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SLU hockey confident defensive game has returned late in season

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CANTON — Have Matt Weninger and his St. Lawrence University teammates finally rediscovered their mojo?

The results of the past two weeks have certainly been encouraging for the Saints, who have won three of their past four games, including upending then-No. 3 Quinnipiac on Saturday. The Saints are back in the hunt to achieve home ice for the ECAC Hockey playoffs.

“I’ve obviously felt better about it,” Weninger said. “But the reality of it is — if you change your defensive-zone and you do well, it just comes down to playing better defense. A lot of people think it’s goaltending, but it’s really defense.”

With three weeks left in the regular season, St. Lawrence (11-14-3, 5-8-3) will host Dartmouth tonight and Harvard on Saturday in conference clashes, both at 7 at Appleton Arena. Four of the Saints’ last six games prior to the playoffs are at home.

“We got four big points on the road last weekend, the first time we’ve done that in a long time this season,” senior winger Greg Carey said. “Spirits are up, guys are excited — we’re working hard in practice and hopefully we can get four wins here at home over the last three weeks.”

After struggling through the early weeks in 2014, the ninth-place Saints are arguably playing the best hockey of their season.

“You don’t want to get too high on yourselves after a couple wins just like you don’t want to get too low after a couple losses,” said Weninger, who was selected as ECAC Hockey’s goalie of the week after he turned aside a collective 55 shots from 58 shots against Princeton and Quinnipiac. “It feels good and the atmosphere has been a little lighter around here this week, but it hasn’t gotten too light. Hopefully this is the start of something good where we can turn the corner and keep it going.”

Along with winning three games over the past three weeks, St. Lawrence has generated five of a possible eight points over their last six games.

“I think we’re coming down the stretch here and it’s good to hang our hats on a couple good games,” said Weninger, who made 31 saves in the 3-2 win at Quinnipiac. “We want to get home ice.”

MAKING A PLAYOFF PUSH

There is certainly recent history of the Saints generating late-season surges — backed by Weninger each time.

“Your goalie is always the most important player in the game,” St. Lawrence coach Greg Carvel said. “When your goalie is good, your team is usually pretty good — and Matt was really good (last) weekend. ... It give you confidence when you have that backbone behind you. It makes every area of your team better.”

In each of the past two years, the Saints made charges down the stretch to secure home ice for the first round of the playoffs.

Two years ago, St. Lawrence won six of its last eight games, including five straight wins; and in 2013 generated an 8-1-2 run, including a four-game win streak. However, they lost their last three games to miss out on a first-round playoff bye last year.

After last weekend, they put themselves back in the thick of the chase to earn home ice for the playoffs.

“This year is kind of mirroring last year,” Carvel said. “The key right now for us is how we play defensively, it’s been a real focus for us and we’ve found the solutions that are working for us which give our guys good confidence.”

Though St. Lawrence hasn’t been mathematically eliminated from contention of finishing in the league’s top four — it trails both Cornell and Clarkson by seven points — it’s tied for eighth place with Brown — and actually sits in ninth place as the Bears own the tiebreaker.

DEFENSIVE PROWESS

Forward Chris Martin has played back on defense for the past six games, beginning with the team’s 4-4 tie at Cornell on Jan. 24. The junior has played up top for the balance of his career with the Saints, but playing on the blue line is nothing new to him, as he played defense at the junior level.

“Having Chris Martin on the back end has been a big help for us,” Carvel said. “Since he’s moved back there, our group as a whole has been better.”

Freshman defenseman Gavin Bayreuther, selected as the league’s rookie of the week, posted five points, including a goal against Princeton and a four-assist night against Quinnipiac.

Bayreuter and senior Justin Baker are tied for second in the nation among defensemen in points (27) and points per game (0.96). Bayreuther is also ninth in the country in both of these categories among freshmen.

Chris Fitz Gerald covers St. Lawrence hockey for the Times. He can be reached at cfitzgerald@wdt.net

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