Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Know Your Enemy: Ohio State

Frequently over the last several seasons, we've seen some personal connections emerge in some of RPI's opponents - especially through head coach Seth Appert. For example, we've seen a few games against Ferris State (Appert's alma mater), Denver (where he won two national championships as an assistant) and Miami (coached by his good friend Enrico Blasi) in that vein. This year was supposed to feature a special family reunion with a pair of games in Troy against the Ohio State Buckeyes - but that reunion will not happen.

Ohio State
Nickname: Buckeyes
Location: Columbus, OH
Founded: 1870
Conference: Big Ten
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: 2009
Last Frozen Four: 1998
Coach: Steve Rohlik (4th season)
2015-16 Record: 14-18-4 (8-8-4 Big Ten, 4th place)
Series: Tied, 0-0-3
First Game: December 27, 1973 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: Never
Last OSU win: Never

2016-17 games: November 18-19, 2016 (Troy, NY)

Key players: D Drew Brevig, sr.; G Christian Frey, sr.; F David Gust, sr.; D Josh Healey, sr.; F Nick Schilkey, sr.; F Luke Stork, jr.; F Matthew Weis, jr.; F Miguel Fidler, so.; F Mason Jobst, so.; F Dakota Joshua, so.; D Sasha Larocque, so.; D Tommy Parran, so.; F John Wiitala, so.; F Tanner Laczynski, fr.; F Sam McCormick, fr.

That "reunion" was supposed to be of the Nanne brothers. Lou Nanne's younger brother, Tyler, committed to Ohio State in January 2014, just a couple of months after Lou committed to RPI. That summer, he was drafted by the New York Rangers in the fifth round of the NHL Entry Draft. But just before his freshman season was about to begin, the younger Nanne nearly lost his life to myocarditis, an inflammation of heart muscle. He sat out all of last season, and last month a report by KSTP-TV indicated that he would be transferring to Minnesota - understandable given the circumstances, allowing him to be closer to home. Tyler hopes to play for the Gophers this coming season, which would allow him to play with Vinni Lettieri, the brothers' cousin.

The pair of meetings between the Engineers and Buckeyes remains on the ledger, however, and it resumes an exceptionally infrequent series between the two schools with perhaps the most bizarre occurrence in a single series in college hockey. The teams have officially played each other three times in the last 43 years, all in Troy, and all three games not only ended in a tie, all three games were tied 5-5. (OSU counts one game in November 1980 that RPI says was an exhibition - played in Troy, which RPI won 8-5. Mike McPhee had a hat trick. Without that hat trick...) With two games coming this season, it seems beyond unlikely that this trend will continue.

Ohio State has sponsored varsity hockey since December of 1963, when the Buckeyes played their very first game at Ohio University - a game they lost 16-1. OSU remained mostly on the margins in the college hockey world through the 1960s, mostly earning historical note during their early years for being the first college job for Glen Sonmor and Harry Neale, who would both go on to coach in the NHL before settling into long careers as radio commentators (for the Minnesota Golden Gophers and Toronto Maple Leafs, respectively).

In 1971, Ohio State joined with Ohio University, St. Louis University, and Bowling Green to form the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, a small upstart league that represented the first coalescence of college hockey programs outside of the WCHA and ECAC, conferences that had fully represented the power programs of the west and the east respectively. The Buckeyes, under head coach Dave Chambers - a third straight coach who would eventually coach in the NHL - won both the CCHA regular season and playoff titles in 1972 for the league's inaugural campaign. However, given the CCHA's minor status at the time, the successes did not lead to an NCAA appearance in what was still a four-team tournament.

OSU left the CCHA alongside their early rivals from Ohio University in 1973, leaving the CCHA on life-support with just three programs, but their return alongside Western Michigan in 1975 under new head coach Jerry Welsh helped the young conference survive. Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, their break from the league and subsequent return saw their on-ice performance take a serious turn for the worse. With the exception of their success in 1972, the 1970s as a whole were much like the 1960s for OSU - time spent on the margins of college hockey, now in a minor conference, apart from the Big Ten schools (which were in the WCHA) and with the sport clearly not an emphasis for the athletic program.

The Buckeyes' fortunes began to pick up slightly as the 1980s began, helped in part by a serious boost for the CCHA when Michigan and Michigan State joined the conference. They strung together five 20+ win seasons out of six between 1979 and 1984, including a school record 30 wins in 1984 - a run that unfortunately coincided with an even bigger run by Bowling Green, who capped that stretch of dominance with the CCHA's first national championship in 1984, leaving the Buckeyes on the outside looking in for any hardware at all.

The timing couldn't have been worse. As Bowling Green began to decline, so did Ohio State - perhaps even harder. 11 of the next 12 seasons were losing ones in Columbus, including a run from 1993 through 1995 in which the Buckeyes failed to reach 10 wins for three years in a row. The final year of that putrid stretch was the final one for Welsh, who left the team in February 1995 after being told that he would not be retained at the end of the season.

The interim coach would become the man in charge at the end of the season - John Markell, who would eventually bring the program to its greatest highs. After improving the bottom-dwelling Buckeyes to eight in the CCHA in his first full season and seventh in his second, Markell and his charges earned the program's first ever NCAA berth in 1998 with a third-place finish and OSU's first winning season in over a decade. They made it count - knocking off ECAC champions Yale 4-0 in the first round and then upsetting Big Ten rivals Michigan State in overtime to reach the Frozen Four in their first try. In Boston, the Buckeyes ran into the hometown Boston College Eagles, falling 5-2 to thwart what would have been an all-CCHA national championship against Ohio State's mortal enemies from Ann Arbor.

A second consecutive third-place finish in 1999 earned OSU a second straight NCAA berth, but Maine quickly ended their season with a 4-2 loss in Worcester. Ohio State did produce some sustained success in the mid-2000s, putting together 20-win seasons between 2002 and 2005 and appearing in three straight NCAA tournaments, including their first ever auto-bid after winning the 2004 CCHA tournament, their first league crown since the very first one in 1972. But each of these NCAA appearances ended after just one game, following losses to Boston College, Wisconsin, and Cornell.

Four losing seasons in five years following the team's 2005 NCAA loss to Cornell saw Markell's tenure in Columbus come to an end, even though the team delivered in his penultimate season with a 23-win season and a sixth NCAA appearance (an 8-3 thrashing at the hands of BU). While Ohio State won their first two NCAA games to make that Frozen Four appearance in their first try, they have lost six consecutive national tournament games since.

Mark Osiecki lasted just three middling years at Ohio State before being fired on the cusp of OSU's move to the new Big Ten conference in 2013. His replacement, Steve Rohlik, has produced similar results in Columbus, but apparently will get the opportunity to run a team of only his recruits this coming season, his fourth. The Buckeyes have finished fourth in the six-team Big Ten in each of the past two seasons after finishing fifth in 2014 - though they did come within a goal of earning the conference's first ever autobid, falling 5-4 in overtime to Wisconsin in the league's inaugural season.

Overall, Ohio State's college hockey experience has been that of the red-headed stepchild of the Big Ten. They have the least amount of success of the five Big Ten programs that have existed since the 1960s by a pretty wide margin - all of the other four have won national championships in the last 20 years and have rather sizable trophy cases overall.

The Buckeyes were young last season. They graduated just three seniors and return all four of their top scorers (Schilkey, Gust, Weis, and Jobst), who each cleared 30 points on the year (by way of comparison, Riley Bourbonnais led the Engineers last season with just 26).

They will boast four NHL draftees in Joshua (17 points last season), Fidler (7 points in 20 games, a contemporary of the Nanne brothers at Edina High School), and incoming freshman Laczynski, along with senior netminder Matt Tomkins, who has backed Frey for the last two years.

Ohio State has not had a problem scoring goals. Indeed, they were eighth in the nation in goals per game last year with 3.56, which puts them almost on par with North Dakota. It's the defense that has left something to be desired, clocking in at a 3.47 team GAA, which was in the bottom 10 nationally, closer to Colgate and Wisconsin. Frey and Tomkins both produced numbers that were on the disappointing side for Ohio State partisans.

That left the Buckeyes playing in a whole lot of track meets last season, and they lost many of those. Incredibly, OSU lost four games in which they scored four or more goals, including a game in which they potted six but gave up eight against hated Michigan. On the flip side, they did manage to win six games in which they gave up four or more, incredibly going unbeaten in six games in a row (5-0-1) in late February and early March during the Big Ten stretch run. Giving up 19 goals in four games and winning all four of those games is very impressive. With 63 total goals being scored in that six game stretch, the red light was definitely getting a workout.

So in all likelihood, the weekend in Troy is going to come down to RPI's offense against OSU's defense. Whichever side can make the most of their weaker element is going to be most likely to find success. RPI being at home should help even out the slight discrepancy between the visitors' high-flying offense and the home team's mostly stingy defense, so when you throw all of this together, it should equal out into a pretty fun couple of games with no real favorite. This is definitely a weekend where we'll get a much better idea of where the Engineers fit into the national discussion.

And who knows? Maybe with a setup like this, additional 5-5 ties aren't entirely outside the realm of possibility...

Monday, June 20, 2016

Know Your Enemy: RIT

The Engineers will have home games against all four competitors in last season's NCAA East Regional, which was held in Albany. Two are cheating, of course, since Quinnipiac and Yale made up half of that field, but the other two are also making a quick jump up 787 from where they entered the national tournament to tangle with RPI, including this week's KYE entry, which was unable to make their second trip to Albany for the NCAAs pay off with a second trip to the Frozen Four.

Rochester Institute of Technology
Nickname: Tigers
Location: Henrietta, NY
Founded: 1829
Conference: Atlantic Hockey
National Championships: 2 (Division II in 1983, Division III in 1985)
Last NCAA Appearance: 2016
Last Frozen Four: 2010
Coach: Wayne Wilson (18th season)
2015-16 Record: 18-15-6 (14-9-5 AHA, 5th place)
Series: RPI leads, 5-1-0
First Game: November 29, 1985 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: November 25, 2011 (Henrietta, NY)
Last RIT win: November 1, 1986 (Troy, NY)

2016-17 game: October 21, 2016 (Troy, NY)

Key players: F Caleb Cameron, sr.; G Mike Rotolo, sr.; F Todd Skirving, sr.; F Danny Smith, sr.; D Matt Abt, jr.; D Brady Norrish, jr.; D Chase Norrish, jr.; F Myles Powell, jr.; F Erik Brown, so.; F Abbott Girduckis, so.; F Liam Kerins, so.; F Gabe Valenzuela, so.; D Darren Brady, fr.; F Reed Delainey, fr.; D Chris McKay, fr.

Previous KYE installments:
It has been claimed that RIT benefits from getting to play in Rochester when they reach the Atlantic Hockey semifinals. We wouldn't go that far - but it certainly doesn't hurt. The Tigers are the two-time reigning Atlantic Hockey champions off of third and fifth place finishes in the last two years, but give them credit for being a gutty, difficult out pretty much any year in the Atlantic Hockey tournament. They get the job done based on a little more than home cooking.

The Tigers finished their sixth winning season in as many tries after joining Atlantic Hockey following their last tussle with the Engineers, a 2-0 road victory for RPI in Scott Diebold's first collegiate victory and shutout. Both goals in that game came during a five-minute major power play that RPI picked up early in the second period, the only scoring in an otherwise evenly played contest. That probably didn't really speak well for either team, especially since RPI went on to get absolutely shelled in giving up 27 goals in their next six games.

RIT's streak of winning seasons came to an end the following season, and in 2014 RIT lost 20 games in one year for just the second time since joining the Division I ranks in 2005 - the only other time being their very first season as D-I independents. But the last two seasons have been a marked return to form with their two Atlantic Hockey titles, which included another upset NCAA victory over a top-ranked team in 2015 - a 2-1 win over Minnesota State in the Midwest Regional that put the Tigers one win away from a second Frozen Four in six years.

This past year, there was hope that RIT's somewhat unexpected Atlantic Hockey title would lead to another fantastic trip in the NCAAs, especially returning to the "scene of the crime" where they shocked the college hockey world in 2010, but Quinnipiac snuffed out those hopes with a dominant performance in the third period for a 4-0 victory in a game that was probably closer than the final score indicated.

One name in particular should stand out to RPI fans - Liam is Paul Kerins' cousin. The younger Kerins had a phenomenal freshman season for the Tigers, tying for second on the team in goals with classmate Valenzuela with 13, and just two behind the team leader, Powell. Chase Norrish (8) and Brown (7) were also among the team leaders in that category last year.

Rotolo is the team's starting netminder, and as a senior he should probably see the majority of time in net. He missed 9 weeks of the season during the stretch run with an ankle injury, during which time RIT's other two goaltenders did a fantastic job keeping the Tigers in contention and positioning the team for the run they made in the playoffs when Rotolo returned. His career numbers in the pipes are fair enough to keep RIT in games when they aren't lighting up the cages on the other side, but they're not quite "singlehandedly stealing games" level.

RIT is the last team on which the Engineers have hung double digits - a 10-7 win in Troy in December 2005, with the Tigers a year removed from Division III. That won't be happening this year - RIT is going to be too good defensively and RPI simply hasn't been a team that can even approach that level of offensive explosiveness, even if they do manage to provide early answers to the offensive question marks they have coming into the season. But it's probably fair to say that, at home, the Engineers will be favored in this game. It won't be by as much as they will be expected to win the previous night against Niagara, but it'll still be likely to be a situation where a loss will come as something of a disappointment. RIT's last non-conference victory on the road was against St. Lawrence in January 2013 - and they haven't beaten anyone outside of Atlantic Hockey but SLU (which they've done three times) since a 5-4 OT upset of Michigan in October 2012.

That being the case, RPI sleeps on the Tigers at their own peril. They have demonstrated ability to be one of the best teams in Atlantic Hockey even above and beyond the fact that they are reigning back-to-back champions and they are more than passable on both sides of the puck. When one factors in the raucous fans that they tend to bring with them on the road, we can expect a fun atmosphere for the contest, but one that can turn dangerous for the home team if they allow the home fans to get deflated early. Having that kind of dependable traveling fan base is a wonderful intangible that can help build a team's confidence when they're finding success.

Expect a solid slugfest when the Engineers and Tigers clash at Houston Field House in late October.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Know Your Enemy: Niagara

This week's KYE entry is an odd bird to say the least - and not just because there's no such thing in nature as a purple eagle. Niagara seems to either be pretty decent or pretty bad - and lately, they've been pretty bad. RPI does seem to get them, for the most part, when they're pretty good, so perhaps they're in for a little bit of a reversal of fortune as NU comes to Troy for the first time in six years with the Engineers looking to draw the all-time series just a little bit closer to equilibrium.

Nickname: Purple Eagles
Location: Lewiston, NY
Founded: 1856
Conference: Atlantic Hockey
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: 2013
Last Frozen Four: None
Coach: Dave Burkholder (16th season)
2015-16 Record: 6-25-6 (5-18-5 AHA, 10th place)
Series: Niagara leads, 4-2-0
First Game: November 15, 1997 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: October 23, 2010 (Troy, NY)
Last NU win: November 18, 2009 (Lewiston, NY)

2016-17 game: October 21, 2016 (Troy, NY)

Key players: D Vinny Muto, sr.; D Kevin Patterson, sr.; F Stephen Pietrobon, sr.; F TJ Sarcona, sr.; G Jackson Teichroeb, sr.; F Derian Plouffe, jr.; F Stanislav Dzakhov, jr.; F Nick Farmer, so.; D Niko Kovachis, so.; F Tanner Lomsnes, so.; F Sam Rennaker, so.; G Guillaume Thérien, so.; F Derek Brown, fr.; D Noah Delmas, fr.

Previous KYE installments:
Since last RPI saw the Purps, there's really only been one season worth writing home about: in 2013, Niagara became the first Atlantic Hockey team to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. NU more or less dominated the conference all year long, and despite a non-conference record below .500, they appeared heading into the AHA tournament to be in a position to earn a bid even if they did not win the league championship. And that's exactly what happened after suffering a 5-3 upset loss to Canisius in the semifinals.

It was the second at-large bid ever for Niagara, which was also the first at-large bid from outside the "Big Four" conferences when they nabbed a slot in the 12-team tournament in 2000 in the pre-autobid CHA. But unlike their previous at-large bid experience in which they shocked the college hockey world by upsetting New Hampshire, a second upset was not in the cards - although they gave it a good shot. The Purple Eagles took a 1-0 lead into the third period against North Dakota, but the team formerly known as the Fighting Sioux put an end to those hopes early in the third with two goals in the first three minutes to take a lead they would not give back.

That NCAA appearance certainly represents a local peak for the program, as it's been mostly downhill since then. Niagara struggled to a 15-20-5 record the following year, tying the school record for losses, before shattering that record in 2015 with a 7-28-4 record, falling short of the previous benchmark for fewest wins by five. They actually finished behind American International in Atlantic Hockey, finishing dead last just two seasons after they won the AHA regular season by seven points.

Last season was either just as bad or worse, depending on your perception. Just six wins was again the lowest mark in school history, although the overall win percentage was up slightly thanks to fewer losses and a couple more ties. But make no mistake, the last two years have been absolutely miserable. It can't be fun winning just 13 games in two seasons.

Niagara's last non-conference victory was actually early in their last NCAA tournament season - a 2-0 win at Clarkson on October 26, 2012. Since then, they are 0-20-2 against teams from outside of Atlantic Hockey.

Last season, only Lake Superior State and Arizona State were worse at putting the puck in the net, and they ranked in the bottom 10 in the nation at keeping the puck out of the net. The power play was dead last in the nation at an abysmal 9.1% - the only PP unit in the country that did not convert at least 10% of the time - and the penalty kill was just below the ersatz Mendoza-line for playing shorthanded, killing penalties at only a 79.9% rate (usually 80% is considered a bare minimum).

In net, Teichroeb had numbers that weren't exactly the pits, but they weren't special either. He did maintain a 2.60 GAA, which isn't horrid, but his save percentage was .909 and that is something that usually needs to be better. Both are slightly ahead of his career figures, but the man who has been Niagara's top starter for the last three years is going to need a serious improvement if he's going to lead the team to better results than they've seen over the course of his career. Thérien got 12 starts in net and is still looking for his first collegiate win.

On offense, three of Niagara's top four goal scorers return, including Plouffe (11), Sarcona (7), and Rennaker (7), but outside of them (and one graduating senior who had 7), no one else on last year's roster managed more than 4 goals on the year. The goal scoring was spread out well, but it was too thin all around, really. The top four goal scorers netted 45% of the team's goal production, and that's a bit too top heavy.

This is just a team that has an awful lot about it that needs fixing and there's no obvious answer as to how they're going to be able to get it all fixed for this season. Perhaps the freshman class can come on board and provide some answers, but all in all this is a team that lacks cohesion to produce victories, especially outside of Atlantic Hockey. With RPI's game against Niagara not just being at home, but the overall home opener, this is absolutely a game that the Engineers should be favored in, especially after opening the year with three games on two long road trips against usually tough opponents. After taking on North Dakota the previous week, Niagara should be a bit easier to manage. Anything less than a win in this game would be a disappointment for RPI.

Friday, June 3, 2016

2016-16 Women's Hockey Schedule

The women's schedule appeared earlier this week on the RPI website. Here it is in its entirety.

Friday games at 6pm, Saturday games at 3pm unless otherwise stated.

Saturday, 24 September - at Maine, 4pm
Sunday, 25 September - at Maine, 2pm
Friday, 30 September - OHIO STATE

Saturday, 1 October - OHIO STATE
Friday, 7 October - at Robert Morris, 7pm
Saturday, 8 October - at Robert Morris, 4pm
Friday, 14 October - UCONN
Saturday, 15 October - UCONN
Friday, 28 October - CORNELL, 3pm
Saturday, 29 October - COLGATE

Friday, 4 November - at Yale
Saturday, 5 November - at Brown
Friday, 11 November - at St. Lawrence
Saturday, 12 November - at Clarkson
Friday, 18 November - MERCYHURST, 3pm
Saturday, 19 November - MERCYHURST
Friday, 25 November - RIT, 4pm
Saturday, 26 November - RIT, 2pm

Friday, 2 December - PRINCETON
Saturday, 3 December - QUINNIPIAC

Friday, 6 January - BROWN
Saturday, 7 January - YALE
Friday, 13 January - at Harvard
Saturday, 14 January - at Dartmouth
Friday, 20 January - at Union
Saturday, 21 January - UNION
Friday, 27 January - CLARKSON
Saturday, 28 January - ST. LAWRENCE

Friday, 3 February - at Colgate
Saturday, 4 February - at Cornell
Friday, 10 February - DARTMOUTH
Saturday, 11 February - HARVARD (Senior Night)
Friday, 17 February - at Quinnipiac
Saturday, 18 February - at Princeton
Fri-Sun, 24-26 Feb - ECAC Quarterfinals (at higher seeds)

Saturday, 4 March - ECAC Semifinals (at highest remaining seed)
Sunday, 5 March - ECAC Championship (at highest semifinal seed)
Saturday, 11 March - NCAA Quarterfinals (at higher seeds)
Friday, 17 March - NCAA Frozen Four (St. Charles, MO)
Sunday, 19 March - NCAA Championship (St. Charles, MO)

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Know Your Enemy: North Dakota

Pretty much since the very beginning of his tenure at RPI, Seth Appert has sought non-conference games against some of the top teams in the country. Well, it doesn't get much more "top" than playing a game at the defending national champions, something the Engineers will get to do for the third time in four seasons - the other two were kind of cheating since it was a couple of ECAC teams, but that's besides the point. It's a contest that certainly fits right into the "anyone, anywhere" mentality that we've seen in the last decade.

North Dakota
Nickname: Fighting Hawks
Location: Grand Forks, ND
Founded: 1883
Conference: NCHC
National Championships: 8 (1959, 1963, 1980, 1982, 1987, 1997, 2000, 2016)
Last NCAA Appearance: 2016
Last Frozen Four: 2016
Coach: Brad Berry (2nd season)
2015-16 Record: 34-6-4 (18-4-1 NCHC, 1st place)
Series: North Dakota leads, 8-1-0
First Game: January 2, 1960 (Troy, NY)
Last RPI win: November 24, 1984 (Grand Forks, ND)
Last UND win: March 26, 2011 (Green Bay, WI)

2016-17 game: October 15, 2016 (Grand Forks, ND)

Key players: D Gage Ausmus, sr.; G Cam Johnson, jr.; F Austin Poganski, jr.; D Tucker Poolman, jr.; F Nick Schmaltz, jr.; F Johnny Simonson, jr.; F Brock Boeser, so.; F Rhett Gardner, so.; F Shane Gersich, so.; F Joel Janatuinen, so.; D Hayden Shaw, so.; F Chris Wilkie, so.; D Christian Wolanin, so.; D Christian Evers, fr.; F Tyson Jost, fr.; D Matt Kierstad, fr.; F Mitchell Mattson, fr.

Previous KYE installment:
Since last we left North Dakota on the cusp of the 2011 NCAA tournament, they emerged from their thumping of RPI, quite a lot has changed. First went the name of the team, the Fighting Sioux moniker stricken in 2012. Then went the conference, as UND played a pivotal role in the founding of the NCHC in 2011 and became members in 2013. Finally, there was a coaching change in 2015 as Dave Hakstol became the first NCAA coach in over 30 years to move directly from the college ranks to a head coaching position in the NHL when he took over the Philadelphia Flyers last summer.

UND returned the next night after their 6-0 pasting of the Engineers to blitz Denver 6-1, an impressive overall regional showing that left the Fighting Sioux looking practically unbeatable heading into the Frozen Four - and then they looked fairly meek in going out in the national semis, 2-0 to eventual runners-up Michigan.

The 2011 Frozen Four was Hakstol's fifth with UND, and the fifth time they'd come up dry in their quest for the national championship. A WCHA title in 2012 was his fourth and final league title, and the NCHC regular season crown in 2015 was his the third and final time one of his teams accomplished that feat. Frozen Fours in 2014 and 2015 left Hakstol with a total of seven appearances in 11 seasons on the final weekend of the regular season - and a 1-7 record in those appearances, the lone national championship game appearance coming in his first try in 2005.

He left for the NHL, and what happens? UND - christened the Fighting Hawks in November - wins the national championship. There's not really much of a cause and effect there (first NCAA to NHL head coaching move in 30+ years and all), but it's certainly a bit odd.

Brad Berry, another UND alum who also logged time as an assistant coach under both Hakstol and his predecessor, Dean Blais, took over last summer and guided the Fighting Hawks to their second consecutive first-place finish in NCHC league play. They were upset by Minnesota Duluth in the NCHC semis, but they picked up their 8th national championship - second only to Michigan's nine - by blowing up the competition in the NCAA tournament, outscoring the opposition 20-7 in four games, including a 5-1 demolition of Quinnipiac in the national championship game that qualified as the Bobcats' worst loss (of four) on the entire season, and was probably even worse than it looks on the final scoresheet. It was less a game than a coronation.

There was nothing that UND did poorly last season. 7th best offensively (3.68 goals per game), 2nd defensively (1.84 GAA, trailing only Yale), 2nd best in scoring margin (+1.84 goals per game, trailing only St. Cloud), and 6th best in penalty kill (86.4%). The power play was a bit more pedestrian, but still well within an acceptable range at 19.1%.

It was at least a minor shock when Boeser, fifth in the nation in points per game (1.43), fourth in goals (27), and third in points (60) as a freshman didn't sign with the Vancouver Canucks. But there's at least some unfinished business, as that resume somehow didn't result in earning even a Hobey Baker finalist nod, let alone a place in the Hobey Hat Trick. With zero Hobey finalists returning to the college game next season, Boeser is the top returning points producer in the country and is inarguably returning as the best position player in the nation.

Really, if there's any opening to be prodded on this team, it's the fact that the defense (and the team in general) is going to be relatively young. Ausmus was supposed to be one of four senior defensemen on this squad, instead he's going to be just one of two upperclassmen at all after Troy Stetcher, Paul LaDue and Keaton Thompson signed NHL deals after the national championship - and what's more, Ausmus and the only other upperclassman, Poolman, had been flight risks, too. Those five guys were absolutely a big part of North Dakota's stifling defensive efforts.

Ausmus and Boeser especially could have been forgiven if they'd decided to leave, but their return along with that of Johnson, a Mike Richter Award finalist as a sophomore, provides a rock from which the Fighting Hawks will likely be able to build yet another NCAA tournament appearance upon what is already the longest active streak in the nation at 14 in a row (and 19 of the last 20).

North Dakota is going to score goals. They just are. When they lose goal scorers, they find others to fill the gap. In this century, the fewest number of goals UND has scored in a single season is 127 (2013-14). The number of times RPI has reached that number of goals in the same time frame is zero. To be extremely fair to RPI, North Dakota tends to play more games than the Engineers do every year just because they go deeper into their conference tournament and, as mentioned, they play in the NCAAs all the time, but it is what it is.

One thing that may work in RPI's favor: North Dakota has a recent history of "what the hell?" home games early in seasons. Last year they lost to Wisconsin in November. A year before that, to Bemidji State in October. Vermont managed a tie in October 2013.

It's going to be a tall task for the Engineers, no doubt. Three games into the season, there's no way we're going to know if RPI's questions on offense will be answered, and the Fighting Hawks will be a serious test of their defensive strengths. A victory in Grand Forks would be solid upset, and it would be one that would turn heads not just in the ECAC but nationally. Don't count on it, of course. But if the young defense can be exploited successfully, that door is at least open a crack.