The Tigers surprised everyone last year, possibly including themselves.
“We knew we could compete; we didn’t know if we could win right away, and I guess that was answered,” said coach Wayne Wilson. “Not just Atlantic Hockey. We knew we could compete with anybody.”
After a 6-22-2 season as an independent when they lost ten one-goal games, the Tigers played their first Atlantic Hockey schedule and finished at the top of the heap at 20-7-1. RIT took at least one point in every season series.
“That was the biggest thing,” said Wilson. “Being able to rebound. All of our league losses except the last two were on Fridays and after each one we came back and won on Saturday.” And the two games the Tigers did lose on Saturday, they had won the night before.
Ineligible for the postseason in their final year of NCAA provisional status, it had to hurt to sit in the stands at Rochester’s Blue Cross Arena, less than seven miles from RIT’s campus, and watch the league championships contested without them. That should provide all the motivation the Tigers need to defend their regular-season crown.
RIT got rings as a result of finishing first — after all, it went as far as it could. But this season brings new opportunities and new challenges as the Tigers can’t just focus on a single objective.
“There are new goals,” said Wilson, who now has to think postseason. “Obviously it starts with getting home ice for the playoffs. You want those games at home and we’ll be working for that all season. Then there’s the next round — single-elimination where anything can happen. I know this sounds clich, but there are no real upsets anymore once you get to that level. Anyone can beat anyone else.”
RIT will need to offset the loss of two players who left for the pro ranks (goaltender Jocelyn Guimond and forward Steve Pinizzotto) as well as senior leadership that provided lots of intangibles. Wilson can console himself knowing he returns eight of his top 10 scorers, his entire defensive corps, and netminder Louis Menard, the all-league rookie goaltender who was 11-0 in conference play last season.
A senior class that started as Division III players includes Simon Lambert (43 points and all-league last season), Matt Smith (17 goals) and Brent Patry (all-league last season). RIT will start arguably the best all-around defensive corps (including Patry and rookie of the year Al Mazur) in front of Menard, who will face competition from fellow sophomore Jared DeMichiel and freshman Jan Ropponen.
Wilson says he likes his recruits, but will bring them along slowly.
“We don’t need them right away, which is a nice situation to have,” he said. “You may only see two in the lineup on any given night. They’re a very talented group who are going to compete for spots and fit in very well.”
If teams are going to stop the Tigers, they’re going to have to do a better job shutting down a power play that converted 24.5% of the time last season, contributing to an offense that was second in all of Division I.
“Special teams are so important because of the way the game is played today.” said Wilson. “We’ve only lost one guy off each unit from last season so we hope we can continue having success.”