Improvements on blue line make the difference for resurgent Vermont

Defenseman Michael Paliotta leads Vermont with seven points through four games (photo: Melissa Wade).

A couple of seasons ago, Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon knew that his club had a lot of potential. The burning question was how to turn that potential into results.

Having begun the season 4-0, including 2-0 in Hockey East, it seems early on that the fruits of the labor the Catamounts coaching staff and players have delivered in recent years is beginning to harvest.

Sneddon said a lot of his team’s success this year can be traced back to last year’s senior class, the leadership of which changed the brand of hockey this club is playing while helping the team return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010.

“The one thing that group did was, especially their junior and senior year, they wanted to make sure they put Vermont hockey back on the map,” said Sneddon. “Even in their junior year we saw some positive signs in terms of the culture and we knew we just had to do a good job in recruiting.”

Fast forward two seasons to the current day and that senior class led by Chris McCarthy and H.T. Lenz has graduated but the players remaining in the locker room are proving the cultural change paid off and they are ready to compete for championships.

One major step forward on the recruiting side was at the defensive position. Two years ago, Vermont had some relatively skilled blueliners but the mobility of these players was called into question.

Players like Michael Paliotta took steps forward improving both on the back end and offensively (Paliotta leads the Catamounts with seven points in four games), while classmate Nick Luukko became more mobile and reliable on the defensive side of the puck.

Recruiting has brought in a number of defensemen with talent, including transfer Alexx Privitera, who scored 28 points in 48 games at Boston University before leaving for Vermont at the beginning of last season.

“Recruiting and development has been a big part of it,” Sneddon said of his team’s defensive improvements. “In college hockey nowadays, team defense is a top priority for everybody. Certainly we want to have dynamic forwards who can score goals, but the bottom line is that if you don’t have your defensemen involved in not only jumping up in the play offensively but having great gap [control] because they have good feet and trust their feet, it certainly makes life very difficult for you.

“It’s been a process. That’s one of the positions that’s extremely hard to improve overnight.”

The other part of the defense that is putting forth stellar performances is goaltending. Brody Hoffman and Mike Santaguida continue to share the bulk of the work, so much so that Sneddon said his local media is trying to build a perceived “goaltender controversy.”

To Sneddon, that’s nowhere near correct as the pair pushes one another each and every day.

“We’re really fortunate to have that situation,” Sneddon said of having two solid goaltenders. “I don’t know that we’re in a rotation. It’s kind of a flip from last year where Brody was hurt for the first five games we had to throw Mike into the fire. This year, Mike came in a little bit banged up and Brody came back in fantastic shape and was ready to carry the ball.

“They’re competitive but really respectful. Like they’re brothers.”

Now the question for the Catamounts is whether this team can sustain a fast start. Health is the obvious factor, but often a lack of experience as the giant as opposed to the giant slayer can bring forth challenges.

That may get tested this weekend at Notre Dame, where Vermont will travel for two games to face the 20th-ranked Irish.

“We’ll be playing a team that certainly is young on paper but that is attracting some of the best talent in the country,” Sneddon said of the Irish. “They have some confidence right now, putting up some great numbers offensively the last two weekends.

“So we’ve got our hands full. I’m really excited to see how our team responds to this challenge.”

Northeastern’s Kevin Roy has just one point through four games (photo: Melissa Wade).

At 0-4, not yet panic time for Northeastern

Yes, this was supposed to be the season for Northeastern. Returning two of the league’s best forwards in Kevin Roy and Mike Szmatula as well as last year’s eye-popping goaltender in Hockey East Clay Witt, there was plenty of hope for the Huskies.

An opening-weekend loss to Vermont paired with two road shutout losses to Colgate, both by an identical 3-0 tally, certainly worried many of the Northeastern faithful.

But Massachusetts was on the docket ahead, at home. Should be an easy win, right? Lest we forget this same UMass team lost 8-1 at home to Boston University?

Well, the Minutemen didn’t seem to want to follow script last Friday night, the result a 3-2 victory for the road underdogs and a frightening 0-4 start for Northeastern.

And while you might expect plenty of frustration spouting from the Northeastern locker room after, that was hardly the case as coach Jim Madigan felt his team played a good enough game to win, something that had been absent for the Huskies to date.

“I like the way our guys played,” Madigan said. “We played with some pace and generated some offense. We had 44 shots on goal. We had some good looks.”

Looks didn’t translate to goals, something that could be the result of players feeling the weight of preseason expectations.

“If we get that effort [like we had Friday], we’ll get the monkey off our backs,” said Madigan. “We’re gripping the sticks too tight. We haven’t won yet.”

In an effort to get more offense, Madigan has moved Szmatula onto a line with Roy, trying to pair together his best two forwards instead of spreading offense among the lines. On Friday it created solid chances, just no goals.

Still, there is enough hockey remaining to right the ship.

“At the end of the day we’re 0-2 in the league,” Madigan said. “There’s 22 league games, so there’s a long way to go.”

If there is one major concern for Northeastern, however, it is the absence of goaltender Witt. Surprising to many, Witt wasn’t dressed for Friday’s loss, with Derick Roy playing well in the loss as Witt’s backup.

“That will be day-to-day and we’ll continue to monitor his progress any hopefully have more information,” said Madigan.

Still, the fourth-year coach isn’t ready to push the panic button just yet.

“We’ll turn this around the next game,” Madigan said of a road contest at Quinnipiac on Saturday. “I’m positive because I’ve seen too many good signs and the kids are working.”

Santini a major loss on BC blue line

Sophomore Steve Santini will miss the remainder of the first half for Boston College, the school announced on Tuesday.

Santini suffered ligament damage in his wrist on Saturday versus Massachusetts, an injury that required surgery to repair. He won’t return until, at earliest, January.

“Our priority is for Steve to get healthy,” Eagles coach Jerry York said in a statement. “His presence will be missed throughout this stretch of tough competition ahead of us, but we are looking forward to him returning to our club just after the New Year.”

Santini’s loss leaves a significant hole on a blue line that doesn’t have too much depth past its starters. It will require York to turn to either junior Travis Jeke, who played 22 games as a rookie but just two last season, or classmate Peter McMullen (eight games played in two season), or, as the team did a season ago, move forward Danny Linell back to the blue line.

Linell, who began his career at BC as a forward who didn’t see extensive playing time, moved to the defensive position during the 2013-14 season to help fill injury voids. Calling upon him in a similar situation might bring Matthew Gaudreau, the brother of last year’s Hobey Baker Award winner Johnny Gaudreau, into the lineup on a more permanent basis.

BU’s key to success: solid finishes

Jumping out to a 3-0 record for Boston University is a welcome sight after the team’s 10-21-4 mark a season ago.

The most impressive of the three opening wins for the Terriers came last Saturday against Michigan. A night after the Wolverines dismantled a respected Massachusetts-Lowell team 8-4, BU found itself trailing 2-1 entering the third.

The Terriers rallied, however, killing off an early Michigan power play before netting the tying and winning goals later in the frame.

The third-period success is becoming somewhat of a norm for this Terriers team, which has yet to surrender a goal in the final frame through three contests. Conversely, BU has scored eight times in the final period, including a six-spot on UMass to make a 2-1 contest an 8-1 rout.

The success the team has had over the final 20 minutes brings a smile to the face of second-year coach David Quinn.

“We’ve won all of our third periods which I think is a great sign,” Quinn said. “Depth up front allows us to keep guys fresh.

“It was doom and gloom after the second period [Friday]. We thought we had played well early in the second and then they get that power-play goal late [to take a 2-1 lead]. But when you win every third period this year, that’s a good sign.”

Quinn said that there is a confidence about his team heading into the third period, meaning if BU can stay within striking distance through 40 minutes, there’s no reason it can’t win.

“You could see it in their faces. We talked that, ‘Hey we’ve all been down 2-1 before and come back and won hockey games. This is nothing new,'” Quinn said about Friday’s comeback.

At 3-0, this BU team has taken a major step forward from a season ago. Knowing there is still room for improvement further enhances this team’s unbeaten record.

“We’re a work in progress still,” said Quinn. “It’s nice to be winning when you think you’re going to get better and that our best hockey is ahead of us.”