December 6, 2013

Hockey East Journal: Catamounts carving a path

By Andrew Merritt

Sophomore goaltender Brody Hoffman (2.27 GAA, .926 sv. pct.) and the Vermont Catamounts are on pace to leave their disastrous 2012-13 campaign behind.

Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon had a challenge for his team heading into the weekend before Thanksgiving.

"I asked our team before the weekend, we needed to start making a move," he said. "I thought this was an opportunity for us to do that. We liked what we saw in practice. We thought things were starting to click pretty well against Providence even though we didn't come away with a win. I like the way our team played."

The Catamounts had just dropped a pair of games to Providence, and had a two-game set against UMass ahead. Going from one of the best teams in Hockey East to one of the worst, UVM had an opportunity to get something started.

Sneddon’s players answered the challenge, and then some.

Since the coach asked his players to “make a move,” Vermont has gone 4-0, putting together back-to-back sweeps of UMass and Maine. The first of those wins, over the Minutemen on Nov. 22, required one heck of a rebounding effort after UMass scored two goals in the first minute of the first period. Colin Markison scored a power play goal to give the Catamounts a spark later in the period, and Pete Massar and Nick Bruneteau each scored in the second period to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

What could have been a dispiriting third straight loss for the Catamounts turned into a character win for a team that’s trying to build.

“I think the wheels could’ve come off pretty quickly there, but I think our seniors, our leaders did a great job of keeping everybody even-keeled,” Sneddon said after the game. “Really, from the 10-minute mark, I think we started to play to our ability. Great character shown, I think that was the key for us tonight.”

And the building project will require wins like that, plus some patience to deal with setbacks. The first for UVM came before the season even started, when junior Kyle Reynolds – projected to be one of the team’s keystones after scoring nine goals and 11 assists last season – went down with a season-ending injury.

Reynolds’ absence means even more ice time for the Catamounts’ eight freshman skaters, and rookie Mario Puskarich has made the most of his opportunity so far, leading UVM with five goals through 13 games. But Sneddon needs more than just big nights from the freshmen. He needs his veterans to keep the ship afloat even when it hits rough waters, as the Catamounts did during a four-loss-in-five-game skein before the UMass series.

Overcoming that, plus the two UMass goals in 59 seconds on Nov. 22, showed Sneddon that the vets are on board. With a shutout of the Minutemen two days later on 39 saves by freshman Mike Santaguida, and a non-conference sweep of the Black Bears last weekend, the Catamounts are clearly rising from the ashes of the dreadful 2012-13 season in which they went 11-19-6, and were swept in the Hockey East quarterfinals by Boston College.

Pulling the plane out of that kind of nosedive isn’t simple, and it takes time. Vermont is 7-5-1, but it wasn’t that long ago that the Cats were 3-5-1 and looking for some breaks.

“We’ve played a lot of tough teams,” Sneddon said after the Nov. 22 victory. “We’ve had a heck of a tough schedule, and I look at it, and I think our record doesn’t reflect how tough it is. For a young team, it’s kind of hard to understand that it’s about a process. Tonight was about the process, they’ve got to learn how to win.”

With four victories in the last four games, it seems the Catamounts are indeed learning how the process works.

Player of the Week

Clay Witt, sr. G, Northeastern

Witt continued to outplay expectations, leading Northeastern to the Shillelagh Tournament title with a combined 61 saves on 64 shots over the two games in South Bend, where the Huskies tied Western Michigan and beat Notre Dame in the championship game.

Games of the Week

UNH vs. Boston College, Friday, Dec. 6, and Saturday, Dec. 7

The Wildcats are just one point ahead of the Eagles for second place going into the final full weekend of league games until the new year, and this two-game set, which starts at the Whittemore Center in Durham, N.H., and finishes at Conte Forum in Chestnut Hill, Mass., will have some huge implications both short-term and long-term in the race for playoff positioning.

Hockey East power rankings

  1. Providence (11-2-2, 6-2-0 HEA) – While Jon Gillies (South Portland, Maine) held it down in net (77 saves, .939 save percentage), Nick Saracino scored in the Friars’ 3-3 tie with Quinnipiac and their 3-2 win over Brown to take the Mayors Cup, running his point-scoring streak to six games. 

  2. UMass-Lowell (11-4-0, 4-1-0 HEA) – The River Hawks lost 3-1 at Quinnipiac on Oct. 19. Since then, they’ve been unstoppable on the road, going 6-0 in their last six road games as they turned a 1-3-0 start around into a 10-1-0 run over their last 11.

  3. Notre Dame (9-6-1, 2-3-1 HEA) – The defensemen picked up a bunch of scoring for the Irish over the weekend at the Shillelagh Tournament. The hosts saw the blueliners score five of their seven goals over the two games – a win over Alabama Huntsville and a loss to Northeastern in the title game. 

  4. Boston College (8-4-2, 4-1-1 HEA) – After a great start to the year, the Eagles have lost two straight, including an ugly 5-4 defeat at home to Holy Cross. They’re the first back-to-back losses for BC since the end of last season.

  5. New Hampshire (9-7-1, 5-3-0 HEA) – The Wildcats, who are outscoring opponents 57-38 this year, handed Colorado College its first shutout at home since Jan. 29, 2011, with Saturday’s 3-0 victory.  

  6. Northeastern (9-5-1, 3-4-0 HEA) – The Huskies became the first team to win three games at Notre Dame’s new Compton Family Ice Arena when they took the Shillelagh Tournament championship over the weekend, the Huskies’ first-ever November tournament title.

  7. Vermont (7-5-1, 4-4-0 HEA) – One key to UVM’s four-game winning streak: The power play. The Catamounts’ extra-man units have scored at least once in all four of the victories, and went 2-for-9 on the power play against Maine during a two-game non-conference set over the weekend.

  8. Boston University (7-6-1, 2-3-0 HEA) – The Terriers got more than just temporary bragging rights when they beat Cornell on Saturday. The Terriers’ 3-2 win over the Big Red at the annual Red Hot Hockey event in New York City also marked the inaugural battle for the Kelley-Harkness Cup, named for legendary BU coach Jack Kelley and Cornell icon Ned Harkness. As a result of the BU win, Kelley’s name appears first on the trophy.

  9. Maine (6-6-1, 3-2-1 HEA) – It’s been all sophomores for Maine as of late. The last nine Maine goals have come from sophomore sticks, and the eight-man class has accounted for 19 of the Black Bears’ 39 goals this season, led by Ben Hutton and Devin Shore with six apiece.

  10. UMass (3-10-2, 1-6-2 HEA) – There weren’t many highlights for the Minutemen in the 6-1 curb-stomping they received at No. 5 Quinnipiac on Saturday, but here’s one: Michael Pereira (West Haven, Conn.) scored the UMass goal, the 46th of his career. That gives him sole possession of eighth place all-time at UMass.

  11. Merrimack (3-9-1, 0-5-1 HEA) – Merrimack’s rough start was particularly ugly in November, where the Warriors went 1-6-1, including seven straight without a win. It’s also the first time since 2005-06 that Merrimack has hit the Thanksgiving break without a Hockey East win.

Twitter: @A_Merritt