How much is goaltending a factor in deciding championships?
If it were up to AIC coach Gary Wright, a major factor indeed. That is the one area where his Yellow Jackets will be strong this year. With returning seniors Chance Thede and Ben Brady, AIC will have the most experienced goaltending tandem in the MAAC.
But, unfortunately, that’s where the experience ends. The low-scoring Yellow Jackets struggled through their second year in the MAAC, posting a 5-19-3 league record and missing the playoffs with a ninth-place finish.
But truly this season for the Yellow Jackets will be about new experiences. According to Wright, opening practice last week was the earliest that he’s ever opened a season. The club will play its first exhibition game the weekend of October 7, when they face St. Nick’s, a school from New York state whose famous alumni include Hobey Baker.
And then the fun starts.
The weekend of October 13 and 14, AIC will travel to Colorado Springs to face Air Force. Wright joked that the trip alone will be the teams first challenge.
“Air Force will be a big trip for us,” said Wright. “We’re not exactly world travelers at AIC. So not only the competition of the game, but I think also changing planes in Chicago, might be a challenge for our team.”
All joking aside, if AIC is to find success this year in the MAAC, the area that will need to be a focal point is scoring. The Yellow Jacket attack was held to less than four goals on 21 occasions last year. When you factor in that five games went to overtime last year for AIC, it’s easy to see that even a slight increase in scoring might mean the difference between the cellar and the playoffs.
As far as players that might catalyze this offense, Wright will look for upper-class leadership. Senior defenseman Aaron Arnett, whose 23 points last year ranked second on the team, will have to become more involved.
The Yellow Jackets graduated their leading scorer, Zac Kalemba, last year, so players like Ollie Gagnon, who led the Yellow Jackets in goals with 13, will need to pick up production.
Special teams, particularly the power play, must improve as well. The AIC power-play unit operated at a league-worst 15 percent last year, scoring only 12 goals in MAAC games all season.
If the Yellow Jackets can pull together one or two of these areas, watch out come March. They could be playoff contenders. There’s plenty of experience behind the bench at AIC, now the test will be how Wright can use the experience on the bench to succeed.