The young team that everyone had pegged for a first-round road series would settle for no such nonsense.
Dartmouth shrugged off two season-opening losses to reel off five straight wins, and were 8-4-0 entering 2009. The Big Green struggled a bit down the stretch, culiminating in a disappointing home sweep at the hands of lowly Rensselaer, but the fifth-place finish was far higher than anyone outside the program had anticipated to start the campaign.
The squad’s top four scorers were composed of three sophomores and a frosh, and of the 11 double-digit point-producers, only two graduated in the spring. Second-year Adam Estoclet led the team with 24 assists and 32 points, but it was classmate Scott Fleming who took the sniper title with 13 goals.
Rookie goalkeep Jody O’Neill was simply superb, stopping over 92 percent of shots faced and holding a 2.6 goals-against rate despite a young and battered defensive corps.
Plain and simple, can this team repeat its accomplishments from last year? If coach Bob Gaudet can tease some full-season legs out of an equally productive group, the Green could make a serious run at a first-round bye, or better.
“We lost some really good leadership,” Gaudet said of his departed Class of ’09. “Rob Pritchard was an excellent leader, he was our captain and just a great guy. Hard-working, a really good person, a good guy. Connor Shields gave us a lot of speed. … Johnny Gibson ended up playing really well for us [despite career-disrupting injuries]. I think the main thing is the leadership that our senior class brought. But what we bring back is a team that was really young last year, but now is pretty experienced.
“We played a lot of young guys in the lineup last year, and they did a good job. There was a really big group of sophomores that made a really big impact, and obviously our freshmen last year in Jody O’Neill and [28-point Doug] Jones, obviously, kind of led the way in that freshman group. I was really pleased with that sophomore class, and now that they’re juniors, they’re establishing leadership positions and I feel really good about what we have coming back. We have fewer question marks; going into last year we had a lot of those, and we have fewer now.”
Despite Dartmouth’s dark-horse qualities last year, Gaudet was frustrated with last season’s lackluster conclusion.
“Quite honestly, we were very disappointed in the end result,” he said. “We had a lot of question marks last year … but we played solid hockey throughout the year, and then RPI beats us and that’s no disrespect to them at all, they deserved it, but we were disappointed in not being able to … play another series and go to Albany and play for a league championship.
“Our goal is to win the championship, and we want to find a way to take another step. That’s our job, that’s what we want to do. We’ve got a lot of pride here, and we want to put ourselves in a position to challenge for another championship.”
Gaudet assessed what he has to work with this time around, first in his forwards.
“[Adam Estoclet] really had a breakout sophomore year,” he said. “He was a young player as a freshman, right out of high school in Minnesota … and I think that he’s going to be even better this year. And then Scott Fleming, who’s one of our assistant captains, he’s just a real tenacious, good-skilled kid. Kyle Reeds had a really good freshman year, and then last year as a sophomore, it wasn’t that he didn’t play well, he just didn’t get as much for his efforts as he did the year before and I think he’s going to have an excellent year for us.
“Doug Jones had a great freshman year, and Joey Gaudet, who’s going to be a senior, is a big, strong forward and I think that … he’ll have a really good year. Dustin Walsh, a Montreal draft pick, is going to be an excellent player at the college level, as will Mark Goggin, the Bruins draft pick. We’ve got a good group coming back with a nice mix of young guys, a good mix of experience and youth, I think.”
On defense, “we’ve got some good depth there, and, I think, a really solid group,” said the long-time ECAC veteran. “Joe Stejskal is blossoming as a college hockey player. He’s a big, strong guy and he’s really developed here. Physically, he’s a big, physical defenseman, but his skating’s developed really nicely as has his puck-handling ability. He’s a real prospect, NHL-wise. Kevin Stephens is a really different player than Joe Stejskal, more of a guy that’s going to skate his way out of trouble, but a good passer, a good solid offensive player and I think he’s developing that consistency defensively and that’s really going to be our focal point. Those two guys are really key guys for us along with our captain, obviously — Peter Boldt, who’s a veteran senior defenseman.
“Last year we had [Connor] Goggin and Jimmy Gaudet, and [Danny] Markowitz has played quite a bit for us. I think we have a good, solid group of defensemen and the addition of a kid like Mike Keenan, who was a captain at Sioux City of the USHL — he’s a left-handed defenseman, and we’ve only got two in our program, him and Jimmy Gaudet — so even just positionally, that helps us, but he’s a really solid player. He’s going to be able to move the puck, he’s going to be tough, he’ll block shots … he’s going to be a good one, I think. Team defense is really going to be a critical thing for us. We really want to cut down on our goals against.”
Gaudet’s praise for his young goalie began to flow early last year, and has shown no signs of drying up any time soon.
“He’s one of those special kids, where his combination of work ethic, athleticism and mental toughness is just fantastic, and that’s a really nice combination,” Gaudet said. “And the ability to battle; when technique goes out the window, when technique just won’t get you there on a rebound or a desperate situation, he seems to find a way to get to the puck and I like that. He’s not a guy that’s satisfied with anything that he does, so he’s really focused on how to take that next step.
In relief, “James Mello looks great. Physically he’s much stronger than he was last year, and I think he’s going to challenge Jody, he’s going to really push him,” Gaudet said. “The young kid we’ve got in now, Charles Corsi, he’s going to be a viable option down the road, I hope, and something that could develop.”
And finally of his incoming class, “I think Walsh, [Mark] Goggin, and there’s guys that aren’t known as well: maybe Jason Bourgea, who’s a kid that played in Indianapolis last year and won the championship and played at St. Paul [Vermont] before that … is a very good player, very tenacious. Alex Goodship is a western Canadian guy with good size and great speed. It’s a class of six guys, and I like what each guy brings to the table. We have really solid depth in the program this year. We don’t have too many, but I think we have good depth and there’s going to be a lot of competition for spots, and these guys are right in the mix of it.”