Mark Hudak ascended to Dartmouth’s head coaching job for the 2003-04 season, inheriting a sophomore class that included forwards Gillian Apps, Cherie Piper, and Katie Weatherston. Led by those three Canadians, Dartmouth scored 134 and 155 goals in Hudak’s first two seasons. When the trio returned from an Olympic sabbatical for their senior seasons in 2006-07 wearing gold medals, they were joined by freshman Sarah Parsons, a silver medalist for the United States, and the Big Green sniped another 146 tallies.
“You go back four, five, six years ago, and you had those games if you had enough talent, you just had to show up and you were probably going to win,” Hudak says. “Certainly, that’s changed a lot.”
For all it’s offensive might, Dartmouth was unable to get beyond the national semifinal in any of those seasons. Last year, all of the big names with the Olympic credentials were gone, goal production was down to 112, but the Big Green still qualified for the NCAA tournament.
“The biggest thing obviously that’s changed is certainly the parity that we see from team to team,” Hudak says. “I think the focus on the team play, defense, trying to be balanced at the different positions, has become much more important to the teams. I think the goalies also have played a pretty significant role in the last three, four years. It kind of behooves the coaches and the teams to make sure they’re playing a good, solid game all around. That’s certainly been our focus over the last three, four years.”
Through 22 games this season, the Big Green are scoring an average of three times a game, down nearly a goal and a half from their explosive past. Despite that meager offensive production, Dartmouth is where it usually is — in the thick of the national playoff picture. With a 14-6-2 record, it currently holds the eighth spot in the rankings used to seed the eight-team NCAA tournament.
“It has been a bit of a strange year when we look at our results,” Hudak says. “I think all but three or four games have been essentially one-goal games, and even a couple of the two-goal games have been with empty-netters. So essentially, all but two or three games that we’ve been in this year have been a one-goal game. I think that the players recognize that, and they recognize that all it may take is one mistake, but they also recognize that all it may take is that one goal, that one good play.”
Finding the right approach mentally is a bit more challenging in this era of highly competitive contests.
“Things have become a little bit tighter, in what we’re doing, trying to minimize the mistakes, but at the same time not trying to play a game just not to lose,” Hudak says. “I think that’s a tough balance when you are playing in so many close games. I think it can be one of those things that you start to think about, ‘Okay, we’ve got a one-goal lead here; we can’t give this up.’ Certainly, as a coach and as a team, you’re trying to encourage yourself, let’s not think about it that way. We need to be thinking about things you’re doing to push and to attack the other team.”
By and large, the Big Green have succeeded in that regard, in particular against opponents with lesser records. However, Hudak says his team doesn’t concern itself with whether or not they are the favorite entering games.
“We’ve tried to go into every game this year saying, ‘This game is important,'” he says. “It’s almost like we don’t want to think too much about the opponent as much as we want to think about, ‘Hey, we’ve got to go out there and play out best game; we’ve got to get things done.'”
According to Hudak, by focusing on the team’s game plan and the little things that go into it, whether it wins or loses, Dartmouth is able to feel good about how it played when it leaves the rink. Still, there are areas where he would like to see improvement.
“In the past four or five, six years, we’ve had a power play that’s been comfortably 20 percent or better. This year, we’re probably right around 14 or 15 percent, and there’s a lot of goals in there that we’re not scoring that we used to score.”
Although lacking the prolific scorers once found on the roster, Dartmouth does possess players with the ability to put the puck in the net. Leading in that regard are forwards Camille Dumais (27 points), Kelly Foley (24), Reagan Fischer (21), and defenseman Sasha Nanji (19).
“It would be nice to have maybe this go-to person or the person that’s going to get it done, but I think we kind of entered the season talking a lot about that, that we needed a little bit from everybody, and I’ve been pretty happy with that,” Hudak says. “I think that we’ve had those players that are in that point-a-game range are the ones that we kind of expected to be there based on what they’ve done in the past, but I’ve been pretty happy with some of the other players that have been able to chip in an extra point here or there. I think that’s really helped us.”
That team approach has carried through to the other end of the ice as well, where primary goaltender Lindsay Holdcroft is limiting opponents to less than two goals per game.
“This has been one of our better years defensively as well, and I think that comes from some very great team play,” Hudak says. “Our goalie has done a great job for us this year. But our focus certainly has been on team and how we’re going to play, and one of the things we have really talked about was trying to keep our penalty minutes down this year, so that we could play five on five.”
The Big Green have succeeded in that regard; their average of 7.8 penalty minutes per game is second lowest in the country.
With three weeks remaining on the regular-season ECACH slate, Dartmouth is in a three-way tie for third place with Clarkson and Quinnipiac, one point behind Harvard for second. It hosts Princeton and Quinnipiac this weekend, before finishing with four games versus teams near the bottom of the standings.
“Our approach really isn’t anything different,” Hudak says. “We realize this is a big weekend. We’re playing two opponents who I think we match up with very well. We’re going to have to play very strong team play, defensively as well as offensively. We’re going to have to take advantage of any bounces that we get and anything we can create, and we’re going to have to limit both Princeton and Quinnipiac to the opportunities that we’re giving them. The biggest thing in all of that is us making sure that we’re not having breakdowns.”
It all adds up to a team approach, one that can be implemented by any squad, regardless of its talent level, provided the players are willing to play for each other and put the team first.
“I have been so impressed with how the team has really stuck together,” Hudak says. “I think it’s been a strength of ours in the past, and I think it’s something that this team is built upon — very impressed with just how close they are, not just around the rink, but how close they are when they’re away from the rink as well.”