In The Mix
Tim Thomas leads Vermont's charge back into the spotlight; but did the Cats ever leave?
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Doing something again, especially when expected, is one of the hardest things to do.
Just ask Tim Thomas.
Vermont's All-American is a microcosm of the team, which only makes sense considering he's the goalie.
Thomas, a 1994 ninth-round draft pick of the Quebec Nordiques (now the Colorado Avalanche), helped lead Vermont to the NCAA Final Four last season. And with two other All-Americans — Martin St. Louis and Eric Perrin — coming back, the Catamounts had every reason to believe the lofty expectations being placed on them by the pollsters and their fans.
But with St. Louis and Perrin scoring 85 points each last year, and Thomas' .924 save percentage leading the nation and reaching Ken Dryden-like proportions, what do you do for an encore?
The answer, early on, was more of the same. Impressive wins against powers like Boston University, New Hampshire, Lake Superior and Miami fueled the expectations.
Their early-season success briefly made Vermont the first ECAC team to be ranked No. 1 nationally since Harvard during its 1989 NCAA Championship run.
But coach Mike Gilligan was never really satisfied with his team's play, and a sudden slump confirmed his worst fears.
Vermont went 2-3 to open the league season, losing to RPI, Dartmouth and Cornell. Then came a loss to UNH and another to Colorado College, and doubts crept in. Suddenly Vermont was not in the polls at all.
The hockey nation got off the bandwagon pretty quickly.
Even back when Vermont hadn't lost yet, Gilligan was deflecting praise.
"(You're) only (happy) if you improve, and right now we haven't made a big enough step," he said.
"I think our league was ready for us last year, and college hockey is ready for us this year. It makes it more difficult."
But, just like it did coming off last year's holiday break, Vermont (15-6-0, 7-4-0 ECAC) is surging again. After Friday's overtime win against St. Lawrence, the Cats had won six in a row, including five in the league. Even though the streak ended Saturday, against a tough Clarkson team that also has a propensity for strong second halves, Vermont seems back on the right track.
Perrin thinks everyone was too quick to jump off the wagon in the first place.
"They shouldn't have," he said. "The funny thing is, last year we had about the same record at this time.... We always do better after our breaks. We'll be fine."
And for all the clamor about getting the other lines going, it's going to be St. Louis (15-26—41) and Perrin (18-20—38) who carry the offense. That's why the 3-2 win over St. Lawrence was so uplifting. Perrin scored in the first period and St. Louis scored twice, including the game-winner on a breakaway 14 seconds into overtime. Perrin, with a goal in each game over the weekend, tied the school record with 99 in his career.
"In our league, we did not start the way we wanted to start. It feels good now to get on a roll in the league," said St. Louis. "I think it's a matter of time. We know what it takes to finish number one. With a couple of wins like this, it gives us a chance to get back to where we want to be."
So how bad was that so-called slump Vermont went through? Is it any worse than Boston University losing to Clarkson, St. Lawrence and North Dakota, and tying Yale? Or the seven losses by Colorado College, or the eight by Minnesota? Those teams are all ranked ahead of Vermont, which has played the most difficult schedule in the nation.
That said, it is true that the Catamounts went through a period of soul-searching this season. A lot of it was because of those expectations, most of which they placed on themselves.
Three of Vermont's five losses are in the ECAC, and defenseman Jan Kloboucek says perhaps the team didn't get adjusted quickly enough to how much the league had improved, and how much the Catamounts would be tested every game.
"In past years, there were always two or three teams you knew you were going to win," said Kloboucek, a native of the Czech Republic. "This year, everybody's really good. You have to play good every game. It's real hard now."
Even the usually unflappable All-American goalie Tim Thomas has had some rough stretches. His goals-against average was — chills! — over 3.00 for a bit.
Thomas knows well the up-and-down nature of Vermont's play from about mid-November through December. But, he says, with that stretch behind them, things should go more smoothly.
"We had some really good games against some really good teams, and we had some bad games," said Thomas. "But we had that month off where we couldn't redeem ourselves. Now we're getting into the league, and we're playing every weekend, bam-bam-bam, and it's easier not to worry about what other people are saying and stuff, so we can just play."
And the GAA came back below three pretty quickly, thanks to a 3-0 win over Yale last weekend. The shutout was the 10th of Thomas' career, breaking the school record.
It's just another in a string of accolades for Thomas, who has been the team's backbone since arriving in Burlington. Vermont's goalie situation was up in the air when Thomas arrived — All-American Christian Soucy had decided to leave school following his sophomore season. But the questions were soon answered, and Thomas has appeared in all but two Catamount games since.
Thomas, a native of Davison, Mich., has represented Team USA in August's Tampere Cup in Finland the last three seasons. The last two years, Thomas was on the U.S. team at the World Championships, in Stockholm, Sweden, and Vienna, Austria. He holds 11 school records, and is looking to join Dryden as the only goalies in ECAC history to lead the league in GAA three years in a row, not to mention a third straight All-America pick.
Going pro would have been an easy choice, and among the team's three All-Americans, Thomas' opportunities were the most enticing. Returning was close to a no-win situation. His stock could go nowhere but down after three years in which his GAA went from 3.03 to 2.69 to 2.34.
Whether the team's lackluster play caused Thomas to press, or vice versa, is uncertain, but Thomas now admits that he let peripheral issues get the best of him.
"If you think about it, I took a great risk coming back to college," said Thomas. "After the two years I had in a row, it would be very hard to do better statistically than I did last year.
"That bothered me early on, that's for sure, especially when we had that little slump there. And I started doubting myself, and I started to wonder, 'Man, maybe I should've left,' and that kind of stuff. But then I realized I'm in this for the long run — it'll balance out, it always does.
"This really is a season. It's not just a pack of a couple games. And if you're good, it'll show."
At least Thomas knows his coach never lost faith in him.
"He's certainly been up to the task since he's been here," Gilligan said. "He played better than I thought he would as a freshman, and then improved every month he's been on campus. I think there's no end to what he's able to do."
Thomas says he tries to put the future out of his mind for now, but knows it's tough considering a decision will have to be made within a couple of months. He can leave for the pros right after college, or wait until the fall.
"The past few years, it (the pros) was more dreaming," Thomas said. "This year, it's reality and you have to do something. You don't necessarily have to play as soon as the season's over, but it might be in my best interest. And I've been in the World Championships two years in a row in the spring, and I'd be glad to go a third time too."
Either way, Thomas is certain of one thing: he will finish school.
"Every year I've been taking incompletes at the end of the semester, because I'm over in Europe right when they're taking finals," he said. "So when I take my second-semester classes, I make sure to talk to the teacher beforehand and let them know that I might have to take incompletes, but I'll make them up pretty quick.
"A couple teachers will let me finish early so I don't have to take incompletes, and others will give me a few weeks in the summer.
"But I'm definitely finishing. If I stayed for my fourth year, I'm finishing my degree."
There's one incomplete Thomas hopes to finish this April in Milwaukee, the one he and his teammates started last year in Cincinnati.
It's something Thomas won't get a chance to try again.