Around Hockey East: Vermont Continues Hot Play Capturing Catamount Cup

Vermont captains Chris McCarthy and H.T. Lenz pose with the Catamount Cup Trophy. - Jeff Cox

Picked to finish ninth in the Hockey East Standings, Vermont has won seven of eight and proven many doubters wrong.

Eight of the 11 Hockey East member schools took part in a holiday tournament over the weekend between Christmas and New Year's. The results were mixed from a league standpoint, but perhaps no Hockey East team impressed as much as Vermont did.

The Catamounts lack a true superstar with name recognition, but Kevin Sneddon's hockey team is a hard-working group that has proven it can compete in Hockey East this season. Vermont took down Clarkson and Canisius to claim the Catamount Cup on a tiebreaker over league foe UMass-Lowell, a team that also went 2-0 on the weekend in Burlington.

"Things are clicking right now. We've got two hot goalies and the defense is playing great. We're getting good bounces and everyone is working hard. We just have to stick to our game plan and not run away from our identity," explained junior Jake Fallon.

Chris McCarthy, Mario Puskarich and Fallon make up a very good first line for the Catamounts. McCarthy, the team's senior captain, has battled injuries throughout his UVM career, but he is a strong, physical player who thrives in puck possession situations at both ends of the ice.

Fallon has been snakebitten at times, but his sixth goal on a breakaway with 1.7 seconds to play proved to be the difference for UVM to take the tournament title out of the grasp of UMass-Lowell's hands.

The so-called fourth line, made up of two Vermont natives, was also terrific over the weekend. Freshman Tom Forgione had beautiful breakaway goal that turned out to be the game-winner against Clarkson. He registered eight shots on goal a night later against Canisius.

Pete Massar, a former Clarkson transfer, scored a goal against his old team and added another one the next night.

The line was buzzing all over the ice with speed and tenacity.

"That line has been pretty special for us there with [Jonathan] Turk in the middle. It was certainly a few nice goals. Forgione showed his speed there getting to the loose puck and made a nice move to seal it. Massar has one of the best shots on our team. The Vermont boys have been doing well for us," said Sneddon.

The two wins over the course of its own tournament should come as no surprise as Vermont has been playing extremely well for over a month now. UVM has won seven of eight contests with the team's only loss coming against Northeastern in a game that the Catamounts outplayed the Huskies, but were stymied by a strong goalie performance.

"We ran into a hot goalie against Northeastern, but we've won seven of eight. The team is hot. I'd definitely be afraid to play us. We've just got to keep it going [this] weekend against Dartmouth and Yale. We're just trying to put ourselves in a situation that we're one of those sixteen [NCAA Tournament] teams," said Fallon.

Kevin Sneddon has the luxury of running out two very capable backstops each night. Sophomore Brody Hoffman sat out the first five games of the season due to injury, but he has joined freshman Michael Santaguida to form a strong rotation. The two goaltenders have combined for a 2.22 goals against average and a .924 save percentage.

"Everyone on the team has 100 percent confidence in Hoff and Santa. They're both playing great," said Fallon.

"We're really fortunate to have two really good [goaltenders]. They both have played exceptional this year. It's making the coach's decision really tough. It's a good thing. They push each other in practice. Pat Feeley is another great goalie who hasn't gotten as much time, but he has worked really hard in practice to push the guys. We have three really great goalies and we're fortunate for that," said Michael Paliotta.

Vermont will look to keep on the win train this weekend as it hosts Dartmouth on Friday and Yale on Saturday.

Northeastern's Defense Exposed

Jim Madigan was not too pleased following his team's 8-8 tie with host Dartmouth in the Ledyard Bank Classic consolation game in Hanover, NH. The play of its freshman class, the first few forward lines and goaltender Clay Witt have been the bright spots for Northeastern throughout the first half, but the defense for the most part didn't buckle too much.

However, it has the past three games. Northeastern gave up 44 shots on goal and was totally dominated at Vermont in the last game before Christmas. Heroic goaltending by Witt and an inability to cash in on chances let Northeastern escape Burlington with a 3-0 win, but then things got worse.

Madigan's team gave up 13 goals over two games at the Ledyard Bank Classic. Northeastern lost, 5-2, against Air Force in the semifinal and was outshot, 29-16. A night later Northeastern allowed eight goals and committed numerous defensive mistakes.

"Shootout at the OK Corral," said Madigan to lead off his post-game press conference. "Our defensive zone coverage was very lax. Our goaltender [Derick Roy] had to bear the brunt of it with wide open shots," commented the third year head coach.

Players that should know better making reckless runs at the body instead of focusing on the puck in the neutral zone, turnovers and an inability to contain Dartmouth's transition were all witnessed in the consolation game that was a defensive coach's worst nightmare.

"You can't give up eight goals. We have some work to do in our defensive zone defensively. We certainly don't practice having our defensemen running through the neutral zone trying to take their guy out of the play. We made poor reads. We will address it in the next couple of days," said Madigan after the game.

Madigan knows his team cannot continue to play like that and have success in Hockey East games going forward.

"You can't play like that and get away with it in league play. It's just too much at stake. I'm not pleased with that kind of performance. We're smarter than that," said Madigan.

Martin Ouellette Key to Maine Success

The University of Maine hockey program lost some of its media and fan exposure over the past few seasons with just one NCAA Tournament appearance in six years. Perhaps that is the reason people are slow to give senior goaltender and Columbus Blue Jackets prospect Martin Ouellette the respect he deserves.

The St. Hippolyte, Quebec native and Kimball Union Academy alum has a 1.87 goals against average and a .937 save percentage following his splendid performance in Estero, Fla. at the Florida College Classic. He made 68 saves on 69 shots faced in a shutout victory over Princeton and a 1-1 tie against Cornell.

Ouellette will be peppered with more rubber on Friday night as his Black Bears face heavily favored Quinnipiac in Hamden, Conn. The Bobcats are a team that has been known to pile on the shots all season so Ouellette will have his work cut out for him.

UMass-Lowell Plugs Right Along

The River Hawks had a little post-Frozen Four hangover to start the season with an inexplicable home loss to Sacred Heart and a 1-3 start, but since then have gone 12-2. Norm Bazin's team doesn't really do anything flashy, but the team executes the coaching staff's game plan to perfection.

Winnipeg Jets prospect and sophomore goaltender Connor Hellebuyck is obviously the go-to-guy in net for Lowell, but UML fans should rest easy knowing Doug Carr is a more than adequate backup. Bazin gave Hellebuyck the night off against Clarkson, and Carr, the senior from Hanover, Mass., made 18 saves on 19 shots. He made several key saves on quality scoring chances even with the limited number of shots faced.

"Doug was a rock. I liked his game today. It was a tough game because there weren't that many shots. You had to be really sharp with the pucks he was receiving. He was very strong. Those games are more difficult than the ones where you face 35," said Bazin.

Inconsistency Costs Providence

The Friars had a terrific first half of the season. The 13 wins tied for most in the first part of the season in school history, but there could have been even more victories if the Friars played a full 60 minutes each time out. Examples of this include the team's 4-4 tie with Miami, 3-3 tie with Northeastern, and most recently the 3-2 loss to Air Force in the Ledyard Bank Classic championship game.

"They outworked us and out-executed us for the first 40 minutes. We dug ourselves a hole and thought we could turn it on in the third. It's disappointing," said Nate Leaman.

This writer has been as high on Providence as anyone. With Jon Gillies back from the World Junior Championship the Friars have the best goaltender in the league and a solid nucleus of young players to make a run at a Hockey East championship and maybe more. Leaman will have to find a way to convince his team to play a strong 60 minutes each time out.

Jeff Cox covers college, junior and high school hockey, NCAA recruiting, NHL Draft prospects and the AHL for SBNation. Follow him on twitter @JeffCoxSBNation.

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