Vermont Seeing Improvement Among Setbacks
by Scott McLaughlin/CHN Writer
BURLINGTON, Vt. When Vermont allowed Minnesota to score twice in the first four minutes of the second period, it looked like Saturday's game was shaping up to be a repeat of Friday's 5-1 loss. For the second straight night, the Catamounts had hung tough with Minnesota in the first period and put themselves in a position to make a game of it. But for the second straight night, they got caught on their heels to start the second and watched the game start to slip out of reach.
Although the Catamounts did end up losing on Saturday, the rest of the game was not a repeat of Friday. On Friday, they got badly outplayed for the entire second period and went into the second intermission trailing 5-1. They played an OK third, but the game was already way too far out of reach.
But on Saturday, Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon called a timeout after Minnesota's second goal, and the Catamounts responded with a strong showing the rest of the way. They outshot Minnesota over the game's final 36 minutes and were the aggressors for long stretches of play. They cut the deficit to 2-1 early in the third and had chances to tie the game before Minnesota eventually sealed the win with an empty-netter.
No one likes moral victories, but there were definitely positives Vermont could take away from Saturday night.
"I'm very pleased," Sneddon said. "Moral victories are tough. They want to win hockey games this year. I told them that if they play that well as a team, we're going to win a lot of hockey games this year. We just played an excellent hockey team. Minnesota's one of the best teams in the country, and I thought we played them right on par tonight. We just had a little bit of a lapse there in the second period. But even our response to that was much better than it was last night. I thought our third period was exceptional. We just couldn't find the equalizer. Very pleased with our response to last night."
Of course, moral victories alone won't get a team anywhere. The Catamounts know they need to start getting more actual victories. After posting an appalling 6-27-1 record last year, they've struggled to find wins again this season and are currently 2-7-2. But while the record doesn't look much better, the Catamounts are a better team.
They put in a lot of work throughout the offseason to become a stronger, more physical team. If you watch the Catamounts play, it's easy to see that they have succeeded in that facet of the game. They've matched up physically with everyone they've played this season, including a Minnesota team that certainly isn't lacking in the size department.
The Catamounts start five defensemen who are at least 6-foot-1, and all five are bruisers. They don't have nearly as many big guys up front, but their forwards can be just as physical — perhaps the best example from the weekend was when 5-foot-9 Kyle Reynolds dropped 6-foot-3 Mark Alt to the ice.
"It took a lot," captain H.T. Lenz said of the new mindset. "It started last spring, when we started preaching that we're not going to be successful until we do those things. We saw a little bit of success the first five or six games playing that way, but then we backed off of it a little bit against (New Hampshire) and learned how bad we'll be if we don't play that way. We've learned that we can be successful if we outhit the other team, if we get two hits per guy, which is one of our goals. If we do those things and play the right way, we're a much better team."
The Catamounts also worked to become more committed to team defense, and that has shown up in the number of shots they've blocked. They blocked 18 Minnesota shots on Friday and 17 more on Saturday. They have still had some breakdowns and giveaways that have resulted in bad games, such as Friday's, but for the most part, they have been better defensively this season than last. They're allowing almost a full goal per game less than last year. The biggest part of that improvement has been freshman goalie Brody Hoffman, who is already providing the Catamounts with better goaltending than they got at any point last year.
"Hoff's been our best player all year, which is what you need out of a goalie," Lenz said. "He's been helping our PK a ton. He got peppered in the first 10 minutes or so (Saturday), and he held us in there. It would've been easy to go down a goal or two on those first couple power plays they got. He's been huge in there for us. We just need to battle a little harder in front of him and get him some goals so we can start getting him some wins."
And that has been the biggest problem for the Catamounts — scoring goals. It's the one area where, statistically, they've been even worse than last season. They're averaging just 1.64 goals per game and have yet to score more than three in a contest. That sort of meager production leaves them no room for error. It's the reason why a two-goal deficit on Saturday was all but insurmountable, even if they did play well the rest of the night and did control play at times.
To make matters worse for the offense, the Catamounts are currently without two of their most talented forwards in Connor Brickley and Colin Markison, who are out indefinitely with forearm and back injuries, respectively.
But the Catamounts' offensive woes go deeper than just missing two guys. Even when they've gotten good rushes and good offensive-zone possessions, they've struggled to create quality scoring chances and finish around the net. Sneddon said one of the keys to this past weekend was that Minnesota capitalized on his team's mistakes, while the Catamounts could not capitalize on Minnesota's.
"We have to start getting more bodies to the front of the net," Lenz said. "I think we were a little better with that (Saturday) than last night. Just watching a good team like Minnesota, they were getting all their chances by getting bodies to the front of the net and taking away the goalie's eyes. We have to learn from that and be willing to get dirty to score some goals."
The Catamounts have improved their physicality, their defense and their goaltending. Now the next step in their building process is improving the offense. If they can do that, their record should start to reflect how much they've actually improved.