BRIDGEPORT — After a disappointing home series loss for the Vermont men’s hockey team against No. 16 UMass-Lowell in the Hockey East quarterfinals earlier this month, players and coaches were left doubting whether the team had done enough to secure its first NCAA Tournament berth since 1997.
Less than a week after having been awarded a No. 3 seed in the East Regional as an at-large bid from the Hockey East, the No. 9 Catamounts (20-11-5, 15-8-4 Hockey East) plan to make the best of the opportunity they have received to compete for their second-ever National Championship when they face second-seeded Yale this afternoon.
“A theme that’s been going around our locker room has been centered on a second life,” head coach Kevin Sneddon said at a press conference here on Thursday. “To be given that second opportunity to go after something you really want is very special, and I think [our players are] determined to make the most out of it.”
The Catamounts finished in fourth place in the regular season Hockey East rankings with a 15-8-4 record in conference play. They went 7-6-2 against ranked teams and 5-5-1 against teams that qualified for the NCAA Tournament this season.
Vermont, who played the 11th most difficult schedule in the nation according to the USCHO.com RPI, defeated No. 1 Boston University twice in November by a score of 4-3. The Catamounts have also defeated the likes of No. 6 Northeastern, No. 13 Miami, No. 12 New Hampshire, No. 16 UMass-Lowell, and No. 20 Boston College. They went 4-1 in games against teams Yale has played this season, with their only loss coming against No. 15 St. Lawrence on Dec. 13 by a score of 4-3.
“We’re starting to learn how big it is for the program,” captain and center Dean Strong said. “As a player, you just play. But just hearing the great things around campus from people who have been here a long time and mean a lot more to Vermont, it gives the players a great feeling that they’re doing something special now.”
Vermont is led on offense by left winger Viktor Stalberg, who is seventh in the nation with 23 goals this season. The junior from Sweden also leads the team with 20 assists. Stalberg is one of three players in the East Regional who has been nominated for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award, which is given to the nation’s best collegiate hockey player.
Senior left winger Peter Lenes has tallied 14 goals and 16 assists this season, while junior center Brian Roloff has chipped in 10 goals and 17 assists.
Netminder Rob Madore has made an immediate impact in his first season in net for the Catamounts, posting a .911 save percentage with a 13-9-4 record in 26 games played.
Vermont jumped out to an 11-3-2 record early on this season, but a string of three straight losses to end the season — including two overtime defeats — has left the Catamounts with a bitter taste in their mouths.
According to Snodden, the team will need a good start early on to get back on track against a red-hot Yale team.
“They’ve got a championship under their belt and that’s a big boost for them,” Sneddon said. “They’re very confident right now. Our confidence has been internal through practices and trying to rebuild that way. We need to start very well tomorrow night to make sure that we have confidence throughout the game.”
Both teams rank in the top 20 in the nation in scoring offense. Yale sits in eighth place with a 3.39 goals per game average, while the Catamounts are 19th in the nation with a 3.06 average.
“I think it will be an interesting matchup,” Stalberg said in an interview Thursday. “I think there will be two fast teams out there, two pretty skilled teams. I think it will be an exciting matchup. I think it will be a fun game for fans to watch this weekend.”