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Big progress for Big Green

by Bob Snow
It wasn't the Great Lakes Invitational played in Michigan in late December or Boston's Beanpot the first two Mondays in February, college hockey's marquee in-season tournaments, but the RiverStone Cup still has produced some unforgettable moments.

The RiverStone Cup is the annual in-state rivalry between the University of New Hampshire and Dartmouth College. The eighth annual event was played in front of 8,001 fans Saturday night in Manchester, N.H.

The "Cup" has produced some memorable outcomes, none better than in 2005, when Dartmouth entered the third period trailing 7-2 but finished with a 9-8 victory.

Looking for bragging rights two years in a row after winning the 2008 RiverStone, Dartmouth came back last weekend four times after trailing in each period, but New Hampshire was able to hang on, winning 6-4.

Pegged at No. 11 in the 12-team ECACHL preseason poll, the Dartmouth Big Green was expected to trail a lot of teams in a lot of periods this season.

Quite the contrary so far.

Put Dartmouth at the highest rung of the surprise ladder across the 58 NCAA Division I teams as January morphs into the last full month of regular-season play.

The Big Green currently is third in the ECACHL behind Princeton and Cornell, and ranked No. 18 nationally.

"It's a work in progress; we continue to grow," 12th-year coach Bob Gaudet said after Saturday's loss. "I like our team a lot."

Dartmouth's ledger so far reads 10-7-0 (7-4-0 ECACHL). Four of those losses were by one goal, including two top-10 teams Vermont, and Boston College, with the latter coming in overtime. The biggest win so far was 4-0 at top-10 Princeton.

"I've been doing this so long," said Gaudet, "I don't get caught up in (rankings).

"What you can't measure in a ranking is what's inside people -- the heart and desire and pride. That's the mark of a team finding an identity."

Most of that heart and desire emanates from 24-year-old senior captain Rob Pritchard from Burnaby, B.C., the 117th captain in program history and one of the few graybeards on the roster.

"When we got the guys together for captain's practice (in September)," said Pritchard, "we knew we had something special. In the past we looked to the older guys; guys who were great NHL prospects (like Tanner Glass, Lee Stempniak, David Jones). We just don't have that this year. We needed contributions right away from the younger guys.

"We're a bottom-heavy team. Anytime you have a young team, you'll face adversity with those rankings. That was sort of our preseason motivation. Now into the second half, we're proving to be a legitimate contender not only in the ECAC, but also the NCAA."

There's no shortage of green on the roster, which feature 18 underclassmen -- nine freshmen and nine sophomores.

None of the youngsters has contributed more than freshman Jody O'Neill, who talks softly but carries a big stick between the pipes.

"O'Neill keeps to himself," said Pritchard. "He's a goalie -- can't fault him for that.

"But seriously, hands down, he's the hardest-working goalie I've ever played with. He never stops thinking; focused the whole way. He'll have a huge impact the next four years on this program."

"Each game I try to remain consistent," said O'Neill after the biggest game of his young career.

That consistency has generated a 10-6 record, 2.38 goals-against average and .932 save percentage -- top 10 nationally -- for the Napean, Ont., native.

The RiverStone Cup also was the biggest game of freshman Doug Jones' career.

"Close to (the biggest venue and game) of my life," said Jones, who pulled the Big Green to within 5-4 midway in the third period. "Maybe in peewee in Quebec about 10 years ago (was comparable). This game will be a big game for us as we move on."

Jones (5-13-18) and sophomore Adam Estoclet (6-15-21) top the offensive stats for Dartmouth, also cracking top 10 in the league. 

The frosh-and-soph cast scored all four goals Saturday night. 

The only other senior on the roster is Connor Shields; the only two juniors are forward Joe Gaudet and defenseman Peter Boldt.

Gaudet said he sees a bright future for his team.

"I like where we're going as we clean up a few things and score a few more power-play goals," he said. "I think we're going to make some waves."

Dartmouth likely will have to win the league playoffs to assure an NCAA bid. Pritchard feels confident.

"On March 17th, I see us playing in the NCAA tournament, for sure," said Pritchard.

On Campus Clips -- Hockey East named former Boston University Terrier and current New York Rangers captain Chris Drury as the league's all-time top defensive forward. As part of Hockey East's 25th anniversary celebration, Drury joins Providence College's Chris Terreri (top goalie), Boston College's Brian Gionta (best goal scorer), Maine's Paul Kariya (best playmaker), and BC's Brian Leetch (best defensive defenseman) in awards given thus far. ... Hockey East unveiled an effort to further improve the fan experience, given isolated incidents where language has offended some fans. Posters depicting children and families will be posted in all league arenas that read: "Give your team a cheer, but remember who else is here!"... Bowling Green's 3-0 shutout at Michigan on Friday was their first in the 107-game series against the Wolverines and snapped a nine-game losing streak at Yost Ice Arena. ... The Miami RedHawks' 6-1 home victory against Michigan State on Saturday was the 200th of coach Enrico Blasi's career. ... Twin Cities Video and DVD, Inc., based in Minneapolis, is tapping into the emerging national market in video sports yearbooks, personal highlight reels, college recruitment videos and live-game footage by developing a "Game of the Week" Webcast for high school and college sporting events.

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