Jan. 6, 2005
By Elliot Olshansky
Quick, name the hottest team in the ECAC Hockey League.
To be sure, it's a tough question. The closing months of 2004 saw Vermont emerge from nowhere to run off an 11-game unbeaten streak, only to see it end against Harvard. The Crimson have been a dynamo in their own right, as the team's play has been a revelation under the guidance of new head coach Ted Donato. However, as league play resumes this weekend, an unlikely squad is riding the conference's longest current unbeaten streak: the Brown Bears.
The Bears were picked to finish seventh in the ECAC by the coaches and eighth by the media in the preseason polls. Many thought that they wouldn't keep up after the graduation of Hobey Hat Trick goaltender Yann Danis, not to mention leading scorer Brent Robinson and top defenseman Scott Ford. The Bears seemed to confirm that assessment when they started the season with a five-game winless streak.
However, things aren't always as they seem, and it didn't take long for the Bears to turn it around. As a matter of fact, it took only one second.
On Nov. 20, the Bears were locked in a 1-1 tie in the third period of their game with Minnesota-Duluth, then the No. 8 team in the nation. With time winding down and a faceoff in the UMD zone, the fans in Duluth expected the game to go to overtime, where the Bulldogs would overpower their foes from the Ivy League. Instead, a last-second shot by freshman Jeff Prough beat Duluth goaltender Isaac Reichmuth and sent the Bears home with a huge win.
The next weekend, the Bears hit the road again, and came home happy again after a sweep of St. Lawrence and Clarkson. Add a three-point weekend against RPI and Union and a championship at the UConn Hockey Classic, and suddenly, the Bears are 7-4-2 with a seven-game unbeaten streak as they prepare to resume ECACHL play. What's more, the goal that appears to have turned the Bears' season around came from the stick of a freshman.
"That was probably the biggest goal I ever scored," Prough said after a 5-2 win over Holy Cross at the UConn tournament. "It was huge, because when you get a win - especially a team that was one of the top-10 in the country - you start to realize that you can beat anybody."
By the same token, Bears captain Les Haggett credits Prough's goal and the win over Duluth with lighting a fire under the team.
"That was an exciting game, and it just got the blood going for everybody," Haggett said. "When you taste something like that, you just want more of it."
Brown head coach Roger Grillo sees it differently. While the victory at Duluth certainly helped fuel Brown's turnaround, he said the team had already been making the adjustments necessary to succeed.
"We lost four guys that signed NHL contracts last year," Grillo said, "and seven guys that played key roles."
With a young team, it was bound to take Brown a little while to get everything straightened out. Starting conference play with games against current Top-15 teams Harvard, Cornell and Colgate didn't help much, either.
"It was a difficult situation to be in," Grillo said. "It wasn't like you had a few games to figure out who was who - who should be on the power play, who should be playing with who - and once we figured it out, and once our offense solidified, we've just taken off since then."
One important thing that Grillo and the Bears "figured out" was just who should be the successor to Danis in the Brown net. Senior Scott Rowan and junior Kevin Kliman had split time going into the Duluth series, but when freshman Adam D'Alba made his first career start in the second game at UMD, it was the beginning of Brown's turnaround.
D'Alba stopped 44 of 45 shots against Duluth in the 2-1 win, and has followed that game with several strong efforts. He posted a 36-save shutout of Union and a 42-save effort in a 2-1 win over St. Lawrence. Overall, D'Alba is undefeated (6-0-1) as a starter, with a sparkling 1.35 GAA and .962 save percentage.
"He's been tremendous," Grillo said of his freshman netminder. "He's bailed us out a lot. He's been special."
Part of D'Alba's success has been his approach to facing the pressure that comes with following a Hobey Baker finalist in net.
What approach is that? Well, he doesn't have one.
"There is no pressure," D'Alba said. "I don't even think about it. You can't think about stuff that happened last year, or for that the matter, the past three years."
The freshman keeper has also benefited from a steady reserve of determination that had him more than prepared for the starting role.
"I always wanted to start," D'Alba said. "I wanted to start as soon as possible. I wasn't going to say, `Well, I'm going to be a starter my sophomore year,' I wanted to start immediately."
D'Alba's confidence is shared by his Brown teammates, who have left the rough start behind them.
"Guys are really starting to realize what kind of team we are and what it takes to win," Haggett said.
"All the guys know that we weren't playing well," Prough said of the team's outlook after the rough start. "Nobody had to tell us that. We knew that the guys in the room could get it done, so we started to figure it out. Now that we know what makes our team good, and what gets us wins, we're doing it more. We're confident, and we're going to win every game."
Win every game? Not likely. Win a whole bunch of games en route to a possible ECAC Hockey League title? Stay tuned.
Freshman Adam D'Alba leads the nation in goals-against average and save percentage.