Colorado College Learning To Adjust on the Fly
by Scott McLaughlin/Senior Writer
Like every coach, Colorado College's Scott Owens sat down at the end of last season and identified a number of areas where his team needed to improve heading into a new season. One area stood out the most. His team had given up too many quality scoring chances — too many shots from in close, too many guys getting open around the net.
So Owens and his coaching staff decided to make a change. They moved away from the man-to-man defensive system that they had used for years and switched to the layered zone scheme that has become more and more popular every year at all levels of hockey.
The idea behind the zone defense is that, although it allows for more possession by the opponent at times, it keeps them to the outside and makes it harder to get shots through. In theory, it's easier to play than man-to-man and allows for more of a safety net if someone is briefly caught out of position. In reality, though, it isn't always an easy change to make, especially when the vast majority of the team is used to playing man-to-man.
When you look at the Tigers' numbers this year, it's clear that the transition hasn't exactly been a smooth one. They rank last in the WCHA and 55th in the country with a 3.62 goals against average, a far cry from the 2.89 GAA that at least put them in the middle of the pack last season.
"I think the areas where we've struggled the most have been penalty killing and really getting our forwards and D to work together on team defense," Owens said. "Because of the difficulty we've had in those two areas, we're giving up too many high-quality shots. I would say that it's starting to trend in a better direction, though, in those two areas as well as a couple other areas."
The Tigers started the season 7-3-0 and played some low-scoring games during that stretch, but they couldn't maintain that level of success once their schedule started getting tougher in mid-November. From Nov. 10 to Jan. 18, they went 16 straight games without holding an opponent under three goals. Their record during that stretch was a dismal 3-11-2, and they found themselves freefalling through the WCHA standings, all the way to their current position in ninth.
Despite his team's defensive struggles, Owens said he never considered going back to man-to-man.
"The natural reaction when your statistics are not good defensively is that you should abandon it or at least consider abandoning it," Owens said. "But you know what, guys were in the right places. It was just that at the last second, we didn't execute or we didn't stop the puck. But we were determined to stay with it all the way through. It's taken longer to adjust than we thought it would, but in the end, we think it's a little bit easier of a system and we think guys have bought into it."
The Tigers finally took some steps in the right direction two weekends ago, particularly on Saturday when they held Minnesota-Duluth to one goal. They worked to improve even more during their bye week, and now they're looking to make it a few good defensive efforts in a row as they head to Anchorage this weekend to face a Seawolves team that ranks last in the league in scoring and hasn't won since Dec. 1.
"Our team defense has been getting more disciplined, starting in the offensive zone with making sure our D corps isn't getting beat on odd-man rushes," said senior defenseman Joe Marciano. "Our D corps is staying back and the forwards are getting back to help out. On the rush, I think we're doing a better job playing the gaps and shutting down rushes. And once we get in the D zone, I think everyone's feeling confident about where they should be and we're playing disciplined along the wall and in front of the net."
The Tigers won't be competing for the MacNaughton Cup, but they believe they still have a chance at home ice. They currently sit six points out of sixth with 10 games to go. Even more than home ice, though, their goal the rest of the season is to make sure they're playing their best hockey by the time the conference tournament starts.
"I think the mindset is to just stay the course," Marciano said. "Everyone's confident in each other and confident in the coaches. Our goal is to get home ice and get to the Final Five and then go from there. I think everyone in the locker room is level-headed right now. Everybody's excited to get back after a bye week and get this last stretch of the season started."