Next Goal for Vermont: Sustaining Success
by Michael King/Staff Writer
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BRIDGEPORT, Conn. Discussion of the top lines in Hockey East usually focuses on the offensively-gifted combinations skating for teams like Boston College and New Hampshire.
This season, Vermont entered the conversation with its association of freshmen Mario Puskarich and Brendan Bradley, and senior co-captain Chris McCarthy. The trio combined for 44 goals, about 42 percent of the team’s total output.
Although the Catamounts failed to generate the offensive chances necessary to best No. 1 seed Union in Friday’s NCAA East Regional semifinal, the trio sustained Catamount hopes until nearly the final whistle. UVM fell, 5-2, as Union advances to Saturday’s regional final.
This scoring ability, which was severely lacking from recent squads, represented a substantial change in game-to-game strategy and overall competiveness during the year. Furthermore, it reflects progress for the program.
The difference between coach Kevin Sneddon's average teams and his great teams has been pure offensive skill. Vermont’s 2009 Frozen Four side featured perpetual scoring threat Viktor Stalberg (24-22—46), as well as other talented forwards in Peter Lenes and Dean Strong.
Sneddon is hoping this becomes the new normal for the Catamounts.
Despite the loss of six forwards to graduation, the majority of the scoring is coming back. The apparent severity of the loss in volume doesn’t account for the nature of the players leaving campus. With the significant exception of McCarthy, the top-six type players – who have been in short supply for the Catamounts in recent years – are all expected to return.
"You're only as good as the players you have,” Sneddon said. “Recruiting is going excellently. This was a great freshman class, and what we've got coming in over the next couple of years is even better. Just having a taste of what it takes to get here is important."
Of course, when Sneddon brought Vermont to the Frozen Four in 2009, he thought that was the start of something big. Another NCAA appearance followed.
But the four years since have been a challenge. Two years ago, especially, was a major step backward for the program, as injuries and recruiting shortfalls yielded a six-win team. That squad struggled to gain possession and didn’t know what to do with the puck during the minimal times they had it.
"We lost some guys, we took a step back in culture, and made some mistakes in recruiting — and we paid for it,” Sneddon said. “We had a lot of guys leave, whether it be major junior or leaving for the NHL early — which we didn't expect. I think we chased the younger kids a little too much too. In all honesty, we're not going to get the kids looking at BC and Michigan as 15 year olds. We almost had one in [NHL first-round pick Zemgus] Girgensons. He would've been good for us last year — we wouldn't have had him this year."
Though McCarthy consistently created (team-leading 24 assists) as a senior, the offensive future remains promising for the Catamounts. Two-thirds of the top line will return for 2014-15, including several other capable forwards. In addition, the team expects junior Kyle Reynolds to return to full health well before the start of next season. The forward’s been out all season after suffering a knee injury in an exhibition game in October. He was UVM’s third-leading scorer last year (9-11-20) and his presence this season would have provided scoring balance.
Despite the optimistic offensive future, Sneddon’s teams will be unlikely to lose their current identity of emphasizing responsibility in one’s own end and controlling the neutral zone.
Those characteristics are important for any team to win games. Friday afternoon, UVM didn’t lose because its offense didn’t get going. The Catamounts lost because their defensive play wasn’t sufficient.
McCarthy said after the game he felt his team had the chance to come back at every point against Union. After all, his line allowed the Catamounts to stay competitive in games all year if a mistake or two put them in a deficit.
Unfortunately for the Catamounts, the mistakes Friday afternoon came during special teams’ situations. The team surrendered shorthanded and power play goals in the first, then another man-advantage goal in the second.
In fact, the short-handed goal allowed five minutes into the game illustrated the offensive progress made this season.
“My sophomore year, it would have been game-over as soon that happened,” senior co-captain HT Lenz said. “It’s a sign of how we improved and how much of a winning year we had. I thought [after surrendering the goal] we were fine and just kept playing our game after that.”
McCarthy, as a senior leader, understood the opportunity that an improved offensive line-up created for the Catamounts. Like Lenz, he experienced the difficulty of winning hockey games when scoring is a challenge earlier in his collegiate career.
“We had a lot more depth this year and a lot more mix on our lines,” he said. “Mario has a great shot – one of the best I’ve ever seen. I think we could compete with any another line [in the conference].”
But that depth was not enough to handle the Dutchman blueline, whose two-way ability is arguably the best in the country. The Catamounts surrendered 39 shots and faced a substantial deficiency in overall puck possession. Facing a team entering with a 13-game unbeaten streak, as well as just having earned its third-consecutive ECAC championship, this was to be expected.
It would have been unrealistic to rely on Vermont’s top line – or any line in college hockey – to overcome such a disparity in scoring chances.
Yet, they invested the effort nonetheless. The top line scored again late in the third period. But fighting from a three-goal disadvantage, the goal offered only the slightest of hopes for the Vermont fans in attendance.
Regardless of the team’s performance in its final game of the season, UVM’s first NCAA appearance since 2010 likely wouldn’t have materialized without the Bradley-McCarthy-Puskarich line. And this group even wasn’t born until after the New Year – when searching for the right chemistry – Sneddon moved McCarthy to center to improve the team’s depth and skill up the middle.
From there, Puskarich’s offensive play rapidly accelerated toward the pace that yielded 19 goals (most on the team and amongst conference freshmen). He also won the Hockey East Rookie of the Year Award.
Next year, the responsibility will fall on Puskarich, Reynolds, and the incoming freshmen further enhance the program’s upward trajectory and continue restoring the Catamounts to a goal-scoring power.