Camels hit crunch time

With just eight games remaining on the regular season schedule, coach Jim Ward knows that if there is a time to really get things going in the right direction, it is now, entering the last month. Only eight teams qualify for the NESCAC tournament, so two teams will be on the outside looking in come Feb. 16, 2013. It’s all about getting momentum and points and while the urgency is there, so too is the challenge of a difficult schedule for Connecticut College.

Up until last weekend’s nonconference win over SUNY-Canton by a 3-2 score, the Camels have been road warriors since coming back in January and playing in the Northfield Bank tournament at Norwich to open the New Year. Over the eight-game stretch, the Camels went 3-3-2 overall, but just 0-2-2 in conference play, with key road ties against Amherst and Hamilton.

Other than the home-and-home series with travel partner Tufts to open the month of February, the Camels are looking up at virtually every other opponent in the standings, including Williams, Middlebury, Amherst, Hamilton, and Bowdoin. While the majority of those games are at home, their coach has taken nothing for granted all season, and hopes that the spark of something really good that has shown itself in flashes over the course of the season begins to take hold now and give his team a chance to play more hockey after the regular season concludes in four weeks.

“It’s there, and the kids know it,” said Ward. “We have had some games where we have played very well this season, with wins over quality opponents like Salem State, Massachusetts-Dartmouth, and Curry. We played very well on the road in the weekend against Williams and Middlebury with two overtime decisions that unfortunately only got us one point for the effort. We know we can play with just about anyone, and I think that is where the kids get frustrated, that we aren’t at that level of consistency that we need to be at in order to capture wins and points. Of course, if we could kill a penalty or two, that would help a lot to be sure!”

The Camels have had difficulty all season in killing off penalties, surrendering 18 of the total 58 goals against the season while playing a man down. That 28 percent success rate has the coach zeroed in on fixing it and putting a priority on not creating anymore of an uphill climb for his team to overcome in the course of the remaining games.

“We have had issues all year with this,” said Ward. “Again, I know our kids are frustrated by it and have not stopped working to be better at the kill. We don’t score enough goals ourselves, so giving people chances by taking penalties and then giving up goals while playing short-handed just makes our challenges bigger. We need to execute better from the goalie on out on this stuff and it is a big deal, especially in our conference, where there are a lot of good power plays and some pretty effective groups at putting the puck in the net.”

To say it has been a learning curve this year for the Camels might be an understatement. Dawson Luke and Sean Murray are the only seniors on a roster that finds nine juniors, 10 sophomores, and nine freshmen that have seen playing time this season. The team is very young, but a core group has emerged and will be driven to push for the playoffs this season.

Other than Luke, four of the team’s five top point-getters are underclassmen, led by sophomore JC Cangelosi (2-11-13) and juniors Keith Veronesi (7-4-11) and Mike Sinsigalli (4-7-11). In fact, the top five in points also account for 60 percent of the team’s total goal output.

“I keep reminding myself how young we are,” stated Ward. “These kids are really passionate about the game and each other, and really take issue and accountability when things are not going as well as hoped or the results aren’t where we want them to be.  As competitive as this league is, every night we need to focus all of our efforts on playing a complete game, from our complete line-up. We definitely need more offense, but we also need better penalty killing and better decision making, so it is about maturing as a team and focusing that passion on the ice into productivity and positive outcomes. We are getting there.”

This weekend, the Camels start their stretch run and hope that prior game performance will be a good indicator of potential performance when Williams and Middlebury visit New London. Despite only netting one point from the two road games back in November and December, Ward really liked how his team competed in those two games and hopes that that level of performance with some better execution and scoring will lead to more points at this critical time of the season.

“We played some of our best hockey this season in those two games, and really competed hard,” said Ward. “You have to learn from the experiences and leverage all of the good things along with the bad in order to make those positive steps forward as a team.  I believe and know that these kids want to play at that high level, and play that way consistently. We need to see if we can get there.”

It really is crunch time for the Camels, who currently reside in eighth place, just one point ahead of Tufts and three points behind Hamilton. Nothing is a lock for playoff position, and the travel partner games next week may go a long way in determining who plays playoff hockey and who goes home. In some ways, the playoffs have already begun, because it is about winning now for the Camels to avoid going home later.