Last year was supposed to be “the year” for Sacred Heart. Everything had fallen into place for the Pioneers and, without any doubt, everyone in the Sacred Heart locker room felt poised to finally take the next step and make it to the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history.
Sometimes, though, even the best-laid plans fall apart for no apparent reason. Non-league struggles were the first thing to hamper Sacred Heart. The Pioneers weren’t just losing their non-league games against tough opponents, they were getting buried.
But that didn’t seem to bother them as things within the league were working out masterfully. Come January, a loss here and a loss there spattered the league schedule and then, on February 19 a 4-1 loss at AIC sent the club on a tailspin from which it would never recover. Sacred Heart went on to lose its final six games, bid goodbye to home ice and get bounced from the first round of the playoffs.
Needless to say, the returning players from last year’s team have a lot to prove.
“Going into this season, we’re the most balanced that we’ve ever been in terms of returning guys that can contribute,” said head coach Shaun Hannah. “We look at the season in thirds. Last year, the first third we were very strong. The second third we were good. The back third we were not good, for whatever reason.
“We can point to a lot of reasons for that but the bottom line is we didn’t get it done in the last third.
“This year, the season is again divided into thirds and we have to look to be strong in all three thirds this year.”
The fact that almost all of the team from last year returns is Hannah’s biggest reason for hope going into the season. The losses, though, that Sacred Heart had were significant.
First and foremost, the Pioneers will need to replace goaltender Kevin Lapointe. Jason Smith, an NHL draft choice and a goaltender whom Hannah feels has promise, will take over the reins. It’s something that Smith has been groomed to do throughout his first two seasons.
Offensively, the loss of Garrett Larson will be key, particularly on special teams. Hannah says that he’ll look to Pierre-Luc O’Brien, a junior who has had two very strong seasons, to immediately fill Larson’s role — but he still feels there are a couple of other guys who have the ability to be clutch scorers in both even-strength and special-teams situations.
Though league-wide expectations may not be as high for Sacred Heart, the team’s own hopes are set as high as can be. This is likely one of the deepest teams Hannah has ever assembled. If the pieces can fall into place, particularly goaltending, you can look for Sacred Heart to give Holy Cross and Mercyhurst a run for the league title.