Monday, September 13, 2010

Know Your Enemy: St. Lawrence

Much like Clarkson, the Saints are another team that the Engineers are very familiar with - St. Lawrence has the second most games played against RPI by just one game (131 against Clarkson, 130 against SLU), and that's a function, like Clarkson, of having been part of the same league as the Engineers since the formation of the Tri-State League in 1950.

St. Lawrence
Nickname: Saints
Location: Canton, NY
Founded: 1856
Conference: ECAC
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: 2007
Last Frozen Four: 2000
Coach: Joe Marsh (26th season)
2009-10 Record: 19-16-7 (9-8-5 ECAC, 5th place)
Series: SLU leads, 74-50-6
First Game: January 3, 1951 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: January 23, 2009 (Canton, NY)
Last SLU win: November 14, 2009 (Canton, NY)

2010-11 games: January 8, 2010 (Troy, NY); February 18, 2011 (Canton, NY)
Key players: F Aaron Bogosian, sr.; F Kyle Flanagan, so.; F Greg Carey, fr.; F Jeremy Wick, fr.; D Matt Raley, sr.; D Peter Child, jr.; D George Hughes, so.; D Justin Baker, fr.

Key losses: F Travis Vermeulen, F Mike McKenzie, F Brandon Bollig, F Alex Curran, D Derek Keller, D Jeff Caister, G Kain Tisi, G Alex Petizian

That list of losses for St. Lawrence is jaw dropping. It includes Brandon Bollig, who left with two years of eligibility still on the table, and really completes the bad news in Canton - practically every name on that list was a major part of a St. Lawrence team that made an appearance in Albany last season.

Hockey at St. Lawrence doesn't date back as far as it does at some other schools in the ECAC, but it's close enough - informal teams started after World War I, and the Saints played their first two official games in 1926. Fittingly, both games were against Clarkson, but SLU would not earn their first victory over their local rivals until 1943, after having no hockey throughout most of the 1930s. The Saints would be suspended for World War II following that 1943 campaign, returning in 1947.

In 1950, the year before the Tri-State League first started playing, the Saints went undefeated, winning all nine games on their schedule. A bigger schedule may have seen them playing in the NCAA Tournament, but an appearance would indeed be right around the corner under the tutelages of Olav Kollevoll and George Menard. Kollevoll brought the Saints to their first NCAA showing in 1952, the beginning of what would be a very dominant decade for St. Lawrence. Two years later, only an even more dominant RPI team kept the Saints from the NCAAs despite a record of 18-3-1. But from 1955 (Kollevoll's final season) through 1962, the Saints made six NCAA tournament appearances, giving them seven in ten years. The national semifinals were not kind to St. Lawrence, however, as the Saints advanced to the national championship game only once in seven tries - beating RPI 6-3 in the 1961 Frozen Four before losing to Denver 12-2, the second-most lopsided national championship game in NCAA history.

The Saints were able to extend their dominance into the mid-1960s, as they won the very first ECAC championship in 1962 and had their first 20-win season ever in 1963 (although they would not qualify for what would have been a 5th consecutive NCAA appearance). Menard managed to keep the team competitive into the early 1970s despite some rough seasons in the mid-60s, but he departed the team in 1971 after three consecutive seasons at .500 or below.

The 1970s, generally, were a bit of a lost decade in Canton, under the guidance of Bernie McKinnon and former RPI and BU head coach Leon Abbott. From 1969 through 1981, the Saints managed only a single winning campaign, a 15-13-0 record in 1973. The four years under Abbott from 1976 though 1980 were especially bad, as SLU lost 20 games in three of those seasons after never having lost more than 17 in any given year, capped by Abbott's final year in Canton, the 1979-80 season, in which the Saints went 6-26-0, setting a program record for losses in a season that stands to this day as St. Lawrence finished in last place in the ECAC for the first (and to date, only) time.

The renaissance began under head coach Mike McShane, who would replace Abbott following that dismal season in 1980. While McShane would ultimately become a college hockey legend farther on down the road at Providence and especially at Norwich (where he has won three D-III national titles, including the 2010 title), he got the ball rolling immediately while cutting his teeth as a head coach in Canton. He returned the Saints to a near-.500 record in 1980-81, arguably the team's best season at that point in almost a decade. Two years after that - only three years removed from that awful 1979-80 season, the team set a school record for wins in a season with 23 and made their first NCAA tournament appearance in over 20 years.

While RPI was building dominant teams in the early 1980s, St. Lawrence was right there as well. They were notable for being the only team to knock off the juggernaut Engineers in regulation during the 1984-85 season, which would be McShane's final year in Canton, the fourth straight winning season for SLU for the first time since the early 60s. McShane would, however, leave the team in very capable hands - a young UNH grad who had been one of his assistants, Joe Marsh.

Marsh would pick up where McShane left off in the late 1980s before writing his name as the greatest coach in St. Lawrence history over the years since. The Saints would return to the NCAA tournament in 1987, the first of three consecutive appearances that included ECAC titles in 1988 and 1989, an overall record of 82-27-0, and the team's second appearance in the national championship game in 1988. That experience was far better than the previous title game showing as the Saints were ostensibly the home team playing just down the road in Lake Placid, but St. Lawrence lost a heartbreaker to Lake Superior State, 4-3 in overtime. Just eight seasons after reaching the lowest valley in the program's history, the Saints had come within just a single goal of reaching the top of the college hockey world.

With the exception of a few seasons in the middle of the decade, Marsh kept the Saints competitive throughout much of the 1990s. They claimed another ECAC title in 1992, which was the fifth 20-win campaign in six seasons, and after a rough rebuilding patch in 1997 and 1998, St. Lawrence finished the 90s back at the top of the ECAC, reaching the NCAA tournament three consecutive times from 1999 to 2001, including a fantastic 2000 season in which the Saints won their very first ECAC regular season title - their first meaningful regular season title of any kind since the days of the Tri-State League - and won their first of two consecutive ECAC championships. They also made their ninth Frozen Four appearance in 2000.

The 2000s, as a decade, were best described as "feast or famine" in Canton. From 2002 through 2005, the team hit a rough streak of four straight losing seasons (including three in a row with 20 losses), but two years later, in 2007, the Saints nabbed their second ECAC regular season title and made an NCAA tournament appearance. A 20-loss season followed in 2008, and a 20-win season came down in 2009.

Last year, St. Lawrence proved a formidable opponent, especially for RPI fans, who saw the Engineers take only one point in a pair of games that were outright wars. Solid senior goaltending from Kain Tisi and, to a lesser extent, Alex Petizian, keyed the Saints while outstanding scoring touch from Travis Vermeulen (who doubled as a defensive threat, as evidenced by his award as the ECAC's best defensive forward), Mike McKenzie, and Brandon Bollig, among others made SLU a dangerous team to contend with on a nightly basis.

As mentioned at the top, all of those names are now gone, all at the same time. The Saints' lone returning goaltender, Robby Moss, is a junior with all of 10 games of NCAA experience. The amount of scoring that the team has lost since last season is staggering - they return the least amount of offense from last season in the ECAC. The only two proven offensive threats are senior Aaron Bogosian and sophomore Kyle Flanagan, who had been an early contender for Rookie of the Year before being sidelined with an injury. Flanagan would return to appear in 13 ECAC games, but had only 7 assists down the stretch.

The Saints' one saving grace may be a talented but still largely young group of defensemen, including sophomore George Hughes, who was one of the best freshmen defensemen in the league last season, and junior Peter Child, who has shown some decent puck moving ability at the blue line. But the question marks still abound for the entire team. Where is the scoring going to come from? Is the goaltending going to be acceptable? Hard to say on either front. Even if the Saints are able to get significant contributions from its incoming freshmen, it's very difficult to excel in the ECAC with the bulk of your top players lacking experience. Just look at the last few RPI squads.

Joe Marsh, the dean of the ECAC Hockey coaching fraternity since Tim Taylor's departure four years ago, has been known to wrest more from his teams than most observers reasonably expected from time to time, but the Saints aren't one of those teams that have always been in the mix regardless of who they've had on their squad, especially over the past decade. If the answers to all of the questions the Saints have aren't obvious, it may be a tough year in Canton. Combined with the questions Clarkson has, it's likely to make for an eerie season in which the usually feared North Country trip - a trip that still exists as a perpetual home boost for both schools - may not seem so feared anymore.

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