February 20, 2014

Women's Journal: Confidence keys Catamounts' turnaround

By Arielle Aronson

Junior forward Amanda Pelkey (Montpelier, Vt.) leads Vermont with 35 points in 32 games. (Photo by Brian Jenkins)

In the middle of November, Vermont coach Jim Plumer’s team was at a crossroads. Plumer entered the season -- his second as head coach -- with high hopes for the Catamounts, but those expectations had not been realized through the first ten games of the season when Vermont compiled a 3-6-1 record.

So Plumer switched his focus from achieving everything he knew the team was capable of right away to zeroing in on smaller goals with his team and hoping that the rest would take care of itself.

First on the agenda was building some confidence.

“At some point, I had to manage my own expectations and try to basically give them things that we were good at so we could get some confidence,” Plumer said. “I had to find the balance between what I thought we could be good at and emphasize that rather than maybe putting the cart before the horse in terms of what I thought we could do.”

What the team is good at is playing fast hockey. The Catamounts are a strong skating team who are dangerous in transition and have the ability to quickly turn an opponent’s mistake in the Catamount zone into an offensive opportunity for Vermont.

Three months after that shift in focus, the Catamounts have grown into one of the better teams in Hockey East. Vermont is setting new benchmarks for the program, as its 15 wins so far this season are the most wins in a season in program history. They will be the first team in the program’s Division 1 history to finish a season at or above .500, and they clinched a home-ice Hockey East playoff berth for the first time since joining the league in 2005-06.

The turnaround this season did not always run smoothly. Vermont struggled in its first four games after the holiday break, dropping a pair of games to Syracuse and winning one of two games against the University of Connecticut the next week.

To make matters worse, Vermont had Boston College and Boston University, the two powerhouse teams in the league, on the schedule in back-to-back weekends following Vermont’s 1-3 start to January.

“That was the key moment where you sort of go, ‘Oh, wow. We’re playing BC this weekend and then we’re going to play BU next weekend. This can be the point where they reject what we’re trying to do or they can embrace it,’” Plumer said.

In an effort to help the team embrace what the coaches were asking for, Plumer had the Catamounts redouble their efforts in practice, asking for an increased focus on drills and practice games in the hopes that consistency in practice would turn into consistency in games.

The Catamounts’ trip to Chestnut Hill ended with two losses, but Vermont was pleased with the way it played in those two games. The Catamounts kept it close in the first game until the third period, when BC exploded for three goals to earn a 5-2 win. The second game was a one-goal game until the middle of the third period, when BC scored its second goal en route to a 2-0 shutout. 

The weekend was also an opportunity for senior goaltender Roxanne Douville to step up. She has had a good career in net for Vermont, but she was not quite at the level both she and the coaches expected her to play at in the beginning of the season. She only played in the second game at BC, and it was partly thanks to her efforts in net that the game was so close, as she stopped 44 of 46 BC shots in the game.

Since that loss, the team won six of seven games while Douville compiled a .947 save percentage.

“For the team to play in front of a goalie that they know is on her game, it allows us all to play a little looser,” Plumer said. “We’d know that every single mistake we make isn’t going to end up in the back of our own net. Because we like to play a fast game and play aggressively, that comes with a risk here and there. Having her at the top of her game really allows us to play the kind of style that we want to play.”

Another key to Vermont’s success is homegrown star Amanda Pelkey. The junior forward from Montpelier, Vt., has faced lofty expectations as a three-time U.S. U-18 IIHF player. She had decent but not outstanding seasons in her first two years in the green and yellow. This season, her 35 points (19 goals, 16 assists) in 32 games prove she finally arrived.

“The thing about Pelkey that’s unreal is that she’s a game-breaker,” Plumer said. “She has scored, I think we’ve figured out, something like eight or nine absolutely spectacular backhand, weird angle goals. She’s beaten a defensemen one-on-one and then tucked it upstairs under the crossbar, something that you could be watching in Sochi in the US-Russia men’s shootout, some really special things.”

Vermont will look to Pelkey, Douville and the rest of its roster to continue to play better than the program has ever seen as it searches for its first-ever Hockey East playoff win.

But regardless of what happens in the postseason, Plumer and the Catamounts will forever treasure being part of a Vermont team that has already written a new chapter in the program’s history.

“Honestly, seeing the success so far is the most satisfying thing of all,” Plumer said. “It’s really fun to watch how excited they are by having success and watching it happen before your very eyes is a pretty cool thing for a coach.”

Player of the Week

Jackie Raines, Yale University

The junior forward helped the Bulldogs clinch their first ECAC postseason berth since 2008 by scoring four goals (equaling her season total to that point) in a 5-3 win at Princeton last Saturday.

Game of the Week

Boston College at Boston University, Sunday, Feb. 23 at 3 p.m.

The Hockey East regular season will end with a bang on Sunday as rivals BC and BU face off at Walter Brown Arena. The Eagles are one of the hottest teams in the country of late, but BU is clawing its way back into the national tournament discussion with wins in five of its last seven games.

Women’s Power Rankings

1. Boston College (Overall:  23-5-3, Hockey East: 16-2-1) – The Eagles clinched their first-ever regular season Hockey East title via their 4-1 win at Maine last Sunday. But even with the top seed for the playoffs locked up, the Eagles won’t rest this weekend as they take on rival Boston University in a pair of games.

2. Harvard (Overall: 20-4-3, ECAC: 15-3-2) – Senior goaltender Emerance Maschmeyer turned in one of her best performances of the year in a 47-save outing in Harvard’s 5-2 win over St. Lawrence last Saturday. Maschmeyer also looked great last Friday, stopping 37 of 39 Clarkson shots, but the team in front of her struggled offensively as Harvard fell, 2-1, and lost ground on Clarkson in the league standings.

3. Quinnipiac (Overall: 18-5-9, ECAC: 9-4-7) – The Bobcats struggled against a sub-.500 team in Yale last weekend and required a game-tying goal from Kelly Babstock with 1:05 left in regulation to salvage a tie in the game. They shook off those troubles on Saturday, however, and dominated Brown to the tune of a 5-0 win.

4. Northeastern (Overall: 16-13-2, Hockey East: 11-6-2) – Despite a disappointing Beanpot finish, the Huskies made the most of the rest of their week by shutting out the University of Connecticut in consecutive days to maintain their spot in third place in Hockey East.

5. Boston University (Overall: 19-10-1, Hockey East: 12-5-0) – The Terriers’ late-season slump won’t affect them too much in Hockey East tournament seedings. BU clinched the second seed for the Hockey East playoffs thanks to a pair of wins over Providence last weekend. 

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