Friday, June 26, 2015

Know Your Enemy: Western Michigan

It's been a matchup that has been rumored for quite some time - ever since Seth Appert's college roommate became the head coach for a single season on his rocket path up the coaching ranks, RPI-WMU has been something that has been tossed around but has never quite come to fruition for one reason or another. This year, it's finally taking place - as the opening round game in the Shillelagh Tournament in South Bend. It will be the first game that another rising coaching star, WMU associate head coach Ben Barr, will have against the team he captained in 2003-04 since he left Union in 2011.

Western Michigan
Nickname: Broncos
Location: Kalamazoo, MI
Founded: 1903
Conference: NCHC
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: 2012
Last Frozen Four: None
Coach: Andy Murray (5th season)
2014-15 Record: 14-18-5 (6-13-5-4 NCHC, 7th place)
Series: RPI leads, 4-2-0
First Game: December 28, 1979 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: January 23, 1999 (Troy, NY)
Last WMU win: November 28, 1980 (Kalamazoo, MI)

2015-16 game: November 27, 2015 (South Bend, IN)

Key players: G Lukas Hafner, sr.; F Nolan LaPorte, sr.; D Chris Dienes, jr.; F Sheldon Dries, jr.; D Taylor Fleming, jr.; D Mike McKee, jr.; D Neal Goff, so.; D Scott Moldenhauer, so.; F Aidan Muir, so.; F Willem Nong-Lambert, so.; F Frederik Tiffels, so.; F Johnny Curran, fr.; F Matt Iacopelli, fr.; F Mitch Makin, fr.; F Griffen Molino, fr.

The Broncos are a pretty young program in comparison to most other hockey programs out there in a major conference - their first season in existence was the 1973-74 season, the beginning of a two year process that saw them join the fledgling CCHA, at the time a minor conference by comparison to the two mainstays, the WCHA and the ECAC.

Some of the most famous names to come out of the WMU program actually played on some of those early teams, which featured a number of games against smaller schools without varsity programs. Long time New York Rangers GM Neil Smith played for the Broncos from 1975 to 1978, though he never reached the NHL as a player. Smith's teammates included Bernie Saunders, the fifth black player to play in the NHL, as well as Bernie's brother John, who has worked for ESPN for nearly 30 years and was once a mainstay on the network's NHL coverage (though he only appeared in two games for WMU).

Officially joining the CCHA in 1975, the Broncos were long an afterthought within a league that itself was largely an afterthought until 1981, when Michigan, Michigan State, and Notre Dame defected there from the WCHA. Even when the league had as few as five teams, it was not uncommon to see WMU finish in last place or next-to-last place, which they did in each of their first six seasons in the league. It wasn't until 1984 that the Broncos could even claim a finish in the top-half of the league table, which they did with a 5th place showing in what was then an 11-team league.

That was the second season for WMU's third head-coach, Bill Wilkinson, who would eventually become the most successful coach in program history, and under Wilkinson, the Broncos would quickly reach heights they'd yet to see in their first decade of existence. A season later, in 1985, WMU recorded their first winning season in CCHA conference play and finished 3rd in the standings.

The program's first rise peaked in 1986, when the Broncos took a second consecutive 3rd place CCHA finish and turned it into a title run in the CCHA tournament, ultimately knocking off a Michigan State team that would go on to win the national championship by a 3-1 score at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit for the program's first hardware of importance. That team won 32 games, by far a record for the most wins in a single season in program history, but WMU was swept out of their first NCAA tournament appearance by Harvard.

The next 10 years or so saw WMU settling into a middling role in the CCHA - rarely competing at the very top of the table, but never really falling into the doldrums of the conference, either. Wilkinson's teams earned their first two at-large bids to the NCAAs in 1994 and 1996, but the Broncos dropped lopsided games to Wisconsin and Clarkson in those years, respectively, leaving the program still in search of its first national tournament win.

Those two NCAA appearances proved to be another local peak for the program, as WMU began to tail off following their 1996 appearance. The Broncos struggled to two losing seasons following their loss to Clarkson and were well on their way to a third when Wilkinson was fired in February 1999, in part due to a scandal on the team in which a team party took place at a home that Wilkinson owned. His replacement was assistant coach Jim Culhane, a WMU alum who had played on the CCHA championship team who'd had a cup of coffee in the NHL following his collegiate career.

Culhane had some minor success early in his tenure in Kalamazoo, bringing the Broncos back to the mid-point of the CCHA standings in 2001 and 2002, the former a 20-win season that would be his only one as head coach. But after that, WMU returned to largely being an afterthought in the now powerful CCHA conference, and the program spent much of the 2000s in the doldrums of college hockey, far from competition for national tournament appearances or CCHA glory.

For some time under Culhane, WMU looked like a program whose administration didn't really care much about. In 11 full seasons as head coach from 2000 to 2010, the Broncos finished with a winning record only twice, making it to .500 in 2007 but never better than that after 2002. After two 8-win seasons in three years (2008 and 2010), Culhane was informed late in his final season that he would not be returning behind the bench.

The summer of 2010 was a tumultuous one for college hockey. At its very end, the news that Penn State was moving its program to varsity status threatened to explode the foundations of the college hockey conference structure - and ultimately, it did, with the CCHA right at the epicenter as teams fled for other conferences in a hurry. WMU, heading into that season, certainly didn't look like a candidate for a strong conference, not after essentially 15 years of stagnation as a program.

But Culhane's immediate replacement as head coach would end up leaving an impressive impact on the program in just a single year behind the bench. When Indiana Ice head coach (and former Seth Appert roommate) Jeff Blashill was named the Broncos' new head man, it didn't exactly make waves, but the team he put on the ice made plenty of noise. Against all odds and expectations, the Broncos rebounded from a last-place finish in 2010 to a 4th place CCHA result in 2011, followed by a run through the CCHA tournament that ended in the championship game. They fell to 5-2 to Miami, but still earned their first NCAA tournament bid in 15 years.

Blashill's charges gave Denver all they could handle in Green Bay (just after North Dakota had demolished RPI on the same ice), but fell 3-2 in double overtime. Four months later, Blashill was hired as an assistant coach with the Detroit Red Wings. A year after that, he'd take over the head coaching position at Detroit's AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids, and just this month he became the new head coach of the Red Wings, only four years removed from Kalamazoo.

If there's another coach who had as significant a positive impact on the direction of a college program in just a single year at the helm, it would be awfully difficult to identify him. Less than a year after WMU looked like a program without a prayer, and just a couple of months after Blashill's departure, the Broncos were extended an invitation to join the new NCHC, an invitation to a sure-thing power conference they'd have never earned without the resurgence he brought to the program.

Following Blashill's departure, the Broncos landed another big name to guide the team through the final CCHA years and into the NCHC - Andy Murray, the former Los Angeles Kings and St. Louis Blues head coach. Murray, who had flirted with the head coaching position at RPI in 2006 (he was apparently offered the job first), had coaching college hockey on his "bucket list," and he found quick success at WMU. In his first year, he guided the resurgent Broncos to their second CCHA championship, riding a second place finish - their best final position in the league ever - to a tournament run and a 3-2 title game victory over Michigan.

WMU would fall 3-1 to North Dakota in the 2012 NCAA tournament. The Broncos are still chasing the elusive NCAA tournament victory - with six losses in as many tries, they have the active record for most national tournament games without a win.

In 2013, their tenure in the brand-new NCHC began, and it has been difficult over the first two seasons. The conference has proven to be a total meat grinder, with no "breaks" on any given weekend as basically every team has been among the best in the nation. The inaugural season saw the Broncos finish in the middle of the pack, while last year they were ahead of only Colorado College. As the saying goes, somebody has to be last, but someone also has to be next-to-last. Murray is certainly keeping WMU competitive in a very difficult conference, but there's another step that likely will have to be taken before they can be among the best of the best in this new league.

The Broncos were 8-5-0 in non-league play last season, but only 6-13-5 in NCHC play. The eight non-conference wins included 6-2 and 8-2 destructions of Ohio State and Union in the Shillelagh Tournament, so they enter this year's affair as the reigning champs. This year's WMU squad returns most of the key elements from a decent offensive makeup, with LaPorte. Dries, and Tiffels all having reached double digits in both goals and assists last year. Hafner was strong in the net for the Broncos, with a 2.42, .914 line that really isn't that bad when you consider the level of competition he faced on a night-in, night-out basis.

Most of the top blueliners from last year are back as well, although the defensive corps did suffer one important defection to the pro ranks when Kenney Morrison signed with Calgary at the end of his year, forgoing his senior season. He had previously been slated to be the Broncos' only senior defenseman.

There's no question that WMU was one of the most dangerous sub-.500 teams in the nation last year, so take their losing record with a serious grain of salt. Put that team in practically any other conference and they're likely contenders for a title of some kind. They should be at the very least better than they were last year given what is returning, and while a resurgent RPI team could probably give the Broncos a good game, they're almost certainly the favorites. WMU has only an hour and a half drive to South Bend, RPI's time in the iron lung is 11 hours. This is a neutral site game with a definite home team. Give the edge to the Broncos in what will certainly be another difficult non-conference game for the Engineers, one of many across the first two months of the season.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Know Your Enemy: New Hampshire

A bit of an odd feeling this year not having Boston University on the schedule. The seemingly annual RPI-BU game has been a fixture for the last couple of decades, rarely taking a year off, but at the very least we do have the almost-as-frequent RPI-UNH game to look forward to again this season. This year the series shifts the scene back to Troy as the Wildcats arrive for a little mid-week action just before Thanksgiving in a more-rare-than-games-against-UNH Tuesday night matchup at Houston Field House.

New Hampshire
Nickname: Wildcats
Location: Durham, NH
Founded: 1866
Conference: Hockey East
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: 2013
Last Frozen Four: 2003
Coach: Dick Umile (26th season)
2014-15 Record: 19-19-2 (10-11-1 Hockey East, 8th place)
Series: UNH leads, 25-22-0
First Game: February 7, 1964 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: November 25, 2014 (Durham, NH)
Last UNH win: January 6, 2013 (Durham, NH)

2015-16 game: November 24, 2015 (Troy, NY)

Key players:  F Dan Correale, sr.; F Maxim Gaudreault, sr.; D Harry Quast, sr.; F Kyle Smith, sr.; D Matias Cleland, jr.; F Tyler Kelleher, jr.; F Shane Eiserman, so.; F Warren Foegele, so.; F John Furgele, so.; D Cameron Marks, so.; F Andrew Poturalski, so.; G Daniel Tirone, so.; D Joseph Masonius, fr.; F Marcus Vela, fr.

Previous KYE installments:
Last season got off to a horrible start for UNH a month before the puck dropped as goaltender Casey DeSmith was arrested and charged with domestic assault and battery for an incident that happened in late August. He was suspended and eventually kicked off the team.

That left the Wildcats with basically two options in net for the first semester - freshman Adam Clark, and junior practice goaltender Jamie Regan. Clark had been recruited to back up DeSmith for last season and then eventually Tirone for this year. With the lack of a D-I level second option, UNH accelerated Tirone's arrival for the spring semester, and he ended up playing most of the team's minutes in the second half of the season.

Clark certainly had his struggles. After all, giving up two goals to RPI in late November last year was kind of like giving up four or five to almost anyone else. That was definitely a time when the Engineers had a hard time buying goals, but two was enough to produce a victory for the road team in Durham that night, even despite the injury to Jason Kasdorf that kept him on the sidelines for the rest of the semester.

That's in part because while the Engineers couldn't score goals around that time, neither could UNH. But they picked up their offensive output significantly late in the year, coinciding with better defensive play. The Wildcats won six of eight games down the stretch in February and managed a trip to the Garden for the Hockey East semis after winning a tightly-held three-game affair in Providence against the eventual national champions.

So while it's tempting to point out that they played six games against UConn and Merrimack down the stretch, that series win over Providence has to at least indicate that the Wildcats did in fact finish strong. They'll have Tirone ready to go from the outset this season, although the scoring isn't a sure thing by any stretch of the imagination. Outside of Kelleher (18 g, 22 a) and Poturalski (19 g, 16 a), UNH doesn't bring back a huge chunk of what offense they had last year.

The Wildcats' challenge will be much the same as that of the Engineers over the last couple of seasons - broadening their scoring appeal beyond their top line. If they can manage that they will be a serious threat in Hockey East. If they can't, they're going to have to rely on their defense - which will be young but talented - in order to make waves. Anything and everything can and will happen when RPI and UNH play each other, and while the games haven't tended to produce much in the way of fireworks, they've been unpredictable. The Engineers now ride a two-game winning streak over the Wildcats into this season's game at the Field House, and by that time a battle tested team should, one would hope, be able to run with UNH, especially on their own ice surface.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Know Your Enemy: Bentley

There were a number of significant low points for RPI last season. We detailed them heading into the playoffs. There was the Mayor's Cup fiasco. There was a major power outage on offense during the trip out west. And on the cusp of the Route 7 series, there was an embarrassingly poor performance against Bentley. For the first time, RPI was swept at home in a two-game series by a team from Atlantic Hockey. But as poorly as the Engineers played that weekend, it's hard not to point out that the Falcons played very well. This year, they earn their first ever visit from the Engineers.

Nickname: Falcons
Location: Waltham, MA
Founded: 1917
Conference: Atlantic Hockey
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: None
Coach: Ryan Soderquist (14th season)
2014-15 Record: 17-15-5 (14-9-5 AHA, 3rd place)
Series: Tied, 3-3-0
First Game: October 9, 2007 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: October 16, 2010 (Troy, NY)
Last Bentley win: October 25, 2014 (Troy, NY)

2015-16 game: November 20, 2015 (Waltham, MA)

Key players: F Derek Bacon, sr.; D Matt Blomquist, sr.; D Billy Eiserman, sr.; F Andrew Gladiuk, sr.; F Michael Reardon, sr.; D Charlie Donners, jr.; F Max French, jr.; G Jayson Argue, so.; D Chris Buchanan, so.; F Andrew McDonald, so.; F Kyle Schmidt, so.; F Drew Callin, fr.; F Jonathan Desbiens, fr.; F Josh Lammon, fr.; D Alexey Solovyev, fr.

Previous KYE installments:
The October Engineers last year were a rough bunch. They simply couldn't put the puck in the net against anyone. Bentley took advantage, playing with confidence and poise, coming into the Houston Field House and sweeping a pair of games for two of their three non-conference wins. That may seem kind of rough, but for an Atlantic Hockey team, three wins outside the conference is actually a pretty decent showing. Most teams from AHA are fortunate to get one some years.

The Falcons had a pretty good run in Atlantic Hockey last year. They didn't lose back-to-back games in conference all year until the last two games of the regular season. Those were big losses that kept them from finishing second in the league, forcing them to settle for a tie for 3rd and the #4 seed. That loss of position cost Bentley, as they were drawn into an all out war with Mercyhurst in the quarterfinals in which the Lakers came out victorious in three games.

Bentley returns both of its top two scorers from last season, Gladiuk and French, and they have a seasoned defensive corps in front of their newly established #1 goaltender in Argue (who played neither of the games against RPI last season in what's kind of another blow to the Engineer ego). In his freshman year, Argue put up some decent numbers at .934 and 2.00. This looks like a team that could possibly contend for the Atlantic Hockey title this coming season.

One decided advantage that RPI should have coming into this game is the fact that they'll be coming off a game against a much tougher opponent in Michigan the previous weekend. But then again, the fact that RPI was coming home to play Bentley after two really tough opening weekends in Indiana and Colorado this past season was supposed to be a solid advantage, too. That didn't exactly pan out.

This is, however, the only game of the weekend for the Engineers, and it should probably be an out-and-back affair. Bentley plays in one of the smallest rinks in all of Division I, and pretty much never sell it out outside of the season opener - the Falcons haven't released their schedule yet, but this probably isn't going to be the opener. Therefore, with some concerted effort, RPI alums from the Boston area and anyone willing to hit up Boston on a Friday night could conceivably turn this into a home-away-from-home game for the Engineers. The average non-opening-night crowd at Bentley is around 300. Can we double that? Let's do it.

Anyway, despite what happened last year, being on the road, and despite Bentley seeming to be an even better team in the coming season, this still reads like a game the Engineers should be favored to win. This time, they certainly know that there's not going to be any gimmes when it comes to the Falcons.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Know Your Enemy: Michigan

Michigan returns RPI's favor this year (and begins one for Union) by swinging through the Capital District for the first time since 1984-85, when they dropped a pair to the Engineers in Red Berenson's first year as head coach. That was a pretty good season for RPI. Riding right along with the mythical 31-year gap between national championships for the Engineers is the fact that they beat the Wolverines in both seasons where they won it all. They'll have the opportunity to try and repeat both of those "trends" this season.

Nickname: Wolverines
Location: Ann Arbor, MI
Founded: 1817
Conference: Big Ten
National Championships: 9 (1948, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1955, 1956, 1964, 1996, 1998)
Last NCAA Appearance: 2012
Last Frozen Four: 2011
Coach: Red Berenson (32nd season)
2014-15 Record: 22-15-0 (12-8-0-0 Big Ten, 3rd place)
Series: RPI leads, 7-5-1
First Game: March 12, 1954 (Colorado Springs, CO)
Last RPI win: December 29, 2009 (Detroit, MI)
Last Michigan win: November 29, 2014 (Ann Arbor, MI)

2015-16 game: October 24, 2015 (Troy, NY)

Key players: F Cristoval Nieves, sr.; F Justin Selman, sr.; F J.T. Compher, jr.; D Nolan De Jong, jr.; D Michael Downing, jr.; F Alex Kile, jr.; F Tyler Motte, jr.; G Zach Nagelvoort, jr.; D Zach Werenski, so.; D Nick Boka, fr.; D Joe Cecconi, fr.; F Kyle Connor, fr.; F Brendan Warren, fr.

Previous KYE installments:
The Wolverines made the all-time series against the Engineers look a bit more respectable by sweeping last year's home series. Game 1 was actually a pretty good showing for RPI, but the visitors blew the game with some mental mistakes across a very short span in the third period and Michigan, as good teams will do (especially at home), jumped on those mistakes. In Game 2, the Wolverines put on a clinic, dissecting the Engineer defense for three goals in the first period en route to a 6-0 victory. Jason Kasdorf, fighting a mid-season injury, was not on the trip.

Considering that Michigan made a record 22 consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament from 1991 to 2012, the fact that the tournament has been missing the Wolverines the last three years in a row is more than just a little bizarre. But this is a team that is definitely moving back in that general direction. Last season, they got back on the 20-win bandwagon (they'd managed that milestone 25 years in a row prior to 2013) and were more or less on the bubble for a tournament appearance.

Werenski and Connor are both fairly likely to go in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft this month - Werenski is a virtual lock to be a top 15 pick, while Connor could be a mid-to-late 1st round selection. Boka, Cecconi, and Warren are all highly likely to come to campus as NHL draft selections as well. All told, if there are no additional defections to the pro ranks (just two, senior-to-be Andrew Copp and sophomore-to-be Dylan Larkin, have left thus far), Michigan could be looking at as many as 11 NHL draftees on their roster.

The Wolverines boasted the nation's top offense and 3rd best power play last year, and many of the important drivers of those honors - Nieves, Kile, Compher, and Selman especially - are back in the Maize and Blue again this season. Copp, Larkin, and the leading scorer from last year, Zach Hyman, are gone, but there's plenty of talent there, and the addition of Connor to the attack should help the offense continue to hit without too terribly much of a hitch.

The defensive side of the puck was where Michigan was somewhat vulnerable, but even there they were doing an acceptable job. With the exception of one senior blueliner, all of the Wolverines' regulars on defense, including goaltender Nagelvoort, were either freshmen or sophomores. That fact tends to make Michigan's team GAA of 2.89 look a lot better. This year, there are no seniors at all among the UM defense, but expect this team to keep the puck out of the net better than they did last year as the core gets more experienced.

Honestly, there's never a time when Michigan wouldn't represent a good test for RPI - even in the 2009 GLI, the last win that the Engineers claimed over the Wolverines thanks to some shoddy goaltending by the ersatz home team. That's going to be true this year as well. If there are any areas in which RPI looks favored, it's going to be playing on home ice and arguably being the "fresher" of the two teams, as Michigan is the only game of that weekend for RPI while the Wolverines have to tangle with Union the previous night in Schenectady. That's not terribly likely to even up the score to any great degree and turn the home team into the favorites, but it should help make an exciting matchup for the home crowd that bit more interesting. What areas there are to be exploited in the defense need to be hit early, because Michigan will be a difficult team to come back on, even at home.