February 22, 2013

Hockey East Journal: Confident Vermont preps for gauntlet

By Andy Merritt

Vermont's Brody Hoffman enters the weekend with a .909 save percentage. (Photo: Alex Edelman)

The recipe for good hockey has a lot of obvious ingredients – good goaltending, some sharpshooting scorers, a stout group of defenseman – but there’s one bit of seasoning that comes in particularly handy at this time of year, when the margin of error is ever slimmer: confidence.

Vermont, on paper, isn’t necessarily a team you’d expect to have a lot of confidence. The Catamounts got off to a 4-8-4 start this year, though three of those four early wins were against Hockey East teams and helped UVM briefly sit in fifth place. But the Catamounts lost five straight to start the new year, and when February began they were outside the Hockey East playoff bubble, in danger of missing the postseason for the second straight year.

Yet last weekend, the Catamounts swept Northeastern at Matthews Arena, the first road sweep by a UVM team since Feb. 28-29, 2009, at Maine. The sweep was capped by a 3-1 win Saturday night, in which Chris McCarthy picked up a pair of goals to reverse a 1-0 Northeastern lead and give UVM its fourth win in five games. When his team needed him, the senior from Collegeville, Pa., who leads UVM with nine goals and 14 assists, answered the call.

A week earlier, in what UVM coach Kevin Sneddon said was “as solid a game as we’ve played all year,” Kyle Reynolds led the Catamounts to a 3-0 victory over Maine. Reynolds, who’s third on the Vermont scoring chart with 8-7—15 totals, scored the first two UVM goals in that game, and McCarthy added the third.

“I think your go-to guys have to show up in the playoffs, and we started the playoffs much earlier than some of the top 4 teams,” said Sneddon, whose team enters this weekend’s games in seventh place, just three points ahead of UMass. “To see a Reynolds stepping up in the Maine game, to see McCarthy stepping up, we just had a lot of guys contributing to the win.

“Good players want to rise to the occasion, and Chris did tonight,” Sneddon said Saturday.

The veteran presence of McCarthy is certainly key to the Catamounts’ confidence, but it’s a rookie who is giving them that confidence on the other end of the ice. Freshman Brody Hoffman has played more minutes than any other rookie goaltender in the league this year, and while his 2.74 goals against average and .909 save percentage pale somewhat in comparison to the stellar debut of Providence’s Jon Gillies (2.10, .930), they’ve still been good enough to keep the Catamounts in a lot of games.

Though he’s new to college hockey, Hoffman is a 22-year-old freshman who played four years of junior hockey before coming to Vermont. So even if his college resume doesn’t say so, he’s a bit of a veteran himself.

“He is as mature a young man as I’ve coached,” Sneddon said.

The Catamounts will take all the maturity and confidence they can get right now. While they’re in good shape in the standings entering this weekend’s games, their remaining schedule is pretty daunting indeed: Two games this weekend at home against third-place New Hampshire, two games next weekend at fourth-place Boston University, and a two-game series against defending champion Boston College to end the regular season.

The other three teams fighting for the final two playoff spots – UMass, Maine and Northeastern – all have at least somewhat easier roads to the finish. Nevertheless, Sneddon is hanging onto the Catamounts’ newfound confidence.

“Right from the beginning of the season, everybody talked about our last six games, how tough they’re going to be,” he said. “I’m going to look at it in a positive way, that it’s an opportunity for us to make some headway.”

Player of the Week

Derek Arnold, jr., UMass-Lowell

The Foxborough, Mass., native scored two goals and an assist in the River Hawks’ win over UMass last Friday night. One night later, he had the game winner and another assist to lead UML’s important sweep of the flagship. Arnold has 6-2—8 totals over his last seven games.

Game of the Week

Boston College at Merrimack, Sunday, 4 p.m.

This is potentially the game of the year in Hockey East. The first-place Warriors host the second-place Eagles in a battle for the top spot, and the winner also claims the season series, which could end up determining playoff seeding in a few weeks.

Power Rankings

  1. Merrimack (14-10-6, 12-6-3 HEA) – The Warriors’ rise continued almost unabated last week, with a win over BC to snatch first place from the Eagles and a tie with Providence, and this marks the first weekend since the first one of the year that someone other than BC is atop the Hockey East standings.

  2. Boston College (17-8-3, 12-7-2 HEA) – With home ice in the league playoffs and an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament all but locked up, the Eagles are safe, but last weekend wasn’t the best time to come away with only a point from two games (loss to Merrimack, tie with UNH).

  3. New Hampshire (16-8-4, 11-7-2 HEA) – Since coming back from the holiday break, the Wildcats have played three games against first-place Merrimack, three against second-place BC, and three against fourth-place Providence. They went 2-5-2 in those games against the other top-four Hockey East teams, so they’ll no doubt be happy to finish the year against the teams in seventh (Vermont), eighth (UMass) and ninth (Maine).

  4. UMass-Lowell (16-9-2, 10-8-2 HEA) – UML got back on track in a big way with a sweep of UMass, which gave the River Hawks some breathing room ahead of the rest of the pack, and keeps them in contention to steal a home-ice playoff spot with three weeks to go.

  5. Providence (11-10-7, 9-6-6 HEA)Jon Gillies’ (South Portland, Maine) shutout of UNH last week was his fourth of the year, marking the first time a Friar goaltender has ever collected four clean sheets in a season.

  6. Boston University (14-12-2, 11-7-1 HEA) – The Terriers picked a good spot to end their five-game winless streak, capping a three-point weekend against Maine with a thrilling 5-4 overtime victory on Saturday, won on Matt Nieto’s goal with just four seconds to go.

  7. Vermont (10-14-4, 7-10-4 HEA) – It wasn’t that long ago that UVM was mired in a 1-6-0 slide. Now, the Catamounts are unbeaten in their last three games, and last weekend’s sweep of Northeastern comes at a perfect time, since UVM has the hardest remaining schedule of any of the four teams fighting for the final Hockey East playoff spots.

  8. Northeastern (9-16-3, 5-13-3 HEA) – Tuesday’s overtime victory over UMass in a game rescheduled due to the Feb. 8-9 blizzard was only Northeastern’s second in the last nine games, and the first in a non-Beanpot contest.

  9. Maine (8-16-6, 4-11-6 HEA) – The Black Bears were just four seconds away from taking two points away from BU last weekend, after coming back from a 4-1 deficit in the third period on Saturday to force overtime – the fourth time they’ve played an extra session in the last five games.

  10. UMass (10-16-2, 7-13-1 HEA) – The Minutemen are 0-4 over their last four games despite the yeoman’s effort of the Michael Pereira-Branden Gracel-Conor Sheary line, which was responsible for both goals and all four assists in Saturday’s loss to UMass-Lowell, and collected nine of the 13 points by UMass skaters over the weekend.

Andy Merritt can be reached at amerritt@hockeyjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter at @a_merritt.