Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Know Your Enemy: Sacred Heart

On the final day of 2012, RPI rings in the New Year with a game on New Year's Eve for the second time in three years. Two years ago they took on a down on its luck Alabama-Huntsville team that was among the worst in the nation, this season they will face a team that was, by nearly every single metric, the worst in college hockey last season.

Sacred Heart
Nickname: Pioneers
Location: Fairfield, CT
Founded: 1963
Conference: Atlantic Hockey
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: None
Last Frozen Four: None
Coach: C.J. Marottolo (4th year)
2011-12 Record: 6-28-3 (4-20-3 AHA, 11th place)
Series: RPI leads, 3-2-0
First Game: January 24, 2004 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: October 23, 2009 (Troy, NY)
Last SHU win: November 17, 2006 (Troy, NY)

2012-13 game: December 31, 2012 (Troy, NY)

Key players: F Eric Delong, sr.; F Ben Ketchum, sr.; G Steven Legatto, sr.; D Mitchell Stretch, sr.; D Alex Stuart, sr.; F Chad Filteau, jr.; F Drew George, so.; F Brian Sheehan, so.; F Ben Lake, fr.; D Josh Phillips, fr.

Befitting a school that has existed for just under half a century - which has only included residential students for a little over 20 years - there isn't much to tell about the history of hockey at Sacred Heart. What exists is a series of ups and downs that have brought the Pioneers to the cusp of the NCAA tournament and the depths of Division I hockey.

Varsity hockey at SHU started in the 1993-94 season, with the team taking residence in the ECAC of the newly returned Division II, a natural fit given the existence of local teams in Iona, Fairfield, and Quinnipiac, teams they certainly got used to seeing in their first couple of campaigns. The Pioneers struggled, to say the least. The team went 4-15-0 in its first season and didn't finish with a winning record until 1997, the season that Cornell alumnus Shawn Hannah took over as head coach.

With the pending demise of the Division II tournament in 1999, Sacred Heart joined the exodus to Division I as part of the new kids on the block, becoming founding members of the MAAC along with their three aforementioned rivals in 1998, Hannah's third season behind the bench. That season, the Pioneers again struggled, besting only hapless Fairfield while stumbling to a next-to-last finish in the eight-team conference.

Those struggles did not last. SHU became a competitive member of the MAAC over the next four years, moving from the middle of the table to consecutive third-place finishes in 2002 and 2003. Along the way, the Pioneers earned the honor of becoming the first MAAC program to pick up a victory over a team from one of the other, established Division I conferences with a 5-3 win over Hannah's alma mater, Cornell, at Lynah Rink in November 2000.

As the MAAC evolved into Atlantic Hockey in 2003, the Pioneers approached a position where they could be considered one of the best teams in the conference, but were unable to attain the NCAA tournament bid that would go with success in the AHA. They reached the AHA championship in 2004 after a Cinderella run through the league playoffs, but fell to Holy Cross. After a tough 2005 campaign, the Pioneers landed their first 20-win season in 2006, and repeated the feat in 2007 along with a best-yet 2nd place finish in the AHA. In both seasons, however, they were upset in the league tournament.

After two losing seasons in 2008 and 2009, Hannah unexpectedly left the team just before the start of the 2009-10 season, and was hastily replaced by Yale assistant coach C.J. Marottolo. With little expecation for the Pioneers, Marottolo proceeded to lead SHU to a surprising 2nd-place finish in the league, establishing the team as the top rivals to the RIT/Air Force dominance that had been in place since the teams joined the AHA in 2006. This time, the Pioneers returned to the AHA championship, but ran into an RIT team that would eventually reach the Frozen Four, falling 6-1, the closest they have come to reaching the NCAAs.

The last two years, however, Marottolo was unable to help Sacred Heart repeat their lightning-in-a-bottle performance of 2010. In 2011 and 2012, the Pioneers put together a combined record of 12-53-10, limping to back-to-back 11th place finishes in the league, last year along with Army gaining the ignoble honor of becoming the first teams to finish behind American International in the table since 2003.

Sacred Heart has, since the beginning of its program, played most of its home games at the Milford Ice Pavilion, a community rink built for a high school team with the smallest capacity in Division I hockey at only 1,000 (though they have played a handful of games over the last two years in Bridgeport). That seems like a bit of a hindrance to growth for the Pioneers.

The RPI-SHU series, which began in the 2003-04 season and continued for five of six consecutive years, contained some spirited affairs. RPI fans remember especially the unforgettably named Bear Trapp (who scored 2 goals and 3 assists in 3 games against RPI) and Pierre-Luc O'Brien (1 goal and 3 assists in 3 games), and the difficulty with which the Pioneers were put away, especially given back-to-back losses in 2006 and 2007.

After a two-season lull, the Engineers and Pioneers do battle again on New Year's Eve, but even if RPI struggles this year, this should still be a game they should win. Last season, SHU had the nation's most dismal defense to the tune of over half a goal per game over the next worst - 4.68 per outing - and it will contain a lot of the same players that it did last year. The Pioneers did do better offensively last year than RPI, although that isn't saying much. The offense was still relatively weak at 2.27 goals per game, somewhat skewed by their shocking 7-6 victory over Yale at Ingalls Rink before Thanksgiving (their first win of the year after 11 straight losses).

As with that Yale game, anything can happen on any night if you take your opponents lightly, and RPI does have an earned reputation for playing down to the level of their opponents when they have a game they should win. Depending on how the Engineers come into the start of 2013, this game could either be a welcome respite from a pair of tough games in Minnesota, or a must-win for confidence going forward in to the meat of the ECAC schedule. Either way, RPI will be favored at home.

Monday, June 25, 2012

ECAC: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

The final piece of the puzzle in the upcoming conference scramble appears to be falling into place with reports last week of Hockey East and UConn inching closer together. Reports are that the Huskies are likely to join Hockey East in 2014-15, one season after what we referred to last offseason as "the tsunami" strikes college hockey's shores, irreparably changing the landscape as we know it.

With Hockey East now apparently destined for the 12 teams most everyone expected they'd finish with, there's only one question remaining - the long-term fate of Alabama-Huntsville. Given a reprieve by the school in December when the school reversed its much-maligned decision to scuttle the program, the Chargers will enter their third season without a conference this October and will still require a place to call home in order to secure their long-term existence.

With UConn set to depart Atlantic Hockey, that leaves the ECAC as the only conference to be completely untouched by "the tsunami." 12 teams when the process started, same 12 teams when it concludes.

Some, especially the powers that be in Albany, would call that a pretty good outcome. Stability is a good thing, as the schools which scrambled to find a home as the CHA and CCHA each disintegrated will tell you.

But how stable is the ECAC, really, and given the current state of the college hockey world, how much benefit is there for teams in the stable ECAC? We've long said that the league no longer qualifies as a "major conference" (at least since the very late 1990s) and that is even more likely to be true once the landscape changes in favor of the new big three: Hockey East, the NCHC, and the Big Ten. With an additional new "mid-major" likely to develop from the new WCHA and basically all of the big power schools concentrated in the Big Three, it's not out of the realm of possibility for the ECAC's decline to accelerate.

What could change things? There are two potential events on the horizon that could very well help tip the apple cart - neither are sure to happen, but neither would be a shock to the system, either.

1) The Ivy League. As we've said before, the Ivy six represent a veritable Sword of Damocles hanging over the integrity of the conference, and the sword has hung for decades, especially the last three following the Hockey East split. The Ivy League competes as its own entity in... pretty much every sport known to man. Men's and women's hockey is a very notable exception.

What would the Ivies gain from a split? They would stand to gain quite a lot, as Harvard's Brendan Roche (WHRB play-by-play announcer and all-around good guy) pointed out in a post last year while discussing the possibility of the ECAC losing RPI or Quinnipiac to Hockey East. First and foremost could well be scheduling: the Ivy League is limited to 29 regular-season games a year, and with 22 of those games earmarked for ECAC contests, that leaves them with only 7 non-conference games to play around with - just five for Harvard, which plays two of its NC games in the Beanpot every year. A six-team league could feature 4 games a season with league teams (all better draws than the non-Ivies currently are), and open two more non-conference opportunities.

Most of Roche's other points are very well taken. It makes sense for them from a marketing standpoint. With the Big Ten coming into being next year, it would give them the ability to showcase an all-sports brand, something that could come in handy when competing with the Big Ten, the NCHC, and Hockey East for talent. They'd also gain their own autobid to the NCAA tournament, though this is a bit of a wash with 9 of the last 11 ECAC autobids going to Ivy teams (Clarkson in 2007 and Union in 2012 the exceptions).

There's nothing the six non-Ivies can do about this, not anymore. None of them would fit into the west-centric NCHC (not that the league would want them if they tried) or WCHA, Hockey East is closed, and the only way out is to a lower league in Atlantic Hockey. The only reasonable option if an Ivy exit happens would be to reconstitute with programs from Atlantic Hockey that are seeking to move up in the world. We're talking about RIT, Niagara, Robert Morris, Holy Cross, and the like.

Of course, the non-Ivies could proactively split, but it's the same scenario. Compare the Ivies to the teams mentioned. With no disrespect intended to those teams (which are honestly trying to boost their competition level), but it's a step down for the ECAC non-Ivies as much as it's a step up for those teams. The only silver lining in all of this seems to be the autobid, but this would in all eventuality be a conference with only marginally better chances of attracting at-large bids than Atlantic Hockey currently does. The ECAC, at the very least, typically draws at least one at-large bid every year, giving some incentive for the non-Ivies to hold onto the marriage as long as the Ivies are still OK with it.

2) Notre Dame and the Big Ten. This is something that has been discussed, literally, for almost a century, since the first overtures between the parties were made in 1926. While the first possibility revolves entirely around hockey, this one revolves almost entirely upon football, with ripples that could now be felt in the hockey world, given the recent changes to the landscape.

Notre Dame's independence in football is storied - it gives their historic program the opportunity to set their entire schedule, and allows them to negotiate their own national television contract (with NBC) with an exclusivity that helps keep their brand front and center. But Notre Dame football isn't what it was for decade after decade of the 20th century. They haven't won a national championship since 1988 and haven't played for one since 1991. No Heisman Trophy winners since 1987. In the 14 seasons of the BCS, they've played in a BCS bowl only three times, losing all three. They haven't finished the season in the Top 25 of the national rankings since 2006 and only four times since 2000.

What's more, Big Ten football is beginning to eclipse Notre Dame in drawing power and revenues, especially with its Big Ten network. Big Ten schools are now pulling in more TV revenue individually than Notre Dame and their exclusive contract, and as the Irish continue to struggle to be nationally relevant on the gridiron, that inequity may only increase as the years progress.

What does this have to do with hockey, you ask? Well, Notre Dame has long seemed a perfect fit for the Big Ten, and if the economics of it all push the Irish to move football (and everything else) to the Big Ten, it'll take hockey right along with it.

That would create a dilemma for Hockey East. Now back to 11 teams and missing a star attraction, what course of action do BU and BC take? Both reportedly spurned NCHC bids previously, thought in large part to be because of Notre Dame's potential addition to Hockey East. Does that suddenly become an option for those teams? Either way, you're then looking at a 9 or 11 team Hockey East, with openings once again.

These scenarios illustrate the tricky spot the ECAC finds itself in, both as an integral unit and as two different halves. For the non-Ivy League teams especially, there could be a glass ceiling forming just as Minnesota-Duluth, Ferris State, and Union were proving that the Division II and III schools still had room to succeed at the highest levels.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Know Your Enemy: St. Cloud State

This week's edition of "Know Your Enemy" is actually a team Tom is fairly well familiar with - he did his graduate work at St. Cloud State and covered the program for a couple of seasons for USCHO as his first foray into sports journalism. He also regularly put together a "Husky Bracketology" for SCSU fans, the forerunner to the same methodology that became "Engineer Bracketology" during the 2010-11 season here at Without a Peer.

This series came about after SCSU was bumped from this year's Great Lakes Invitational in favor of Western Michigan, since the GLI will coincide with the NHL's Winter Classic in Ann Arbor this season. The natural solution for WMU to drop its games with RPI, and for SCSU to pick them up.

St. Cloud State
Nickname: Huskies
Location: St. Cloud, MN
Founded: 1869
Conference: WCHA
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: 2010
Last Frozen Four: 1987 (Division II)
Coach: Bob Motzko (8th season)
2011-12 Record: 17-17-5 (12-12-4 WCHA, 6th place)
Series: RPI leads, 4-2-0
First Game: January 15, 1988 (St. Cloud, MN)
Last RPI win: November 22, 2003 (Troy, NY)
Last SCSU win: November 1, 2002 (St. Cloud, MN)

2012-13 games: December 27-28, 2012 (St. Cloud, MN)

Key players: F Ben Hanowski, sr.; F Drew LeBlanc, sr.; D Taylor Johnson, sr.; F Nic Dowd, jr.; D Nick Jensen, jr.; D Kevin Gravel, jr.; D Andrew Prochno, so.; G Ryan Faragher, so.; D Jarrod Rabey, so.; F Garrett Hendrickson, fr.; F Joey Benik, fr.; F Ville Jarvelainen, fr.

For several years, St. Cloud was perhaps best known as the butt of everyone's jokes when it came to the NCAA tournament. It was hard to blame people for laughing, considering that the Huskies had frequently put together some very competitive teams only to fall flat on their faces in their first NCAA opportunity, losing their first nine NCAA games (including four seasons in a row). They broke that streak against Northern Michigan in 2010, but still have yet to get over the hump and reach the Division I Frozen Four.

As could be expected with Minnesota schools, hockey goes back quite a ways at St. Cloud. A formal team began during the 1930s, and despite the fact that college hockey would not become a legitimate pathway to the NHL for several more decades, two outstanding NHL goaltenders came through the then-St. Cloud State Teachers College: Hall of Fame inductee Frank Brimsek, who won two Stanley Cups with the Boston Bruins and was their goalie of choice during the 1940s, and Sam LoPresti, who set an NHL record by facing 83 shots in a single game against Brimsek and the Bruins in 1941.

These early teams were very successful, leading legendary Minnesota coach John Mariucci to say that St. Cloud "did more for collegiate hockey in the '30s and '40s" than any other institution.

The Huskies' program went on hiatus during World War II from 1942 to 1947, but returned with a bang, putting together 10 seasons out of 11 at .500 or better while playing outside of the NCAA's newly established championship, mostly against a variety of Minnesota and Wisconsin based teams. In 1956, Jack Wink became St. Cloud's first long-term coach, bringing the team to some high highs (including a perfect 11-0-0 record in 1962 after a 12-1-0 year in 1961) and some low lows (the team went 6-42-0 in his final three years from 1966 to 1968).

St. Cloud spent 16 seasons under the tutelage of Charles Basch from 1968 to 1984. During this time period, the Huskies joined Division III's NCHA in its inaugural season of 1980, a year after the team competed in the NCAA's D-II/D-III tournament for the first time. SCSU competed well in the NCHA, but their star turn came in 1987, with the arrival of a major name in the history of hockey: Herb Brooks.

Brooks came to St. Cloud with his legacy already written: three NCAA championships with the University of Minnesota, the gold medal as the legendary head coach of the 1980 Miracle on Ice team, and three-and-a-half seasons as the head coach of the New York Rangers. Brooks and his protege, Craig Dahl, had one thing in mind for the Huskies: Division I. Using his considerable pull with USA Hockey, Brooks proposed that the campus host the National Hockey Center, the first building in the nation with two Olympic-sized rinks, as training for international events. This would be the bedrock for the school's long-term plan for Division I hockey.

In 1987, his only season in St. Cloud, Brooks brought the Huskies to the NCHA regular season championship, tying a school record with 25 wins in a single season and advancing the team to the NCAA Division III Frozen Four. The Huskies fell 5-2 to Oswego State in the semifinals, ending their hopes of a national championship, but they bounced back with a victory over Bemidji State for 3rd place.

Just as St. Cloud was beginning its Division I adventure, Brooks was hired to be the head coach of his hometown Minnesota North Stars, and it fell to Dahl to guide the team into the elite ranks of college hockey. While the NHC was under construction, the Huskies were Division I independents from 1988 to 1990, picking up an independent bid to the NCAA tournament in their second season but dropping two games to the defending national champions, Lake Superior State.

SCSU joined the WCHA in 1990, a year after the NHC opened, and reached the middle of the pack right away, finishing 5th in the nine-team league in 1991. The team gradually improved its competitiveness throughout the 1990s, finishing 4th in 1994 and 3rd in 1997, the team's first two 20-win seasons in Division I. By the turn of the century, Dahl had molded one of the better programs in a league that was establishing itself as the best in the nation. The Huskies returned to the NCAA tournament in 2000, and arguably had its greatest season to date in 2001, winning 31 games, attaining a #1 national ranking for the first time and winning the WCHA championship, but falling to Michigan in the NCAA tournament, just one win away from the Frozen Four thanks to the top-seed bye.

The Huskies would reach the NCAA tournament in four consecutive campaigns from 2000 to 2003, but never picked up that elusive first victory. Dahl remained on board for two more seasons, the second of which saw St. Cloud finish next-to-last in the WCHA for the first time. Dahl left the team near the start of the 2005-06 season, and was replaced by SCSU alumnus Bob Motzko, who had just joined the team as an assistant coach after winning two national championships at Minnesota as an assistant.

Motzko turned SCSU's fortunes almost immediately. In 2006, his first year behind the bench, he guided the team back to the WCHA Championship game, and the following two seasons back to the NCAA tournament. It was not until 2010, however, that Motzko and Huskies would get over the hump and pick up their first NCAA victory on their 8th try. SCSU has had only one sub-.500 season under the coach entering his 8th year this season, coming in 2011, a disappointing result for a team that was expected to be among the best in the WCHA.

Last year, the team put together a .500 season with very little in the way of expectations. They overcame adversity, with LeBlanc, one of the team's top threats, lost to injury early in the season, as well as Mike Lee, the team's top goaltender. They lost forward Cam Reid to major junior midway through the season, and yet rebounded in time to get a home ice position for the WCHA first round and make an appearance at the Final Five in St. Paul.

LeBlanc, who was a senior last year, was granted a medical redshirt and will be back this season. While the Huskies do lose a pair of top goal scorers to graduation, they are expected to have their best forward back in Hanowski, a scorer of 23 goals and 20 assists last season as a junior who appears to be returning for his senior year. Dowd returns off of strong a season last year, and the return of LeBlanc with the addition of touted freshman Hendrickson could make SCSU difficult to stop offensively, cushioning the blow from David Eddy's decision to forego his senior year.

The defense will be backstopped by Faragher following the early NHL departure of Lee, who was Jerry D'Amigo's roommate in Saskatchewan when the US junior team won the gold medal in the 2010 championships. Lee missed most of last season after suffering an injury in October, but helped guide the team to a 7-3-1 record after the month of February, when he returned. Faragher proved at least a capable backup in Lee's absence from November through January, though the team was not as successful during that stretch. On the blue line, the team boasts some outstanding puck-moving defensemen in Prochno and Jensen, with some experienced toughness from Johnson.

All told, the Huskies have five NHL draft picks on their roster and are led by a talented senior class that has tasted NCAA success. With the team set to leave the WCHA for the start-up NCHC next season, this is a team that could be well positioned to leave the league on a strong note, and that could make for a couple of very difficult games for the Engineers in the Granite City.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Change It Up

Every two years, the NCAA rules committee makes some recommendations on changing the rules of college hockey. Some are smart. Sometimes, one or two of them are banally stupid. Two years ago, the committee decided it might be a good idea to see about calling icing when a team is on the penalty kill. That got shouted down PDQ.

This year, a number of different ideas have been put forward. Some of them are actually pretty solid. Quoting from Ken Schott's blog...
* The committee is recommending that the conferences the option playing four-on-four in the five-minute sudden-death overtime to decide regular-season games. The current format is a five-minute OT, with teams playing five-on-five.
Certainly a worthwhile change here. Not only does it mimic the NHL procedure for overtime, it also has the benefit of making overtime more exciting. Coming off a season where Harvard set an NCAA record for ties with 11 (which would have been 12 if their second game against Yale in the playoffs would have ended after five minutes) in 14 total overtime games, this is a very good idea. The open ice of a four-on-four situation by its nature creates more chances for both teams, and if you're looking for ways to cut down on ties without resorting to the skills competition known as the shootout, this is the way to do it.
* The committee adjusted its rules for when the net is dislodged as the puck enters it. The rule will follow the NHL standard, which allows for some displacement of the net as long as the posts remain in contact with the pegs.
Call this the Union rule, NCAA edition. During the first round of the NCAA tournament last year, Michigan State had a goal waved off because the puck crossed the line while the net was being lifted up by Union's Josh Jooris, even though the net remained on its moorings. The Dutchmen won the game 3-1 with the insurance marker coming on the power play late in the 3rd period and eventually went on to the Frozen Four. Plenty of people thought the Spartans were given the shaft, since Jooris' contact with the net didn't cause the goal to be fully dislodged, the movement didn't cause the puck to go in, and perhaps most importantly, it would have been a good goal in the NHL, but by the rules of college hockey it was no goal. Another smart move that again puts the NCAA in line with the professional standard of the game.
* The committee approved a change that will allow most goals of attacking players' skates, with the exception of distinct kicking motion.
This makes some sense. It'll encourage goal scoring without kicking it into overdrive, and also encourage some physical play in front of the net as defenders try to move screens who can be in a convenient position to deflect the puck into the net. Obviously, you can't intentionally kick the puck into the net - hence, the "exception of distinct kicking motion," but if you're just standing there and the puck glances in off your skate, that can just be good positioning gone right.
* The committee voted to allow a postgame review of disqualification penalties by the on-ice officials. The group requested conference feedback on how best to implement a procedure and guidelines for the concept, but the belief is a disqualification penalty, with the help of video evidence, is an important determination and should be reviewed. The calling official will have the final decision on any review.
Another smart call here. On-ice officials can only see so much, and in the heat of a moment, certain penalties can look worse and certain penalties can look not-so-bad that actually are worse. The solution? Allow the officials to go back to the videotape before a player gets an automatic suspension. There aren't too many leagues where in-game officials are the ones basically handing out suspensions for later games, so if the conferences want to continue to give referees the option of laying down such a penalty rather than simply reviewing individual cases as the NHL does, this is a good way of going about doing it.
* The committee will examine the use of three-quarter face shields. They didn't make a formal proposal, but will focus more on reviewing and collecting data on whether the three-quarter face shield will be safer than the full facemask.
There are a lot of people breathing a sigh of relief that the NCAA is at least ready to consider visors. The feeling is that the full masks not only tend to encourage dangerous play because they make the wearer feel invincible (especially with sticks), they also limit a player's range of vision, which can also make for dangerous play. We mentioned two years ago that additional protection sometimes causes additional injuries, using the concussion differences in football and rugby as a comparison. This may not be a done deal, especially with the NHL likely to require visors somewhere down the road, but it could at least be a good middle ground. Jack Parker, in a speech to the committee, believes that injuries like the one that happened to Travis Roy in 1995, when he was paralyzed trying to throw a check just 11 seconds into his first shift as a freshman.
* Goal judges may become obsolete. They are recommended, but not required.
Eh. This probably won't have much of an immediate impact, as it might simply be laying the groundwork for some kind of goal-line technology in the future. Goal judges used to play a very important role in backing the referee on whether the puck crossed the line or not, but more often than not referees are ignoring the goal judge almost completely (sometimes emphatically). I tend to doubt that we'll see schools go without goal judges if only because fans are used to seeing that red light go on when a goal is scored, so this is kind of a non-issue right now.
* The two-referee, two-linesmen system is now permanent in men's hockey. Women's hockey still keeps the option of the two-referee, one-linesman system.
I'm of the opinion that too many cooks spoil the broth, and the issue of poor officiating has certainly not been  solved by adding the extra official. In some cases it almost makes things more maddening for the fans who watch an official way out of position call something no one else saw, but this was pretty much always to be expected once the experiment began. The likelihood of putting fewer officials on the ice, especially when the NCAA is more and more concerned about player injury, was always pretty low. I was resigned to this from the beginning.
* Hand passes will be made illegal in all zones. Currently, hand passes are legal in the defensive zone. The new rule proposed is that the referee will stop play on a hand pass, and the faceoff will move into the offending team's zone. The offending team won't be allowed to change lines, either.
Wow. That sounds freaking awful. While admittedly not as bad an idea than that who-could-possibly-think-this-was-smart PK icing proposal which would have completely changed special teams strategies, this strikes me as yet another unnecessary rule tweak that moves college hockey unnecessarily away from the NHL standard. I can understand the rationale on this, at least - like PK icing, it's a situation in which you're allowed to do things at one point in the game and not in another. But as far as I know, there's no junior or professional league in the world that does not allow hand passes in the defensive zone. That means as it pertains to college hockey, if this rule were to go into effect, would impact the way the game is played defensively. As well, there are plenty of other situations where teams can't change lines. And to what end? More goal scoring? That seems to be the never ending cause for rule adjustments in the first place. Leave this alone.

There are things I'd rather not see college hockey emulate from the NHL - the trapezoid, for instance, or the elimination of the concept of ties - and there are plenty of reasons to have separation with the pros in some areas, but in many areas it just makes sense to play the game the same way. The rules committee I'm sure understands that the NHL is unlikely to draw its own inspiration from college rule tweaks. They love to play around with new rules at camps and in the AHL. If it's not broke, don't fix it. Fortunately, most of the proposals do seek to fix what could use a fix.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Know Your Enemy: Mercyhurst

The third entry on this year's "Know Your Enemy" series is the first one that is new to KYE, although not too long ago they were a regular opponent on the RPI schedule. Back when they were one of the top teams in what was then known as the MAAC, Mercyhurst made regular trips to Troy, and frequently gave the hosts all they could ask for, occasionally escaping with victories, too. This year, they come for a full weekend series for the first time.

Nickname: Lakers
Location: Erie, PA
Founded: 1926
Conference: Atlantic Hockey
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: 2005
Last Frozen Four: 1995 (Division II)
Coach: Rick Gotkin (25th year)
2011-12 Record: 20-16-4 (15-8-4 Atlantic Hockey, 3rd place)
Series: RPI leads, 4-2-0
First Game: November 25, 2000 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: October 30, 2004 (Troy, NY)
Last MU win: November 28, 2008 (Troy, NY)

2012-13 games: November 16-17, 2012 (Troy, NY)

Key players: F Paul Chiasson, sr.; D Nick Jones, jr.; F Daniel O'Donoghue, jr.; G Jordan Tibbett, jr.; F Daniel Bahntge, so.; F Nardo Nagtzaam, so.; F Chris Bodo, so.; D Grant Gettinger, so.; F Ryan Misiak, so.; D Tyler Shiplo, so.; F Kyle Cook, fr.; F Alec Shields, f.; D Justin Stevens, fr.

Interesting little factoid - in the growing NCAA/CHL talent war, Mercyhurst's home of Erie could be considered ground zero: it is the only municipality in North America hosting both a Division I hockey program and a major junior team, the OHL's Erie Otters. Sadly, the Otters outdraw the Lakers significantly, with the OHL side drawing around 3,000 fans per game, while Mercyhurst draws a little under 1,000 a game.

Hockey at Mercyhurst isn't nearly as old as it is at most of Division I's hockey playing institutions, but it can at least make a claim on being the oldest still-playing program in the state of Pennsylvania, which adds its third Division I program this year with Penn State. The first season in Erie took place in 1987-88. Under coach Fred Lane, the Lakers got off to a good start, going 16-7 in their first season in Division III.

The Lakers hired then-RPI assistant coach Rick Gotkin in 1988 to be their head coach, and he has been in Erie ever since - now there for a full quarter-century. With 434 career wins, Gotkin is among the top coaches in that category in college hockey history, but only 204 of them have come in Division I, ranking him 76th all time.

Gotkin's put the Lakers on top in short order. After a tough first season, Mercyhurst went 18-8-4 in 1990, and a year later took part in the Division III national tournament, just four seasons into their existence as a program.

With the Division II championship restarting in 1993, the Lakers moved up to their school-wide classification and immediately became one of the contenders for the re-established crown. Mercyhurst got the opportunity to play for the national championship in that season, but fell 10-6 and 5-0 in a best-of-three series to Bemidji State.

Two seasons on, the Lakers put together an even better showing, amassing a 23-1-1 regular season record (with no losses at all after early December) on their way to their second national championship showing, but again they were bested by Bemidji State as the Beavers - in the midst of a run of four titles in five years - swept the series 6-2 and 5-4.

Mercyhurst remained one of the strongest teams in Division II through the end of its most recent run with a national championship in 1999, putting together four straight seasons with less than 10 losses. That strength served them well when they moved up to Division I with several other soon-to-be championship-less programs, joining the MAAC in its second season in 1999 and continuing to put together solid outings, eventually making it 12 in a row from 1995 to 2006.

In just their second season in the league - their first as a full D-I program and the first in which the MAAC had an autobid to the NCAA tournament - the Lakers won the league title with a 6-5 win over Quinnipiac in the MAAC championship game, giving Mercyhurst the right to play in the national championship as the first representative from the upstart league. The feat made Gotkin the first (and still the only) coach in NCAA history to take a team to the national tournament at all three NCAA classifications, a feat he managed in just 11 seasons. That year, the Lakers held their own in the NCAAs, falling 4-3 to a Michigan team that would reach the Frozen Four.

Mercyhurst and Quinnipiac were the early beasts of the MAAC, later Atlantic Hockey, facing off against each other in the championship from 2001 to 2003, and also in 2005. The Lakers came out on top on each occasion with the exception of a 6-4 loss in 2002. In 2003, the Lakers were trounced 9-2 by Minnesota (who were on their way to a second straight national championship) in the NCAA tournament, and in 2005 fell 5-4 to Boston College.

The 2006 arrival of RIT and Air Force to Atlantic Hockey ended the Lakers reign atop the league, coinciding with the roughest stretch of Gotkin's career in Erie. Mercyhurst won just 9 games in 2007, reaching 20 losses and failing to notch 10 wins for the first time in school history. This was the first of four losing seasons in five years for Mercyhurst between 2007 and 2011.

Last year, the Lakers rebounded to post their seventh 20-win season since moving to Division I, accomplishing the feat with a rather young team. They reached the Atlantic Hockey semifinal, but ran into a tough Air Force team that also had ended their NCAA dreams in 2008 and 2009.

This past January, the school underwent a name change, going from Mercyhurst College to Mercyhurst University.

Notably, Mercyhurst is the only school sponsoring both men's and women's hockey at which the women's team outdraws the men. While the men have been among the more successful programs in Atlantic Hockey, the women are typically one of the best teams in the nation, lacking only a national championship to their pedigree.

Like last week's team, the Lakers had a pair of freshmen leading the team in scoring in Bahntge and Nagtzaam. Bodo tied for third with Chiasson, making it three frosh in the top four. In fact, pretty much all of the skaters that made Mercyhurst successful last season will return for this campaign, and while they still qualify as a young team, they have the advantage of having already been successful together, and that could again help them be a legitimate challenger to the RIT/Air Force dominance of their league.

The major hangup for the 'Hurst is likely in net with the graduation of their goaltender, Max Strang, who put up some very good numbers as one of the best goaltenders in Atlantic Hockey. Junior-to-be Jordan Tibbett, however, put up almost as good figures in much more limited action. If he can pick up where Strang left off, the Lakers will be a very formidable team in their league.

Outside of their league, however, is a different story. Like most Atlantic Hockey teams, the Lakers have never had a winning non-conference record in Division I, and the Engineers should be the favorites in these games, especially as the home team, unless they are limping into the middle of November with only a couple of wins. RPI saw their 6-game winning streak against Atlantic Hockey teams snapped last year against Army at the UConn tournament, but they haven't lost at home to an AHA team since falling 2-1 to Army in the 2009-10 season, which at the time was their third home loss in two seasons to the AHA.

The Engineers and Lakers played a yearly game from the 2000-01 season through 2005. They also posted two wins over the home team in the RPI Tournament, becoming the first MAAC/AHA team to beat RPI during the 2003 edition, and winning the 2008 version by beating Princeton in the final - so Rick Gotkin certainly has fond memories of his last business trip to Troy.

Monday, June 11, 2012

2012-13 Women's Schedule

Here it is, in all its glory. The Engineers do not leave New York or New England for the entire season (before any potential NCAA matchup, of course) with the exception of the single game at Princeton on the first day of December.

Friday games are at 7pm, Saturday games at 4pm unless otherwise mentioned.

Friday, 05 October - UCONN
Saturday, 06 October - UCONN, 3pm
Friday, 12 October - at Boston University
Saturday, 13 October - at Northeastern, 3pm
Saturday, 20 October - UNION
Friday, 26 October - at St. Lawrence*, 4pm
Saturday, 27 October - at Clarkson*, 3:30pm
Wednesday, 31 October - at Vermont, 7pm

Friday, 09 November - PRINCETON*
Saturday, 10 November - QUINNIPIAC*
Friday, 16 November - ROBERT MORRIS, 3pm
Saturday, 17 November - ROBERT MORRIS, 3pm
Friday, 23 November - at Syracuse
Saturday, 24 November - at Syracuse
Friday, 30 November - at Quinnipiac*

Saturday, 01 December - at Princeton*
Friday, 07 December - BROWN*
Saturday, 08 December - YALE*

Friday, 04 January - DARTMOUTH*
Saturday, 05 January - HARVARD*
Friday, 11 January- PROVIDENCE
Saturday, 12 January - PROVIDENCE
Friday, 18 January - at Harvard*
Saturday, 19 January - at Dartmouth*
Friday, 25 January - at Union*
Saturday, 26 January - UNION*, 3pm

Friday, 01 February - at Colgate*
Saturday, 02 February - at Cornell*
Friday, 08 February - CLARKSON*
Saturday, 09 February - ST. LAWRENCE*
Friday, 15 February - at Yale*
Saturday, 16 February - at Brown*
Friday, 22 February - CORNELL*
Saturday, 23 February - COLGATE* (Senior Night)

Fri-Sun 01-03 March - ECAC Quarterfinals (at higher seeds, best of three)
Friday, 08 March - ECAC Semifinals (at higher seeds)
Sunday, 10 March - ECAC Championship (at highest seed)
Fri-Sat 15-16 March - NCAA Quarterfinals (at seeded teams)
Friday, 22 March - NCAA Frozen Four (Minneapolis, MN)
Saturday, 24 March - NCAA Championship (Minneapolis, MN)

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Know Your Enemy: Minnesota State

As part of last year's early season gauntlet, the Engineers took on Minnesota State for the first time in school history, and it was against the Mavericks that RPI picked up what would be their only victory in their first 11 outings. This year, the Engineers return the favor by heading out to Minnesota for the first of what will be two trips to the Land of 10,000 Lakes this season, appearing in Mankato for the first time to take on a program in transition.

Minnesota State
Nickname: Mavericks
Location: Mankato, MN
Founded: 1867
Conference: WCHA
National Championships: 1 (1980, Division II)
Last NCAA Appearance: 2003
Last Frozen Four: 1991 (Division III)
Coach: Mike Hastings (1st season)
2011-12 Record: 12-24-2 (8-18-2 WCHA, 11th place)
Series: Tied, 1-1-0
First Game: October 7, 2011 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: October 8, 2011 (Troy, NY)
Last MSU-M win: October 7, 2011 (Troy, NY)

2012-13 games: October 19-20, 2012 (Mankato, MN)

Key players: F Eriah Hayes, sr.; D Evan Mosey, sr.; G Phil Cook, sr.; D Tyler Elbrecht, sr.; F Eli Zuck, sr.; F Zach Lehrke, jr.; F Johnny McInnis, jr.; F Matt Leitner, so.; F Jean-Paul Lafontaine, so.; F Max Gaede, so.; D Zach Palmquist, so.; F Bryce Gervais, fr.; D Nick Buchanan, fr.

Previous KYE installment:
When your top two scorers are freshmen, you're probably having a difficult season - just ask the 2007-08 Engineers. Minnesota State's seniors certainly underwhelmed offensively last year, contributing to the team's continuing offensive woes as no player reached 30 points for the season for the third consecutive campaign (not, of course, that RPI has much to say on that, with Brock Higgs' 23 leading the team last season). The offensive problems were likely a contributing factor to Troy Jutting losing his job after 12 seasons in Mankato.

The good news is that the Mavericks did get solid freshman campaigns from those top two scorers, Leitner and Lafontaine. Hayes, Lehrke, and Lafontaine tied for the team lead in goals with 13 each, so at the very least the MSU offense can boast a little bit of flexibility with who can put the puck in the net, even if they needed to do it with more frequency to be successful last year.

Last year, Mankato rode an outstanding goaltending performance from senior Austin Lee, who picked up 36 saves for his only career shutout, to swipe a 1-0 victory in the first game between the two programs. The Engineers fared better in game 2 against Cook, scoring four times on the soon-to-be senior, an offensive mark they would not reach again until the end of January. Cook's numbers on the season overall were pedestrian to say the least at 3.55 and .887. The Mavericks are going to need more out of Cook if they are to make strides from last year.

Replacing Jutting behind the bench is Mike Hastings, who has long been expected to take the reins of a Division I program. After 14 years as the head coach of the USHL's Omaha Lancers (winning three championships and never helming a losing season), Hastings replaced long-time Don Lucia lieutenant Mike Guentzel at Minnesota in 2008, leaving one year later to return to Nebraska and become Dean Blais' top assistant at Nebraska-Omaha, where he has been for the last three seasons.

Hastings has proven himself to be an outstanding head coach and four years under the tutelage of two of the greatest college hockey coaches in recent history certainly help his pedigree. How quickly he can turn things around in Mankato, however, remains to be seen, since it's hard to get a bead on what to expect from new coaches. Rick Bennett took over at Union last year and brought them to the Frozen Four, but the cupboard wasn't exactly bare when he took control of a team he knew well as a former assistant. In Lowell, Norm Bazin brought the River Hawks to the NCAA tournament in a season in which they were expected to be lousy. On the flip side, Bob Prier had a rough first season at Princeton.

At any rate, Hastings comes to Mankato just in time for the final season with the powers of the WCHA, which will pretty much all leave for either the Big Ten or the NCHC in 2013. He could be in an excellent position to help mold a new era for the Mavericks in which they can be more than just contenders in the new WCHA.