In his two decades as a Division I head hockey coach, Kevin Sneddon has never experienced as a tumultuous a first half to a season as he has this year with the University of Vermont.
After a two-week hiatus, the 12th-ranked Catamounts jump back into Hockey East action tonight when they host No. 5 Boston University in the first of two games at Gutterson Fieldhouse. Sneddon hopes UVM can continue on a journey that began with deep disappointment but has evolved into one of eager anticipation.
Vermont is 9-3-2 overall and 4-2-1 in conference after impressive victories over Massachusetts and then-third ranked Quinnipiac in the Friendship Four tournament in Belfast, Northern Ireland. UVM’s national ranking is the highest since it last hosted BU in January of 2015.
This would have seemed an improbable position to imagine when, on the very eve of the season, the program was rocked by a hazing incident centered on an off-campus party led by veterans and directed at first-year players.
It was not nearly as egregious as the hazing scandal during the 1999-2000 season that led the school to cancel the season with 15 games remaining. There were no criminal charges or civil complaints involved with the September incident, but it clearly was outside the boundaries of the school’s hazing protocols.
“We were really disappointed in the decisions that were made but it didn’t make me think any less of [the players] as people or as leaders,” Sneddon said. “As a group, we made a mistake. Let’s overcome it.”
All but two members of the team participated in the incident and the entire team will perform community service and attend educational classes. On ice, UVM’s administration decided that suspending the four captains for the first five games would be the on-ice penalty.
What could have been a season-imploding scenario turned, instead, into one that strengthened the team. The Catamounts went 3-1-1 without their leaders, including victories over then-top 10 Nebraska Omaha and a shutout victory in the first meeting ever with Michigan.
“I thought if we could just hold the ship together and fight through those first five games, regardless of what the results were going to be, that adversity might pull us together,” Sneddon said. “I knew we had great character and commitment but the results were maybe a little on the surprising side.”
Outside of a lost weekend at arch-nemesis UMass-Lowell, Vermont has continued to roll. Seventeen players have scored at least once and nine players have a minimum of three goals. UVM has killed off close to 90 percent of its penalties. Right in the middle of this uptick are two freshmen from the Midwest’s junior USHL – goaltender Stefanos Lekkas and forward Ross Colton.
After veteran Mike Santaguida started the opening two games against Clarkson, Lekkas made his collegiate debut in a 4-4 draw at Omaha. The following night, after Santaguida fell into a quick 2-0 hole, Lekkas came on to backstop a 5-2 comeback victory.
“We got down [against Omaha] on not the kind of goals Santa would normally let in,” Sneddon said. “He probably didn’t deserve to be pulled but it was a coach’s call – hey, maybe change the momentum of the game a little bit. Stef really hasn’t looked back and he’s been our best player from that point.”
Lekkas was originally supposed to begin his UVM career in 2015 after a standout season with Sioux Falls in the USHL. But an injury that required surgery delayed that arrival for a year, which gave Sneddon time to assess his future goalie in person.
“It was interesting talking to opposing coaches – they said, 'You’ve got the best kid in the USHL coming your way,'” Sneddon said. “We thought they were referring to Ross Colton, who is a heck of a player, too. No, they said the league MVP, hands down, was Lekkas.
“So we thought we had something really special coming in. What you don’t necessarily know is how quickly it’s going to happen.”
Lekkas, who is a modest 5-9, 170 pounds, is 5-1-1 with a 1.85 goals-against average and at least 30 saves in four games. He had 40 in the Belfast tourney victory over Quinnipiac and was named the conference’s top goalie for November.
“Ever since I got there the team has come a long way,” Lekkas said. “They’ve really helped my process of growing. The players now are more mature, the speed’s a little faster, they’re better at placing their shots.
“But once you’re out there during the game, you’re just sort of playing. The team we’ve had in front of me deserves all the credit for what’s taken place this far.
Sneddon suggest you might want to flip that script a bit.
“With Stefan in goal, what it does from a coaching perspective is you see guys playing more on their toes,” he said. “You see guys more willing to take chances knowing that a 3-on-2 might not end up in the back of the net.
“He’s allowed us to take chances and risks at the right time. Our team plays very confidently in front of him offensively and that has been our goal all year – to produce more offense.”
The biggest gun in an offense that is finishing more chances than a year ago is Colton, a fourth-round draft pick of Tampa Bay who had 35 goals and 66 points in 55 games last winter for Cedar Rapids in the USHL. He was Hockey East co-rookie of the month in November and has six goals and six assists for Vermont.
“He’s offensively tough,” Sneddon said. “He’s not afraid to get his nose dirty to try to score goals. He’s got flash to his game, he’s got grit to his game and he’s got a really good head on his shoulders.
“Ross has taken the pressure off some of the other guys thinking they have to score. He plays big; he thrives on big moments and enjoys the pressure. Those type of players just have a different mind set.”
Now it’s back to business against the Terriers, (8-4-2 overall, 3-1-2 HE), who have a freshman goalie phenom of their own in Jake Oettinger.
“That’s the thing about college hockey – it comes fast,” Sneddon said. “You have a tough weekend like we did against Lowell? Put it away. You have a good weekend in Northern Ireland? Put it away and let’s get to work.
“[After the early-season suspensions] I didn’t feel like, 'Wow, that’s going to knock us off the tracks.' I just thought there was something special brewing in the locker room. We’ve got a long way to go but I think we’ve seen it in the first half.
Around the Rinks
The Vermont women will be riding high when they take on Dartmouth on Saturday at Gutterson Fieldhouse. The Catamounts forged back-to-back overtime victories at then-10th-ranked Northeastern last weekend to pull to 6-6-4 overall and 4-2-3 in Hockey East.
It was UVM’s third victory over a ranked opponent this season and sophomore Melissa Black was in goal for all three wins. Classmate Alyssa Gorecki had the winning goal in the first OT game at Northeastern and assisted on the clincher in the second to earn conference player of the week honors. Ten Catamounts have scored at least two goals this season.
But as is usually the case, the big noise on the women’s side comes from the Division III ranks where Plattsburgh State is ranked No. 1, Norwich is No. 4 and Middlebury is No. 6 in the most recent national polls.
Three-time defending NCAA champion Plattsburgh (10-1-0) has relied on its veterans for leadership. The scoring combination of Melissa Sheeran (12 goals, 4 assists) and Kayla Meneghin (7 and 10) is as potent as ever while senior Camille Leonard is allowing 1.1 goals per game in net.
Norwich (6-1-1) is coming off a 2-2 tie with second-ranked Elmira. The Cadets have 15 players with at least one goal, led by Sarah Schwenzfeier with six. Kim Tiberi has 11 assists.
Middlebury (4-2-2) has played a challenging early schedule, losing by a goal at Plattsburgh State and splitting a road series with No. 8 Connecticut College. Jessica Young has been the Panthers’ top threat with four goals.
Back to the men, Norwich (9-1-1) carries a five game winning streak and the No. 5 national NCAA Division III ranking into Friday’s game against St. Michael’s (3-7-1). The Cadets continue to follow the 1-2 combination in goal with senior Braeden Ostepchuk and junior Ty Reichenbach, who have split time evenly and have almost identical statistics. Offensively, Kevin Salvucci, Tyler Piacentini and Nick Pichette have teamed to score 19 goals and 30 points.
Plattsburgh State is 5-3-0 but Middlebury (0-6-0) has struggled in the early going in Neil Sinclair’s second year as head coach after taking the reigns from Bill Beaney.