Expectations were low for Army coming into last season. All-star goaltender Brad Roberts was gone and the Black Knights, never known as an offensive powerhouse, were expected to finish ninth in a 10-team league.
Instead, Army found a more-than capable replacement between the pipes in Josh Kassel (2.38 GAA) and some firepower from Luke Flicek (37 points), Tim Manthey (29 points) Owen Meyer and Bryce Hollweg (27 points each), culminating in a third-place finish and a trip to the Atlantic Hockey championship game.
Like a couple of other surprise teams from last season, Army won’t be sneaking up on anyone this year. Coach Brian Riley says his team is ready for the challenge.
“The perception has definitely changed with the coaches picking us third,” he said. “Now we’re not going to have that luxury that maybe we had last season. The guys understand that we won’t be sneaking up on anybody. You can’t ever take a night off in this league.”
Army has always been a tough team to beat at home (9-2-4 last season), but the difference last season was its ability to get points on the road, where it played .500 hockey.
“That was key for us,” said Riley. “We hadn’t always had a lot of success on the road and if you want to finish in the top part of the league, everybody knows you need to take points on the road.”
The Black Knights’ biggest loss in the offseason was the early departure of Tim Manthey, one of the league’s top defensemen. Manthey transferred to Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
“It wasn’t a shock to us,” said Riley. “We had had some discussions. You have the option to leave (the U.S. Military Academy) until you take your first class of your junior year. We talked about it and he consulted with a lot of people. We’ll obviously miss him. He’s a great kid. I have to respect his decision.”
Back in net will be Kassel, who played very little as a freshman but then earned second-team all-league honors, backstopping the stingiest defense in the league. Unfortunately, he picked the worst time to have an off game in the AHA title game, where he surrendered six goals on 27 shots.
“We didn’t help take the pressure off him by only scoring one goal in that game,” said Riley. “But there’s no damage to repair. He’s a confident kid.”
Riley expects big things again from Flicek, who enters his senior campaign coming off his best season ever.
“‘Flea’ loves to play the game,” said Riley. “He’s a great kid and will produce for us again. And we expect [Owen] Meyer to be a difference-maker. He’s that kind of player.”
Army’s reputation and facility allow it more exposure than many AHA teams get, and that will include being a part of all three nationally televised league games this season, as well as visits by Rensselaer and Union.
“[The televised games] are great for the league and for us,” said Riley. “It’s going be an exciting atmosphere.”
The Black Knights open their season at Bemidji before entertaining RPI at home.
“We need to get off to a good start,” said Riley. “You look at the teams that do well in this league and they win early and build confidence. You need to understand what it takes to win.”