Hockey Cats in intensive care

February 22, 2010 by

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.

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Cats’ non-league game has value

February 20, 2010 by

The University of Vermont’s involvement in the ESPU Bracketbuster’s today has no bearing on the America East Conference standings and the final result, in the grand scheme of things, is of little importance. But here’s a few reasons to care about the UVM men’s basketball team’s 2 p.m. contest against Fairfield …

  • This game offers fans another chance to see the Cats at home. That might not sound like much, but the Cats have played 19 of their 28 games this season on the road.
  • Fairfield is the real deal. The Stags, 18-8 overall, are tied for second place in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. Freshman point guard Derek Needham, the team’s leader in scoring (16.1 ppg) and assists (143), is a strong candidate for the MAAC rookie of the year. Fairfield lost 69-67 to mighty Siena two weeks ago.
  • A win today would boost the Cats’ RPI, a factor in determining postseason seedings. “If we are able to reach our goals and win our league, or even go to the NIT or another postseason tournament, it will help our RPI because Fairfield is having a great season,” UVM coach Mike Lonergan said.
  • There might only be two chances left to watch Marqus Blakely play in Patrick Gym. Three, max.

Hockey Cats go down fighting

February 19, 2010 by

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 by

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 by

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.

Cats survive foul fest

February 16, 2010 by

Here’s a few leftovers from Sunday’s UVM-New Hampshire bash, which was as physical as an NFL game and took as long to play as an MLB playoff game. My watch had the contest lasting 2 hours, 45 minutes. That’s what 64 personal fouls will do.

The Cats gutted out an overtime win in a rough-and-tumble affair that had the flow of a glacier. There were seven disqualifications and three UNH  intentional fouls were called. Vermont took 55 foul shots and sank 40, both program records.

“The referees earned their pay,” UVM coach Mike Lonergan said. “I think there could have been another 20 foul shots (for UVM). I think Marqus gets fouled almost every play. I thought Garvey (Young) took a couple good hits. I thought the officiating was good. I liked that crew. It’s a hard game to referee. New Hampshire is hard to ref. But it’s to our benefit when they call it. At New Hampshire, if you look at the film, there wasn’t a whole lot of fouls called and that’s not good for us.”

In New Hampshire’s 75-56 win over UVM last month, each team was assessed 21 personal fouls.

UNH coach Bill Herrion wasn’t pleased with the discrepancy of the calls Sunday; his team went 20-for-32 from the line. “You want to get me arrested if I say what I really want to say?” he joked before the post-game news conference.

“We are playing good basketball, we really are. I really like my team, I like the way we are playing. You look at the stat sheet and the first thing that jumps at me is, you go on the road against a team that is fighting for first place in this league and a team that has been a measuring–stick program in this league for a number of years that everyone is trying to catch in front of a packed house. And you get outscored by 20 from the free-throw line and you lose in overtime,” said Herrion, who was hit with an early technical. “That to me is really disappointing. It’s really disappointing. I’ll leave it at that.”

****

New Hampshire went 11-for-18 from 3-point range in its home win over Vermont last month.  The Wildcats were 2-for-14 with the 3-ball Sunday. The reason for the discrepancy: Vermont’s perimeter defense was more energetic and effective the second time around.

Just ask Tyrone Conley, the pride of Burlington who settled for seven points on 2-for-8 shooting after racking up 21 points in the first meeting against Vermont.

“They gave a little extra attention to me this time, guarded me a little harder and tried to keep the ball out of my hands,” Conley said. “It’s always nice to come home and play in front of a home-town crowd. Unfortunately, I didn’t play all that well.”

Conley, a junior, has combined for 22 points on 5-for-22 shooting in three homecoming games at Patrick Gym.

****

Sunday’s win over UNH came five days after Vermont overcame a four-point, last-minute deficit to nip Boston University on the road.

“We are winning close games this year and I give our guys a lot of credit,” Lonergan said. “Most of it is (successful) foul shooting. It’s also unselfishness on our team, where no one is trying to make a big play or be the hero. Guys are trying to execute what we call in the timeout.”

Ice Knights taste some satisfaction

February 13, 2010 by

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 by

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.

Warriors will test Catamounts again

February 11, 2010 by

Even in the years when the Merrimack Warriors had trouble winning any game anywhere, they always caused the Vermont Catamounts plenty of trouble.

Those Merrimack teams seldom had anything more than grit, determination and a chip on their shoulders. The team that will be in Gutterson Fieldhouse this weekend has something else: game-changing players.

“They’ve always had a team that was very disciplined, very hard working, but what they’ve been able to do is find some players that are key guys in the league,” UVM head coach Kevin Sneddon said this week.

“Stephane Da Costa, who is leading the country in scoring for rookies, is a special player. Chris Barton has 17 goals for them … and their defensive corps is not only big and strong, but they do a great job on the power play getting shots through from the point,” Sneddon added. “Their goaltenders have been in a rotation and provided them the chance to win hockey game.
“Much like we went into Provident knowing it was going to be tough, it’ll be tough this weekend.”

While the Catamounts (13-9-4; 7-8-4 Hockey East) are trying to revive their bid for quarterfinal home ice, the ninth-place Warriors (10-5-1; 7-11-0) are fighting for their playoff lives. A pointless weekend in Burlington might push them closer to life support.

As league play resumes this weekend, every team—with the possible exception of Providence—is in the midst of a battle within a battle. New Hampshire’s two losses to Maine last weekend has narrowed the Wildcats’ lead over the Black Bears and Boston College to two points. Massachusetts, sitting fourth, is two points behind Maine and BC and must be concerned about a move by one of the three teams tied for fifth, UVM, Lowell and Boston University. And those three have a single-point advantage over No. 8 Northeastern, which in turn leads Merrimack by only three points with eight games remaining.

“Everybody’s jockeying for something. You’re either trying to make the playoffs or you’re trying to improve your standing in the middle of the pack, and then there’s certainly a lot of urgency at the top of the standings,” Sneddon said.

So the four points on sale at Gutterson are very valuable. Now it depends upon which team is willing to pay the most in terms of effort and execution to earn them.

Ice chips: Da Costa (11-21-32) and Barton (17-11-28) lead Merrimack in scoring … Andrew Braithwaite (3.40; .895) and Joe Cannata (3.38; .879) have been rotating in goal … The Warriors’ power play clicks at 25.9 percent to UVM’s 16.1 and their penalty kill is 82.1 to UVM’s 79.4 … Merrimack slapped the Catamounts 5-2 Oct. 23, using two power play goals to break open a 2-2 game … Brayden Irwin (11-13-24) and Justin Milo (9-12-21) lead UVM in scoring … Goalie Mike Spillane (lower body injury) has been moved from day-to-day to definite on the injury list … Wahs Stacey (lower body injury) is still day-to-day, but Tobias Nilsson-Roos (illness) is set to rejoin the lineup …

Rediscovering basketball

February 11, 2010 by

For many years in my various roles with the Burlington Free Press sports department, I seldom had the opportunity to watch either of the University of Vermont’s basketball programs.

The reason was simple: If our beat writer, whether it was Andy Gardiner, Patrick Garrity, Hillary Read, Jeff Pinkham or the current beat writer, John Fantino, was at the game, I had to be in the office overseeing production and/or dealing with the myriad of calls, emails and faxes from the many high school and college teams in our circulation area.

The reverse was true whenever I was at Gutterson; the other beat writer usually had to tend to office chores.

Since I retired from full-time Free Press duty 1½ years ago, I’ve had more opportunities to see UVM’s men and women excel on the court and it’s been fun. Many of those games I’ve covered for the Free Press or other news outlets and that’s also given me the chance to see the players up close in postgame situations.

Many, many years ago, when the UVM hockey program was in its infancy and I was a student intern for the sports information department — I kept stats for several of those years — men’s basketball was really the only big thing on campus in winter; well, except for the long-departed Kake Walk.

Hockey has since generally reigned as the biggest of Vermont’s winter teams in terms of success and community interest, but the accomplishments of both basketball teams in recent years have given the university a nice trifecta for relieving the January/February blues.

For years, I’ve been fortunate to witness the on-ice exploits of so many UVM hockey players, from Dave Reece and George Minarsky to Viktor Stalberg and Peter Lenes, and way too many in between to mention.

It’s been since the days of Dave Lapointe and Frank Martiniuk since I’ve watched UVM basketball players as often as I’ve seen Marqus Blakely, Evan Fjeld, Courtnay Pilypaitis and May Kotsopoulos, and it’s been fun to rediscover the intensity, the drive, the élan with which they play their sport. From Marqus’ highlight jams to Pilypaitis’ game-altering 3-pointers, it’s fun, a fun heightened no doubt by success.

Still, I also realize that I’m watching the games with an unpracticed eye. I must be, because I’m not always seeing the same game as those folk in the striped shirts.