in five-on-five situations than with the man advantage. No doubt his teammates and his coach are big fans of his performance this season.

“Joe doesn’t quite have the experience or finished game that Kyle [Shearer-Hardy] has at Bowdoin, but he really has had a great season so far,” said Bazin. “He really has been a big part of our offense all season and leads the team, but we really don’t rely on one line or a couple of players to score goals.  We have been getting contributions each night from a lot of different players, so I don’t expect things will be different coming into the playoffs wherever we finish in the standings.”

Hamilton’s coach likes to break the season into segments for the team to focus on specifically, and a particular five-game segment in late December and early January was really the jumping off point for the success that has the team battling for first place overall.

“We specifically had a five-game section against some very tough opponents starting with the Oswego Holiday Tournament identified as a key number of games that would help determine what we could be if we had success in those match-ups,” said Bazin. “We went 2-1-2 overall in the five games, and that included wins a big win against Oswego in the opening round of their tournament, a tough loss to Hobart the next night, and then taking points against two teams we usually don’t have success against in Middlebury and Williams. The tie with Amherst really was important because we went on the road for a midweek game and rallied from a 4-1 deficit late in the second period to gain a point with a 4-4 tie. I really think that that five-game segment was when our team realized that we could be competitive with anyone and that we needed to stay focused and play our game every night to have a chance to win in each game.”

Another aspect of the upcoming road trip this weekend that bears mention is the performance by the Continentals away from home so far this season. While posting a 3-3-3 record at home this season, the quirk of the schedule has found a great imbalance in home vs. away games for Hamilton. This final weekend will be games 14 and 15 away from home, where the team has an excellent 9-3-1 record to date.  In fact, since the win at Oswego, Hamilton is 7-1-1 overall in the second half away from the friendly confines of Sage Rink.

“I really attribute our ability to play well on the road to our seniors and their leadership,” noted Bazin. “There are things that are tough to do, and getting off the bus after long rides and then play a game right away is a challenge for every team, but some of our bus rides are a little longer. The upperclassmen have certainly put everyone on the same page in terms of preparation and doing the right things for us to be able to have success on Friday nights and then quickly put that game behind us and get mentally ready for the quick turnaround that is the Saturday afternoon game. We have had a couple of those guys out the past couple of weeks, but we hope to be getting them back either this weekend or next week in the first round of the playoffs, which is the only thing we have guaranteed at this point.”

With just four points separating the top seven teams in the conference, this weekend will be very much a playoff atmosphere for teams looking to move or stay in the home ice positions. In fact only three points separate first from sixth, so any points are very valuable ones with just two games.

“Everyone is focused on getting points now,” said Bazin. “But how close this is now shows how important any points are from the first half as well. I have been asked if I am disappointed with ties like we had with Middlebury and Amherst and my response is “no”. We are happy with any points against the competition in this league, and certainly it’s a part of the reason we have a chance to play for the top spot this weekend. You really need to treat February like it is the playoffs. It is an abrupt end to the season when everyone wants to keep playing. Wherever we finish, we want to build on our improved play in the tournament. This is a really fun group and they enjoy playing with each other so hopefully we will be playing some hockey in March.”

Another welcome return will be senior Scott Heffernan, who leads Hamilton’s goaltenders with 16 games played and 11 wins while posting a .909 save percentage and 2.52 goals-against-average. He was out of the lineup for two weeks, and his return will give Hamilton a senior presence at the most important point of the season.

Friday night starts the fireworks, and if you don’t like the standings now, check them out on Saturday morning; guaranteed there will be some changes. No margin for error now — drop the puck!