Since the men's hockey team returned to campus on December 30, it has been up against an entirely different set of challenges outside the rink. Rather than facing the Colby Mules or the Middlebury Panthers, the Polar Bears found themselves up against the 'January Yucks.'
"It's illnesses, nicks and bruises, tough games, cold weather, loneliness up here," said head coach Terry Meagher, referring to the difficult task of being on an abandoned campus in the dead of winter. "Pity parties can start to develop, but we've done a good job."
The team's strong performance over Winter Break has vaulted the Polar Bears to the top of the NESCAC standings. However, the Polar Bears' hold on first place will be put to the test during a crucial upcoming three-game home stand.
The Polar Bears will begin their defense of home ice with a 7 p.m. matchup against Assumption College (Mass.) on Tuesday evening, followed by contests with Williams and Middlebury on Friday and Saturday, respectively.
Williams is an immediate threat to Bowdoin's hold on the top spot, as the Ephs currently sit in second place in the NESCAC standings. Although Middlebury, a perennial NESCAC contender, has stumbled somewhat so far this season, captain Kit Smith '11 expects a tight, competitive game.
"In the last three years I've been here, we haven't beaten Middlebury once," he said. "I think this is one of the most skilled and hard-working teams we've had, and it's going to be a good test for us to see if we can take one against Middlebury."
In addition to having an important home stand in terms of positioning within the NESCAC, the team will host Bowdoin hockey alumni the weekend of the Williams and Middlebury games.
Before the Polar Bears can enjoy home ice at Watson Arena, however, the team will face two tough matchups when visiting Tufts and Connecticut College this weekend.
"Both [Tufts and Connecticut College] are in the middle of the battle for home ice, like a lot of teams in the league," said Meagher. "They're both hungry and have the possibility to be the home ice teams."
"They will be two real tough games [against] two prepared and focused opponents," Meagher added.
The Polar Bears sit atop the NESCAC after going 4-1 in games over Winter Break, including two impressive victories against Southern Maine (USM) and the University of New England in which the Polar Bears outscored their opponent with a combined score of 15 to 1.
"It started with our intensity and focus in practice that week, and as a group our goal was to keep that intensity [throughout the weekend]," said Smith.
"It's easy to get lazy this time of year," added captain Kyle Shearer-Hardy '11.
The victory over USM, which Meagher described as a "rough game" in an e-mail to the Orient, included one particular instance of fighting between the two teams. Defenseman Jordan Lalor '12 and USM player John Grandinetti were both disqualified from the game for fighting, with Grandinetti receiving an additional misconduct penalty for face-masking.
"We've got to focus on being a whistle-to-whistle team," said Meagher. "We want to represent the name on our jersey the right way...when the whistle starts we play hard, and when the whistle ends we walk away."
"We are not proud of our conduct during the USM game, but it's a lesson to be learned," added Smith in an e-mail to the Orient.
Meagher credited the team's success over the long break to the consistent leadership of its two captains, noting that their focus and dedication has the team in a strong position entering the final weeks of the season.
"Some teams struggle with the 'January Yucks,' but I think we've handled the first two parts of the season pretty well," he said. "We're positioned to take a kick at the can...we're a player in the league right now. It has been great with our leadership, and we've positioned ourselves for the stretch run."
As the team enters the final leg of the season, Meagher, Smith and Shearer-Hardy all emphasized the importance of maintaining a focused intensity, as well as the squad's talented depth.
"If a team is going to be successful, you can't turn it off and on," said Meagher. "[The team brings] it to the ice every day, but we have to maintain that. And although it's exciting to be in the stretch run, it gets tougher because every goal and every play is so significant."
"We can attribute a lot of our success not just to the guys in the game," said Smith. "We have so much depth in our practices...I would feel comfortable with any guys at practice playing on the weekends."
The breadth of talent that the Polar Bears enjoy is perhaps most apparent at the goalie position—the team has yet to select a starting goalie. Rich Nerland '12 and Steve Messina '14 have been splitting much of the time in net so far this season, with sophomore Connor Shannon as a strong third option.
"Nerland and Messina are making each other better, and they keep progressing," said Smith. "Eventually we'll probably end up with one, but for the time being I think it could go either way."
Meagher agreed that the continuing competition at goalie improved the performance of not only the individuals involved, but also the team as a whole.
"When we get into the last third [of the season] someone usually emerges as your number one [goalie], but we're not quite ready to make that decision," he said. "Healthy competition is key in a program. They battle every day, but they support each other and help the team. That's really uplifting for us."
"Everyone can see the amazing potential that our team has when we play together," added Shearer-Hardy. "The team is growing every weekend, and we're just starting to reach our full potential."