At the beginning of a sports season, optimism is in the air, and D-III hockey is no exception. Everyone starts out 0-0, and that 2-23 season (or 23-2 season) that finished up last March means nothing anymore.
But a bit of rain must fall into every coach’s life, and around this time of the season, it comes in the form of preseason polls. Finish at or near the top, you can enjoy a bulls-eye on your back and high expectations from fans for the rest of the season. Finish near the bottom and some of that early season optimism will fade away.
I’ve already covered the USCHO.com poll, but let’s look at the various conference preseason polls, as well as off-season and early-season news.
No surprises with the ECAC Northeast coaches poll as playoff champion Lebanon Valley is expected to win the regular season title. Tufts finished first in the ECAC Northeast in 2000-2001 but has moved to the NESCAC beginning this season.
It used to be that either Fitchburg State or UMass-Dartmouth would claim the championship year in and year out, but some upstart programs like Lebanon Valley, Johnson & Wales and Salve Regina have started to make some noise. It’s been four years since a team repeated as champion, and with as many as five programs within striking distance of the title, things will be up for grabs this season as well.
There was a bit of controversy last week when USCHO reported that should Lebanon Valley be eligible to host a playoff game, the league would prohibit it from doing so. Lebanon Valley is by far the longest trip in the ECAC Northeast, which is a cost-containment league (no on-campus rinks, some coaches are part-time). Sources at the ECAC and within the league confirmed this, but according to Lebanon Valley head coach Al MacCormack, there’s no truth to this story.
USCHO regrets the error, but it’s certainly curious as to how this rumor got started. The Dutchmen have come a long way in just three seasons, so fast in fact that rumors of a switch to another conference (possibly the ECAC West) seem to spring up every few months. No truth to those, either.
One rumor that did turn out to be true is that the Northeast will expand again next season. The loss of Tufts and St. Michael’s this season will be partially offset by the addition of Franklin Pierce College for the 2002-2003 season. The ECAC accepted the Raven’s proposal to join as a Division II team, meaning that they will play an ECAC Northeast schedule and compete with Assumption, Stonehill, St. Michael’s, St. Anselm and Southern New Hampshire (formally New Hampshire College) for the ECAC Division II title.
Franklin Pierce currently competes in the Northeast Collegiate Hockey Association, a club league that has sent Johnson & Wales and Salve Regina to the ECAC Northeast in recent years.
With two new schools, the ECAC West is beginning to look like a real conference again. Once 17 teams strong, the West had dwindled to just four teams after the departures of Canisius, Niagara and Mercyhurst. Six games doesn’t make for much of a conference schedule.
The additions of Utica and Neumann give each team a respectable 10 conference games, as well as a respectably-sized preseason poll. RIT is picked to again win the regular season title (the Tigers have taken it each of the past three seasons), but Elmira and Manhattanville also got first place votes.
Both the Soaring Eagles and the Valiants should be better than last season. Elmira returns a nice group of veterans plus a new coaching staff headed up by former assistant Tim Ceglarski, while Manhattanville lost just one player to graduation, albeit leading scorer Tommy Prate (38 points last season).
RIT lost two All-Americans (Derek Hahn and Pete Bournazakis) but is very solid at the blue line and added some high scoring freshman.
Hobart is in rebuilding mode with 15 freshman on the roster, but is a decent 1-1 so far out of conference. The ECAC West as a whole is off to a nice 7-3-1 start in nonconference games.
Utica and Neumann are the unknowns, but both are following the “Manhattanville Model,” also known as “How To Make the Conference Finals In Just Your Third Year.” With a maximum of one team allowed to make the NCAA tournament each season, things could get very top-heavy in the ECAC West in a few years.
Besides adding new teams, existing rinks have been updated. Elmira, Hobart and RIT have all made improvements to their facilities, ranging from new locker rooms to new lighting and sound systems.
The East won’t even start practicing until November 1st, so fans there will have to satisfied with deconstructing the preseason poll.
Norwich, upset by New England College in the ECAC East finals last season, is picked to finish first for the third consecutive season (seven first place votes). The Cadets will be without Keith Aucoin, but have enough talent to return to the top. Expect Chris Petracco to step into the leading scorer’s role and challenge for league MVP.
Salem State was picked to finish second, getting the remaining three first place votes. The Vikings are always in the hunt (29 postseason appearances in the past 30 seasons), and should finish near the top of the standings. Last season’s playoff champ and NCAA representative, New England College, is picked to finish fourth. New head coach Scott Borek will try to repeat despite the loss of all-conference forwards Ralph Aiello and Keith Wallace (90 points between them).
Picked to finish last are the new kids on the block, St. Michael’s, which moves from the ECAC Northeast. The addition of two more teams to the NESCAC/ECAC East allows for travel partners to be split along conference lines. Gone, for example, is the traditional Middlebury/Norwich “weekend from hell.” Norwich will now be paired with St. Michael’s. Skidmore and MCLA are also now paired, while Babson stays with UMass-Boston, Salem with Southern Maine, and St. Anselm with NEC.
ECAC East teams begin play on November 16th.
NESCAC fans must also patiently wait for their season to start, and they don’t even have a preseason poll to analyze. As a public service, here’s my guess as to what it might look like:
8. Conn. College
Amherst is the big question mark. The Lord Jeffs were a goal away from the NESCAC title and contended for the NCAA at-large berth last season. But they lost their number one defenseman (Jim Smith, NESCAC player of the year) and top goalie Nick Rieser. If those holes can be plugged, Amherst will be in the running again. If not, expect any team in positions three through seven to make a run at Middlebury.
The Panthers are the clear favorite, more so than last season. They’ll be paired this season with Williams, as the NESCAC and ECAC East split in terms of travel partners (see above). Other new pairings are Amherst-Hamilton and Tufts-Conn. College. Trinity is still paired with Wesleyan, as are traditional partners and long-time rivals Colby and Bowdoin.
Plattsburgh is the clear favorite, and for good reason. The Cardinals may be as good this season as they were last year, while the rest of the league may not be. Oswego and Potsdam should challenge, but both lost a lot to graduation.
Buffalo State is expected to improve and it should, while Geneseo must face life without its three leading scorers from last season.
Beyond the top three, one can make a case for any of the other five teams to grab the final three playoff positions. Both Brockport and Cortland sent wake up calls to the rest of the league last weekend. The Golden Eagles, picked to finish last defeated sixth-seeded Geneseo in the consolation round of the Chase Rochester Cup tournament after playing RIT tough the night before. The Cortland Red Dragons are an even bigger surprise. Picked to finish seventh, Cortland is off to a 3-0 start, including wins over conference rivals Potsdam and Fredonia to claim the first ever SUNYAC Challenge preseason tournament.
Changes abound in the MIAC this season. Teams are starting earlier than ever (the first league games are November 2nd) and the postseason tournament has been changed to a single-elimination final-four format at a pre-determined site. Teams used to play two-game series with a possible minigame over two weekends, but now will take a two-week break after the regular season before the conference playoffs.
St. Thomas is picked in the preseason poll to repeat as regular season champions, with St. John’s a close second. Last year’s Cinderella, Bethel, is picked to finish fifth and out of the running. But the Royals were picked to finish seventh last season and wound up a goal away from the MIAC championship and a trip to the NCAAs.
The NCHA has also changed its playoff format for this season. The first round will remain the same, with all eight teams qualifying and using a best of two with a possible minigame format.
But this season, the four semifinalists will take a weekend off and convene at the site of the highest remaining seed for a single-elimination format.
That leaves only the SUNYACs with a two-team championship weekend. The ECAC East, NESCAC, ECAC West and MCHA have been using that format for several years. Now the MIAC and NCHA have adopted this format.
Why? Two main reasons — more games in the post season may mean more losses. When teams are competing for the single at-large bid, anything but a sweep in a best-of-two series can hurt their chances. It’s all about the losses you have at that point. Also, the format helps teams prepare for a possible NCAA Frozen Four. However, the old system helped teams prepare for the first round of the NCAAs, which uses the best-of-two format.
Looking at the preseason poll, the coaches think the NCHA will be a three-horse race, closely contested by Wisconsin-River Falls, Wisconsin-Superior, and St. Norbert. But also watch out for Wisconsin-Stevens Point, which should improve over last season, and Wisconsin-Stout, slowly becoming a contender in the NCHA.
No poll has been released, but teams have already begun play. So far, the MCHA has struggled in nonconference play, going 0-7. Conference play begins this weekend.
In the absence of a poll, here’s my estimate:
I’m picking the Sabres to repeat as champs. This season, they’ll play Crookston four times instead of using the two-game eight-point series format used the past two years. That’s good news, since those games are some of the best the MCHA has to offer.
Also good news for the MCHA was that Marian’s proposal to leave in favor of the NCHA was rejected by the NCHA. The vote was along party lines, with the five public Wisconsin schools in opposition and the three private colleges voting “yes”.
The rejection of the proposal means the MCHA, for now, keeps one of its top teams.