November 21, 2012

From NEHJ: On-the-job training

By Allen Lessels

Evan Zych, a rare commodity on the Holy Cross hockey team this season, had his doubts. 

Senior Evan Zych is the elder statesman on the Crusaders' blue line. (Photo by Peter Cooke)

To be sure, he was excited about the prospects for the Crusaders in 2012-13 based on their play the past couple of years. And certainly he looked forward to taking on an expanded role on the team and seeing time on the power play.

But he knew the numbers, too.

Graduation gutted the Crusader defense of 2011-12. Actually, it gutted what has been the core of the Holy Cross defense of the past four years.

“This summer when I saw we had five freshmen coming, I was a bit concerned,” said Zych, the lone senior defenseman on the roster and one of only a few blueliners with experience returning to the team.

It didn’t take him long to feel better.

“After two or three days on the ice, the skill level of these guys was pretty evident,” Zych said. “The coaches did their homework. They got some high quality guys, some real good skill guys. In three or four games, we should be right where we want to be.”

Coach Paul Pearl (Winthrop, Mass.) and his staff are counting on their extreme makeover on the blueline taking hold relatively quickly and as seamlessly as possible.

“You hope a couple of the freshmen can play above their years,” Pearl said. “The group has an opportunity to do that. That said, there’s the inherent thing that, as much as goaltender is the hardest position to play in hockey, defense is the position where experience helps guys the most.”

The new defenders will be getting on-the-job training partially out of necessity. Half of the six Holy Cross defensemen in a 6-2 opening night win at AIC were freshmen.

Nathaniel Domagala and Ben Kaplan, 6-foot-3 and 192 pounds out of Burlington, Vt., were paired together. Jake Bolton, 6-foot-2 and 212 pounds out of Ellington, Conn., was the third freshman defenseman in the lineup that night and he skated with junior Ryan McGrath.

The other two newcomers — Karl Beekman and Joe McNamara (Chestnut Hill, Mass.) — will get their chances, too.

McNamara has been recuperating from double hip surgery performed over the summer and Pearl is looking forward to having him in the lineup. “I’ve always liked Joe’s game,” the coach said. “We were very excited to get him.”

Pearl likes the whole group. “We don’t lack for talent,” he said.

Zych, sophomore Nilan Nagy and McGrath, along with junior Jeffrey Reppucci (Newburyport, Mass.) will be charged with helping bring the talent along. Reppucci would be one of the regulars, but he started the season sidelined by concussion symptoms that kept him out of the lineup some last year, too.

The Crusaders dealt with a rash of concussions last year.  “We had nine concussions to seven different players,” Pearl said. “That was obviously a big negative, and we went through a tough stretch with it. But it helped us for this year because it gave us a better sense of what some other guys can do when they got playing time.”

McGrath was one of the players who benefited from additional ice time.

Pearl looks to Zych, who has missed time through his career with injuries and is good to go, and Nagy, who came along as his freshman year progressed, to lead the defense.

“One fortunate thing is we have Evan Zych, who’s been hurt on and off and is 100 percent healthy, and that will help greatly,” Pearl said. “He’s been skating well. And Nilan Nagy played a ton last year. For any good defense, you have to have a couple of guys to anchor it and they can do that.”

Now it’s a matter of getting the freshmen and the entire defense playing time under pressure.

“Day to day, you’ve got to be playing mistake-free hockey as much as possible, and freshmen do make mistakes,” Pearl said. “I like these guys. We need to let them know what is expected and they need to go about trying to execute that. … I think we have some ability back there and I think they’re going to good players, but they’ve got to play some games together.”

Ahh, playing together. That was a strength of last year’s group.

The four seniors off last year’s team — Mike Daly (South Burlington, Vt.), Matt Clune, Kyle Atkins and Matthew Davis — played a combined 515 games over their four years, and each played at least 113.

Last year, with their veteran defenders playing primarily in front of freshman goalie Matt Ginn, the Crusaders finished in the middle of the pack in goals allowed in the league at 2.45 per conference game. Holy Cross was 20-15-4 overall and for the second straight year finished tied for third in the Atlantic Hockey standings.

Those four mainstays of the defense for four years are gone and it’s time to move on.

“They were all real steady defensemen and that definitely is a big hole,” Zych said. “But the guys who are coming in can step in and with some work and time can fill those roles. Four years of experience is hard to make up in a couple of months, but I think we will all come together. We have faith in the guys we brought in. We’re not stressed about it.”

If anything suffers from the turnover on the blueline, Pearl said, it might be offense.

“The way we play in the D-zone and the way we play, I don’t see the defense being an issue,” he said. “I think we’ll still be a good defensive zone coverage team. If we are giving up more goals, it’s not necessarily about the defense, it’s about the whole group. If we don’t score as much, that will be about the defense.”

Last year, Holy Cross led the league in goals scored in conference games with 3.4 per outing.

“We want to not over-stickhandle and cut down on turnovers and get the puck up quickly,” Pearl said. “That’s where young defensemen can hurt you. Sometimes young defensemen take their time. We want one touch and off to the races.”

Got that, new guys?

This article originally appeared in the November 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal

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