Big (Green) Problems
by Joshua Seguin/Staff Writer
Dartmouth improved after an exam break late in November. It was a marked and profound improvement from the struggles it saw early in its season. Then it played in its own Christmas Tournament consolation game against Northeastern, and the debacle that ensued will go down as monumental and a head scratcher.
Against Northeastern, Dartmouth went down by two goals early in the second period only to score six straight to take an 8-4 lead, six minutes into the third period. The Huskies replied, roaring back as the Big Green got lax in coverages, scoring four straight, two with an extra attacker, to send the game into overtime. Neither team was able to score in the overtime, remarkably, but the damage to the psyche of a fragile Dartmouth team was done.
"We would have liked to be able to close it," Dartmouth coach Bob Gaudet said. "But it is a bit of a process. Nothing is safe in this game. You learn lessons through it and you just keep on battling it. It got away from us, but not completely."
Dartmouth, coming off a season last year that started very promising only to see another late stumble to miss the NCAAs, had bright hopes for another season. Instead, the Big Green began this year with eight straight losses.
Dartmouth defeated Harvard, 2-1, on Nov. 30 to break the spell. It followed up with a win against defending national champion Yale in the next game and proceeded to play consecutive one-goal games against two top five Pairwise teams, before and after the break. It was heading in the right direction, or was it?
The main problem for Dartmouth this season has been a porous defense, and that hasn't changed.
Its goaltender, Charles Grant, has actually played well and has bore the brunt of the defensive woes. Unfortunately for Grant, his numbers are inflated because of everything happening in front of him.
From missed assignments, to poor decision making in the offensive zone and neutral zone leading to odd-man rushes, to open opponents right in front of its goaltender, the defense has struggled. There is no sugarcoating.
The first sign of trouble was in the second weekend of the season, when the Big Green gave up 14 goals in a weekend against Union and Rensselaer. The next weekend against North Country teams, Clarkson and St. Lawrence, was much of the same. Dartmouth gave up an eight spot to the Saints in an exciting Saturday night matchup, and it could've been worse.
Dartmouth is ranked 57th out of 59 teams, nationally, in team defense allowing a bloated 4.67 goals per game. It is ranked dead last in the ECAC and it's more than a half a goal worse than any other team. The next worst is Princeton, which allows 4.00 per game.
Defense hasn't been the only the trouble for Dartmouth; at times its offense has struggled.
"Scoring eight was a good thing for us," Dartmouth forward Eric Neiley said. "We haven't been putting up that many goals. From that perspective we got a lot of confidence, but on the other side, eight is not what we were looking for. I have no idea where that came from, because we had been playing great defensively and struggling offensively. Tonight was the complete opposite."
"I thought we played great in all facets of the game (against Providence)," said Gaudet. "We just weren't able to score the third goal and that was the difference of the game. (Against Northeastern) we were really good for large stretches of this game but were unable to close it out, but that's the game."
The struggle may lie in leadership and new guys coming into new roles.
"We have just one senior in the lineup right now," said Gaudet. "The growth has been a bunch of guys that are coming into the lineup that are trying to do their best, some of them out their positions. We have lost a lot of quality players and are chipping away."
This is most concerning because Dartmouth has a world of talent and is just not performing. It was picked fifth in the media preseason poll, and higher by many writers, while it was chosen seventh by the coaches. No one expected the Big Green to be as bad as they have been this year.
Dartmouth's struggles have paralleled the struggles of its supposed star forward, Tyler Sikura. Sikura was a candidate for a preseason All-ECAC selections but has a lone goal and five assists in 14 games. Now, he was injured against Northeastern and will miss 4-6 weeks.
"Tyler, unfortunately got injured in this game," said Gaudet. "But prior to this, he's been playing really hard. It's funny because he is a streaky player. I keep on saying that if he just stays with it, that some of those pucks that are bouncing off his stick now, will dribble off his stick into the net.
"He is a really good offensive player and he is helping a lot defensively. I know he is disappointed because he knows he has more to give. he is one those guys that puts a lot of pressure on himself and i'm trying to take the pressure off of him but there are not a lot of veteran guys that could just internalize this thing."
Gaudet, a Dartmouth grad who has been unable to get the Big Green over the hump into the NCAAs despite many close calls and sending many players to the NHL in his 18 years, manages to keep a positive attitude, despite the frustration that underlines it all.
"The growth of our team is something that I have been really proud of," said Gaudet. "It happens with guys that are pretty selfless, a lot of young hockey players."
One bright spot for the Big Green this season has been Eric Neiley. In nearly every game, he has been its best player. His nine goals have eclipsed a career high, already and he has become everything that Eric Robinson was supposed to be for this team.
"I am just trying to help the team out and do whatever I can," said Neiley. "I am putting up more points than I have the last couple of years. I feel like I am doing the same as I have in the past. But it is good because we have been struggling to score as a team and it is good that I have been able to help out.
"We don't want to be at the bottom of the league by any means. But we know that we are in the playoffs. We know as long as we keep working, we will be that team that none of the top teams don't want to play."