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Saints’ fortunes may depend on Weninger’s play

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CANTON — Matt Weninger has been a stabilizing force for the St. Lawrence University hockey team since his freshman season.

The junior has been Saints’ starter in goal since the 2011 postseason, when he helped guide St. Lawrence to the quarterfinal round in the ECAC Hockey playoffs at Yale.

“That was great experience for us that first year,” Weninger said of the series in New Haven, Conn., which the Bulldogs won in three games. “We went in there and beat them in overtime, the second night we gave them the game, and the third night they overwhelmed us. Even though we lost that series, that’s a great experience to draw on ... Going into Yale, we know what we have to do to get it done.”

Now Weninger has helped lead the sixth-seeded Saints (18-14-4) back to the quarterfinals as they’ll play at No. 3 Yale (16-10-3), beginning at 7 tonight at Ingalls Rink in New Haven.

“In the playoffs we’re playing for survival,” said Weninger, a native of Lethbridge, Alberta. “You just keep battling and keep your cool as well. Buying into that mentality helps everybody play a little bit better and helps your confidence.”

In his third season at St. Lawrence in which he’s started every game, Weninger has already become the program’s all-time leader in saves (2,067) and appearances (96).

“We’re fortunate he came in at the right time and he was able to start as a freshman,” St. Lawrence coach Greg Carvel said. “There’s a comfort level for this team knowing that Matt’s going to be in net every night. When a coach has to decide between a couple guys as to whose going to start in a particular week, it’s hard on the goalies and the team.”

Weninger also has appeared in nine career playoff games, posting a 5-4 record with a 2.87 goals-against average and a .911 save percentage in 10 appearances, virtually a playoff veteran.

“Playoffs are like the regular season, but it’s like every thing is under a microscope,” Weninger said. “I think I’ve progressed since last year, I didn’t think I had a very good year. So I knew I had to work harder to get better.”

Like the Saints, Weninger grew stronger as the season progressed, including a late-season 10-4-2 run over 16 games.

Both Weninger and his teammates had hopes of securing a first-round playoff bye, but both suffered a rough closing weekend when they were beaten decisively in allowing nine goals at Union and Rensselaer on March 1-2.

Weninger and the Saints bounced back last weekend in a first-round sweep of Colgate as the goalie made a collective 56 saves.

“He was a big difference for us,” Carvel said of Weninger’s play in the series. “I felt last year late in the year he kind of had a dip in his game and was letting up some questionable goals. But he only let up three goals this past weekend and his performance was huge for us.”

Weninger allowed only three goals in the two games, including only one when St. Lawrence was at even strength.

“I think every week gets closer and closer to completely understanding his game,” St. Lawrence assistant and goaltender coach Kris Mayotte said. “He kind of took a step back against RPI and Union and we watched video last week. There were just little things here and there that I thought he adjusted to really well and had a good weekend (against Colgate).

“He made great saves, played the puck really well and controlled rebounds for the most part. I thought he was in command the whole weekend.”

One of Weninger’s greatest strengths besides his athleticism is his poise, an attribute that is paramount to success, particularly in playoff hockey.

“He’s very athletic,” Mayotte said. “He has that in his repertoire ... But when you see him play his best is when he’s calm. He also has the quickness and athleticism to make difficult situations look easy and I think that’s what makes him a really good goalie.”

The Saints were swept by Yale in the season series, 4-2 on the road on Nov. 10 and 5-3 in Canton on Jan. 11. Since then, the Saints turned their season around with an 8-1-2 run over the next 11 games until near the end of the regular season.

“I think we are a different team from the last time we played them,” Weninger said. “Since that time we are playing well and with a lot of confidence — and we’ve established our identity as a team. I think they’re going to run into a team that is a drastically different team than the one they played in January.”

BAKER CHIPPING IN

Not only did junior defenseman Justin Baker record his first career playoff point with an assist on Friday, he scored a pair of power-play goals on Saturday to help finish off Colgate.

All five of Baker’s goals this season have come on the power play. Baker, who ranks fifth on the team in scoring, also stands second in plus-minus with a plus-eight.

“He’s a tremendous player and he plays well for us every night,” Carvel said. ““He doesn’t always show up on the scoresheet every night, but he’s a huge part of our team. Him and George (Hughes) both play over 30 minutes a night. Justin is a warrior who kind of flies under the radar.”

AUSTIN OUT FOR SEASON

Junior defenseman Riley Austin, who suffered an knee injury on Saturday night against Colgate, is out for the season.

This leaves the Saints with five defensemen, which they’ll go with this weekend.

Senior Mac Stratford, who was hurt in Friday’s game, may make a return to the lineup to help out defensively.

Sportswriter Chris Fitz Gerald covers St. Lawrence hockey for the Times. He can be reached at cfitzgerald@wdt.net. Check out his blog “Saints Scrolls” at www.watertowndailytimes.com

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