While the University of Vermont men attempt to refocus on the start of conference play after a sputtering start, Norwich will celebrate one national championship and begin the chase for another as the area college hockey season shifts into a higher gear this weekend.
UVM opens Hockey East competition on Saturday when it hosts New Hampshire at Gutterson Fieldhouse. The Catamounts are 2-4-0 after a lost weekend at Michigan, dogged by erratic effort that has to a large extent blunted the efforts of standout goalie Stef Lekkas.
Ahead of that showdown, on Friday Norwich will hoist its 2017 Division III championship banner at Kreitzberg Arena in Northfield before opening this winter’s campaign against Salve Regina.
Vermont was picked sixth by both the coaches and the media in the conference preseason poll, the same slot it occupied at the end of last winter. If the Catamounts intend to finish higher, it will need big contributions from its sophomore class, immediate help from a 12-player freshman class, and a healthy Lekkas in net.
UVM split a weekend series with Colorado College, sleep-walked through two periods in what became a 3-2 loss to Quinnipiac, and then rebounded with a solid all-around effort in a victory at Union. That led to a trip to Ann Arbor and two games against the Wolverines. The Cats lost 4-1 in the opener despite a career-high 41-save effort from Lekkas and then gave up two goals in the final five minutes to fall 3-2 in the second game.
Now UNH looms. Although picked eighth in preseason, the Wildcats are 5-1 overall and 2-0-0 in Hockey East play after sweeping two games from highly regarded UMass-Lowell.
“There are moments when we’ve looked really good and other times we seem to be mesmerized,” said head coach Kevin Sneddon. “I think we have to be mentally tougher and find a way to play 60 minutes that isn’t dictated by the way our opponent is playing.”
Producing consistent effort has been an issue in the early going. More than once the Catamounts have been too passive. After being dominated in the first Michigan game, a player’s only meeting produced a stronger performance in the second.
Ross Colton is the centerpiece of the sophomore class and has five goals this season after scoring 12 with 15 assists a year ago. But junior Craig Puffer and freshman Max Kaufman are UVM’s only other multiple goal scorers with two each.
On the upside, Lekkas has been steadfast between the pipes, putting the Catamounts in position to win despite facing an onslaught of shots. The worry is that the physical demands of a long season will wear Lekkas down, a possibility he discounts.
“I feel awesome,” he said. “The amount of work I’m facing isn’t an issue. Keeping the team in games is my job, it’s what I signed up for.”
Goal tending will also be a critical element for Norwich University, as it looks to extend a stretch of success that produced a 27-1-3 record last winter and brought the Cadets and coach Mike McShane their fourth national championship.
Braeden Ostepchuk returns in net after being part of a two-goalie rotation with the now-graduated Ty Reichenbach the last two seasons. Ostepchuk was 16-0-0 in 2016-17 with a 1.83 goals-against mark and now the position is his alone.
“He’s the backbone — he has to have a real good year for us to succeed,” McShane said. “But he’s a super bright kid and very mature.”
Norwich lost 10 seniors from last year’s title team and essentially does not have a junior class this season.
“We try to retool rather than rebuild and we have more speed this year,” McShane said. “But all the lines are different and our scoring touch might not be as sharp as in the past.”
Alec Brandrup keys the defense and Norwich will need offensive production from Todd Jackson, Jack Griffin and Christian Thompson. But the key scorer should be senior Kevin Salvucci, who had 21 goals and 18 assists last winter.
“He’s as fast as anybody I’ve ever coached, and that includes Division I,” McShane said. “He scores big goals.”
The Cadets were the preseason pick to win the New England Hockey Conference but back-to-back national championships will be a challenge.
“When I started coaching in Division III, there were maybe eight teams that could win it all and we weren’t one of them,” McShane said. “Now that number is more like 40.”
Vermont are 2-5-0 overall and 1-3-0 in Hockey East heading into this weekend’s series at Merrimack. Two of the losses have been by a single goal and the Cats were deadlocked with powerhouse Boston College in the third period before falling.
“One of the things we’ve been pretty good at is bouncing back and making adjustments,” said coach Jim Plumer. “You never want to have a loss at the end of the day but sometimes you get some things accomplished even when you don’t get the outcome you want.”
Senior MacKenzie MacNeill and sophomore Ali O’Leary have played well in the early going but UVM’z go-to player remains Eve-Audrey Picard, who has five goals and two assists.
“I think she’s a special player who has the ability to go end to end,” Plumer said. “She’s a game-changer.”
Plattsburgh State is the four-time defending champion in Division III and the Cardinals will be in hunt for a fifth consecutive crown (and seventh overall) in 2018. Plattsburgh’s dynamic offense will be led again by Kayla Meneghin and Melissa Sheeran, who teamed to score 52 goals and 41 assists a year ago.
The Norwich women, who reached the NCAA semifinals last winter, have two cornerstones returning in defenseman Kim Tiberi, the reigning New England Division III player of the year, and explosive forward Sarah Schwenzfeier.
Middlebury, whose season begins Nov. 17, hope to build upon a season that saw the Panthers lose to Norwich in overtime in the NCAA quarterfinals.