One to Build On for Taranto, Alaska
by Joe Meloni/CHN Reporter
Alaska entered its first NCAA Tournament as an unknown to the majority of the crowd at the DCU Center. After a few minutes, it was clear that, if nothing else, the Nanooks played defense; they protected the middle of the ice and took careful control of the puck in all three zones.
Taking on a team with the diverse, well-rounded attack that Boston College features makes a reliable defensive gameplan a necessity. But there was more than trap-and-pounce on the mind of the CCHA's best kept secret.
"We don't just sit back and let them rush us and guard our net," UAF coach Dallas Ferguson said. "We feel like we need to forecheck and play smart without the puck."
Ferguson knew his team had to score to win a spot in Sunday's game and a chance at the Frozen Four. Unlike most expected, though, goals aren't a particularly rare commodity for the Nanooks. They were a year ago, when UAF averaged fewer than two goals per game, but that was before Andy Taranto enrolled at America's Arctic University.
The freshman winger added an offensive dimension to the UAF attack that it needed to turn one-goal losses into one-goals wins this season. Coming from the Fargo Force of the United States Hockey League, Taranto played under current Nebraska-Omaha coach Dean Blais, where he refined his offensive talents and learned the defensive mindset that turns good scorers into good players.
"We ask everybody to play with that mindset. We have to responsible away from the puck. We have to be responsible when we don't have the puck, and it's going to allow you to create scoring opportunities," Ferguson said. "When you have players like Andy doing that, they're going to get that many more scoring opportunities. Our goal when we're playing smart and responsible is to get the puck back as quick as possible. The reward is guys like Andy and [Dion Knelsen] can have the puck on their stick.
"Andy's a great kid and a team guy. He wants what's best for the team."
Late in the second period, the Nanooks trailed Boston College, 1-0, when they went on the power play for the fourth time in the second 20 minutes. On the shift, Taranto roamed the crease and low slot drawing traffic and the attention of BC goaltender John Muse as his teammates moved the puck around the BC penalty killers.
His first shot found Muse's pad, and the power play continued. His second effort left him alone to Muse's right after a pass from point man Joe Sova snuck through the stick of the BC penalty killers. Taranto collected the puck on the cradle and quickly turned to tie the game. His shot slid through the crease, but Muse, who knows a thing or two about keeping his team in tournament games, leapt across the goalmouth to preserve his one-goal lead.
At that point, BC center Brian Gibbons' hooking minor neared completion, and UAF's fourth man advantage of the period seemed like another wasted opportunity. Taranto found another opportunity, and, like the truly great scorers do, he capitalized this time.
"One of [Alaska's] players tried to center the puck out to him in front of the net," Muse said. "It bounced off Brian Dumoulin's leg and, I actually thought it went in right away because I saw it go off of [Dumoulin], so I went down into my butterfly. It bounced off my leg and right to [Taranto]."
When Muse's folly became Taranto's opportunity, the game was tied, and the second period ended that way.
The ending for Alaska did not work out the way they had hoped when they arrived in Worcester on Wednesday. The Eagles scored early in the third period, and added an empty-net goal in the game's closing seconds.
With his second season running his alma mater's hockey program now completed, Ferguson reflected on its achievements in earning its first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance and the future.
A future that centers around the accomplishments of the 2009-10 season and a young winger who's realized only a portion of his potential.
"Playing strong without the puck is a commitment thing, and that's where good leadership comes into play," Ferguson said following the 3-1 loss. "That's the way we do things here. [Taranto] came in as a freshman, and he's seen how things are done here.
"He knows that if he's going to be successful, that's how he has to play. I think he's going to continue to become that kind of player if he can work on his conditioning and develop into a better athlete, I think he is an all-American-type player."
All-America honors aren't likely headed to Taranto this season, but the CCHA Freshman of the Year award will suffice. Those things aren't his concern, though, the team honors are the ones he's after. The Nanooks can hang their first NCAA Tournament banner at the Carlson Center now, and, with Taronto leading the way, they're making plans for a few more.