Three pictures, three stories

Ève-Audrey Picard of Vermont. Vermont Catamounts at Gutterson Field House on Saturday afternoon October 22, 2016 in Burlington, Vermont. (Brian Jenkins)
Ève-Audrey Picard of Vermont. Vermont Catamounts at Gutterson Field House on Saturday afternoon October 22, 2016 in Burlington, Vermont. (Brian Jenkins)

The playoff picture is a little clearer this week, but there’s still a lot hinging on the final weekend of conference tournament games. The NCAA Selection Show takes place Sunday at 9 p.m. EST, and there’s still plenty of uncertainty about who will be included in the final eight teams and where they will be seeded.

Each conference tournament features teams with uncertain futures and the pressure of expectations. Here, three coaches talk about what they’ve learned, where they stand, and how they move forward.

Robert Morris secured its first-ever regular-season title on the final weekend of the regular season, but it’s a short-lived celebration as they move their focus to the CHA tournament and hopes of an NCAA bid.

The regular-season trophy is the hardest to win. It’s based on a full set of games and overcoming challenges over and over. It’s a full resume of work that earns that trophy, but that trophy also signifies the start of what many call the second season. There’s the first half and the second half of the regular season, but now the slate is wiped clean for everyone as each team has an equal chance to fight for the tournament championship win and their conference’s auto-bid.

So while the Colonials are proud of their accomplishment, they’ve already had to compartmentalize it and begin to look forward.

“You can only enjoy the moment for as long as it allows you to; new days bring new opportunities; our program understands that. Sunday night was the last day they could live in the past,” said Colonials coach Paul Colontino.

The Colonials held the top spot in the conference for most of the season, but weren’t assured of the regular-season championship until Friday. It could have been a fraught situation for a Robert Morris squad that doesn’t carry a ton of experience in those types of situations, but they rose to the occasion.

“This team seems to revel in the pressure; they love the high stakes of big games and seem to elevate themselves,” he said.

Hockey is often about perspective, and Colontino said the postseason, with its even ground is filled with possibilities. So yes, there’s pressure, but he and his squad choose to look at the coming weekend as the chance to achieve something new and extend the season.

“Each team starts playoffs with a clean slate and every team wants to win,” Colontino said. “We focus on what we can control, and that’s playing our game. ‘Must-win situations’ will always be there; it depends on what your view is, pressure vs. opportunity.”

The Colonials will get a rest on Thursday before facing the lowest remaining seed in a semifinal on Friday.

It’s been a season full of narrow margins for the Vermont Catamounts. They’ve played in 13 overtime games. In addition to their nine ties, they had 14 games that were decided by a single goal and seven more decided by two goals. That’s 81 percent of their games this season that have hinged on two goals or less.

Vermont coach Jim Plumer doesn’t need any reassurance his heart is working — that muscle has gotten quite the workout this season as his team has ridden the finest of lines and the slimmest of margins. That’s probably not the way any coach would hope for the season to go, but the upshot is how well-prepared the Catamounts are to fight for every inch, every bounce, and every second of their remaining hockey games.

“We played in so many close games, and had so many last-minute disappointments that frankly, I think it prepared us to be able to play the kind of games we needed to last weekend,” said Plumer.

There’s nothing for a team to do but learn from a season like this, and Plumer said the way his team fought through Saturday and Sunday’s games was a culmination of the little lessons they’d learned all season.

“I looked at Sunday like it was an overtime game and all of our practice with 13 overtime games during the season paid off,” said Plumer. “After yet another heartbreaking late goal on Friday, our team was very focused Saturday and executed our game plan extremely well. Our players really put everything together and played one of our best games of the season.”

Vermont is the only away team to make it to the second week of their conference tournament. It was not a weekend for the underdog in the opening round of the tournaments. The Catamounts are heading into a semifinal game with No. 6 Boston College, the top-ranked team in Hockey East.

These two teams met three times this season. The Catamounts kept it close in a weekend series, losing 3-2 and 3-0, but the Eagles found another level in their final game, pulling out a 7-1 win, but BC was uncharacteristic in its tournament opening round games, including a 1-0 win in game two against Merrimack.

Making a run through the conference tournament takes a mix of talent and luck, but Plumer knows the experiences his team has had this season has put them in a uniquely good position to continue to succeed — and maybe shock people a bit in the process.

“All of our wins this year have been close games, so nothing has come easily,” said Plumer. “I am confident that we’ve learned to play under pressure, so I am really trusting that our team’s experience shines through in those moments — without any extra emphasis from me. We have seven seniors and they are leading us.”

Brad Frost and the Minnesota Gophers have always acknowledged the privilege they have as one of the top programs in the sport. They understand that people might have a difficult time finding sympathy for the historically talented program as they weathered some bumps this season. There are plenty of programs, players, and coaches that would love for their program to “struggle” like the Gophers currently are.

Much like Robert Morris’ Colontino said above, it’s all about perspective. The three-time defending national champs are ranked fifth in the country and sit fifth in the PairWise rankings, both places they haven’t seen in quite a few years and are in danger of having to head on the road for the first round of the NCAA tournament, something they’ve done just once in the 12 seasons since the first round was added in the 2004-05 season.

In 2006-07, the Gophers did not qualify for the tournament. In 2010-11, they traveled to play at Boston College. Every other NCAA first-round game they’ve played in, they’ve played at Ridder.

So while it’s still an enviable position, it’s one not entirely familiar for Minnesota. Still, you don’t become one of the best programs without being able to back it up. The fundamentals that Frost and others have used to build the program are what will bolster the Gophers through the next few games.

“We’re still focusing on the process,” said Frost. “We’ve had some ups and downs this year. That’s why it’s so critical to focus on the process and not on the outcome of games. There’s games that we played really well that we lost and there’s games that we haven’t played really well and we won.”

That they get to host the conference tournament and play in front of a loud home crowd certainly doesn’t hurt their chances. To win the WCHA tournament, Minnesota would have to get through the top two teams in the country, but they’re 15-1-3 on home ice and they fared better against both Wisconsin and Minnesota Duluth at Ridder than they did at either opponent’s home rink.

It’s been a long time since the Gophers weren’t entirely in control of their own destiny, but Frost and his team are relying on the strength of their program, their coaching staff, and their players to carry them through.

“It’s critical that we continue to play well and leave it out there. All we can ask for is our players to give their best effort and have a great attitude play for one another. The team is very aware that we have to continue to win hockey games if we want to guarantee our spot in the national tournament.”



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