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Big Green Grows Up Under Fire

Young Hockey Team Shows Signs Of Potential for Upcoming Seasons

Dartmouth men’s hockey Head Coach Bob Gaudet took an unusual route to uncover goalie Charles Grant. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

Dartmouth men’s hockey Head Coach Bob Gaudet took an unusual route to uncover goalie Charles Grant. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

Schenectady, n.y. — Every September, the coaches of the ECAC Hockey League put on their turbans, peer into their crystal balls and try to predict where they and their rivals will end up six months down the road.

As with media speculation, it’s an educated-guess process at best. Who truly know if last year’s champion will be as good as before? How will injuries muck up the clarity of the ball? What anonymous freshmen or upperclassmen will elevate a team’s fortunes?

Dartmouth coach Bob Gaudet is an optimistic sort. Given a roster heavily leaning on rookie and sophomore talent, one largely devoid of big-game ECAC experience, Gaudet got what he expected in 2012-13: an upper-division finish, competitive almost to the point of securing a coveted bye out of the first round of the conference tournament.

“You always want to try to get into that top four, to give yourself the best chance of moving on,” Gaudet said Saturday night, after Dartmouth’s season ended with a 5-2 conference quarterfinal loss to Union at Messa Rink. “But I think it was fair where we ended up.”

Dartmouth (15-14-5 overall) went 9-9-4 in league play during the regular season, landing in fifth place out of the league’s 12 teams. The Skating Dutchmen finished one slot ahead of the Big Green, two points better at 10-8-4, to gain the last first round bye.

Gaudet would rather not use injuries as an excuse, but they played a palpable role in Dartmouth’s middling fortunes after the season’s mid-point. One ultimately made all the difference.

The Big Green shot out of the gate with a six-game unbeaten streak (5-0-1) and rose as high as 10th in the U.S. College Hockey Online rankings. Early on, Gaudet had the benefit of fielding two scoring lines every night: The tandem of sophomore Tyler Sikura and junior Matt Lindblad with either senior Dustin Walsh or sophomore Eric Neiley, and another pairing highlighted by two other wings, sophomore Brandon McNally and junior Eric Robinson.

The trio of Sikura-Lindblad-Neiley suited up for 10 of Dartmouth’s first 17 contests, with Walsh taking Neiley’s spot on the line six times during that stretch. Save for one McNally DNP at Princeton on Jan. 5, he and Robinson lined up together every game of the first half of the season. They all scored with regularity.

Neiley, Lindblad and Robinson and Walsh — Dartmouth’s one active NHL draft pick (Montreal) — would get nicked and miss games during the year, but the big blow came when McNally was lost for the season with an injury following a 4-2 win at Brown on Jan. 18. Dartmouth was a solid 10-5-2 overall at that point, but would win only five times over the final 17 games.

McNally’s absence, which evenly bisected Dartmouth’s 34-game slate, damaged the Big Green’s offense in numerous ways:

■ Robinson — who scored at least one goal in each of the Big Green’s first eight contest — saw his production evaporate. Without the 6-foot-2, 215-pound McNally as a wingman, Robinson had just two goals and six points in his last 14 games after posting nine goals and 14 points prior to the injury.

■ With Robinson’s line slowed, defenses clamped down on the alternatives. Sikura saw his points-per-game average go from 1.35 before McNally’s injury to 0.47 afterward. Lindblad, owner of 19 points midway through the year, had just seven the rest of the way.

■ As a team, Dartmouth went from 3.23 goals per game with a healthy McNally to 2.29 per contest without.

“With the number of injuries we had, to have that start was surprising, in a way,” Gaudet conceded. “When we had a full complement of players, we were really, really good. But then it seemed like it was one thing after another during the season.”

With youth comes inconsistency. It cost Gaudet’s club the standings points that would have guaranteed the first round bye in the ECAC tournament.

The first signal came in the game that ended Dartmouth’s season-opening unbeaten streak, a 5-4 loss at Colgate on Nov. 16 in which the Big Green blew a 4-1 third-period lead. Dartmouth had a point in the bank at then-No. 5 Quinnipiac on Jan. 4, rallying from a 2-0 deficit in the final stanza before succumbing in overtime, 3-2.

Although it didn’t factor in the league, following an impressive 4-1 domination of No.2 New Hampshire to open the Ledyard Bank Classic on Dec. 30, a 3-2 loss to sub-.500 Massachusetts in the tourney title match one night later raised eyebrows. After losing McNally, Dartmouth didn’t string together consecutive wins again until the two victories that eliminated Harvard from the ECAC first round.

The Big Green also scored more than three goals in a game just twice over the last 15 regular-season contests.

“It’s a little bit the nature of the beast: This league is incredibly tough, every single team,” Gaudet said. “I don’t want to say it’s strictly a defensive league, because it isn’t, but (it) is a league where everyone is well-coached and everyone defends well. We generated some nights and didn’t score. I think the experience some of the guys got will help us score in the future, but it’s an incredibly difficult league.”

On the plus side:

■ Dartmouth maintained a consistent, excellent penalty kill all winter. The Big Green went into the Union series ranked fifth in the country in effectiveness and held the nation’s No. 3 power play to just one insignificant conversion on seven attempts in two games.

■ Freshman Charles Grant developed into a reliable partner to junior Cab Morris in goal, which will give the Big Green defense a foundation for next season.

■ Even with changes in the lines forced by McNally’s injury, Neiley remained consistent in both result and effort all year.

■ Sophomore Rick Pinkston showed signs of becoming a good-sized (6-1, 200), hard-hitting defenseman in the mold of former Big Green thumper Joe Stejskal, with at least four solid neutral-zone hits in the Union series to bust breakouts.

Experience also matters for something. Union had it from its ECAC championship and NCAA Frozen Four visit in 2011-12. Gaudet hopes his squad gained something from six conference tournament games over the past two weekends.

“In retrospect, these playoff series are huge, because they have a taste of it,” Gaudet said. “At the end of it, I’m sure the guys want to do better, but it’s that maturity to find a way to keep the game simple, to play really tough. That’s a huge part of it, just having this experience.”

Sometime in September, the league office will ring Gaudet’s phone again, email him the reminder to file his preseason poll. Saturday night, after seeing his 16th season as head coach close — one that was good, but had the potential to be better — he believed he could see improvement in the future.

“A couple got away from us, but I think that’s a really good season for this team,” Gaudet said. “We found a way to be very close to a home ice bye, so I think it was a really good season for our guys. We just want to take that next step.”

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727- 3226.