Friday, July 27, 2012

Penn State: Light in the Darkness

It's hard to get past it in hindsight.

At the press conference in State College, PA that began the shake-up of the college hockey universe on September 17, 2010, the benefactors of varsity hockey at Penn State, Kim and Terry Pegula, sat flanked by two individuals for whom it made perfect sense to be there - athletic director Tim Curley and university president Graham Spanier. Both men discussed the excitement they felt to be making a step forward, bringing big time college hockey to a sixth Big Ten campus in two years' time.

Fast forward almost two years. Watching the announcement now, knowing the secret both men had been hiding for over a decade, and the impact isn't quite the same. Now, with Spanier fired, Curley on a leave of absence and under indictment, and the school's premier athletic program under a crippling sanction announced earlier this week by the NCAA and the Big Ten, varsity hockey at Penn State will take the ice for the first time in three months under a cloud of shame that now hangs over the entire school.

And the school itself may not yet be out of the woods. As former blogger John Infante says, Penn State may yet be subject to sanction by the federal Department of Education for violations of the Clery Act, which requires schools receiving federal financial aid to publicly report any crime on or near campus. The potential penalties include significant fines or even a prohibition from receiving federal aid, a move which would be akin to a "death penalty" for the entire school.

Could the Penn State scandal have an impact on college hockey? Some have asked if the harsh sanctions applied to the school's cash cow athletic program could produce problems for its 28 other varsity programs, potentially including the new kinds on the block in men's and women's hockey. The short answer, at least as it pertains to hockey, is: probably not. Hockey in Happy Valley is fortunate to be the child of private investment, for both scholarships and new facilities. Construction continues unabated on Pegula Ice Arena, which is slated to be done in about a year, just in time for the start of the hockey version of the Big Ten. The only real fallout from the NCAA sanctions (and the scandal itself) is how potential recruits view the school's reputation in the future.

The only thing hockey fans would have to fear is that "death penalty" from the federal government - an occurrence that would potentially undermine the school in a fundamental manner to make athletics there very difficult to maintain in any real capacity. That would probably lead to some very intense pressure by the other Big Ten schools on fellow conference institutions without varsity hockey due to the irreparable destruction of existing hockey conference bonds making status quo ante bellum highly unlikely (no fewer than 19 programs are slated to change conferences next year).

Honestly, though, it's not even worth pondering that scenario for a couple of reasons. First, it's more frequently an exercise left to those who continue to resent Penn State for helping to alter the college hockey landscape that people had gotten used to; really, those resistant to change. Second, Penn State is likely "too big to fail," as Infante said of them, and it's unlikely the government would intentionally cripple such a large school, putting literally tens of thousands of students' academic careers into chaos.

I prefer to turn the question on its head. Perhaps college hockey can have an impact on the Penn State scandal.

There's no doubt that Penn State is enduring the darkest moments in its 157-year history. Powerful people at the school chose to look the other way while a monster committed unspeakable crimes against the most innocent members of society. Those people have now been removed, responsible parties punished or on their way to punishment, and the program which benefited most from the cover-up has been set back at least five years, and likely well over a decade.

But hockey is a unique sport. It's quite niche, given the fact that the usual east/west split is the Ohio/Pennsylvania border rather than the Mississippi River, and the fact that Alabama-Huntsville continues to be viewed as something of an oddity. Small schools regularly compete with large schools, and sometimes, they even win. And above all, it can be akin to a family, something which anyone who's been to even one Frozen Four can attest. Scholarship scandals tend to be on the rare side, and sanctions are unusual - only two Division I programs have ever had to vacate Frozen Four appearances, and none since 1992.

So we think back to that day two years ago when Penn State and the rest of the college hockey world was excited for varsity hockey in State College, a place that had already proven itself with rabid support for a club program and represented the first major university coming into the sport in decades. Look past the guilty parties that were part of that announcement and see through to the promise of a brighter future for a place in need of some serious healing. Consider Guy Gadowsky, the man who made Princeton hockey relevant again, who always brings to town a team that plays a style that's fun to watch.

Penn State comes to the Capital District in late November to take on Union, right after Thanksgiving. RPI has that weekend off. Let's head up Route 7, welcome college hockey's newest kids on the block, and hope and pray that the potential for excellence on the ice in central Pennsylvania can be the start of a new and positive chapter for a once-great institution that lost its way.

And, while you're thinking about Penn State, why not surf on over to Thank You Terry, a Penn State hockey blog worth bookmarking. Headed up by the very well written Kyle Rossi, if you've got any misgivings about Penn State's hockey future, you'll be sure to lose them by checking out his excellent advocacy.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Know Your Enemy: Dartmouth

Every time it seems like Dartmouth is on the verge of possibly breaking through, they seem to suffer a setback of some kind, and last year was mostly a setback for the Big Green, who were second only to RPI in the category of biggest disappointments when compared to pre-season expectations for last season. Like the Engineers, most expected the Big Green to compete for the bye, instead they lost the fight for home ice in the first round.


Nickname: Big Green
Location: Hanover, NH
Founded: 1769
Conference: ECAC (Ivy League)
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: 1980
Last Frozen Four: 1980
Coach: Bob Gaudet (16th season)
2011-12 Record: 13-16-4 (8-11-3 ECAC, 9th place)
Series: RPI leads, 41-31-5
First Game: January 17, 1908 (Albany, NY)
Last RPI win: February 11, 2012 (Hanover, NH)
Last DC win: January 6, 2012 (Troy, NY)

2011-12 games: November 9, 2012 (Hanover, NH); February 2, 2013 (Troy, NY)

Key players: D Mike Keenan, sr.; F Dustin Walsh, sr.; D Taylor Boldt, jr.; F Matt Lindblad, jr.; G Cab Morris, jr.; F Eric Robinson, jr.;  F Jesse Beamish, so.; F Brandon McNally, so.; F Eric Neiley, so.; F Tyler Sikura, so.; F Jack Barre, fr.; F Nicholas Bligh, fr.; F Connor Dempsey, fr.; G Jim Kruger, fr.

Key losses: F Doug Jones, D Connor Goggin, D Jim Gaudet, F Nick Walsh, G James Mello, G Jody O'Neill, F Paul Lee

Previous KYE installments:
Also like RPI, Dartmouth managed to end their season on a high note by emerging from the first round of the ECAC playoffs, surprising a lot of observers with a sweep at St. Lawrence.

They also had freshmen and sophomores among their top performers, which bodes well for the future. Sikura was the co-leader on the team in points with 25 (along with Jones), while Robinson led the team in goals with 12. Five of the top six scorers on the team were freshmen and sophomores.

Besides having to depend on the less-experienced players for offense, the Big Green were hamstrung by a defense that was frequently fairly porous. Mello and O'Neill, both of whom had stretches in their collegiate careers where they were considered upper echelon ECAC goaltenders, backstopped a defense that was just 47th (out of 58) in the nation at 3.09 goals per game. O'Neill's numbers were close to where they were when he was ECAC Rookie of the Year, but Mello got the majority of the playing time.

Morris, his game-stealing theatrics against the Engineers on national television in January notwithstanding, did little to impress in the limited time that he has seen in the last two seasons. The win over RPI remains his only career ECAC victory. It remains to be seen if Morris is the answer in net for Dartmouth or whether Kruger (from the high-level BCHL) or incoming classmate Charles Grant (who comes in from the rather weak junior league in the Canadian Maritimes) will get opportunities.

Another problem the Big Green had to deal with was the injury to Montreal Canadiens draft pick Dustin Walsh, which limited him to just eight games on the year, the last one being the aforementioned victory over RPI in which the junior notched an assist before being shut down for the year. Walsh led the team in scoring at that point despite missing six games up to that point in the season, and if he could have maintained his points per game average through an entire season, would have been one of the top scorers in the league. His return should be a shot in the arm for Dartmouth as well.

Defense is likely to be the main concern in Hanover this year. While the Big Green have a number of solid scoring threats (especially with Walsh's return), they bring back only three defensemen who saw an appreciable amount of ice time last season and have question marks in net. If they're going to win games this season, they're going to need to come out ahead in the track meets that teams with good offense and rough defense frequently find themselves in.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Your 2012-13 RPI Engineers

This morning, RPI released its yearly announcement of the incoming freshman class. With the roster apparently set for the 2012-13 campaign, it's time to take an in-depth look at the Engineers, with some early guesses on what to expect in the coming year.

Eight players who were on last year's roster will not return - seven seniors and one early departure. Given that RPI is expected to lose five players in each of the next two seasons, that's quite a lot at once. That also means that this year's team will still be a little bit young, with only 10 juniors and seniors combined.

The departing players are replaced with nine freshmen from a class (of 2016) that looks to have at least a few names that could develop into standouts in Troy. Last year's highly anticipated freshman class had just three players from the USHL and none from the BCHL, arguably the top two junior leagues in North America in a class of eight. This year's crop features five alumni from those leagues.

Gone: Alex Angers-Goulet, Patrick Cullen, Joel Malchuk, Josh Rabbani, Justin Smith.
Returning: Greg Burgdoerfer, Ryan Haggerty, Brock Higgs, Jacob Laliberte, C.J. Lee, Mark McGowan, Matt Neal, Marty O'Grady, Johnny Rogic, Zach Schroeder, Matt Tinordi.
Arriving: Milos Bubela, Andrew Commers, Travis Fulton, Mark Miller, Mike Zalewski.

A pair of problems had the RPI offense hamstrung for much of the season - early on, the almost total lack of goal scoring put a serious hamper on the team leading to a serious lack of competitiveness, and later on, the inability of the younger forwards to get into a scoring groove (or avoid injury).

The Engineers lose five forwards, but offensively are not really that worse off than they were last season. Angers-Goulet and Malchuk may represent RPI's biggest losses up front if only because of their prowess on the penalty kill. Besides that, you're looking at a group of players who, with the exception of Malchuk, were healthy scratches on multiple occasions. Smith was known to be a solid locker-room presence but he suited up only 42 times in his four-year career, and only 9 times last season. Cullen found his groove in a line with Higgs and Tinordi late in the season, but was a frequent healthy scratch in the middle of the season and never quite got back to where he had been in his promising freshman year. Rabbani was rarely seen after January. Even Angers-Goulet was a healthy scratch down the stretch.

Given that offensive outlook from the seniors, it could be argued that the Engineers were offensively young last year, and that will continue to be the case this season with Lee and O'Grady standing out as the only offensively inclined senior forwards on team with 16 forwards, 10 of which will be either freshmen or sophomores. That somewhat explains the issues that the sophomore class, last year's freshmen, had despite a boatload of expectation surrounding them. Many considered Laliberte's freshman year disappointing since he failed to put up the gaudy numbers he had become known for in juniors, but he was injured early in the season and struggled to bounce back from it. McGowan and Neal also had early season injuries, Haggerty got sick and missed a few games, and Schroeder's season was ended in the first round of the playoffs with an injury he will have to work to overcome early in the coming season.

Those players will undoubtedly be part of RPI's offensive bedrock in the coming season, especially considering that they all were basically part of it last year when they were healthy. Joining them are a freshman class that arrives without the same level of fanfare as last year's forwards, but with some individual standouts. Most notable among the additions is Zalewski, whose outstanding output in the always-tough BCHL portends a smooth transition to the college game, potentially as an immediate impact scorer. Miller, as we have mentioned before, is something of an unknown quantity given his USHL record, but Seth Appert has said on more than one occasion that he expects him to be a solid contributor. Commers comes from St. Thomas Academy in Minnesota, where he formerly played with Schroeder and put down similar numbers in his senior year. Fulton averaged close to a point-and-a-half per game in the OJHL, which is where Neal and McGowan put up solid numbers in the past.

Practically since his commitment last September, it had been anticipated that Riley Bourbonnais would be part of this year's class, but Appert insisted in an interview with the Troy Record in back in May that he had always planned for him to arrive in Troy in 2013. That opened the door for Slovakia's Bubela to come to Troy this season, and as a World Junior Championship alum with USHL experience, he has the high-level competition experience necessary to come in and contribute immediately. There was question about whether he'd passes the NCAA clearinghouse - star European players sometimes run into trouble getting clearance to play college hockey because youth and junior teams in Europe sometimes intermingle with semi-professional ranks, and the NCAA is always on the lookout for players who were paid or played with players who were paid. We'll likely never hear for certain on passage before the season starts, but his inclusion in the official recruiting press release at least indicates that the school is confident that it will happen, if it didn't already.

Gone: Mike Bergin, Pat Koudys.
Returning: Nick Bailen, Luke Curadi, Bo Dolan, Guy Leboeuf, Curtis Leonard.
Arriving: Craig Bokenfohr, Chris Bradley, Phil Hampton.

The situation on the blue line has been interesting to say the least. Coming into last season, the possibility existed that the Engineers would not lose anyone at all heading into 2012 given that Bergin, the only senior on the roster, had a medical redshirt available due to his mostly lost freshman season in 2008-09. Since then, it had been understood for a while that Bergin will not return next season (confirmed when he signed a pro contract in Sweden last month) and in late April it became known that Pat Koudys had elected to return to juniors in anticipation of playing his last two years of eligibility elsewhere (most likely in the ECAC, given his field of study).

The d-corps has been in a serious state of flux pretty much ever since Bryan Brutlag was moved to forward during the 2009-10 campaign, perpetuated by the defection of highly anticipated recruit Nick Quinn to major junior before he ever donned an Engineers sweater and the inability of the team to draw a walk-on to the roster last year. Thus, for the past two-and-a-half seasons, RPI has been shorthanded on defense, frequently carrying only seven defensemen at any given time, which created a decided lack of competitiveness for ice time and almost zero cushion for injuries.

That issue may now be resolved with three freshmen coming in to replace the two departures. Of the three, Bradley is easily the most anticipated by default (since he committed in September 2010 while Bokenfohr and Hampton committed in February 2012 and May 2012 respectively), but his talent and size should make him an immediate impact player for RPI in much the same way as Leonard last season. If he lives up to the hype, we should expect to see him playing on any night where he's healthy along with Bailen and Leonard.

Curadi, Dolan, and Leboeuf all have shown the definite ability to be lineup regulars, especially late in the season when they along with Bailen, Bergin, and Leonard were the usual six starters. At least one of them will likely join the aforementioned three as a regular starter, perhaps two, but the presence of Bokenfohr (who comes to RPI from the AJHL, which isn't too shabby itself) and Hampton, two guys with some pretty good potential, could definitely create the competition for ice time that will help build a solid defensive effort.

Gone: Jeremy Coupal.
Returning: Bryce Merriam, Scott Diebold.
Arriving: Jason Kasdorf.

The Engineers will have a somewhat unusual situation in net next season with three goaltenders capable of holding down the #1 spot on a Division I team on the roster instead of the usual scheme of two and a walk-on practice goalie. This is, in some respects, a by-product of Allen York's decision to forego his senior season and sign an NHL deal after the 2010-11 season, which necessitated the arrival of Diebold for last year.

Kasdorf had always been expected to be York's replacement on the roster, instead he now replaces Coupal, the man who started RPI's club program, joined the varsity as the practice goalie as a junior, and now moves on to take up a position as volunteer assistant coach at Bemidji State.

Merriam will almost certainly begin his senior season as the team's top goaltender, but that position isn't necessarily going to be his by default - with two other D-I talents on the roster, he will probably have to be sharper than he was late in the year to keep that role. While his GAA was a respectable 2.36 last season, his save percentage of .908 left a little to be desired. His numbers were definitely boosted by a torrid streak of hot goaltending in late January that powered three straight wins with only one goal allowed.

If he played like that regularly, there'd be no question about who the Engineers were relying on this season, but as it stands, the door is open for Diebold (whose freshman numbers were both below that of Merriam's but whom also showed flashes of brilliance) or Kasdorf (whose single USHL campaign was rough to say the least, but comes in as RPI's lone NHL draftee) if Merriam falters even a little bit, especially late in the season  as happened with senior Mathias Lange in York's freshman year.

It's always worth taking a look at the longer-term picture as well, so here's quick look at where we stand with recruiting down the road.

Out: Merriam, Burgdoerfer, Lee, O'Grady, Bailen
In: F Riley Bourbonnais, F Jake Wood, F Jimmy DeVito, F Drew Melanson?

Recruiting for 2013 seems all but done. In all likelihood, we'll see one defenseman sometime in the next year, and that's probably it unless the roster expands or we see early departures. Merriam is likely to be replaced by a walk-on goaltender, with Diebold and Kasdorf to run things this season. At present, the thought on Melanson is that he will likely spend this season honing his skills in the USHL this year, especially since there are already three confirmed forwards to replace the three that are graduating, none of which are likely to get pushed to 2014.

All four recruits and potential recruits will be playing in the USHL next year. As we've mentioned before, Bourbonnais is projected to be a solid points producer, and an extra year in Cedar Rapids will likely help his adjustment to the college game. The bruising DeVito will play a third season with Chicago. Wood will join Lincoln after being drafted in the 3rd round of this year's USHL Draft (the team's second pick of the draft), while it sounds like Melanson will forego his senior season at Delbarton HS in New Jersey to play for the always solid Omaha Lancers.

Out: Higgs, Rogic, Tinordi, Leboeuf, Dolan
In: D Charles Manley, F Evan Tironese,  F Drew Melanson?

Oddly (for RPI, anyway), recruiting may be coming close to a close for 2014 as well. Assuming Melanson is coming this season (a strong likelihood unless Appert feels he needs to bring him in earlier to keep him in the fold), the Engineers need just one forward and one defenseman to replace its departing players two years out. Not a bad place to be two-and-a-quarter years before this class arrives on campus.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Know Your Enemy: Union

If you ever needed proof that anything is possible, ask someone who's been following the ECAC since the early 1990s if they ever thought Union would ever see a Frozen Four berth. For those of you who watched Union turn in terrible season after terrible season after terrible season after playoff choke, you can now officially remind yourself of this whenever you are down on your team: Union College played in the Frozen Four.

Nickname: Dutchmen
Location: Schenectady, NY
Founded: 1795
Conference: ECAC
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: 2012
Last Frozen Four: 2012
Coach: Rick Bennett (2nd season)
2011-12 Record: 26-8-7 (14-4-4 ECAC, 1st place)
Series: RPI leads, 45-28-10
First Game: February 26, 1904 (Albany, NY)
Last RPI win: November 13, 2010 (Troy, NY)
Last UC win: March 10, 2012 (Schenectady, NY)

2012-13 games: November 2, 2012 (Troy, NY); November 3, 2012 (Schenectady, NY); January 26, 2013 (Albany, NY)

Key players: F Wayne Simpson, sr.; F Kyle Bodie, sr.; D Greg Coburn, sr.; D Shawn Stuart, sr.; D Ryan Forgaard, sr; F Daniel Carr, jr.; F Josh Jooris, jr.; F Matt Hatch, jr.; D Mat Bodie, jr.; G Troy Grosenick, jr.; D Shayne Gostisbehere, so.; F Max Novak, so.; D Tim Boyle, fr.; F Theo DiPauli, fr.

Key losses: F Jeremy Welsh, F Kelly Zajac, D Nolan Julseth-White

Previous KYE installments:
Union's rise to the final weekend of the college hockey experience certainly wasn't overnight and, by the time they were playing there, the only people who should have been genuinely surprised are the people who routinely write off the ECAC as a league that just doesn't compete come late March. If there's one thing that characterized Union last year - and two years ago as well, for that matter - it's that they were a team that pretty much excelled at everything without quite being the best at anything, although statistically there wasn't a better defensive team last year with the Dutchmen clocking in at an eye-popping 1.83 goals per game.

They scored goals (6th in the nation). They converted on the power play (4th in the nation). They killed penalties (12th in the nation). There just weren't a lot of holes in Union's game last year because they played as a team and they refused to let anyone take them out of their game. And if you noticed above, the team's going to be largely the same as last year's, too.

There's no question that the offense will take a hit with Welsh's early jump to the NHL - he became the first Union alum in the NHL since the school's D-I move when he played in Carolina's final game of the regular season last year, picking up 4 penalty minutes - and Zajac's graduation (the Devils took a flyer on him). However, there is still plenty of offense in Schenectady to cushion the blow, especially with Carr, Simpson, and Jooris. It also opens room for Novak, who had a solid freshman campaign.

Defensively, Julseth-White was a rock but he wasn't the only one. With Grosenick sticking around after his unexpectedly monstrous sophomore season and basically all of the top defenders returning (especially Gostisbehere, whose tremendous freshman season saw him drafted in the 3rd round of the NHL Draft in June by Philadelphia), and the addition of fourth round draft selection Boyle (Ottawa), there's little reason to expect that Union will take much of a fall from where they were last year, especially if Forgaard stays healthy.

There's no question that Grosenick is going to need to replicate his numbers from last year to give the Dutchmen a shot at making another deep run into the NCAA tournament, but even if he's a little off, there's little doubt that Union has the talent to be the best in the ECAC for a third consecutive season. They are very well placed to compete over the next two years and possibly beyond, having locked up Rick Bennett through the end of the decade. That'll make for three very tough games for RPI - coming off a season where RPI lost five times to the same team for the first time in school history - but it's also never a bad thing to be paired with a tough team as your travel partner, something which we used to lament on a regular basis.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Know Your Enemy: New Hampshire

Last week, we touched on RPI's most frequent out-of-conference rival, but this week's team is no slouch in that category, either. Like many teams in Hockey East, UNH previously played in the ECAC, and since the split in 1984, they've played the Engineers on 13 different occasions, 14 if one includes the NCAA tournament game the teams played in 1994.

New Hampshire
Nickname: Wildcats
Location: Durham, NH
Founded: 1866
Conference: Hockey East
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: 2011
Last Frozen Four: 2003
Coach: Dick Umile (23rd season)
2011-12 Record: 15-19-3 (11-14-2 Hockey East, 6th place)
Series: UNH leads, 24-20-0
First Game: February 7, 1964 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: October 10, 2009 (Troy, NY)
Last UNH win: October 17, 2008 (Durham, NH)

2012-13 game: January 6, 2013 (Durham, NH)

Key players: F Austin Block, sr.; F Greg Burke, sr.; D Brett Kostolansky, sr.; D Connor Hardowa, sr.; F Kevin Goumas, jr.; D Eric Knodel, jr.; F Nick Sorkin, jr.; G Casey DeSmith, so.; F Grayson Downing, so.; D Trevor van Riemsdyk, so.; F Collin MacDonald, fr.; D Brett Pesce, fr.; F Kyle Smith, fr.

Earlier in this year's Know Your Enemy roll, we touched on the famed NCAA futility of St. Cloud State, whose futility tended to manifest itself at the beginning of each tournament they were in. New Hampshire has a similar bugaboo, but theirs extends to the very top of the tournament as the Wildcats are known as one of the best programs in the nation that has never won the national championship despite seven Frozen Fours and 21 NCAA appearances.

Hockey at New Hampshire dates back to 1925, when the school first sponsored a team to take part in a winter festival at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. UNH was able to field a team with at least two games a year through 1943, but rarely had outstanding seasons with the lone exception of 1927, when the Wildcats won all six of their games. Suspending operations for World War II, the team returned in 1947 and pretty much picked up where they left off, putting together mostly middling seasons into the late 1950s.

From 1958 through 1960, the Wildcats elevated their play significantly with three straight seasons that rank among the team's best early successes. Shortly after moving to a new outdoor rink in 1955, UNH put together three consecutive seasons with 11 or more wins, breaking the 10 win mark for the first time in school history and completing a record of 38-16-0 during the span. Two years later, the Wildcats would be among the 28 teams in the inaugural season of the ECAC.

After finishing near the middle of the back in the first three seasons of the new conference, the Wildcats left the ECAC due in large part to their lack of indoor facilities. On the same day the school announced a large project to build an indoor arena around their rink, the team's coach, A. Barr "Whoop" Snively died of a heart attack. The project was named after Snively, and Snively Rink would open in 1965. Among the fallout from Snively's death was the arrival of RPI head coach Rube Bjorkman as his replacement, a move which nearly killed hockey at RPI after Bjorkman took most of the team's top recruits with him to Durham.

Under Bjorkman, the Wildcats returned to the ECAC after a two year absence in 1967, becoming the conference's 16th member. With Bjorkman's pilfered recruits leading the way during his two years in the league, UNH established a tradition of excellence within the conference, finishing with a winning percentage under .600 only three times in 18 seasons in the ECAC (and only one of the three was a losing season). Much of this success came under coach Charlie Holt, who took over after Bjorkman left for North Dakota in 1968 following UNH's first ever 20-win season.

Holt guided the Wildcats to their first title in 1974, claiming the ECAC's regular season championship, but they were upset in the first round by RPI, ending hopes of an ECAC championship and the team's first NCAA appearance. Repeatedly, the Wildcats suffered playoff heartbreak despite outstanding regular seasons, falling to Cornell in 1975 and Harvard in 1976. In 1977, UNH finally got over the hump and appeared in their first Frozen Four (in a five team tournament), falling in overtime to Wisconsin.

1979 brought UNH its first and only ECAC title as the Wildcats knocked off Yale and Cornell before defeating Dartmouth 3-2 to claim the championship. That sent UNH back to the Frozen Four, but again they fell in the semifinal. The Wildcats would earn their first ever NCAA victories in 1982 with a pair of wins over Michigan State, but once more the team could not get any farther than the semifinal round of the Frozen Four.

Following another missed NCAA opportunity in 1983, UNH joined with Providence, Boston College, Boston University, and Northeastern to announce a breakaway league from the ECAC, becoming charter members of the new Hockey East. But when the new league got underway in 1984, the Wildcats found themselves struggling to keep pace in the new "super league." After a losing season in the inaugural year - the school's first 20-loss season ever - the Wildcats had a school-worst record of 5-29-3 in 1986, which coincided with Holt's retirement after 18 seasons.

Holt's replacement, Bob Kullen, suffered health problems through much of his tenure and could not right the ship in Durham, and the team suffered three additional 20-loss seasons - five in a row, marking the only five in school history. Following a heart transplant in 1990, Kullen stepped down and was replaced by assistant coach and former Wildcat player Dick Umile, who ushered in a sustained period of success for the next 20 years. In Umile's first official year as head coach in 1991, the team notched a 20-win season for the first time since 1984, and the following year returned to the NCAA tournament, which would become a regular habit.

In the 22 years since Umile's hiring, the Wildcats have had only two losing seasons, and have firmly established themselves among Hockey East's "Big Four." Between 1992 and 2011, UNH missed the NCAA tournament on only three occasions, including 10 straight apperances from 2002 through 2011. The team has had its brushes with greatness during that stretch, reaching the Frozen Four for the first time in 16 seasons with an appearance in 1998, and the following year UNH played for the national championship for the first time, losing a heartbreaker in overtime to their conference rivals, Maine.

Despite Umile's successes, the playoff woes that the Wildcats had in the ECAC had largely carried over into Hockey East, as the Wildcats failed time and time again to capture the Hockey East title. Regular season crowns in 1997 and 1999 both ended in heartache in the Hockey East championship game, but UNH finally broke through in 2002 and 2003, winning both the regular season and tournament titles in both years. Both seasons also saw returns to the Frozen Four, with the Wildcats returning to the national championship game in 2003 but again falling, this time to the reigning champions from Minnesota.

Over the following eight seasons, UNH returned to the NCAA tournament each year (along with regular season Hockey East titles in 2007, 2008, and 2010), but has yet to return to the Frozen Four. That streak was broken this past season, one of the toughest in Umile's long tenure in Durham, when the team failed to finish in the top four in Hockey East for the first time since 1996, fell in the first round to Boston University in three games (two of which went to two overtimes), and narrowly avoid the first 20-loss season since 1989.

New Hampshire struggled to put points on the board at times last season, and early on in the year struggled to keep pucks out of the net as well. After DeSmith took over the top job in net late in the season, the defensive problems got a little bit better, but offensively the Wildcats are going to be looking for someone to step up following the loss of Stevie Moses, who pumped in 22 goals last year, by far the team's leader. The trio of Sorkin, Goumas, and Downing will be the likely candidates here, while Smith and MacDonald offer some young talent as well.

Defensively, look for a better performance from a team with a 2.97 GAA (42nd in the nation) last year. DeSmith did rather well for a freshman goaltender last year and UNH's d-corps matured as the season went on. Last year's core players on the blue line were sophomores and juniors, this year, they're juniors and seniors with a great puck-moving sophomore in van Riemsdyk and one of the best college-bound players in the northeast in Pesce.

The Wildcats are hurting after a very difficult season and will have just two NHL draftees on their roster (Knodel and Burke), an unusual shortage for such a high powered team, but bad seasons are excessively rare in Durham, and two in a row are unheard of. If UNH finds its offense, this is a team that could claw its way back to the reaches of Hockey East that it's used to. That makes for a dangerous back end to RPI's Hockey East weekend that kicks off 2013.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Know Your Enemy: Boston University

For only the third time since 1990, the Engineers and Terriers did not renew their friendly rivalry last season, but given the way the last game between these two sides ended - with some cheap shots on both sides and Jack Parker shouting at the referees on his way off the ice (with cause) - it's probably a good thing that it'll have been two full calendar years since the last time the teams did battle. That's plenty of time for simmering bad blood to cool down, and return things to the way things usually are when RPI and BU face off - a spirited contest that frequently turns out to be anyone's game.

Boston University
Nickname: Terriers
Location: Boston, MA
Founded: 1839
Conference: Hockey East
National Championships: 5 (1971, 1972, 1978, 1995, 2009)
Last NCAA Appearance: 2012
Last Frozen Four: 2009
Coach: Jack Parker (40th season)
2011-12 Record: 23-15-1 (17-9-1 Hockey East, 2nd place)
Series: BU leads, 33-29-3
First Game: March 14, 1953 (Colorado Springs, CO)
Last RPI win: December 11, 2010 (Troy, NY)
Last BU win: January 2, 2009 (Denver, CO)

2012-13 game: January 4, 2013 (Boston, MA)

Key players: F Justin Courtnall, sr.; D Sean Escobedo, sr.; F Wade Megan, sr.; F Matt Nieto, jr.; F Sahir Gill, jr.; D Garrett Noonan, jr.; D Alexx Privitera, so.; D Matt Grzelczyk, fr.; F Sam Kurker, fr.; F Matt Lane, fr.; G Sean Maguire, fr.; F Danny O'Regan, fr.

Previous KYE installment:
Don't look now, but RPI's home victory in 2010-11 over the Terriers makes it two in a row against the boys from Comm Ave, and the Engineers are unbeaten in four of the last five games against BU. In addition, RPI has won both of the games they've played in BU's Agganis Arena, which opened in 2005. Both of those streaks will be on the line in January.

Since last we saw the Terriers, they have returned themselves to familiar territory. Rebounding from a "dismal" national title defense year in 2010 (which saw them still finish with a winning record), BU put together a better overall season in 2011 but missed the NCAA tournament in consecutive years for the first time since the late 1980s.

Last season, BU returned to their winning ways, completing a 20-win season and returning to the NCAA tournament, but their season ended poorly, with senior Kieran Millan, who had backstopped the Terriers to a national championship as a freshman, giving up 11 goals in his last two games against Maine in the Hockey East semifinals and against Minnesota in the NCAA tournament. BU's defense had been fairly porous down the stretch in general.

The Terriers may have been more notorious last year, however, for their off-ice problems despite their on-ice successes. During the season, two NHL draftees, Corey Trivino and Max Nicastro, were arrested - the former for indecent assault and battery and the latter for rape (though the charges were dropped last month). Trivino, a senior, had been leading BU and Hockey East in scoring at the time, and Nicastro, a junior, was one of the team's top defensemen. Earlier in the season, sophomore standout Charlie Coyle (another NHL draftee) fled the team for major junior in Quebec, Millan had been suspended for skipping class, and Parker himself had to issue an apology after losing his cool with referees on national television.

Despite all of this, BU managed to claim the #1 ranking in the nation for a week in early February after racking up a 14-4-0 record from the middle of November, but the team went just 6-7-0 the remainder of the way.

In addition to losing Nicastro's last year of eligibility and Coyle's last two, the Terriers, no strangers to early departures to the pros, lost top scorer Alex Chiasson and junior-to-be Adam Clendening to pro contracts. In all, seven of the team's 12 NHL draftees that were on the roster coming into the season are now gone due to graduation, expulsion, defection to major junior, or signing pro contracts.

Two of those seven were both of the Terriers' goaltenders, Millan and Grant Rollheiser, which means that BU will be starting from scratch in net to go along with the turmoil and turnover. Maguire appears to have the leg up on becoming the new starter, but he'll likely have to earn it. Defensively, Escobedo and Noonan will be called upon to provide leadership on the blue line.

Once again, as has been the expectation every season, BU brings in a large freshman class that has quite a bit of talent. On offense, Nieto, Gill, and Megan provide the experienced punch that the Terriers will need, and guide a bevy of very talented forwards that arrive this year, especially Kurker and O'Regan.

Overall, the Terriers are a tough team to pin down. On one hand, they are going through a great deal of turnover, and that can have a negative effect on even the most talented of teams. They're going to be young in net and semi-young defensively. However, after 40 years Jack Parker still manages to squeeze some of the best out of his teams, and four years ago he won a national championship with a freshman goaltender. Anything's possible, and it's in Boston, so the Engineers need to be loaded for bear when they reach Commonwealth Avenue.