You can talk to coaches at all levels of this game for years and not find many who witness the perfect game by their teams, that rare time when everything just comes together, the offense clicks, the defense dominates, and the goaltending backs it all up en route to an ultra-satisfying victory.
You can count Western New England coach Greg Heffernan among those who are still striving for perfection, but over the weekend, if nothing else, he witnessed the Golden Bears author up a textbook victory that came pretty close to the ultimate night.
“Honestly, we had a tremendous effort on Saturday; really, it was our cleanest game of the season as far as our systems go,” Heffernan said. “It was just a good college hockey game that we were fortunate enough to be on the right side of.”
Western New England was symmetrical, in sync, and suffocating in a 3-0 win over Curry that was its second in three days, and third in the last five games. The Golden Bears scored one goal per period — supplied by Brandon Stroud, Matt Dore, and Dan Monahan — and then let the defense and 26 saves from Eric Sorenson pace the victory, which placed them in a third-place tie with Curry, three points ahead of the rest of the field in the ECAC Northeast.
In an era of sports clichés, we’ll steal one here, and say that clearly, the Golden Bears choreographed a “statement game” as the postseason nears.
“Overall, we’ve been up and down, and we always try to tell the players to look at the big picture,” said Heffernan, whose crew took a 9-12 overall mark, including a 6-4 record in the league, into this week’s action. “Players tend to see right up against the glass, and sometimes, you just have to step back a few feet and see what’s all out there for us. In the end, you are what your record says you are, and we’re in the mix, and we’re right about at the same spot as we were last year. For us, it’s a matter of using those experiences to our advantage from here on in.”
Indeed, Western New England has its sights set on the postseason, and their one-game-at-a-time philosophy is paying dividends. It’s really the only way to look at things at this level, where schedules can be a roller coaster sometimes, and hockey can often take a backseat.
“This sport is not for the weak-minded, and one of the things, being at the Division III level, with us not playing through the holidays, is schedules typically run a long period of time,” Heffernan said. “It’s awfully tough on these kids sometimes, at different points in the calendar, when you have exams in December, and the course load gets tougher, and then when you come back to play in January, everyone on campus is still on break, and the campus is a ghost town. You come back and you’re playing in front of crickets, but it is what it is; you just have to keep playing, keep your focus. It’s at those times, when you’re building a mental toughness, and we always tell them, if getting up for a hockey game and getting out there and playing is the toughest thing to do in your life, then we’re in great shape.”
That’s showing on the ice.
Sorenson, a junior, has combined with Tim Carr, a sophomore, to form one of the top goaltending tandems in the league. In conference play, the former was 4-2 with a 2.51 goals-against average headed into the week, while the latter was 2-2 with the same goals-against.
Up front, Stroud, a sophomore forward, had seven goals, including four on the power play, and junior forward Brian Prost was averaging a point per game.
“Our kids are ultra-competitive across the board, academically, athletically, in their leadership roles on campus, everywhere,” Heffernan said. “One of the mentorship and leadership skills I try to instill in our guys is if we’re going to make a mistake, let’s make it while we’re doing something out there, as opposed to just thinking out there, and making a mistake by not being active. We just have to play the game, and live with the results. I tell them all the time, ‘If you didn’t make mistakes, then I wouldn’t have a job.'”
The schedule is not easy down the stretch, and that mental toughness should come into play for the Golden Bears. Including Wednesday’s road date with Johnson and Wales, three of Western New England’s final four games are away from home ice. On Saturday, the Golden Bears will travel to Salve Regina.
“At this point in the season, a lot of our coaching is review and time management,” Heffernan said. “We know what’s in front of us, we know how competitive the league is, and it’s our job to hold up our end of the bargain.”
Relying on the team’s depth and drive will be pivotal here. The playoff race is up for grabs, the six postseason spots will likely go to the hottest, healthiest teams left in the pot, and it’s those teams that can roll layers of lines at you that could be the most successful.
That could mean the Golden Bears, who through the weekend had nine players in double-digit scoring, including four — junior forwards Monahan and Alan Martin, as well as Prost and Stroud — with at least seven goals overall.
“There’s a lot more parity, and there’s good balance,” Heffernan said. “I believe that we’re still very much a ‘last-weekend league.’ Our postseason is going to come down to how things play out on the last weekend, and that’s because we have a united identity now as a conference. Our values, from school to school and program to program, are very much the same. We’re recruiting the same kind of kids, who are looking for higher academics and a private school.
“We’re all competitive as coaches, but we also have the value of a strong, united front in which we know what is good for not only our programs, but the conference overall.”
They are all in search of that perfect game.