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It’s simple for Hockey Cats: Just win two

March 1, 2010

It was nearly the perfect weekend for the University of Vermont men’s hockey team, a scenario that seemed improbable at best, impossible at worst a mere two weeks ago.

Back then, UVM had its most disastrous weekend of the Hockey East season at Gutterson Fieldhouse. Twice in two nights, the Catamounts nursed along 2-1 leads against Merrimack heading into the last five minutes of the third period.

They won neither game, settling for a 2-2 tie the first night, then losing 3-2 on two goals in the final two minutes the next evening.

At that point, for anyone other than a UVM coach or a player to describe the Catamounts’ future as anything other than bleak would have been a unwarranted optimism. Look at what remained: road trips to New Hampshire and Lowell sandwiched around a two-game set vs. defending national champion Boston University at The Gut. How could that team, playing as it was, expect much good to happen any of those weekends?

Even when Vermont played very well at UNH, the only tangible reward was a single point that left the Catamounts sitting ninth, taking into account the head-to-head tiebreaker in Massachusetts’ favor, and out of the playoffs had the Hockey East tournament begun this weekend.

Now, optimism has overshadowed pessimism. The Catamounts defeated BU twice inside of 48 hours. They’re tied for fifth place. They have their destiny back in their own hands, not only for securing a playoff berth but for arising from the near-dead to potentially clinching home ice for the Hockey East quarterfinals.

That says volumes about two things: The resilience and character of an emotionally battered band of Catamounts and the parity of the league. Hey, this morning, three points separate the six teams residing in the Nos. 4 through 9 rungs of the standings — three.

Of course, with the standings that packed and six teams going for five playoff positions, someone will lose out, and that could still be Vermont with a no-point trip to Lowell on Friday and Saturday.

While UVM needed plenty of help this past weekend — and got it — the Catamounts can eliminate the need for outside assistance by sweeping the River Hawks; they might even get by with a win and a tie.

So now it’s set up for a fun final weekend of the regular season. UNH and BC will play for the regular-season title and the tournament’s top seed. Maine can eliminate slumping UMass. BU and Northeastern can hurt each other. UVM can overtake Lowell. Of the six 3-through-9 teams, Merrimack appears to have the easiest road with Providence on tap for a home-and-home.

For UVM, here’s the situation with ties in the final standings: the Catamounts will have the head-to-head tie-breaker against Lowell (0-0-1 now, but UVM would have to have at least a win and a tie this weekend just to finish tied with UML), BU (2-0-1) and Northeastern (2-1-0), but loses it to Massachusetts (1-2-0) and Merrimack (0-2-1).

So it’s simple: Win twice at Lowell and come on back to The Gut for the quarterfinals.

Well, it’s that simple on paper. On the ice, however …

Hoop Cats’ fans: Let’s say goodbye again.

February 28, 2010

They rose with the united voice of 3,000, saying goodbye to the seniors of the University of Vermont men’s basketball team at Patrick Gym on Sunday afternoon, but they didn’t mean it; at least, not with all their hearts.

Oh, they appreciated all the wins and spectacular moments, the effort and the hard work this UVM threesome has given them, but, really, the 3,000 were expressing their love with just a bit something held back.

Like the hope this wasn’t the last time Marqus Blakely, Maurice Joseph and Nick Vier tormented opposing teams at Patrick Gym.

It was an emotional few minutes as Vier, Joseph and finally Blakely were called to center court, parents in tow, to receive the adulation of the 3,000 one more time. Joseph tapped his heart, waving to the fans in appreciation, and Vier acknowledged the moment with a salute to both sets of bleachers, but the most touching scene was Blakely’s mother gently reaching up to wipe the tears from her son’s face.

Still, as much as the 3,000 genuinely bid thank you, everyone present knew everyone was thinking , “One more time!”

Such as in the championship game of the America East tournament.

That’s not entirely in Vermont’s hands, but neither is it impossible. Stony Brook has the top seed and home court for the finals if it advances. That’s something UVM can’t control; as the No. 2 seed, the Catamounts will be in the opposite bracket for the quarterfinals and the semifinals, assuming they advance, and Stony Brook cannot be one of those opponents.

So some other team must take out the Seawolves on the first weekend, opening the door for one final reunion of Blakely, Joseph and Vier with the adoring Patrick denizens. Message to the 3,000: root as hard for whoever plays Stony Brook as you root for UVM.

Sunday, against Binghamton, first Vier, then Joseph departed late in UVM’s win to standing ovations. Blakely was the last to leave the floor, and he stooped to kiss the Catamount logo at mid-court.

It was a genuine gesture, but believe this: He would love to have the opportunity to do that one more time, just as the 3,000 sincerely hope Sunday wasn’t the Patrick farewell for him, Joseph or Vier.

The Milo cause-and-effect: Is it real?

February 27, 2010

The play of the University of Vermont men’s hockey team in its last three games certainly begs the question of whether there is a cause-and-effect relationship regarding the recent dismissal of forward Justin Milo from the team.

There is no way to be certain that Milo’s absence has resulted in three of UVM’s more consistent and better games, including Friday’s 7-3 victory over Boston University, and no one connected with the Catamounts is going to say that on the record even if he agreed.

Rumors, opinions and theories still abound as to why Milo was cut so late in the season and seemingly trustworthy sources have given credence to some of the speculation, but it’s all off-the-record. Still, 11 days after the announcement by head coach Kevin Sneddon, there’s growing evidence that the Catamounts have finally grown together as a team after laboring for team leadership off the ice and results on it.

UVM played valiantly in a 5-4 overtime loss at UNH, a game the Catamounts deserved to win. The next night, they stormed back from a 2-0 deficit in Durham, N.H., for a 3-2 lead, settling for a 3-3 tie. Friday, they simply outplayed a very talented BU team.

The results aside, Vermont had not had a three-game stretch of such energy, effort and consistency all season; hence, the question of cause-and-effect. Clearly, had the players been upset by Milo’s dismissal, it hardly seems likely that it would be manifested by some of their best play of the season.

Quite frankly, at UNH and Friday vs. BU, the Catamounts looked like a team no longer playing with a burden on their backs. The fun appeared to be back in the game for them and don’t underestimate the value of fun in determining how a team plays.

Earlier this week, coach Kevin Sneddon would not comment on the effect of Milo’s dismissal on team morale, but after Friday’s win, he said, “Right now, the strength of our character is really shining. The guys through adversity — and we haven’t had a lot of bounces go our way this year — and I think they’re getting stronger as a unit, pulling together and trying to get it done. It’s a good a sign that we’re doing it at this point of the season and hope to be playing out best hockey moving forward.”

That is not a direct comment on Milo or his effect on the team, but his situation was certainly part of the adversity this team has endured and is now trying to use as a positive.

Josh Burrows, the defenseman-turned-wing who scored twice Friday, was not directly addressing the Milo affair but rather the team’s belated melding as a unit when he said, “We just know this is a stretch where we know we needed to do what we can do and we’ve kind of struggled with that at times during the year.

“I think everyone’s on the same page now and we’ve got the effort that we need and with that kind of effort, we’re going to get the results that we want.”

If the Catamounts continue to play today as they have for the past three games, the cause-and-effect question will grow in validity.

Will Hockey Cats gain from adversity?

February 25, 2010

The last couple of weeks have been tumultuous for the University of Vermont hockey team.

Included in the emotional rollercoaster were:

 The benching and eventual dismissal of No. 2 scorer Justin Milo;

 A weekend series with Merrimack in which UVM lost third-period leads in the final five minutes (tie) and final two minutes (loss) of regulation;

 The one-game suspension of freshman forward Chris McCarthy for a match penalty vs. Merrimack;

 The addition of Jay Anctil to an injury list that included one of UVM’s top scorers, Wahsontiio Stacey, and No. 2 goaltender, Mike Spillane;

 The shifting of defenseman Josh Burrows to forward to bolster the depleted front ranks;

 A valiant but one-point weekend at New Hampshire;

 Finally, a plunge into ninth place in the Hockey East standings, one position out of a playoff berth.

Despite all this, plus five overtime games in seven games and a 1-3-4 record over the last eight games, the Catamounts say they are optimistic and feeling good going into this weekend’s series against Boston University at Gutterson Fieldhouse.

Asked last week how the Milo affair, as well as the injury toll, might be affecting team morale, head coach Kevin Sneddon said he wouldn’t respond directly.

However, he said, “I can just say right now that right now the energy on the team is very positive. Our guys understand that injuries are part of the game. Everybody’s gone through it in the league … That’s part of the cards that you’re dealt,” Sneddon said. “Our guys did a great job of playing through it last weekend; we had a suspension in Chris McCarthy the first night, a bunch of injuries, the dismissal of a player, a defenseman playing forward.

“Our guys did a great job of doing whatever they possibly could to help the team,” Sneddon said. “To me, that’s a good sign of character; that’s a good sign of moving forward. Now as we try to get some of these guys back, hopefully in the near future, we can set ourselves up for some good hockey down the stretch.”

Throughout the year, the Catamounts have had difficulty all getting on the same page at the same time. Perhaps the adversity of recent weeks has finally coalesced UVM into a team.

“You see it a lot with teams with injuries, with other things that are going on, guys kind of pull together,” captain Brian Roloff said. “I think you really could see that (Friday vs. UNH) with the fact that we gave up a goal 20 seconds, you think it could have crushed us, and we turned around and played a pretty solid week.”

Perhaps in a couple of weeks, if UVM does take five or six of the remaining eight points and gets to postseason, this will be remembered as the time when adversity forged a Catamount team.

Hockey Cats in intensive care

February 22, 2010

For the first time during their five seasons in Hockey East, the University of Vermont Catamounts are on the verge of failing to qualify for the league’s tournament.

Throughout most of the Hockey East season, the Catamounts have sputtered along, never gaining momentum, never crashing to a full stop. They tiptoed around the .500 mark, never surpassing it but always staying in a position where a nice run could propel them into the top four to guarantee themselves a home quarterfinal series.

In the last three weeks, the lose one/win one scenario crashed. Between injuries, blown third-period leads, critical mistakes and an on-the-rise challenger in Merrimack, the Catamounts have sunk into ninth place, one position out of the playoffs, and the road back is filled with obstacles that might prove to be insurmountable.

Beginning with the second home game against Maine on Jan. 30, here’s a capsule of the Catamounts’ fall from contention: leading 4-2 vs. Maine in third period, 4-4 tie; tied last-place Providence, 1-1; leading 2-1 vs. Merrimack with five minutes remaining, 2-2 tie; leading 2-1 vs. Merrimack with two minutes remaining, 3-2 defeat; leading New Hampshire 3-2 after two periods, 3-3 tie.

That’s nine points the Catamounts had in their grasp late in games; they held on to just four. Even three of those lost five points would have improved UVM’s condition immeasurably.

Instead, with four games remaining, they trail Merrimack by a single point, but realistically it’s two since if the Catamounts wind up tied with the Warriors, Merrimack has the head-to-head tiebreaker; more reason why that weekend vs. the Warriors was so disastrous.

They also trail Massachusetts and UMass-Lowell by only two points and UVM has one game-in-hand on UMass. Plus, if UVM can stay within two points of the Riverhawks, then Vermont’s season-ending series at UML could determine which team gets in as the No. 8 seed and which doesn’t.

However, for any scenario in which Vermont catches some team above it, the Catamounts must produce points. That won’t be easy this weekend with Boston University coming to The Gut. The Terriers have motivation of their own since their grip on fourth and home ice for the quarterfinals is slippery; BU has a one-point edge over Northeastern and the Terriers and Huskies wrap up the regular season against each other.

That’s why the weekend series at New Hampshire was so emotionally devastating to UVM. For all the character and resilience the Catamounts showed despite injuries and the aftermath of the Justin Milo affair, Vermont came home with only a single point when it probably deserved more.

Given the respective schedules remaining, UVM is up against it. Lowell faces last-place Providence this weekend; Merrimack catches the Friars on the final weekend. The best shot might be to catch slumping Massachusetts, which plays its final three games at Boston College and Maine (two games).

It’s not over, but it might be if Vermont doesn’t get a few points this weekend.

Remaining schedules:

The remaining regular-season schedules for teams 5 through 9 in Hockey East:

5. Northeastern (11-11-1, 23 points): UNH, at UNH, at BU, BU;

6t. Lowell (10-11-2, 22): Providence, at Providence, UVM, UVM;

6t. Massachusetts (11-13-0, 22): at BC, at Maine, at Maine.

8. Merrimack (10-11-1, 21): at BC, Maine, Maine, at Providence, Providence.

9. Vermont (7-10-6, 20): BU, BU, at Lowell, at Lowell.

Hockey Cats go down fighting

February 19, 2010

If nothing else, the University of Vermont men’s hockey team displayed its pride and character Friday night at the University of New Hampshire’s Whittemore Center.

On the record books, it was a 5-4 defeat in overtime and for now it moved UVM out of a playoff position in Hockey East.

With five games remaining in the regular season, UVM is 7-10-5 in HEA. That’s 19 points, the same as Merrimack. The Warriors, however, are 9-11-1, which means they have six games left.

In addition, should Merrimack and Vermont wind up tied for any playoff position, the Warriors own the head-to-head tiebreak, 2-0-1 this year.

That’s why even a tie Friday night at New Hampshire would have been a “win” for UVM. The Catamounts would have 20 points and be tied with UMass-Lowell—whom UVM plays on the final weekend—for seventh.

Friday, the Catamounts faced a daunting task. Vermont has seldom have any good fortune in Durham, N.H., going all the way back to the inception of the UVM program.

Nor was this Vermont team in the best of shape for such a critical encounter. Junior forward Wahsontiio Stacey, second only to Brayden Irwin in goals scored, is still sidelined; maybe for the season. Chris McCarthy, one-third of a dynamic freshman line, had to sit out a one-game suspension for a game disqualification against Merrimack on Saturday; he’s due to return tonight.

And, of course, there’s still the fallout from the dismissal of junior forward Justin Milo, who, like Stacey, was second only to Irwin in goals scored.

Yet Vermont played with an intensity and desperation that seemed to keep the Wildcats on their heels for much of Friday’s game. But this New Hampshire team just has too much offensive skill to give even the smallest of openings, and eventually that cost UVM dearly.

Still, the anguish and the pride were evident in the voice of head coach Kevin Sneddon late Friday evening. He hurt for his players and he praised their grit and effort. He said his team had practice hard all week, refusing to let the Milo situation affect their morale.

The road ahead is no easier for UVM: UNH tonight, two games against Boston University at The Gut next weekend; a final trip to UMass-Lowell.

All they can do is give it their best shot, just as they did Friday, and hope a couple bounces of the puck go their way.

After all, they’re just four points out of fourth.

The Milo situation: No winners

February 18, 2010

When the coach of the area’s highest profile sports team dismisses one of the higher profiles athletes from that team, it’s news. Representatives of news organizations then have the responsibility to report the news as fully, accurately and fairly as possible.

However, should one side or the other, for reasons legal or altruistic, refrain from providing more detailed information, the interests and curiosity of readers, viewers, chat boarders, et al, are unlikely to be satisfied.

Such is the case of junior forward Justin Milo and his dismissal from the University of Vermont men’s hockey team by head coach Kevin Sneddon on Tuesday.

On one side, Sneddon said the decision was made in the best interests of the team. At Tuesday’s weekly news conference, Sneddon would not provide any more insight into his action beyond stating that the coaching staff, support staff and leadership had spent a lot of time considering the matter before acting.

On the other side, Milo expressed shock and said he was baffled by his removal. Essentially, he said he was told, he had been dismissed because of inconsistent effort, a lack of commitment to the program and a poor attitude.

One thing is undeniable: This was a severe action on Sneddon’s part. For him to make such a decision at this stage of a frustrating season, he had to believe it was necessary.

Whether Sneddon was right or wrong is another matter and it is impossible to form an opinion fairly without knowing all the details. Nor is it possible to know whether Milo truly doesn’t understand why he is no longer a Catamount.

One other thing is also undeniable: The situation has prompted extensive speculation.

Simply put, it’s difficult for many outside the team to accept that the reasons Milo said he was given for his dismissal are “the real story.” There has to be more to it, “they” say, and “they” might be right; logically, they probably are right.

Instead, alternative scenarios have been advanced in the Free Press’ online reader reaction and on college hockey Web sites, such as the USCHO.com fan forum. Some theories are speculation, pure and simple; others cite unnamed sources. Some fault the coach; some blame the player. None is a certainty.

Nobody wins in these situations; not the player, who no longer has a team; not the coach, whose reputation is on the line; not the team, which loses a talented player and faces possible internal strife; not the university, which is thrust into a negative spotlight; not even the public when rumors and innuendo might be far worse than the actual reasons.
For Milo, this was devastating, but it’s not the end of the world; it just seems it. He will still have his degree, his baseball and prospect of succeeding with the rest of life. For his sake, hopefully he will.

For the Catamounts, it’s a difficult experience, and only time will tell if they’ve been deeply wounded or if they can heal as a team. They already had enough challenges awaiting them.

Milo’s dismissal another blow to Hockey Cats

February 16, 2010

The most tumultuous season of the Kevin Sneddon coaching era took another stunning twist Tuesday with the dismissal of junior forward Justin Milo from the University of Vermont men’s hockey team.

Sneddon declined to be specific about the reasons, saying only that he, his staff and the leadership had agreed that it would be in the best interest of the team to move forward with No. 7 no longer on the ice.

Tuesday evening, Milo said he had been told he was dismissed for inconsistent effort and play and a lack of commitment to the team. Basically, he said, he was baffled by the reasons given for banishing the team’s No. 2 goal scorer. For more of Milo’s reaction, check Wednesday’s Free Press print or online editions.

From the outside, it’s impossible to say one side was right or one side was wrong; whether the coach failed in his duties to reach the player or if the player didn’t want to be reached.

Seeing the games can provide some perspective, but no one outside of the team knows what goes on daily in practice, in the locker room, off the ice or in meetings. Maybe it’s a shared failure.

Only one thing can be said definitely: It’s sad that such situations ever arise.

Milo is a hockey talent, a scorer who loves to shoot the puck. He has been inconsistent this year, as have most of the Catamounts.

It wasn’t difficult to figure out that Milo was in the coaching doghouse. He had been there for the St. Lawrence game in December when he was listed as a “healthy scratch, coach’s decision.” Since UVM is consistent in announcing game absences for illness, injury or violations of the student-athlete code of conduct, Milo’s benching, one can surmise, had to do with his hockey.

Friday, Milo was scratched again, another indication that things were not running smoothly between coach and player. When Milo didn’t suit up for Saturday’s game, it was obvious the matter was serious.

But serious enough to warrant dismissal? Maybe; maybe not. Sneddon believes it was; Milo doesn’t; the eternal clash of perspectives of coach and player.

About the only positive note in all of this is that Milo will remain in school (though he might join the Yankees’ training camp for a time) and graduate this spring.

For the team, it will be a challenge to put this aside and focus on the weekend at New Hampshire. Vermont is vulnerable, its hold on the eighth and final playoff spot tenuous (it should also be noted that UVM is also only three points out of fourth, though trending the wrong way).

Certainly at season’s end, if not sooner, the coaching staff in particular as well as the players will have to do some soul-searching, trying to figure out why this season has become so difficult, and not just in terms of wins and losses. For one reason or another, three players are no longer with the team. Leadership has been questioned. Play has been inconsistent.

All in all, it’s been a harsh winter at Gutterson Fieldhouse, harsher than the one outside, and the forecast for the immediate future isn’t bright.

Ice Knights taste some satisfaction

February 13, 2010

It’s not easy being the St. Michael’s College men’s hockey team. Maybe that’s why Saturday’s 4-3 victory over Castleton State College was so sweet.

For years, the Purple Knights have labored for recognition and respectability in the long shadows cast by Vermont’s two powerhouse college-level teams, Middlebury College and Norwich University, who collectively own 10 NCAA championships and even more league titles since 1995.

While the Panthers and the Cadets can contend for national titles and display their showcase rinks year after year, the Purple Knights have had to be content with lesser goals.

As a Division II school — the division level being determined by basketball — SMC is ineligible for the Division III title Middlebury and Norwich chase. That, along with the lack of an on-campus arena, gives St. Michael’s coaches a sizable recruiting disadvantage. SMC coach Chris Davison can’t sweet-talk a recruit with a line like, “Hey, kid, come play for us and win an NCAA championship ring,” not like Norwich’s Mike McShane or Middlebury’s Bill Beaney can.

And with powerful Plattsburgh State only a good skate across a frozen Lake Champlain, the Knights can be forgiven any feelings of adequacy while living in the land of hockey giants.

For years, that was tough enough, and the Knights handled it all as well as they could, but now upstart Castleton, while not yet a national power, has emerged as a program of growing importance and reputation.

So there was Saturday’s game at Cairns Arena, with the Spartans (at that moment 9-8-5) holding a secure 3-1 lead over St. Michael’s (then 4-14-3) midway through the game. It appeared to be yet another afternoon in which the Purple Knights would have to console themselves for the good battle waged but lost.

Yet it didn’t turn out that way. First Alex Davidson scored on a power play. Then Fran Briand scored a nifty short-handed goal to tie. Finally, Josh Geary tipped in the lead goal. All within the last 10 minutes of the period.

That was just enough. The Purple Knights hung on through every Castleton surge in the third period and won their fifth game of the season.

It was a win to celebrate, especially for seniors Dave Vorozilchak, Tim Geverd, Jean-Maxime Legare, Ryan Nest, Kyle Marquis, Paul Nannicelli, Alex Higgins and Bryan Brunton, each playing his final home game in SMC purple-and-gold. They won through determination, refusal to quit and good, hard hockey.

Glades forward commits to Hockey Cats

February 12, 2010

Zemgus Girgensons, a forward with the Green Mountain Glades, has verbally committed to joining the University of Vermont’s Class of’16, according to the Glades’ Web site.

A native of Regal, Latvia, is a 6-foot-1, 175-pound forward. Among the schools he was considering were Boston College, Boston University, Northeastern, Maine, Merrimack and New Hampshire.

Girgensons, 16, began the season with Green Mountain’s U-18 team, scored a team-high 17 goals and 12 assists in 19 games before joining the Glades’ A team in the Eastern Junior Hockey League. He has seven goals and 10 assists in 18 games in a league featuring many 19- and 20-year-old players.

Girgensons’ decision is contingent upon admission to the university. UVM head coach Kevin Sneddon cannot comment on prospective student-athletes until they are admitted by the university and have signed an NCAA letter-of-intent.

Current Glades teammates Connor Anthoine and Thomas Forgione have also given commitments to UVM. The three are scheduled to begin their Catamount careers in the fall of 2012.