This intriguing matchup features a tale of two coaches-a first-year coach who guided his team to a repeat SUNYAC title, and a long-time mentor whose team captured its seventh title under his guidance, but is making its first NCAA appearance.
UMass-Dartmouth is in the postseason for the 22nd time under John Rolli, but this is the farthest the Corsairs have come, in terms of both time and distance. UMass-Dartmouth had won six ECAC titles under Rolli prior to this season’s championship, but the last was in 1998, the year before the ECAC Northeast champion was granted an automatic bid to the Division III NCAA tournament.
So the Corsairs, making their first NCAA appearance, will take the seven-hour bus trip (435 miles) to Geneseo for Wednesday’s first round game.
“It’s very exciting,” said Rolli. “We know we’re the decided underdogs, but we’re up to the challenge.”
UMass-Dartmouth had seen the likes of Lebanon Valley, Wentworth and Curry win ECAC Northeast titles and make NCAA appearances in recent years, but was always in the hunt, losing last season to Curry 6-1 in the ECAC Northeast title game. This season, the Corsairs got revenge, defeating the Colonels 3-1 on Saturday.
“It was a great game,” said Rolli. “We knew we would have to stem the tide in the first period, that they would come at us hard. But we got great goaltending and great team defense.”
Curry outshot UMass-Dartmouth 35-16 but was only able to put one past Corsair’s goaltender Jon Burek, who leads the nation in save percentage (.943) and is second in GAA (1.65). Burek missed the last six games of the regular season due to injury but returned for the playoffs, backstopping his team to the ECAC Northeast title.
“We pride our selves on defense,” said Rolli. “We’ve allowed only 44 goals in 28 games, including six shutouts and nine games where we gave up just one goal.
“We had a team in the 90s that gave up around 50 goals and I remember thinking that it was quite an accomplishment. But looking back, we scored something like 207 goals that season, so the puck wasn’t in our end very much. This season has been so much more gratifying from a defensive standpoint. We’ve played very well as a team and everyone knows their role.”
Another key to the Corsairs’ success has been its penalty kill, which is tops in the nation at 92.3 percent. UMass-Dartmouth has allowed just 10 power play goals all season, and has scored seven shorthanded goals, for an amazing -3 for the season.
“It’s been solid,” said Rolli of his penalty kill. “We take great pride in first of all, not taking many penalties to start with (UMD was last in its league in penalty minutes) and then not allowing power play goals.”
While team defense is key to the Corsairs’ success, UMD has guys that can put the puck in the net, evidenced by senior forward Eric Frank, who led the nation in 2004-2005 with 53 points and has 38 so far this season.
“He’s been banged up and getting a lot of attention,” said Rolli of Frank. “But he’s healthy and really heating up lately.”
Junior Kyle McCullough leads the team in scoring with 40 points, and sophomore Jeff Grant has 35. UMass-Dartmouth sports the 13th ranked offense in Division III, averaging 4.36 goals a game.
‘We know we’re playing a very good team (in Geneseo),” said Rolli. “We’re probably going to get out shot. But if we play well as a team, I think we’ll be O.K.”
All year long, Geneseo has heard the doubters. They can’t repeat losing their star goalie. They can’t repeat with a new coach. They can’t beat Plattsburgh two years in a row. Last year was a fluke.
One by one, the Ice Knights silenced all those doubters to repeat as SUNYAC champions.
First year coach Jason Lammers took someone else’s team and slowly throughout the year, he molded it into his own.
“So far I think the guys have done an excellent job of responding to what we’ve asked them to do,” he said. “They’ve helped me as much as I’ve helped them as we’ve learned new habits and systems.”
Derek Jokic took over for Brett Walker in net, and silenced his critics once and for all.
“It was big shoes to fill,” he said. “People were throwing that name around all year. I just wanted a chance to prove myself. I told coach I wanted the opportunity to lead the team and this was my team now. It feels really good to be able to show people I was able to lead the team to a championship. Hopefully, we can keep it going. It’s not over yet.”
Jokic got stronger and stronger as the year went on, currently carrying a 3.20 GAA and .891 save pct. Key to his play was coming up with the key saves when his team needed them the most.
Plattsburgh came into the SUNYAC finals with the best penalty kill in the conference. Geneseo responded by scoring four power play goals in the last two games. Plattsburgh had the fourth best power play in the country. Geneseo only let up one power play goal in those two games. More importantly, Mitch Stephens scored his seventh shorthanded goal, far and away the nation’s leader in that category, to win the second game.
“I think at this point, special teams are a huge factor,” Lammers said.
However, the doubters continue. Now, they are saying Geneseo will be at a disadvantage because they will be playing their fourth game in six days.
“Our guys, the way they’ve practiced and committed themselves, are ready to go,” Lammers said. “They’re in good shape. They’ve taken care of themselves.”
Proof of that and the experience gained last year was how they acted after Sunday’s game.
“The attitude is, we’re going after it,” Lammers said. “They got a chance to celebrate, but they didn’t. They are well-adjusted. The guys are focused and ready to go.”
The first line for Geneseo, Stephens (16-27–43), Mike MacDonald (14-18–32), and Trent Cassan (10-6–16) were at the top of their game last weekend. They are going to have to continue to do so against UMass-Dartmouth. As will Jokic, and the entire defense that helped shut down Plattsburgh when it counted.
One weakness Geneseo will have to avoid is letting up goals in batches like they did against Plattsburgh.
“That’s something we need to address,” Lammers said. “We need to do a better job to be mentally focused.”
If Geneseo can avoid lapses like that, and get the effort from their first line, goaltending, and penalty kill they have been getting recently, they will continue to silence their critics.