Team of the Week: Dartmouth
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
For years, Bob Gaudet rebuilt the Dartmouth program, contended for ECAC championships, produced Hobey Baker Award finalists and NHL players, and recruited as well as any ECAC school.
But for the last three years, things slipped for the Big Green, unable to adjust to some early departures to the NHL, a victim of their own success, and some injury misfortune thrown in.
Now, Dartmouth is back, with a robust team laden with strong players that have slipped under the radar nationally, but that has the Big Green in first place and winners of five of the last six games. Along the way, Dartmouth has piled up 29 goals in the six games.
"We've worked really hard. We have a group that's really gotten after it," Gaudet said. "We work hard defensively, and the defensive part helps us offensively with having the puck a bit more. The offense has been really spread out, it's not like we've relied on one or two guys.
"We have games where it doesn't go in, but we've generated a lot of chances in those games. We didn't score against Quinnipiac (the only loss in that span, 2-0) but I wasn't disappointed because we were generating. Then, against Princeton, we got some greasy ones."
Dartmouth has definitely spread things around. Junior Nick Walsh had the strongest pair of games last weekend against Harvard, a home-and-home 8-2, 5-2 sweep, but that only brought him to five goals and 10 points in 10 games. Three other players have five or four goals, including freshman Matt Lindblad, senior Scott Fleming and Walsh's sophomore brother Dustin.
"We'll play four lines regardless," Gaudet said. "We're not a team that matches a lot — I haven't my whole career. Guys have to find roles. In the second half of last year, I thought we were good, but we couldn't find that style or identity. We started to get better and our identity started to crystallize.
"There's a big work ethic involved with playing at this level. I understand a lot of these guys are not household names. But we've solidified on defense, with everyone not just (the defensemen) and our offense has begun feeding off of that."
Gaudet said the high-scoring efforts are not by design — his teams have certainly never been known as "run and gun."
"This is an interesting team. We're not trying to be run and gun," Gaudet said. "What we are is a very skilled group that is working hard, and our biggest skill is our work ethic. Because of that, we can get to the puck. It's not always going to go in, but we'll get a lot of chances."
Lindblad is a 6-foot freshman from Illinois, who had two goals and two assists last weekend.
"He's adjusting quickly to the college game, much more than I would've believed at this point," Gaudet said.
Dustin Walsh, who was banged up last year, is a Montreal draft pick, is 6-foot-3 and is called "slippery and crafty" by Gaudet — but it's been older brother Nick that has made waves this year.
"Nick has gotten stronger, he battles around the net, he has a great wrist shot," Gaudet said. "His bread and butter is around the net, but he's not one of those guys who just stands in front and hacks in rebounds. He can make a move, he has poise, and he can score from the top of the circle. He's a wide-shouldered kid who is good down low."
And then there's Scott Fleming, a Minnesota native who had a breakout 22-goal season a year ago. He, along with fellow senior Adam Estoclet (12 goals a year ago), had been held in check early on — literally — but Fleming has been getting more space now because of the other forwards' strong play. He had two goals against Harvard.
"Estoclet and Fleming, they would be the household names around here, but they don't really have to carry the bacon. They've been checked really well," Gaudet said.
For all of the focus on the offense, the biggest story may be the emergence of junior goaltender James Mello. Gaudet started the season unsure of who would be the No. 1 goalie. Fellow junior Jody O'Neill started almost every game in 2008-09, but O'Neill slipped off last year and Mello wound up with half the starts and better numbers — although not stellar at 2.97 GAA and .912 save percentage.
This year, however, with the improved defensive play of the team as a whole, Mello's numbers have been off the charts — 1.27 GAA and .958 save percentage, while getting seven of the 10 starts.
"I've always liked James. I just told him to be patient," Gaudet said. "They bring something different. They're all pushing each other and supporting each other. A kid does a nice job once game and you come back with him. You go with a hunch. If guys aren't playing, I tell them it's not because of their play.
"(Mello's) not big. He has to be on the edge of the crease."
O'Neill was the one in goal for the main blip this year, a 7-3 loss to the Yale juggernaut. Dartmouth was up 2-1 in that game before Yale got a penalty shot goal, and then the dam broke.
"It was a highlight reel on five of their goals," Gaudet said. "You look back, you say, 'Gee, we weren't brutal.' They can make something out of a nothing play, all of a sudden. They remind me a lot of some old UNH teams."
It's too early to tell whether this can finally be the year Dartmouth breaks through and gets an NCAA bid. There's a lot of competition atop a muddled ECAC (after Yale).
"We're a big of a work in progress. But I like the potential of this group," Gaudet said. "If we can bring the same kind of mentality all season. That's the thing. Coming into this year, we said we needed to defend better and not have to rely on this guy or that guy, and came up with that early, because that was my fault last year — each team is different, but I couldn't find that thing to hang your hat on and things got worse and started to snowball.
"This group is humble. It's confident. And it's very disciplined. That's what I like."