This Week in ECAC Hockey: After sluggish start to season, Brown back on track with points in four of last five games

Gavin Nieto  (Brown - 1) makes a stick save. ((c) Shelley M. Szwast 2016)
Gavin Nieto has started 19 of Brown’s 23 games this season, winning five so far (photo: Shelley M. Szwast).

After 10 losses in a row, Brown’s season was circling the drain.

It was mid-January and they desperately needed to string some wins together to rekindle their confidence and stop their freefall in the ECAC standings.

And that’s just what they did.

Seemingly out of nowhere, Brown is on the upswing with a 3-1-1 record in its last five games.

It should be noted, of course, that the three recent wins came against the only teams below Brown in the ECAC standings – Union, Princeton and St. Lawrence.

Tough games remain, starting on the road this weekend against Dartmouth and Harvard, where the Bears will be without injured defenseman Tony Stillwell (upper body).

But you have to start somewhere, and the Bears know something about second-half rallies.

A year ago, they came on strong after Jan. 1 to earn home ice in the first round of the playoffs. They nipped Princeton in triple overtime in the deciding game, then stunned heavily favored Quinnipiac in two straight in the second round to advance to the ECAC semifinals in Lake Placid for the first time in years.

Who’s to say that last season’s formula can’t work again?

“As a coach, you don’t want to harp back to the prior season because it is a new year, a new team. There’s different guys in different roles and different positions,’’ said Bears coach Brendan Whittet, who earned a new three-year contract courtesy of last season’s late surge.

“I think there is somewhat of a blueprint as to how Brown can be successful, in terms of style of play, in terms of systematic structure and how we approach an opponent on a certain weekend. Some of that does carry over. There is a belief amongst the guys that you just need to be playing your best hockey at this time. A good weekend or a few good weekends and all of a sudden you’re in home ice, you’re playing very good hockey, and you’re a team that needs to be reckoned with. I do see some shades of that.”

An uptick in scoring has helped.

During their extended slump, the Bears scored just 11 goals in 10 games. Some of the losses were excruciating.

Brown gave up the tying goal with two seconds left at RPI, then lost 36 seconds into overtime.

They led by a goal midway through the third period at Boston University before losing in OT.

Perhaps the low point of the season came on Jan. 12 at home against Arizona State, which is ranked 10th in the Pairwise this week. Brown jumped out to a 3-0 lead 25 minutes into the game, but ended up losing 4-3 in OT.

“We don’t want to make excuses, but we had a disjointed schedule. We played some good hockey teams. It’s not like we were getting demolished in the games. We’ve lost four games in overtime,’’ Whittet said.

Brown’s senior captains, Zach Giuttari and Brent Beaudoin, are leading by example. Two of four seniors on the team, Giuttari and Beaudoin were immense in the third period at home against Princeton last Friday. Trailing by two goals, Brown scored four times in a 4-3 victory. The Bears followed up the win by tying Quinnipiac 2-2 the next night at Meehan Auditorium.

“(Giuttari and Beaudoin) have that experience. They have been through those battles. They’ve seen the good and the bad. They do know that if we do this, this and this – there’s no guarantees in terms of wins – but we give ourselves a pretty good opportunity to be successful,’’ said Whittet.

“Those guys have been playing really good hockey the last stretch here. I think it permeates through the rest of the team. We do look to those guys. We don’t have a lot of older guys. We don’t have a lot of guys that have been through some of those big-time games. They’ve done a good job, they really have.’’

Whittet is also getting solid minutes out of freshman defenseman Luke Krys, who jumped to Brown straight from the Salisbury School without playing junior hockey.

“What I love about him is he has what the best players have. He’s an unbelievably confident kid. Sometimes to the extreme. But if he makes a mistake, he can come back. He doesn’t go into a shell. In fact, he may go the other way and try and do too much,’’ Whittet said.

“He plays upwards of 25 minutes every game as a guy that came directly out of prep. He’s grown, he’s getting better and he loves the game. He’s on the ice every day until you pry him off.’’

So after some tough sledding, the Bears are feeling better about themselves, and why not?

“Our freshmen have taken good steps. We’ve been able to mature and grow and I think we’re playing pretty good hockey at this time. It’s going to be hard. Four of our last six are on the road. So be it,’’ Whittet said.

“We have done it in the past. Last year we went on the road and swept two series. All of a sudden you have a little bit different feel. You have a little bit more belief. This team has some of those elements. We’ll see.’’

Harvard looks ahead

After a disappointing 7-2 loss to Boston College in the Beanpot consolation game, Harvard has little time to lick its wounds, not with a home game against Yale coming up on Friday.

“I think it’s actually probably exactly what the doctor ordered,’’ coach Ted Donato said after Monday’s game.

“This one is disappointing, but we know we have a rivalry game with good energy and a big two points on the board. We’re one point out of third place in our league coming in. We want to get top four — home ice and a bye. A lot of the things we want to play for in the season are still very much in front of us.’’

An honest take

For the media, one of Mike Schafer’s likable characteristics as a coach is that he doesn’t pull any punches when assessing his team.

The Big Red are 17-2-4 after sweeping Colgate last weekend, but Schafer didn’t hold back after the second game, a 5-3 win.

“I’m really disappointed in how we finished the game out,” he told the Cornell Daily Sun. “We have talked all season about playing the full 60. (Saturday) night, I thought we did a good job of that but [Sunday] we got cute with the puck in the second period and tried to do way too much.”

Schafer was also blunt in assessing the penalty kill.

“Our penalty killing sucked — there’s no other adjective to describe it,” he said. “We got everything resolved a couple weeks ago, and now we’re right back to making the same stupid blunders previously. We gotta get back to work and get the job done because it’s just something that pisses me off as a coach that we can’t be consistent in our penalty killing.

“We’ll get back to it. Good win, good sweep — it puts us where we need to be, but it’s also got some disappointing aspects to it.”

The Big Red are third in the Pairwise and tied with Clarkson with 26 points at the top of the ECAC standings. They host Union and Rensselaer this weekend.