The NCAA season got underway last week with almost every team playing a back to back Friday and Saturday set. It's early on, but these games are very important for both players and teams. Early season success is a big deal in the NCAA; like in all the other leagues, points count just as much at the beginning as at the end, but the NCAA has a very condensed schedule which sees teams playing 34 games in the regular season.
For players, a hot start to the season could mean extra ice and power play time to boost their stats and have them focus more on offense. Oftentimes, players who impress their coaches early will be able to keep that confidence throughout the year and are then put into situations which make it easier for them to succeed. A slow start, on the other hand, can spell doom for a player early on. Failing to create chemistry with linemates or produce anything can land you in the doghouse pretty quickly and can hurt your chances all season.
Devin Shore - University of Maine
Take Devin Shore as an example: Last season he started out really hot and impressed the University of Maine coaching staff enough to land him a spot as the team's top center. He took that opportunity and ran with it the whole season, becoming one of Maine's best leaders as a freshman. His hot start allowed him to not only hone his offensive skills, but become a more complete player on and off the ice. Because his coaches trusted him so much, they began trotting him out in every big situation when the Black Bears really needed a push, whether it was a big stop on the PK or a late game tying goal.
Shore learned a lot from this and his confidence really showed when I saw him late in the season. Yes, Maine was all but eliminated from playoff contention, but he played his heart out and really carried his team during that weekend series against Boston University. You could tell that no matter what the situation his team was in at that point of the season, he wanted to work for them, he wanted to score for them, and he wanted to lead them. He wanted to win both of those games whether or not they mattered in the long run. He took the extra confidence his coaches' trust gave him, and worked hard enough to retain that top center spot. Even more impressively that work led to Shore being named one of Maine's alternate captains this season in only his second year.
But things haven't started as well as Devin Shore and the University of Maine had hoped this season. With much of last year's young team returning with more experience, and a 5-1 win against Dalhousie in exhibition play, Maine went into their season opener looking to take back their historic position as one of Hockey East's powerhouses. St. Lawrence had other plans for their back to back set.
In the first game of the back to back, St. Lawrence beat Maine 3-1 off goals from freshman Gavin Bayreuther, junior Patrick Doherty, and sophomore Brian Ward. Devin Shore was held almost entirely off of the scoreboard; he failed to register a point or even a shot on goal which is a bit worrisome for someone the Maine coaches and Dallas Stars will be looking at to carry his team offensively. He was an impressive 10 for 15 on the faceoff dot which is good; even while not scoring he managed to be a possession player for the Black Bears, ensuring that when he was on the ice they at least started with the pucks on their sticks. That's an important and often underrated facet of the game, especially for prospects. If he can continue to keep the puck on his and his teammate's sticks, the offense will come.
The second game was shaping up to be a bounce back effort from the Black Bears as they went up 1-0 in the first period. That lead vanished in the second, however, as St. Lawrence came roaring back with two goals of their own. The Black Bears then managed to even the score and get a fresh start 12 minutes into the final frame off of a Mark Anthoine power play goal, and it seemed as though momentum once again shifted in their favors. Again, they weren't able to hold on, as the Saints scored two goals in 48 seconds just three minutes later, and added an empty netter with two seconds to go in the tilt.
Again, Shore had a quiet game. He was held pointless for the second time in as many games. He factored into this game a bit more, but not in the way one would hope. While he registered a shot on goal, he ended the game with a +/- of -1 and was sent off for a penalty in the second period leading to the tying goal from St. Lawrence's freshman defenceman Gavin Bayreuther.
While Devin Shore definitely had a shaky start to the season it's still early and there's no indication that he will get demoted or anything like that. He still has the offensive skills and possession game to be dominant, he just didn't come out of the gates swinging, much like his team. While a small sample size, it still seems that, to some extent, as Shore goes, so do the Maine Black Bears. This is a bit of a silver lining because of how important he has become to the team at such a young age, but he'll need to bounce back next week to get both his own season and that of his team back on track.
Alex Guptill - University of Michigan
As expected, Alex Guptill was held out of the University of Michigan's opening night victory against No. 4 ranked Boston College. He was suspended by the team for disciplinary issues coming out of the summer.
He was inserted, somewhat unexpectedly, back into the lineup for Michigan's second game against RIT, which they won 7-4 in masterful fashion. Alex Guptill didn't waste any time proving his worth to his teammates and coaches. He came out playing hard and gave his coach every reason to keep playing him by getting the primary assist on Michigan's first two goals of the game.
On the first goal of the game, he entered the zone with authority on a 3-2 rush and moved towards the right half-wall, opening himself to the slot from where teammate Cristoval Nieves sent him a pass. Guptill handled the pass perfectly, and turned himself backwards. While back-skating towards the red-line he kept his head up looking for the trailer pass and hit Phil DiGuiseppe with a beautiful tape-to-tape pass in the slot which DiGuiseppe moved to his backhand and slid in for the 1-0 lead.
Guptill then showcased a bit more of that playmaking ability only two minutes and eight seconds later, setting up Derek DeBlois. When RIT tried to cycle the puck back behind their own net to start a breakout, Guptill rushed in hard on the forecheck, beat two defenders to the puck, wheeled out towards the corner and sent a perfect pass to the slot where DeBlois one-timed it home.
Both goals showcased a big part of Guptill's development. He's a scoring winger who can use his big body to create space around the net and has the skill to put the puck home, but he's also developed a good knack for playmaking. Both of his assists began with very smart play away from the puck. On the first one he knows where to attack on the 3 man rush and finds a spot between the defenseman backing up and the forward backchecking from where he could receive the puck and protect it. On the second play he doesn't wait for anyone to give him anything, he realizes that RIT has to regroup in the zone to try another break out, so he forechecks hard and goes straight to where the puck is being cycled to. He doesn't chase the cycler or follow the puck down the boards, he goes straight to the boards behind the net - the puck's destination - showing that he is thinking the game a couple steps ahead. Instead of making a play on where the puck is, Guptill knew that the best thing to do was make a play on where the puck was going to be and it worked out perfectly.
On top of that awareness away from the puck, he shows great hockey sense in both of his goals. On the first one he uses his body to protect the puck immediately while looking for a pass, and knowing that he'll have a man breaking down the slot he gets it to him quickly. On the second play as soon as he gets the puck he knows what he's doing with it. He gets it between the two defenders and skates out to the corner for a second with his head up all the way and quickly sends a pass right to his teammate in the slot.
Goals will come for Guptill -- they're natural for him. Even so, it's great to see him playing with a lot of offensive awareness and using his playmaking ability. Being able to get to open areas and make plays to other teammates is really important and will help him as he tries to develop into a professional, since he'll need multiple tools in his kit if he wants to play in the NHL.
RIT is a somewhat lesser opponent for a team like Michigan - a perennial contender to at least make the frozen four. So, Guptill wasn't facing the stiffest of competition and it probably would have been better for him to have played against Boston College. It's still good to see that, first of all, he's back to playing ice hockey again. An extended suspension from coach Red Berenson would have meant that he did something really bad to put his career in jeopardy. The fact that Berenson only sat him for one of Michigan's two opening games probably means one of two things: either his infraction(s) weren't that bad, but still warranted a reminder of what's expected of him, or it was obvious that Michigan was hurting a bit without him in the lineup and they need all of their best players playing to win. We'll probably never know exactly what he did or why he was benched for only one game, but it could be a combination of the two; that's just my speculation though. It's good that he doesn't seem to have missed a step.
As usual with Guptill, we know that he's going to put up points whenever he plays. It's just a matter of seeing if he can grow into a consummate professional or not. The hockey's there, the maturity might not quite be yet, but if there's anyone in the NCAA to trust with turning boys into men it's Red Berenson. The fact that Berenson still wants Guptill playing big minutes for Michigan means that at least he's making some progress.
You can view highlights of Alex Guptill's first game action this season via the University of Michigan media player: http://www.mgoblue.com/allaccess/?media=411360