Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Know Your Enemy: Alaska Anchorage

For the second time in Seth Appert's tenure at RPI - and the third time in 11 seasons - the Engineers take a long October road trip to the Last Frontier for an early season trip to one of the two Alaska fixed-schedule tournaments that open the season on top of the world. On back-to-back nights, RPI will do battle against the two Alaskan teams entering their third season as WCHA league-mates. The first night, the Engineers do battle against the more southern of the two teams by taking on Anchorage, a squad they've only seen sparingly since the Seawolves took on RPI in their first ever game on the east coast.

Alaska Anchorage

Nickname: Seawolves
Location: Anchorage, AK
Founded: 1954
Conference: WCHA
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: 1992
Last Frozen Four: None
Coach: Matt Thomas (3rd season)
2014-15 Record: 8-22-4 (5-21-2 WCHA, 10th place)
Series: UAA leads, 2-1-0
First Game: November 23, 1981 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: November 23, 1981 (Troy, NY)
Last UAA win: October 16, 2009 (Fairbanks, AK)

2015-16 game: October 16, 2015 (Fairbanks, AK)

Key players: D Blake Leask, sr.; D Austin Sevalrud, sr.; F Blake Tatchell, sr.; D Chris Williams, sr.; F Brad Duwe, jr.; F Hudson Friesen, jr.; F Dylan Hubbs, jr.; D Chase Van Allen, jr.; F Matt Anholt, so.; F Austin Azurdia, so.; D Jarrett Brown, so.; F Anthony Conti, so.; F Tad Kozun, so.; G Olivier Mantha, so.; F Jeremiah Luedtke, fr.; F Jonah Renouf, fr.; F Nathan Renouf, fr.

Hockey at Anchorage got its start in 1979 under the guidance of Kelvin "Brush" Christiansen, who not only spurred the creation of a varsity program but would also serve as the team's head coach for its first 17 seasons, seeing the program through its birth through rocks and shoals and to its highest peaks thus far.

During their first season, the Seawolves participated in the Anchorage Senior League, playing only eight games against NCAA competition - all against the school's rivals from Fairbanks. UAA went 8-0 against the Nanooks in their opening year, for an officially undefeated NCAA record in 1980. The following year, playing a more full Division II schedule, UAA fell to Army in Anchorage to open the season, with the Cadets being the first non-Alaskan opponent to take on the Seawolves. Midway through the 1980-81 season, UAA ventured outside of Alaska for the first time for a six-game road trip to take on Division III programs in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

UAA's first ever trek to the east coast of the continental US took place in November 1981, starting with a game at Houston Field House against the Engineers ending in a 6-4 win for the home team. That trip was mostly against established Division I programs, and while the Division II Seawolves played well, they ultimately left empty-handed. But early in the program's development, Anchorage gained a well-earned reputation as a quality Division II side.

Division II, however, suffered from a lack of numbers. The defections of UMass-Lowell and Merrimack to Division I when Hockey East was formed helped precipitate an end to the D-II national championship, a serious blow to a UAA program that had managed a winning record in each of its first five seasons. But rather than move to a Division III schedule as many other D-II teams chose, Christiansen instead took the bold step of moving the Seawolves to Division I - a dicey prospect given the travel necessities from Alaska to the lower 48, and especially without a natural conference for UAA to join.

Christiansen led the way in creating an experiment of sorts - the Great West Hockey Conference. Banding together with three other formerly D-II teams from the far west (Alaska-Fairbanks, Northern Arizona, and U.S. International from San Diego), UAA sought to keep travel costs low by helping to grow the sport's western outposts.

Unfortunately, the Great West didn't last terribly long. Northern Arizona dropped its varsity program after the league's first year, and U.S. International dropped its team two years later. Meanwhile, the expansion of college hockey along the west coast never materialized. A two-team league being unfeasible, the two Alaska schools returned to the ranks of the independents.

But while the program was looking for a new home, it began to reach new heights even as the travel costs began to mount. With the NCAA tournament recently expanded to 12 teams in 1988, an at-large bid was earmarked for independent teams, and the Seawolves managed to cobble together a full enough and successful enough schedule to qualify with an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament in the 1990, 1991, and 1992 seasons. In 1990, UAA was blown away in two games by Lake Superior State, but the 1991 tournament brought the Seawolves to arguably their highest point as a varsity program.

Just over a decade after beginning play, Anchorage traveled to Boston College as huge underdogs against the Eagles. In a two-game, total goals series, the Seawolves managed not just one win, but two, taking down BC 3-2 and 3-1 to advance to the quarterfinal round, one step from the Frozen Four. They fell 8-5 and 5-3 to the eventual national champions from Northern Michigan, but UAA had put its stamp on the Division I map.

The following year, UAA again fell to the eventual national champions, this time dropping a single-elimination game against Lake Superior State, 7-3. Their "in" to the tournament was abolished the following season, giving greater urgency for the Seawolves to find a conference to play in. After one more year as an independent, UAA was invited to join the WCHA, giving the program some much needed schedule stability but requiring an increase in the number of trips between Alaska and the lower 48.

Having established the program he started in one of the nation's top conferences, Christiansen retired in 1996, three years into UAA's tenure in the WCHA. Under his guidance, the team had only five losing seasons - three of which were his WCHA years. But under his successors, the Seawolves would struggle to find any footing at all within the conference - a catch-22 of having the league as a safety latch for the program, but the super-competitive nature of the league making it difficult for UAA to find success.

Christiansen's successor, Dean Talafous, managed to crack 10 wins only twice in five years. John Hill then did this twice in three years, but those seasons bookmarked a horrible 2002-03 campaign in which UAA managed just a single, solitary win through an entire season, that one win coming in the very first game of the season against Fairbanks. The record winless streak to end the season was a mind numbing 35 consecutive games.

The following year, UAA made a playoff breakthrough by upsetting Wisconsin in the first round of the WCHA playoffs, then taking down Colorado College in the play-in game of the WCHA Final Five. Hill then left to return to an assistant's role at Minnesota, and Dave Shyiak took the helm. The same usual script continued: a bottom-of-the-barrel finish, a first-round matchup on the road, an early exit. Other than a historic two-game upset sweep at Minnesota in 2011 which sent UAA to the Final Five for a second time, that script followed exactly the same throughout Shyiak's tenure through 2013.

The reasoning was fairly simple. UAA was a minnow in a league of sharks, at a serious disadvantage in recruiting given the distance of the school from the core of the league in Minnesota and Colorado. In each of its 19 seasons in the WCHA, the Seawolves had finished with a losing record, only once coming as close as two wins under .500. But as Shyiak departed in 2013, that metric began to shake a bit. As the college hockey landscape shifted with the advent of the Big Ten and the NCHC, the sharks of the WCHA mostly swam off for those conferences, leaving a playing field that UAA could better handle.

2013-14 was a landmark season for UAA's post-independent existence. With Matt Thomas now coaching, the Seawolves finished with a winning record for the first time since 1993, and although they still had to travel on the road for the first round of the playoffs, they at least played their first ever playoff series in Alaska by taking on arch-rivals Fairbanks, one of the new arrivals in the WCHA following the shakeup. They won that series in three games, then took Ferris State to overtime in the WCHA semifinals - literally a goal away from playing for an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

Last year, however, the Seawolves backslid a bit. For the third time in four seasons, and the 10th time since joining the WCHA, UAA finished a season with fewer than 10 wins. The new WCHA may prove to give Anchorage more than a fighting chance eventually, but it's clear the program still has obstacles to overcome.

Two current members of the Washington Capitals, Curtis Glencross and Jay Beagle, played their collegiate hockey at UAA, but neither stuck around very long, both leaving after their sophomore seaasons. Among UAA alums who had more than just a cup of coffee in the NHL, none stayed for four years.

As bad as they were last season, UAA was still arguably better than RPI when one looks at the raw numbers. The Seawolves outpaced the Engineers in goals per game and had better defense and special teams. Tatchell paced Anchorage in scoring with seven goals and 15 assists, while Azurdia tied for the lead in goals with eight.

Among the more interesting additions to the UAA roster this year are the Renouf twins, Jonah and Nathan. The Ontario natives enrolled at Quinnipiac last season (where they love twins - see also the Jones twins), but for some reason never saw action in a game and transferred to Alaska-Anchorage. We'll have to see if there was a good reason Rand Pecknold never had them in a game, but they appeared ready to be solid contributors at the Q heading into last season, so if that potential blossoms in Anchorage instead, they could be big additions for the Seawolves.

The ice in Fairbanks is Olympic-sized, as it is in Anchorage. That's not a killer - RPI won a game they played on Olympic ice last year in New Hampshire - but it's an advantage for UAA. They are the nominal home team, although Fairbanks partisans who come out for the game may find a sudden affinity for the Engineers they never knew they had thanks to the bitter rivalry they share with Anchorage. RPI is likely to be improved from last year. If UAA can claim the same thing it should make for a great game, all things considered. As we'll surely mention throughout this series, having a netminder who has a proven ability to steal a game is a benefit the Engineers enjoy, but don't be surprised to see this as a spot where Alec Dillon may make his RPI debut as well.

1 comment:

  1. Great write up! Should be a good game, we usually start off hot then simmer down as the season progressess.


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