Saints Marching Into March
by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
The third period had barely started at Harvard's Bright Hockey Center on March 11 of last season. It was the second game of a best-of-three playoff series, and Joe Marsh's St. Lawrence Saints enjoyed a 2-1 lead. They were only 20 minutes away from advancing to the ECAC Championships in Albany.
In a blink of an eye, that dream was over.
A sharp angle shot by Harvard's Ryan Maki tied the game in the first minute of the third period, and the Crimson went on to win not only the series but the ECAC tournament championship as well.
"I think you do learn a lot from that," said Marsh, now in his 22nd year as head coach of the Saints. "Probably the biggest message is just how tough it is to win consistently at this level to get to the championship."
Fast forward now to early this season, on November 4. Again in Cambridge, Mass., at the Bright Hockey Center. And again with St. Lawrence holding a one goal lead in the third period. This time, however, the Saints prevailed, just as they have time and time again this season.
With only two games to go in the regular season, they sit in first place in the ECAC standings.
"We've had some good fortune this year, won some close ones," said Marsh. "I want our guys to be appreciative of it, but protective of it, from the standpoint of staying humble and staying focused, given what we've been through."
And what they have been through is one close game after another, as if driven by the memory of last year's crushing loss to Harvard. As if the senior class is determined to advance further in the playoffs than last year's graduating class ever did. Perhaps driven by these thoughts, the Saints have a remarkable 10-2 record in games decided by one goal and are a perfect 8-0 in such games in ECAC play.
"Going in, we know that, to win at this level, you're going to be in a lot of battles," said Marsh. "Anybody can beat anyone, in this league in particular. That said, guys have to be mentally prepared to know that they're going to be in a battle, that the games are going to be close, and not shy away from it. It's exciting. This is what the playoffs are like, and every time we get to play in a playoff-type atmosphere, we should be excited about it."
Indeed, the playoffs are quickly approaching, and the Saints have assured themselves of a first-round bye in the ECAC playoffs. They also control their own destiny. With either two points or a Clarkson loss on the final weekend, they can win the ECAC regular season championship for the first time since 2000, a year in which the Saints advanced to the Frozen Four.
Said Marsh, "We need to keep going and stay focused, obviously try to raise the bar on how much better we can get defensively and how hard we have to play. And prepare for the types of games that we've been in for most of the season, the one-goal games, where everything seems to become magnified.
"It's fragile, the fine line between winning and losing. The standings tell you where you've been, not where you're going, so I think it's important for us to try to enjoy it along the way but just stay focused on what's ahead."
What's ahead may be a very bright future, especially with the youth on the team. Some might say that they are overachieving, but despite having a team with 19 freshman and sophomores, Marsh notes that some of the freshmen are already playing like seasoned veterans.
"[Alex Curran and Travis Vermeulen] are forwards who have emerged as two of our top four penalty killers and two of our top defensive forwards," said Marsh. "They're playing more like juniors and seniors already. They're very strong kids physically, very reliable, and very responsible players. For their age, it's remarkable to see. We're really pleased with what [the entire freshman class] has been able to give us, not just in terms of excitement and enthusiasm, but poise and reliability."
Other standout freshmen include goaltender Alex Petizian — who boasts a 2.27 goals-against average this year — and forward Mike McKenzie, who leads the team in rookie scoring and is fifth overall with 20 points.
Said Marsh about Petizian and McKenzie, "They're both real quality players, but more importantly, real quality kids. They're very team-oriented, hard working kids. I think they're guys who have earned where they are. Nothing's been handed to them. They're extremely cognizant of what it takes to play at this level, to do the extra things."
One message that seems to have resonated with Marsh's squad — as one of the aforementioned "extra things" — is to stay out of the penalty box, to not be sinners instead of Saints. Last year's St. Lawrence team was assessed the fourth fewest penalty minutes in the country, as their opponents amassed a startling 187 more penalty minutes than the Saints over the course of the season. And this year, they have averaged the fewest penalty minutes per game during league play.
The high-quality leadership on the team is likely a good explanation. Marsh points to Drew Bagnall, Kyle Rank, Justin Pesony and Max Taylor as players who have shown the way at both ends of the ice. Rank, in fact, ranks fourth in scoring in the ECAC.
Still, the stats are wiped clean for the playoffs, which now become the team's primary focus.
"We've just got to keep going and get better," said Marsh, who is looking to lead St. Lawrence to its first ECAC tournament championship since 2001. "We've steadily improved our regular season, and we just have to carry that with us and hopefully go further."
And in a couple of weeks, if the Saints find themselves 20 minutes away from marching on to Albany, don't expect them to let it slip away again.