Team of the Week: Vermont
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
On January 18, Vermont stood a wretched 4-9-6. After putting in solid campaigns during their first two seasons in Hockey East, the Catamounts not only were regrouping with a younger team, but their star goalie was a shell of his former self. Benched in December in order to find himself, Joe Fallon saw a sports psychologist, returned, and then split time with Mike Spillane.
But as Fallon gradually came out of the funk — beating Northeastern that next night for starters — so, not surprisingly, did the Catamounts.
Spillane played the next Friday in a win over Massachusetts, then Fallon lost in overtime on Saturday. But Sneddon sensed that Fallon was ready to re-assume the mantel full time, and his goaltender has not let him down.
In the past four games, Fallon has allowed four goals, all Vermont wins. The last one was a 1-0 shutout at Massachusetts-Lowell, completing Vermont's first two-game road sweep in its Hockey East history.
And the shutout, while the 18th in his career, was just the first of this season — and a far cry from the 9-1 debacle Vermont suffered at the hands of Boston University on Nov. 16. It earns Vermont the CHN Team of the Week honors ... just keep it quiet.
"We're just a quiet team right now. We don't want anybody writing about us," Sneddon said. "We're just going to keep doing what we're doing.
"We've had success because we worry about the day to day process. That sounds boring and monotonous as a coach — there's probably 50 other guys saying the same thing. But for this year's team ... they've had a great understanding of what that is."
Fallon is a case in point. He was lights out his first three years, but this year was different. Faced with five freshmen defensemen on the roster, Fallon took too much of the load upon himself. Concerned that his young defensemen were not strong enough to keep the front of his net clear, Fallon was trying to police things himself.
"He was thinking about the second and third save, and forgetting about the first one. Once you do that, forget it," Sneddon said.
"That's a lot of what the sports psychologist would call, 'putting the mental bricks on his shoulders.' He needs to worry about doing what he can do and as a team and coaching staff, we need to worry about the pieces around him."
Fallon's story dovetails with the whole team's however. With the team mired in poor play, Sneddon told them that youth was no longer an excuse. The staff challenged the team to improve.
"We rode the team pretty hard the first week of January," Sneddon said. "We needed to take on a more strict role as a coaching staff.
"It's gotten better in terms of accountability. Our men — we might have been boys at the beginning — they've handled it very, very well; the way you'd want a team to handle it."
No player more symbolized that than Viktor Stalberg, a Swedish import and potential force who was nonetheless trying to use his blazing speed to go around everyone. That wasn't working on the smaller ice sheets against more experienced players than Stalberg was used to. He had 15 points in 39 games as a freshman, then only two goals through those fateful first 19 games of this season.
Reminiscent of the paternal tongue lashing that Boston College coach Jerry York gave Brian Boyle en route to a title run in 2006, Sneddon laid it out for Stalberg, telling the young player that he needed to play like his 6-foot-3 frame suggested he could.
In the 11 games since, Stalberg is 7-5—12.
"I had seen him respond during his freshman year to (being pushed)," Sneddon said. "As long as you're accurate. When you direct him and ask him for more, he's got a great ability to respond. He's very mature that way. So he was almost an example for the team and he responded in the best way possible. He's let his actions speak for everything."
Sneddon won't allow his team's meteoric rise up the standings to be a distraction. He acknowledged that might sound boring to a reporter looking for juicier insight, but it's necessary for his team.
"Jumping to a new conference, you have some success early on, then reality set in on our team," Sneddon said. "We fell victim this last couple years to worrying about power ratings and national rankings, and not focusing enough on the task at hand. This year, while far less a mature group, it's just plugging along not worrying about articles or praise, about who's ranked and not ranked. It's just having fun."
Still, it's hard not to notice that Vermont has an opportunity, in this wacky Hockey East season, to finish ahead of Boston University and Boston College for the first time.
"I think that's natural. I'm not going to draw attention to it," Sneddon said. "The players, they're not fools, they see the opportunity in front of them. But my job is to show them how to keep improving. It's great to be there, but how did we get there? Let's get better at it."
It will still take some doing, with home games against Maine and road games at New Hampshire to close the regular season. And making the NCAA tournament, something Vermont hasn't done since 1997 despite coming tantalizingly close the last three years (including the last season in the ECAC), would probably take winning the Hockey East tournament.