Oh-and-five is not the way most teams draw up their first month of play, and that goes double when adding a season-opening exhibition loss to Carleton. That wasn’t by design, either. But St. Lawrence did indeed fall out of the gate and straight onto its face with a home sweep at the hands of Ferris State, a coma-inducing 10-3 KO at Michigan, a heartbreaking 6-5 overtime loss at Rochester Institute of Technology and a much quieter — though no less depressing — 2-0 loss to Union at Appleton Arena.
Things didn’t look good for SLU, but a visit from Rensselaer on Nov. 5 gave the Saints just the reprieve they needed to get the wheels back on the track. A 2-0 win begat a 3-2 win at Princeton last Friday, and a white-knuckle, 1-0 victory at Quinnipiac on Saturday. It’s not a smooth upward arc just yet, but it beats the heck out of a vertical free fall.
“[Assistant coach] Greg Carvel’s brought some great ideas to the team; obviously with his last nine or 10 years at the NHL level — the last seven with the Ottawa Senators — he really knows systems,” said associate head coach Mike Hurlbut, guiding the team during veteran coach Joe Marsh’s medical leave.
“He’s brought some new ideas, and we’ve tweaked some of our traditional Joe Marsh aggressive forechecking and defensive zone systems, and I think it took guys a few games to adjust to those. It’s nothing Earth-shattering; we’re not trying to re-invent the wheel. It’s just a matter of putting a real consistent forecheck or zone together and holding guys accountable: Making sure they’re in the same place, and that every line knows what to do.”
The goals are still coming at a trickle rather than the desired flood, but St. Lawrence isn’t without its aces in the hole. Junior forward Kyle Flanagan has scored six goals and 13 points in eight games, and sophomore Greg Carey is averaging a point per game as well. As for the supporting staff … well, they’ll be along shortly, or so is the hope in Canton.
“We’ve had some key contributions from Patrick Doherty, who’s a freshman forward from the New Hampshire Monarchs,” Hurlbut said. “He’s played very well for us. Obviously, [Matt] Weninger is playing very well in the net.
“We haven’t scored a lot of goals … so we have to make sure we take care of our own zone first. It’s pretty much been a total team effort that’s contributed to this success. Obviously, Kyle Flanagan’s off to a tremendous start — he’s one of the most skilled forwards in all of Division I hockey, and he’s playing like that right now.”
Hurlbut and Carvel are in the unenviable position of trying to do about four coaches’ jobs between the two of them. Not only is Marsh taking an indefinite leave of absence to deal with a recurring medical problem, but former SLU assistant Bob Prier is now holding the reins in Princeton.
“Greg and I are basically trying to co-coach this year,” Hurlbut said. “He’s great with the X’s and O’s and the video and preparing the team for the opponent. We’ve got [strength coach] Mike Elberty on right now to help us out as an assistant coach, and he’s taken some of the workload off by breaking video down. He’s always done our strength and conditioning, so I guess it’s coaching by committee here. We’re obviously hoping to have Joe back here sooner rather than later, but I think he feels that the team’s in pretty good hands with the three of us.
“We don’t talk to him every day; he’ll pop in every once in a while. He’s doing much better. I think in his situation, he wants to make sure he’s 100 percent and that this isn’t going to flare up on him again a week or two after he comes back. He doesn’t want us to be caught in that situation, so he’s taking his time. I don’t think he feels any rush to come back, but we certainly miss him. He’s the type of coach you can not replace. We’re not trying to be Joe Marsh; we’re just trying to do the best we can.”
In retrospect, the 0-5-0 start — while numerically nasty — wasn’t beyond reason in its ineptitude. Ferris State is 9-2-1 and ranked sixth in the nation. Michigan (7-3-2) is seventh. The Saints led RIT right up to the final minute, and Union, at 5-3-3, is 13th in this week’s poll.
One of Hurlbut’s biggest concerns out of the gate, and one that cost the Saints against such elite competition, was a lack of discipline and the ensuing special-teams play.
“We weren’t very disciplined [against Ferris State]. Guys, for whatever reason, forgot that they actually do call penalties,” he said. “We had some major lapses in judgment with some of the penalties and such and it cost us. Really, after the Ferris weekend, we’ve been much better in the discipline department. Our penalty kill is getting better. We’re trying to get our power play in order here; we’re having trouble scoring goals. We’ve moved the puck well, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to score goals with your power play and that’s one of our focuses going forward.”
At least he and the rest of his team now know that they have a quality backstop and defense that have kept the Cantonites competitive, even when the snipers have gone missing.
“Matt Weninger, we have a tremendous amount of confidence in him. He’s a very mature young man, and he’s played very well once we got into league play. But at the same time, the guys in front of him have played well, and limiting the Grade A scoring chances against him. And if there is a rebound, our defensemen are doing a good job of playing in front of the net, playing rebounds away. Matt made some great saves over the weekend, but at the same time, the guys have played real well in front of him.”
Check the tweets
Nobody runs the #ECACHockey (yes, that’s the hashtag) Twitter-verse like the Saints.
Not that the coaches know the first thing about it.
“I do not have anything to do with Twitter stuff. I actually don’t have a Twitter account, I don’t have a Facebook page,” Hurlbut said. “It’s probably a good idea if I don’t know what’s going on there. We’ve got a good group of guys, they’re pretty mature, and I’m sure there’s some entertaining tidbits out there, but I don’t pay attention to that stuff at all.”
Most of SLU’s early-season tweets (or chirps, since we are talking hockey here, after all) seemed to revolve around sophomore Kyle Essery’s hairdo. The tag #Esshasbrutalhair is growing cold, but it had legs for a while there.
“Yep, I could see that,” laughed the coach. “It’s also Movember, and we’ve got some interesting mustaches. I’m sure there are some interesting tweets concerning the facial hair that some of the guys have going right now. Pete Child had a good one going, then Gunnar Hughes seems to have overtaken him, but I did see the Just For Men darkening lotion in the bathroom there today, so I think they’re kinda cheating. Some of them needed to cheat, actually. There’s some interesting-looking facial hair, I can tell you that.”
Joy back in Troy again
Well, optimism, if not true joy just yet. Rensselaer kicked the skid on Saturday night, edging Brown 1-0 to end an eight-game losing streak. It wasn’t by any means a decisive or especially promising victory, seeing as the Engineers only barely ended a 210-minute goal drought, and that they lost to Union 5-1 on Tuesday and team has scored only seven goals in its last 10 games (shut out four times).
But as the Good Book of Sports Clichés says — right after “The game is 60 minutes,” but before the also-applicable “You can’t win if you don’t score,” is “A win’s a win.” And any win’s a good win when you’re on an 0-8-0 tumble.
“The score was what it’s going to have to be right now,” coach Seth Appert said before Tuesday’s loss, “as we’re fighting through some offensive confidence issues and getting over some injuries, we’re just going to have to be a team that wins a lot of ugly, 2-1, 1-0, 3-2 kind of games. The last three games we’ve played — and even the Colorado College games the weekend prior — we’ve done that. We’ve played that way and obviously it’s good to see the guys get rewarded for that, finally.
“We’re doing a lot of things well, we’re just really poor offensively right now and we’re just trying to work through that.”
Graduated talent is one component, having lost symbiotic super-snipers Chase Polacek and Tyler Helfrich, who combined for 86 points last season. But a bigger problem has been injuries, which have hit especially hard right down the middle.
“We had four centers out for a long stretch of time — I think it was four games,” Appert said. “We had Brock Higgs, Marty O’Grady, Jacob Laliberte and Matt Neal all out. [Greg] Burgdoerfer was out, [Mark] McGowan — another freshman — was out for a period of time as well. Most of those guys are back now — Matt Neal’s still out — but we were a much better team last weekend, having close to our full lineup intact, and that’s important, especially at the center position. I think our team faceoff percentage was around 43 percent, then last weekend we were at 59 percent on faceoffs. That’s a big difference, in starting your shifts with offensive possession instead of playing defense right away.
“We created more offensive chances this past weekend. We won more faceoffs, we had more possession time, which also made us a better defensive team. There’s a lot of things we’ve been doing fairly well, but the hardest thing to really control has been our offensive production and, you know, we’re struggling.”
Like the aforementioned Saints, Appert and RPI know that they can rely on their rearguard. Despite the early defection of goaltender Allen York, there has been no cause for concern in the Engineers’ crease.
“I think we started the year with the belief that [junior Bryce Merriam] was our No. 1. [Scott Diebold] is a freshman, and we like Scotty Diebold a lot — I think he’s going to be a great college goalie in time and with a lot of work — but we recruited Bryce to be a No. 1,” said Appert, a former goalie. “It just happened that he was behind one of the best goalies in college hockey [York], who has already played in the National Hockey League this year. I think what Bryce is showing right now is what his teammates knew all along: that he is a heck of a goalie, and maybe a really elite collegiate goalie in his own right. He just hasn’t had an opportunity to show that yet because of Allen York.”
To cut right to the chase, Appert doesn’t believe that this year’s Engineers team has the capability of scoring as prolifically as last year’s. It’s a new team with new talent, and that talent will have to discover its own road to success.
“I think we’re closer to embracing how we’re going to have to win this year. With that has come good team defense,” Appert said.
As part of that journey of self-discovery and self-actualization, the ultimate leaders of the squad will have to do their own soul searching and self-definition.
“I think Mike Bergin and Joel Malchuk are starting to step up and do a better job of that,” Appert said. “I think one thing that we knew as a staff, but we didn’t know exactly how to overcome it, was with the loss of that powerful senior class last year, that was a dominant force in our program — that whole class — for really three or four years. They drove us from being a real weak team to being a national tournament team and a team that was in the top 10 in the country for a lot of last year. But they also dominated the locker room, and now, this is the first time in their careers that guys like Alex Goulet and Mike Bergin and Joel Malchuk or Patty Cullen or Josh Rabbani are being looked to as, when it hits the fan, the guys are looking at those seniors now to see how we respond. They haven’t had that pressure before.
“I think originally, they probably didn’t deal with it that well, but I think they’re starting to grow comfortable with their own leadership style and with buying into what we want to be about every day and trying to hold their teammates to that standard.”
I can only tease you now, as I have yet to discover adequate photographic evidence, but it sounds like RPI’s icers are putting on a pretty good Movember show as well. The annual movement — started in Australia, where “mo” is slang for mustache — strives to draw attention to primarily male cancers, especially prostate cancer.
“Luke Curadi’s a redhead who has a dyed brown mustache going right now, which is quite a look for a 6-foot-5 redhead,” laughed Appert. “Alex [Angers-]Goulet’s is phenomenal — that’s as good as it gets. Mike Bergin had a pretty decent one going. I think that’s probably the best ones on our team. It would take me about four months for me to grow one, so I can’t partake like they can. Without question, I think Alex’s would probably be right up there in all of college hockey for a good ‘stache.”
Then there are the not-so-Mo ‘Tute-sters.
“Guys like Zach Schroeder, he’s got a pretty good baby face. I’m not sure he’s trying or not trying. I can’t tell right now,” poked the clean-shaven coach.
If anyone can fill the visual void from which this section is suffering, by all means find me on the Twitter machine at @SullivanHockey. I will be happy to retweet submissions to all my beautiful followers, stalkers, and aspiring child-support/alimony seekers.