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.

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