Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Know Your Enemy: St. Lawrence

A solid goaltender can take a team that might have been mediocre without him and turn them into world-beaters. Lacking one can turn a team that might have regularly destroyed teams offensively and turn them into an inconsistent mess. Case in point: St. Lawrence. During the era where names like Greg Carey and Kyle Flanagan were scoring buckets of goals, the Saints had no goaltending to speak of and were rarely contenders. Enter Kyle Hayton, and despite the exit of Greg Carey and his younger brother Matt, SLU was tough to beat and finished in second place - in a manner reminiscent of the 2012-13 Engineers. And he's got another three seasons in the pipes for the Saints.

St. Lawrence
Nickname: Saints
Location: Canton, NY
Founded: 1856
Conference: ECAC
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: 2007
Last Frozen Four: 2000
Coach: Greg Carvel (4th season)
2014-15 Record: 20-14-3 (14-7-1 ECAC, 2nd place)
Series: SLU leads, 80-56-6
First Game: January 3, 1951 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: February 28, 2015 (Troy, NY)
Last SLU win: March 14, 2015 (Canton, NY)

2015-16 games: November 6, 2015 (Canton, NY); February 5, 2016 (Troy, NY)

Key players: F Sean McGovern, sr.; F Tommy Thompson, sr.; F Brian Ward, sr.; D Gavin Bayreuther, jr.; F Woody Hudson, jr.;  D Eric Sweetman, jr; D Nolan Gluchowski, so; G Kyle Hayton, so.; F Christian Horn, so.; F Ryan Lough, so.; F Mike Marnell, so.; D Matt Purmal, so.; F Michael Ederer, fr.; D R.J. Gicewicz, fr.; F Jacob Pritchard, fr.

Key losses: F Patrick Doherty, F Gunnar Hughes, D Chris Martin

Previous KYE installments:
Coming into last year, there was a question about where the goals were going to come from for St. Lawrence, considering the departure of the program's top offensive threats. The answer came pretty quickly - they were going to come from everywhere. That's what turned SLU from a team most picked to finish near the bottom of the standings into a team that ultimately finished near the very top.

The solution to not having a great deal in the way of standout players who are going to score goals for your team every weekend is to have a balanced attack that makes pretty much every player on the ice a threat to score, even if none of them individually is a serious concern. In some ways, that's actually the superior way to play it, and that's exactly what the Saints got out of their forwards last season. No SLU player reached the 30 point mark last season, and only one - Ward - made it to 25. Only two players - Hughes and Marnell - scored 10 or more goals. But crucially, the Saints had 15 different players attain the 10 point plateau, and 12 who scored five or more goals on the season.

Combined with the excellent play in net by the obvious ECAC Rookie of the Year Hayton (who also was a serious candidate for the Dryden Award) and the excellent two-way abilities on the blue line from Bayreuther, Gluchowski, and Sweetman, and the Saints were very much a force to be reckoned with pretty much all season long.

Uneven results in non-conference games kept SLU from their first NCAA tournament appearance in several seasons: being swept by Vermont in a home-and-home in December and picking up only a tie in two games with Northeastern really hurt, as did a loss to RIT in the season opener. The Saints rolled through the heart of the ECAC schedule, losing just twice in league play after New Year's before being swept at the Capital District on the last weekend of the season.

Game 1 of the ECAC quarterfinals between St. Lawrence and RPI is as good of a goaltender's duel as you're ever going to see. Hayton and Jason Kasdorf went blow for blow for 59 minutes before Martin scored in the game's final minute, the goal that essentially won the series for the Saints. SLU never led the semifinal game in Lake Placid against Colgate, but they never trailed by more than one and three times tied things up.

So the story of St. Lawrence for this upcoming season is very much one of unfinished business. Despite an outstanding record and a second place finish, SLU still finished the year empty-handed. The Saints' three key losses aren't nothing - Doherty was second on the team in scoring, Hughes led the team in goals with 12, and Martin was more or less a fourth attacking defenseman to go with the aforementioned trio - but the good news is that the core of what was there last season is back again for more this year. 11 of the 15 players who scored 10 points are back.

There's no one piece that makes St. Lawrence dangerous - they played excellent team hockey last season. Hayton, perhaps, was the glue that made everything stick, but the Saints relied more on team effort than individual talent and it paid off in spades. They've lost very little from last season. But as RPI showed at the end of the season last year, good goaltending can keep a team in it against SLU - Scott Diebold's home swan song will be long remembered, and no one can fault what Kasdorf did in the quarterfinals. Still, if SLU can repeat last year's balanced attack and roll three or even four dangerous scoring lines, they'll be tough to beat, and another big run through the ECAC schedule could be in the works. That makes them a legitimate contender for the very top of the league table.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Know Your Enemy: Union

Finishing in 10th in the ECAC is pretty much never an easy season, but if there was one year where a 10th place team could probably just let it roll off their backs pretty easily, that would be Union from last season. They could likely finish in the bottom four for the next five years and it wouldn't hurt that much, but they're now moving on from the ultimate glory and after failing to win hardware for the first time in a few seasons, re-setting for what they're surely hoping will be a new opportunity to make some noise.

Nickname: Dutchmen
Location: Schenectady, NY
Founded: 1795
Conference: ECAC
National Championships: 1 (2014)
Last NCAA Appearance: 2014
Last Frozen Four: 2014
Coach: Rick Bennett (5th season)
2013-14 Record: 19-18-2 (8-13-1 ECAC, 10th place)
Series: RPI leads, 48-34-10
First Game: February 26, 1904 (Albany, NY)
Last RPI win: November 1, 2014 (Schenectady, NY)
Last UC win: January 24, 2015 (Albany, NY)

2014-15 games: October 30, 2015 (Schenectady, NY); October 31, 2015 (Troy, NY); January 23, 2016 (Albany, NY)

Key players: F Nick Cruice, sr.; D Sebastian Gingras, sr.; F Matt Wilkins, sr.; D Noah Henry, jr.; F Eli Lichtenwald, jr.; F Michael Pontarelli, jr.; G Alex Sakellaropoulos, jr.; D Jeff Taylor, jr.; F Mike Vecchione, jr.; F Roman Ammirato, so.; D JC Brassard, so.; D Nick DeSimone, so.; F Spencer Foo, so.; F Ryan Scarfo, so.; F Cole Maier, fr.; F Brett Supinski, fr.; F Brendan Taylor, fr.; F Sebastian Vidmar, fr.

Key losses: F Daniel Ciampini, F Max Novak, G Colin Stevens, D Charlie Vasaturo, F Sam Coatta

Previous KYE installments:
The Dutchmen were very uneven in their title defense season, yet by the end of the year they still needed to be killed with fire in order to be put to bed. They came out of the gate on fire, extending the long unbeaten streak they finished the previous year with to 22 games by winning their first five in a row to open the year, then they turned around and went winless in 6 straight, including getting swept by RPI.

February was especially rough. While RPI had their own struggles scoring goals at times last season, it paled to the struggle the Dutchmen endured in a five game stretch wherein they scored a grand total of two goals, losing all of them by a combined 14-2 margin. Union went 223:40 without lighting the lamp even once during that five game run.

Then, like flipping a switch, they were back. After pair of 3-2 home wins to end the season, the Dutchmen basically strolled into Lynah Rink and smoked Cornell with 4-2 and 7-0 victories to sweep the first round series. Top-seeded Quinnipiac awaited in the quarterfinals, but even there, Union wouldn't go down without being put down. Because it's Union, they had to lose Game 1 in multiple overtimes as they are wont to do in multiple overtime games, but they bounced back for a win in Game 2 before falling in Game 3 of a tough-fought series.

The major question in Schenectady will be in net. Colin Stevens had basically the worst season of his collegiate career as a senior with top blueliners he'd worked with gone, and Sakellaropoulos put up some tough numbers when Stevens was sidelined with injury. The top job isn't necessarily going to belong to Sakellaropoulos, as Union brings in Jake Kupsky, who the San Jose Sharks took a flier on in the last round of the NHL Entry Draft last month. Either one will need to shore up a defense that looked a bit deflated at times last year, although the blue line does have a couple of solid elements in Gingras and Taylor.

On offense, losing Ciampini is a hit for the Dutchmen, but there's still plenty of demonstrated talent among the forwards, led by Vecchione, Wilkins, and Foo. Taylor also contributes offensively, which is important to success in the Union system. But if Union is going to have success this season they're going to need to get more out of Pontarelli, who managed only five goals and three assists last year after a solid freshman campaign thanks in part to injuries.

10th place was a pretty unexpected finish last season for the Dutchmen - but despite looking like a team that might not really have as much on either side of the puck as they had even last season, 10th would probably be a shock again this year. Last year's team battled a lot of issues at different times of the year, between injuries and inconsistency, and this year's squad, if they can avoid those pitfalls, has the potential to do better than that. They're probably not going to be a strong peg for the top four, but they've at least got the talent to be a solid pick for the middle of the pack and a first-round series at home.

As usual, you can pretty much just toss records out the door when RPI and Union play. Going into the league games last season, the Engineers had just been swept at home by Bentley, and Union had only just lost for the first time in 23 games - and RPI swept the weekend. Heading into the Mayor's Cup, the Dutchmen were looking down and out and the Engineers had just produced perhaps their most impressive weekend of the year in sweping Cornell and Colgate. Six-goal third period for Union. So whatever you think about RPI-Union coming into the games, just expect anything else to happen.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Know Your Enemy: Miami

It's something of a benchmark on the offseason when WaP presents its final non-conference opponent for Know Your Enemy, and, well, that week has now arrived. The Engineers will close out their non-conference schedule with a another very tough series against Miami, this one taking place in Ohio. The RedHawks have more than had RPI's number over the last few games in this series. They've won seven in a row against the Engineers, and have won the last six games by a combined score of 28-8. It's going to be hard to see that improving to any great degree on the road against a stacked and experienced squad that could be among the favorites for winning it all.

Nickname: RedHawks
Location: Oxford, OH
Founded: 1809
Conference: NCHC
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: 2015
Last Frozen Four: 2010
Coach: Enrico Blasi (17th season)
2014-15 Record: 25-14-1 (14-9-1-1 NCHC, 2nd place)
Series: Miami leads, 7-1-0
First Game: December 28, 1984 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: December 28, 1984 (Troy, NY)
Last MU win: January 3, 2015 (Troy, NY)

2015-16 games: January 2-3, 2016 (Oxford, OH)

Key players: D Matthew Caito, sr.; F Alex Gacek, sr.; F Sean Kuraly, sr.; G Ryan McKay, sr.; F Kevin Morris, sr.; D Taylor Richart, sr.; G Jay Williams, sr.; F Justin Greenberg, jr.; D Chris Joyaux, jr.; F Ryan Lomberg, jr.; F Anthony Louis, jr.; D Louie Belpedio, so.; D Scott Dornbrock, so.; F Conor Lemirande, so.; F Jack Roslovic, fr.; D Chaz Switzer, fr.

Previous KYE installment:
It was a definite bounceback season for Miami last year. After finishing last in the NCHC's inaugural season, the RedHawks rebounded to take 2nd last season and win the NCHC championship, their first league championship since winning the CCHA crown for the first and only time in 2011. When Miami was down last season, they weren't down long. After cleaning up the Engineers in Troy last season, they had their worst winless streak of the season - all of three games.

The only game in which the RedHawks really looked bad at any given time was probably their final game of the season. Opening the NCAA tournament against eventual national champions Providence, Miami got down 6-2 after 40 minutes thanks to an absolutely dreadful second period in which they gave up four goals. It seemed an impossible mountain to climb, but they darn near climbed it in the third period. Still down 6-2 with under 10 minutes to play, Enrico Blasi pulled the goaltender for an extra attacker, and Miami scored three unanswered goals at 6-on-5, storming the RedHawks back within one with nearly a minute and a half left to play. The Friars finally iced it with 7 seconds left by putting it into the empty net, but Miami certainly didn't show any quit facing difficult odds. Every single player who scored an extra-attacker goal is back this season.

The RedHawks do lose their top three scorers - one, Riley Barber, had 20 goals and 20 assists, and left school a year early - but they do bring in a big time freshman in Roslovic, who reaffirmed his commitment to Miami this week amid rumors that he was going to go major junior instead. Roslovic was Winnipeg's first round draft pick in last month's NHL Entry Draft, but it does appear he'll play at least one, if not more seasons in Oxford.

Williams and McKay have platooned in net since the beginning and now they're both seniors, a 1-2 punch in net that gives the RedHawks a solid backbone to a very experienced defensive corps. They'll likely improve on their 2.50 team GAA from last season.

The bottom line is that Miami is likely to have plenty of scoring from guys like Roslovic, Louis, and Kuraly, which should make the RedHawks a tough nut to crack for any team, to say nothing of a team like RPI that has struggled against them in recent years, including this year. Miami, in their building, will represent a most difficult test for the Engineers just before they head into the thick of the ECAC schedule. That seven game winning streak the RedHawks own against RPI doesn't look to be in a great deal of danger, even if the Engineers have the potential to show them perhaps far more than they have in quite some time.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Know Your Enemy: Arizona State

Well, here's a Know Your Enemy we'd have never expected to be presenting a year ago at this time. That's because this team wasn't even on the NCAA Division I radar at that time, to say nothing of expecting to have a basically full varsity schedule for the 2015-16 season. A lot can change in five months, though. Last October, there was some buzz about the idea that Michigan would be the first Power Five conference school to visit RPI in several years. There was no way to know at that time that they'd be preceded by Boston College, and that the wait to see another Power Five school following the Wolverines would be less than two months. This December, the new kids on the block are also coming to town.

Arizona State
Nickname: Sun Devils
Location: Tempe, AZ
Founded: 1885
Conference: Independent (Pac-12)
National Championships: None
Last NCAA Appearance: None
Coach: Greg Powers (6th season)
2014-15 Record: 33-4-1 (14-2-0 WCHL, 1st place)
Series: First meeting

2015-16 games: December 11-12, 2015 (Troy, NY)

Key players: F Liam Norris, sr.; D Jordan Young, sr.; F Ryan Belonger, jr.; F Sean Murphy, jr.; D Brock Krygier, jr.; G Robert Levin, jr.; F Eric Rivard, jr.; D Connor Schmidt, jr.; D Ed McGovern, so.; D Drew Newmayer, so.; F Brett Gruber, fr.; D Nicholas Gushue, fr.; F Matt Kennedy, fr.; F Joe Lappin, fr.; F Jordan Masters, fr.; F Louie Rowe, fr.; F Charlie Zuccarini, fr.

Hockey in the Valley of the Sun has a fairly recent genesis, as you can probably imagine. While most of the attention focuses on the arrival of the Winnipeg Jets in 1996 as the new Phoenix (and now Arizona) Coyotes, and the troubles that the franchise has had in the desert over the last 20 or so years, Arizona State was actually one of the original focal points of the growth of the sport in a region that doesn't have an awful lot of water, to say nothing of temperatures low enough to make ice.

In the early 1980s, Arizona State students trekked north from Tempe to the growing city of Phoenix's only full-service ice arena, Tower Ice Plaza, for open skating opportunities. Those interested in playing hockey often engaged in small pickup games among each other, and this turned into a small intramural league. The growing popularity of that league coincided with the rise of club hockey on college campuses around the nation, and by the late 1980s, ASU had its own club team, participating in the Division II level of club hockey.

Varsity hockey had been tried in the Grand Canyon State, and it had failed miserably. The Northern Arizona Lumberjacks in Flagstaff were a varsity program for just five seasons in the early 80s, but the cost of the program, along with Title IX concerns, saw the team scuttled. Club hockey then, as it is now, was highly regionalized - the vast bulk of programs are found in schools in the north and in the east - so Arizona State out of the southwest was an odd bird indeed, but the size of the school and the lack of other nearby programs helped it stand out in the region. The Sun Devils began drawing local talent from a growing hockey region, especially in Southern California, taking in players who wanted to play the game in college but weren't quite good enough for big-time varsity play.

Before long, the Sun Devils were one of the more dominant club teams in Division II. Looking to emulate the growing community support from their rivals to the south at the University of Arizona, the Sun Devils moved to Division I play in 1993. Just two seasons later, ASU was playing in the Division I national tournament, their first of three consecutive appearances there in the mid-1990s. By the year 2000, ASU was certainly a force to be reckoned with nationally in club hockey, regularly making appearances in the national tournament but never quite getting over the hump until 2014, when the Sun Devils not only qualified for their very first national championship game, but won it all for their first national title.

Over time, with the growth of hockey in the southwest thanks to the arrival of the NHL in teams like the Coyotes, Arizona State not only became attractive for budding local players, but it also became a place where stronger players from Canada and the American Northeast sought to play as an alternative to playing in Division III. The rationale was simple: ASU was a name-brand school playing a higher level of hockey than most club teams and doing it in a place where you could leave practice in the middle of January wearing just a t-shirt and shorts.

ASU's ascent into the ranks of varsity hockey began innocently in July 2014, with a student reporter asking the school's athletic director and head coach Greg Powers - who had played goalie for the Sun Devils club team in the late 1990s - what it would take for the national club champions to play at the varsity level. The AD had a one word answer: money. Powers had the specifics: between $30 and $40 million.

The story went online. Most comments left on the page scoffed at the idea. But one person who read the story - a team benefactor with means - found the idea irresistible. Within hours, Don Mullett, a businessman in Wisconsin whose son had played for the Sun Devils, inquired about making a donation. Four months and $32 million later, Arizona State was announcing a varsity program, ready to begin play the following season and playing in a conference by 2017.

Unlike the donation made by Terry Pegula at Penn State, which fully funds the team, Mullett's donation merely provides the startup capital, leaving ASU on the hook for ongoing support. But all indications are that Arizona State is all systems go for a full commitment to the future of varsity hockey at the school.

Arizona State's entry into the NCAA has opened a new frontier in college hockey - aside from the Alaska schools, college hockey hasn't extended farther west than Colorado since the demise of the Great West Hockey Conference in the 1980s. But ASU is coming out of Division I club's WCHL, a conference which also includes Arizona and Colorado from the Pac-12, and every other Pac-12 school has a club program competing in the Division II Pac-8, with the exception of Stanford (playing Division III club) and Oregon State (which has no team).

But for now, it's just ASU holding down the varsity fort in the southwest, and they're already reaping the same benefits they did as a club outpost, only now they're drawing Division I level talent. The Sun Devils already boast a fairly impressive recruiting class, especially for an independent team. Masters, out of Rochester, played for Seth Appert and with Lou Nanne on the 2011 Ivan Hlinka team. Zuccarini was one of the top scorers in the BCHL this past season.

ASU's 29-man roster will include 12 players who were involved with the Sun Devils' club program. Two transfers from Nebraska-Omaha and American International will have to sit out the season, but Krygier, a transfer from Michigan State, will be eligible immediately. Belonger (Northeastern) and Schmidt (Ferris State) also have previous NCAA D-I experience.

For the most part, the older players on the squad are guys who played club hockey, while the core of the Sun Devils' talent will be in younger players, especially the freshmen. ASU's prospects may be fairly bright in the long-term, but for a program leaping directly into the fire of a Division I season less than a year after announcing their move to the varsity, next year could be a very difficult struggle. Especially playing at home, the Engineers should be favored to win both games against the Sun Devils, but Arizona State certainly has enough potential in its underclassmen to keep things from getting too embarrassing. These aren't going to be games a team like RPI is going to be able to sleepwalk through - not that this program has really proven to have any games they could just sleepwalk through in the last several years.

RPI will be neither ASU's first varsity trip to the east, nor the first ECAC team they face off with. Those honors both go to Clarkson in November. And yes, since you're all asking the question like giddy schoolchildren - RPI is expected to return the favor with a trip to Arizona, either in 2016-17 or 2017-18, more than likely the former. Pack your bags.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Know Your Enemy: Notre Dame

RPI is always going to have a minor place in Notre Dame's hockey history - they were the opponent for the Fighting Irish in their beautiful new on-campus facility, the Compton Family Ice Arena. The home team won that one in front of a sellout crowd, but it appears that the Engineers may have taken a bit of a liking to the place. They'll play there for the fourth and fifth times when they arrive in November for the Shillelagh Tournament, the third season in five that they're making a trip to Indiana and the second in a row for a tournament following last year's Icebreaker. An upset victory over the Irish opened the season well for RPI (in what would prove to be an exception game rather than a harbinger), but this year, they won't face Notre Dame unless the stars align for the second night of the tourney.

Notre Dame
Nickname: Fighting Irish
Location: South Bend, IN
Founded: 1842
Conference: Hockey East
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: 2014
Last Frozen Four: 2011
Coach: Jeff Jackson (11th season)
2014-15 Record: 18-19-5 (10-7-5 Hockey East, 5th place)
Series: Tied, 4-4-0
First Game: December 29, 1988 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: October 10, 2014 (South Bend, IN)
Last ND win: October 21, 2011 (South Bend, IN)

2015-16 game: November 28, 2015 (South Bend, IN - possible)

Key players: F Thomas DiPauli, sr.; F Steven Fogarty, sr.; F Sam Herr, sr.; F Mario Lucia, sr.; D Andy Ryan, sr.; D Justin Wade, jr.; F Anders Bjork, so.; F Jake Evans, so.; D Jordan Gross, so.; F Connor Hurley, so.; G Cal Petersen, so.; D Luke Ripley, so.; F Cal Burke, fr.; F Christian Fischer, fr.; D Dennis Gilbert, fr.; F Dylan Malmquist, fr.; F Andrew Oglevie, fr.; F Joe Wegwerth, fr.

Previous KYE installments:
Things looked good after the Engineers beat the Irish last season. Viktor Liljegren had his freshman coming out party by scoring the team's first goal of the year, Mark Miller hit the game winner as a response to a Notre Dame goal less than a minute earlier, and Jason Kasdorf looked superb in his return to competition after nearly a year away from the ice. Most predicted that the Fighting Irish were going to roll RPI, and while the Engineers looked pretty decent, ND had a rough game.

Ultimately, Notre Dame meandered their way through the season to a fairly pedestrian record. They weren't awful, but they also weren't that great in the end. After dropping two games at home in the Icebreaker, the Irish burned through the rest of the month of October, going 5-0-1 in six straight home games following the tournament - not that clowning Lake Superior State and Niagara was much to be proud of last season.

The team never really got into a good flow in Hockey East play, with relatively few quality wins on the year. They mostly beat the teams they needed to beat, but with the exception of a 3-point weekend against Boston University in February, they had a paucity of signature statements to show for their 5th place finish, an end that forced them to compete in the first round of the Hockey East playoffs against a UMass team that struggled all year long.

When fans settled in for Game 1 against the Minutemen in South Bend, none knew that they'd have to stick around until almost 1:30 in the morning if they were going to see a winner - and it wasn't going to be the Irish. In what became the longest game in the history of college hockey (shockingly, not lost by Union), UMass and Notre Dame went for five overtimes and 151:22 of game play, besting the previous longest game by 1:20 before the Minutemen won it. Notre Dame's Cal Petersen broke RPI netminder Dick Greenlaw's NCAA record for most saves in a game by stopping 87 shots (although, let's be fair, Greenlaw's 78 came in a 60 minute, 9-0 loss against BU) but it wasn't enough.

Losing the longest game ever to the worst team in the league didn't break the Irish, though. They came back for a victory hours later in Game 2, then crushed UMass 7-0 in Game 3. The next weekend, they took UMass-Lowell to a third game, but gave up 11 goals during losses in Games 1 and 3. It was not enough to salvage even a .500 season - not the way you'd expect to see a team with 10 NHL draftees on its roster complete a year.

The Irish will again have 10 NHL draftees this coming season, as two graduating seniors and former junior-to-be Vince Hinostroza have all left the program for the NHL, and they're replaced by three incoming freshmen, two of which were drafted this past weekend - Fischer in the 2nd round, Gilbert in the 3rd. Wegwerth was taken in the 4th round in 2014.

Most teams tend to blend their NHL draftees in with the non-draftees in terms of who's shouldering the burden, but last season Notre Dame leaned heavily on its most talented players to guide the way on offense. Herr and Gross are the only returning non-draftees that were in the top 12 on the team in scoring. That probably means the team is going to expect a great deal out of Fischer and Wegwerth especially, but likely also from Malmquist, a high school teammate of Lou Nanne.

Defensively, expect a tighter net with Petersen now having a season of college hockey under his belt and the defensive corps growing more experienced than last year's grouping, which had just one senior and one junior getting regular playing time on the blue line. An RPI-ND matchup would be one Buffalo Sabres fans could take some interest in, as it would pair Petersen's Irish against Jason Kasdorf's Engineers in a battle between the Sabres' top two college prospects in net. Kasdorf was a Jets prospect when the teams faced last year, and Petersen didn't play against RPI anyway.

Notre Dame has achieved the status of "team that won't stay down for long," and last year was certainly a down year in their books. Expect a much better rounded team effort from the Fighting Irish this season if the Engineers cross paths with them again for two reasons - they'll have an overall better squad next season, and the faceoff will come nearly two months into the season, as opposed to the very beginning of the year as in last year's game.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Know Your Enemy: Western Michigan

It's been a matchup that has been rumored for quite some time - ever since Seth Appert's college roommate became the head coach for a single season on his rocket path up the coaching ranks, RPI-WMU has been something that has been tossed around but has never quite come to fruition for one reason or another. This year, it's finally taking place - as the opening round game in the Shillelagh Tournament in South Bend. It will be the first game that another rising coaching star, WMU associate head coach Ben Barr, will have against the team he captained in 2003-04 since he left Union in 2011.

Western Michigan
Nickname: Broncos
Location: Kalamazoo, MI
Founded: 1903
Conference: NCHC
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: 2012
Last Frozen Four: None
Coach: Andy Murray (5th season)
2014-15 Record: 14-18-5 (6-13-5-4 NCHC, 7th place)
Series: RPI leads, 4-2-0
First Game: December 28, 1979 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: January 23, 1999 (Troy, NY)
Last WMU win: November 28, 1980 (Kalamazoo, MI)

2015-16 game: November 27, 2015 (South Bend, IN)

Key players: G Lukas Hafner, sr.; F Nolan LaPorte, sr.; D Chris Dienes, jr.; F Sheldon Dries, jr.; D Taylor Fleming, jr.; D Mike McKee, jr.; D Neal Goff, so.; D Scott Moldenhauer, so.; F Aidan Muir, so.; F Willem Nong-Lambert, so.; F Frederik Tiffels, so.; F Johnny Curran, fr.; F Matt Iacopelli, fr.; F Mitch Makin, fr.; F Griffen Molino, fr.

The Broncos are a pretty young program in comparison to most other hockey programs out there in a major conference - their first season in existence was the 1973-74 season, the beginning of a two year process that saw them join the fledgling CCHA, at the time a minor conference by comparison to the two mainstays, the WCHA and the ECAC.

Some of the most famous names to come out of the WMU program actually played on some of those early teams, which featured a number of games against smaller schools without varsity programs. Long time New York Rangers GM Neil Smith played for the Broncos from 1975 to 1978, though he never reached the NHL as a player. Smith's teammates included Bernie Saunders, the fifth black player to play in the NHL, as well as Bernie's brother John, who has worked for ESPN for nearly 30 years and was once a mainstay on the network's NHL coverage (though he only appeared in two games for WMU).

Officially joining the CCHA in 1975, the Broncos were long an afterthought within a league that itself was largely an afterthought until 1981, when Michigan, Michigan State, and Notre Dame defected there from the WCHA. Even when the league had as few as five teams, it was not uncommon to see WMU finish in last place or next-to-last place, which they did in each of their first six seasons in the league. It wasn't until 1984 that the Broncos could even claim a finish in the top-half of the league table, which they did with a 5th place showing in what was then an 11-team league.

That was the second season for WMU's third head-coach, Bill Wilkinson, who would eventually become the most successful coach in program history, and under Wilkinson, the Broncos would quickly reach heights they'd yet to see in their first decade of existence. A season later, in 1985, WMU recorded their first winning season in CCHA conference play and finished 3rd in the standings.

The program's first rise peaked in 1986, when the Broncos took a second consecutive 3rd place CCHA finish and turned it into a title run in the CCHA tournament, ultimately knocking off a Michigan State team that would go on to win the national championship by a 3-1 score at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit for the program's first hardware of importance. That team won 32 games, by far a record for the most wins in a single season in program history, but WMU was swept out of their first NCAA tournament appearance by Harvard.

The next 10 years or so saw WMU settling into a middling role in the CCHA - rarely competing at the very top of the table, but never really falling into the doldrums of the conference, either. Wilkinson's teams earned their first two at-large bids to the NCAAs in 1994 and 1996, but the Broncos dropped lopsided games to Wisconsin and Clarkson in those years, respectively, leaving the program still in search of its first national tournament win.

Those two NCAA appearances proved to be another local peak for the program, as WMU began to tail off following their 1996 appearance. The Broncos struggled to two losing seasons following their loss to Clarkson and were well on their way to a third when Wilkinson was fired in February 1999, in part due to a scandal on the team in which a team party took place at a home that Wilkinson owned. His replacement was assistant coach Jim Culhane, a WMU alum who had played on the CCHA championship team who'd had a cup of coffee in the NHL following his collegiate career.

Culhane had some minor success early in his tenure in Kalamazoo, bringing the Broncos back to the mid-point of the CCHA standings in 2001 and 2002, the former a 20-win season that would be his only one as head coach. But after that, WMU returned to largely being an afterthought in the now powerful CCHA conference, and the program spent much of the 2000s in the doldrums of college hockey, far from competition for national tournament appearances or CCHA glory.

For some time under Culhane, WMU looked like a program whose administration didn't really care much about. In 11 full seasons as head coach from 2000 to 2010, the Broncos finished with a winning record only twice, making it to .500 in 2007 but never better than that after 2002. After two 8-win seasons in three years (2008 and 2010), Culhane was informed late in his final season that he would not be returning behind the bench.

The summer of 2010 was a tumultuous one for college hockey. At its very end, the news that Penn State was moving its program to varsity status threatened to explode the foundations of the college hockey conference structure - and ultimately, it did, with the CCHA right at the epicenter as teams fled for other conferences in a hurry. WMU, heading into that season, certainly didn't look like a candidate for a strong conference, not after essentially 15 years of stagnation as a program.

But Culhane's immediate replacement as head coach would end up leaving an impressive impact on the program in just a single year behind the bench. When Indiana Ice head coach (and former Seth Appert roommate) Jeff Blashill was named the Broncos' new head man, it didn't exactly make waves, but the team he put on the ice made plenty of noise. Against all odds and expectations, the Broncos rebounded from a last-place finish in 2010 to a 4th place CCHA result in 2011, followed by a run through the CCHA tournament that ended in the championship game. They fell to 5-2 to Miami, but still earned their first NCAA tournament bid in 15 years.

Blashill's charges gave Denver all they could handle in Green Bay (just after North Dakota had demolished RPI on the same ice), but fell 3-2 in double overtime. Four months later, Blashill was hired as an assistant coach with the Detroit Red Wings. A year after that, he'd take over the head coaching position at Detroit's AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids, and just this month he became the new head coach of the Red Wings, only four years removed from Kalamazoo.

If there's another coach who had as significant a positive impact on the direction of a college program in just a single year at the helm, it would be awfully difficult to identify him. Less than a year after WMU looked like a program without a prayer, and just a couple of months after Blashill's departure, the Broncos were extended an invitation to join the new NCHC, an invitation to a sure-thing power conference they'd have never earned without the resurgence he brought to the program.

Following Blashill's departure, the Broncos landed another big name to guide the team through the final CCHA years and into the NCHC - Andy Murray, the former Los Angeles Kings and St. Louis Blues head coach. Murray, who had flirted with the head coaching position at RPI in 2006 (he was apparently offered the job first), had coaching college hockey on his "bucket list," and he found quick success at WMU. In his first year, he guided the resurgent Broncos to their second CCHA championship, riding a second place finish - their best final position in the league ever - to a tournament run and a 3-2 title game victory over Michigan.

WMU would fall 3-1 to North Dakota in the 2012 NCAA tournament. The Broncos are still chasing the elusive NCAA tournament victory - with six losses in as many tries, they have the active record for most national tournament games without a win.

In 2013, their tenure in the brand-new NCHC began, and it has been difficult over the first two seasons. The conference has proven to be a total meat grinder, with no "breaks" on any given weekend as basically every team has been among the best in the nation. The inaugural season saw the Broncos finish in the middle of the pack, while last year they were ahead of only Colorado College. As the saying goes, somebody has to be last, but someone also has to be next-to-last. Murray is certainly keeping WMU competitive in a very difficult conference, but there's another step that likely will have to be taken before they can be among the best of the best in this new league.

The Broncos were 8-5-0 in non-league play last season, but only 6-13-5 in NCHC play. The eight non-conference wins included 6-2 and 8-2 destructions of Ohio State and Union in the Shillelagh Tournament, so they enter this year's affair as the reigning champs. This year's WMU squad returns most of the key elements from a decent offensive makeup, with LaPorte. Dries, and Tiffels all having reached double digits in both goals and assists last year. Hafner was strong in the net for the Broncos, with a 2.42, .914 line that really isn't that bad when you consider the level of competition he faced on a night-in, night-out basis.

Most of the top blueliners from last year are back as well, although the defensive corps did suffer one important defection to the pro ranks when Kenney Morrison signed with Calgary at the end of his year, forgoing his senior season. He had previously been slated to be the Broncos' only senior defenseman.

There's no question that WMU was one of the most dangerous sub-.500 teams in the nation last year, so take their losing record with a serious grain of salt. Put that team in practically any other conference and they're likely contenders for a title of some kind. They should be at the very least better than they were last year given what is returning, and while a resurgent RPI team could probably give the Broncos a good game, they're almost certainly the favorites. WMU has only an hour and a half drive to South Bend, RPI's time in the iron lung is 11 hours. This is a neutral site game with a definite home team. Give the edge to the Broncos in what will certainly be another difficult non-conference game for the Engineers, one of many across the first two months of the season.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Know Your Enemy: New Hampshire

A bit of an odd feeling this year not having Boston University on the schedule. The seemingly annual RPI-BU game has been a fixture for the last couple of decades, rarely taking a year off, but at the very least we do have the almost-as-frequent RPI-UNH game to look forward to again this season. This year the series shifts the scene back to Troy as the Wildcats arrive for a little mid-week action just before Thanksgiving in a more-rare-than-games-against-UNH Tuesday night matchup at Houston Field House.

New Hampshire
Nickname: Wildcats
Location: Durham, NH
Founded: 1866
Conference: Hockey East
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: 2013
Last Frozen Four: 2003
Coach: Dick Umile (26th season)
2014-15 Record: 19-19-2 (10-11-1 Hockey East, 8th place)
Series: UNH leads, 25-22-0
First Game: February 7, 1964 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: November 25, 2014 (Durham, NH)
Last UNH win: January 6, 2013 (Durham, NH)

2015-16 game: November 24, 2015 (Troy, NY)

Key players:  F Dan Correale, sr.; F Maxim Gaudreault, sr.; D Harry Quast, sr.; F Kyle Smith, sr.; D Matias Cleland, jr.; F Tyler Kelleher, jr.; F Shane Eiserman, so.; F Warren Foegele, so.; F John Furgele, so.; D Cameron Marks, so.; F Andrew Poturalski, so.; G Daniel Tirone, so.; D Joseph Masonius, fr.; F Marcus Vela, fr.

Previous KYE installments:
Last season got off to a horrible start for UNH a month before the puck dropped as goaltender Casey DeSmith was arrested and charged with domestic assault and battery for an incident that happened in late August. He was suspended and eventually kicked off the team.

That left the Wildcats with basically two options in net for the first semester - freshman Adam Clark, and junior practice goaltender Jamie Regan. Clark had been recruited to back up DeSmith for last season and then eventually Tirone for this year. With the lack of a D-I level second option, UNH accelerated Tirone's arrival for the spring semester, and he ended up playing most of the team's minutes in the second half of the season.

Clark certainly had his struggles. After all, giving up two goals to RPI in late November last year was kind of like giving up four or five to almost anyone else. That was definitely a time when the Engineers had a hard time buying goals, but two was enough to produce a victory for the road team in Durham that night, even despite the injury to Jason Kasdorf that kept him on the sidelines for the rest of the semester.

That's in part because while the Engineers couldn't score goals around that time, neither could UNH. But they picked up their offensive output significantly late in the year, coinciding with better defensive play. The Wildcats won six of eight games down the stretch in February and managed a trip to the Garden for the Hockey East semis after winning a tightly-held three-game affair in Providence against the eventual national champions.

So while it's tempting to point out that they played six games against UConn and Merrimack down the stretch, that series win over Providence has to at least indicate that the Wildcats did in fact finish strong. They'll have Tirone ready to go from the outset this season, although the scoring isn't a sure thing by any stretch of the imagination. Outside of Kelleher (18 g, 22 a) and Poturalski (19 g, 16 a), UNH doesn't bring back a huge chunk of what offense they had last year.

The Wildcats' challenge will be much the same as that of the Engineers over the last couple of seasons - broadening their scoring appeal beyond their top line. If they can manage that they will be a serious threat in Hockey East. If they can't, they're going to have to rely on their defense - which will be young but talented - in order to make waves. Anything and everything can and will happen when RPI and UNH play each other, and while the games haven't tended to produce much in the way of fireworks, they've been unpredictable. The Engineers now ride a two-game winning streak over the Wildcats into this season's game at the Field House, and by that time a battle tested team should, one would hope, be able to run with UNH, especially on their own ice surface.