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Catamounts catapulting to new heights

by Bob Snow
At this year's NHL All-Star Game in Montreal, Bruins goalie Tim Thomas had a few thoughts aside from strategies to shut down Western Conference attackers.

"I heard they're ranked seventh or something like that," said Thomas a few days later about his alma mater Vermont's position in the 58-team NCAA landscape. "I got that news in Montreal."

One hundred miles south of Montreal's Bell Centre is Gutterson Fieldhouse, home of the Vermont Catamounts.

Thomas -- along with Tampa Bay's Martin St. Louis and Atlanta's Eric Perrin -- was a major contributor in leading Vermont to its last NCAA appearances in 1996 and 1997. 

Since 2000, things have been looking up in Vermont.

A steady stream of famous alums like Torrey Mitchell, Patrick Sharp and Jaimie Sifers combined with Vermont's admission into Hockey East four years ago, when it moved from the ECAC, has helped Hiring Kevin Sneddon as head coach in 2005, a bumper crop of talented recruits and a senior nucleus of leadership on and off the ice have also played a part. Together, those factors are the foundation of Vermont's resurgence.

"If you've been having the success like they have," said Thomas, "just keep doing the same things that have gotten you that success. Carry on with that confidence, but don't get cocky."

Vermont's top-10 ranking most of this season means a solid lock on an NCAA tournament invite -- barring a major derailing the final six games of the regular season.

Vermont is among league leaders in team defense and the power play and has played the strongest national schedule against ranked opponents. The Catamounts have beaten Boston College, Miami, Northeastern, and swept two on the road from No. 1 Boston University.

Vermont also has an emerging freshman standout goaltender in Rob Madore; a Swedish recruit with boundless potential in Viktor Stalberg, and three first-line seniors in Peter Lenes (5-foot-6), captain and ironman Dean Strong (5-9), and Corey Carlson (5-10) that might well be the smallest and fastest six-leg unit in the NCAA.

"I don't think our team has come close to hitting its peak level of performance," said Sneddon. "Although that's a positive sign in my mind that we have a lot more left in the tank.

"Maybe aside from Viktor Stalberg, who has emerged a legit Player of the Year and candidate and Hobey Baker candidate, we have a team made up of a lot of very good players that rely on playing well together versus three or four guys that can make a difference."

Stalberg is a 6-3, 210-pound native of Gothenburg, Sweden who has been drafted by Toronto. Ironically, he skates and plays like a young Mats Sundin.

His 20-14-34 total puts him No. 1 in goals in Hockey East and No. 3 nationally.

"Vermont ended up being the only place I visited, and I loved it there," Stalberg told "As people started finding out back home that I wasn't turning pro, more and more schools started getting hold of me. I'm pretty happy here and (with) what we've done, and it's great to have guys from Sweden be so successful here.

"The sky's the limit for us."

Madore (10-5-3) anchors the goal with a 2.13 goals-against and .921 save percentage, keeping him among the league leaders in both categories. 

But the true foundation resides with Strong, who scored the first goal of Vermont's first Hockey East game on Nov. 1, 2005. Strong has never missed a game in his career, and recently joined the program's elite 100-point club.
"I didn't know what to think [four years ago]," said Strong, a native of Mississauga, Ont. "The locker room is so different the past two years. I don't remember that feeling at all the first two. I think we've come a long way for us to be a realistic seed to get to the tournament. I hardly even knew about the Hockey East Tournament. I knew about the Frozen Four, but that seemed pretty far away."

The Northeast Regional will be played March 28-29 in Manchester, N.H., not far from Burlington.

How does Strong react to the likelihood of that NCAA scenario for Vermont to end its 12-year drought of postseason play?

"Yeah, let's hope so," he says. "Right now it's in the back of my mind. It's a pretty exciting thought. I couldn't even fathom the idea the last couple of years. When the time comes, it'll be a big game for us."

On Campus Clips -- The University of Notre Dame will begin construction next year on a new on-campus ice arena. Construction is expected to begin in the spring of 2010 on a 5,000-seat arena with the venue ready for play to start the 2011-12 season. Notre Dame has played in the Joyce Athletic Center with a capacity of 2,713 since 1968. .. Stat leaders with three weeks remaining in the regular season include Quinnipiac's Bryan Leitch in total points with 48 and assists with 39; Air Force's Jacques Lamoureux in goals with 25; BU's Jason Lawrence in power-play goals with 12; Yale's Broc Little in shorthanded goals with five; Cornell's Ben Scriven's with a 1.62 GAA and six shutouts; and Quinnipiac's Nick Pisellini in save percentage at .948. ... RIT leads Air Force by one point in Atlantic Hockey; Notre Dame has a four-point lead against Miami in the CCHA; Bemidji State is up by a point against Niagara in the CHA; Yale has a five-point bulge against Princeton in the ECACHL; Northeastern leads BU in Hockey East by a point; and North Dakota and Denver are locked atop the tight WCHA, leading Wisconsin by just a point. ... The Alaska Nanooks posted a 4-3 road win at Western Michigan on Saturday to secure a CCHA home-ice playoff series for the first time since 2003-04 and only the third time in program history.

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