After finishing seventh last season in the rugged Hockey East conference, league coaches stuck the University of Vermont Catamounts in the No. 8 position in this year’s preseason poll. Understandable, perhaps, but shortsighted.
UVM has been one of Division I’s biggest surprises over the first half of the season, roaring to a 13-3-1 record at the holiday break. That is Vermont’s best start since 1987, the first year the Catamounts qualified for the NCAA tournament.
“We have high expectations and I think we’ve played some good hockey,” said head coach Kevin Sneddon, now in his twelfth season leading the program. “But I don’t think we’re anywhere near where we can get to, and that’s exciting.”
Although Vermont ended 20-15-3 overall last year (ending a three-year downward spiral that produced a 25-66-15 record) and earned an NCAA tournament berth, Sneddon believes the foundation for UVM’s resurgence was laid a year earlier.
“That was when we reestablished our core values of what it means to be a Vermont Catamount hockey player,” Sneddon said. “The guys came up with pride, selfless and tough. That became how we operate and how we hold each other accountable. It didn’t always work out in terms of wins and losses, but that year really set up last winter.”
This Vermont team is built around a defense that is anchored by not one, but two standout goalies. Junior Brady Hoffman and freshman Mike Santaguida give the Catamounts the stingiest tandem in the country.
Santaguida is 4-2-0, but leads the nation in goals-against average (1.08) and save percentage (.962). Hoffman (9-1-1) is 10th in goals-against (1.79) and tied for 21st in save percentage (.927).
That helps explain the Catamounts Division I-best team defense of allowing 1.53 goals per game and No. 1 penalty killing, derailing 59 of 63 power plays.
“Right now, we’re in a fantastic situation,” Sneddon said. “With those two, we have tremendous competition and sometimes our practices are more competitive than games.”
A year ago, the UVM staff used a fairly steady rotation with the goalies. This year it has been dictate more by what has happened most recently in practice or in games. Hoffman, who started every game as a freshman, admits this can be challenging mentally.
“We’ve both had to adjust and simply be ready to go each and every day,” he said. “It’s not personal – Santa is working just as hard as I am. I figure if I stay positive and take care of my practice week, everything will fall into place.”
Vermont played 10 freshmen a year ago, a reflection both of the gaps previous years had left and of the higher skill level of the new recruits. Mario Puskarich was the shining star of that class, winning Hockey East rookie of the year honors after scoring 19 goals and 17 assists. This season the 5-9 forward has eight goals and eight assists to tie senior defenseman Mike Paliotta for the team lead.
“It’s not about individual stats – you just try to put yourself in position to succeed,” Puskarich said.
Puskarich not only succeeds, he does so at critical times. He had seven game-winning goals last season and has come through in the clutch with regularity this year.
“Mario is one of those guys who has an unbelievable shot, a great hockey IQ, and a knack for finding the back of the net,” Sneddon said. “And he scores big goals when you need them.”
Sneddon was uncertain how his 10 freshmen would make the transition to their second year.
“That’s such a big group that as a coach you worry they may struggle a bit in Year Two, he said. Sometimes it’s like, ‘Hey, I’ve been through it, I understand it now. There’s a reason people call it the sophomore slump and I’ve seen it in my career. But I haven’t seen it with this group.”
Going behind the numbers in UVM’s record reveals some enlightening trends: the Catamounts are prone to starting slowly but finishing strong (they are 4-3 in Friday games and 8-0-1 on Saturday) and they once again are building an impressive non-conference resume (6-0-0).
If there was a turning point to the first half of the season, it came in mid-November after Providence pushed the Cats around in a 3-0 home victory. UVM responded with a 2-1 victory the next night.
“I won’t say we got beaten up, but we got out-competed Friday night,” Sneddon said. “We’re not the biggest team and playing on a smaller surface it was clear that teams wanted to slow us down by playing a real physical style.
“We showed on Saturday that we could play a real gritty style and win. How we won was as important as the points."
As for standing tall outside the conference, the Catamounts haven’t forgotten that was what brought last year’s NCAA bid.
“We all know how hard points are to come by in Hockey East, but when you flip to non-conference, you’re talking about helping your league and helping your national picture,” Sneddon said. “We realize how critical these games are in the bigger picture.”
Sneddon is a member of the NCAA tournament selection committee and when he reviewed the teams that not only qualified last year, but also advanced, he saw a thread that UVM lacked.
“I thought the one area where we were a little shy was with defensive depth,” he said. “When I looked at the teams that had tournament success the common denominator was a lot of skill on the blue line."
“In the Frozen Four, the teams all had defenseman who were very involved. We think we did a pretty good job of identifying guys who could help us right away in that respect.”
Seniors Paliotta and Nick Luukko along with junior Alexx Privitera have been solid on the blue line and were joined last week by highly touted freshman Trey Phillips, who finally worked free of NCAA eligibility issues.
Vermont is idle until hosting the Catamount Cup on Dec. 28-29 with games non-league games against Air Force and Providence.
“I think we’re still learning our identity,” Sneddon said. “Despite having put up some pretty good numbers, I think our offensive game can continue to improve."
“Getting a taste of (NCAA tournament play) last year was very important for us. We only had one player on that team who had been to the tournament. Now the majority of the players have had that taste, and the feeling is they want to do more than just participate. They want to win.”
In Northfield, Division III Norwich is using the same blueprint as Vermont to take charge of the ECAC East. The Cadets (9-0-1 overall and 7-0-0 in conference, are led by freshman goalie Braeden Ostepchuk, who is 5-0-0 and leads the nation with a 0.60 goals-against mark while ranking second in save percentage. Right behind Ostepchuk is sophomore Ty Reichenbach (4-0-1), who is ninth in goals-against at 1.57.
The Norwich women are skating with the men stride for stride, leading the ECAC East at 6-0-0 with an overall record of 8-1-1. The Cadets defense allows an average of one goal a game, tying it for second nationally in Division III.