Junior Kevin Willer has improved each season of his college career, and he has continued that this season, leading Elmira in goals with 12 and is third in assists with 11. This compares to the 15 goals and 19 assists he tallied all of last season.
Willer scored both goals in Elmira’s 2-2 tie last Saturday at Plattsburgh. His first came late in the second period to tie the game 1-1, answering the Cardinals’ opening goal less than five minutes earlier.
His second also tied the game, this time 2-2, with 1:21 left in the third period while Elmira had an extra attacker on the ice after pulling goaltender Darren McDonald.
“Kevin is having an outstanding year,” said Elmira coach Aaron Saul. “He has really come into his own. I think he is one of the best players on our team, if not the best, and one of the better players in the league. It is good to see him finally get some credit. He is the kind of guy that is sometimes overshadowed. He competes every day and is a great two-way player.”
Willer’s ability to finish salvaged the game for Elmira and extended the Soaring Eagles unbeaten streak to four. This unbeaten streak is in stark contrast to the state of the team at the end of November. Over the course of six game during the last three weeks of that month, Elmira went 1-3-2 and started to see its season slip away.
Things came to a head Thanksgiving weekend at the Skidmore tournament, where Elmira tied Southern Maine on Friday and then lost to host Skidmore on Saturday, causing the Soaring Eagles record to dip below .500.
As the calendar turned into December, Elmira started to rally and defeated Fredonia, Neumann, and Cortland to make the Christmas break a little more jolly.
“We won three games before break and had a great effort at Plattsburgh,” said Saul. “I think we’ve turned the corner. We had two bad weekends in a row over Thanksgiving break. We got to rock bottom at the Skidmore tournament and kind of regrouped together. We were beating ourselves. We had to face some adversity and got through it as a team.”
A nonconference record of 5-3-3 leaves Elmira with very little margin of error for the remainder of the season. An additional challenge for the Soaring Eagles is the loss of their leading freshman scorer, Etienne Archambault, who returned to Canada at the end of first semester. Archambault scored seven goals and added three assists in the 13 games he played during the first half of the season.
“He returned to a French speaking school in Montreal,” said Saul. “It was more personal reasons than anything else. His GPA was as high as it can be. The culture and environment were very different than from which he came and I don’t think he was 100 percent comfortable here. Whatever is best for the individual is the most important thing.”
Before the season began, Utica coach Gary Heenan looked at his roster filled with 16 freshmen, and said “With so many freshmen, they are going to have to play. Leadership for us will be very, very important.”
And play they have. Seven of the top 10 scorers for the Pioneers are freshmen, and they have led the team in a resurgent season with an 11-4 overall record and inclusion in the national poll.
Topping the list of freshmen scorers is Jon Gaffney, who has nine goals and nine assists. Gaffney tallied a hat trick last Saturday against Cortland, assisting on two other goals that game and scoring a short-handed goal late against Curry last Friday to seal that victory.
“He came from a winning program and was a huge leader for them on the score sheet and with toughness,” said Heenan. “As young as our team is, he has stepped up and become a leader on the ice and in the locker room as well. He did great in the classroom as well. Things are going well for him.”
Gaffney’s linemate Trever Hertz is only a step behind with eight goals and nine assists. Hertz leads the Pioneers with a pair of short-handed goals. His three goals and one assist effort last weekend earned Hertz the ECAC West Rookie of the Week award as he has found his scoring touch.
“It has been a bit of an adjustment,” said Heenan. “He went seven games in a row where he didn’t score. He is used to scoring goals where he is coming from. He was aware of that and came to the staff about it. Guys who score a ton in juniors come to expect that, but it is a different game with bigger, stronger guys. To get him scoring again this last weekend will be big for us down the stretch.”
A big part of Utica’s success so far this season has been the power play. Skating with one more skater than the opponent has been anything but an advantage for Utica historically. The Pioneers have only achieved a power-play success rate of 20 percent, a standard that most consider average, once in the last five seasons. However, the Pioneers’ power play is clicking at 29.3 percent so far this year, a level never seen before in Utica.
“It is a big reason why we are winning hockey games,” said Heenan. “We continue to change our system with scouting reports and rolling four lines. We are not doing power-play units at all and are giving every guy an opportunity. We have all kinds of guys scoring power-play goals.”
Rolling four forward lines on the power play is certainly an unorthodox strategy, but it is hard to argue with the success Utica is experiencing.
ECAC West Weekly Awards:
Player of the Week: Tommy Capalbo (Sr.) — Hobart. Capalbo recorded a team-high seven points in the Statesmen’s last four games. He recorded a goal and an assist to help Hobart to a 6-3 win over Wis.-Stevens Point on Dec. 30, and earned an assist in a 2-1 win over Hamilton in the championship game of the PathFinder Bank Oswego Hockey Classic on Dec. 31. Capalbo registered his third goal this season and an assist in a 5-2 win at Brockport on Tuesday, and tallied two helpers in a loss at Fredonia on Saturday.
Goaltender of the Week: Nick Broadwater (So.) — Hobart. Broadwater has tallied a total of 83 saves in his last three games in goal. He stopped 24 shots in a 6-3 win over Wis.-Stevens Point on Dec. 30, and recorded 35 saves in a 2-1 win over Hamilton in the championship game of the PathFinder Bank Oswego Hockey Classic on Dec. 31. Broadwater was named to the all-tournament team. He turned aside 24 shots in a loss at Fredonia on Saturday.
Rookie of the Week: Trever Hertz — Utica. Hertz tallied three goals and added one assist as Utica defeated Curry and Cortland on consecutive nights by scores of 5-2 and 10-1, respectively. Hertz registered a goal in the win over Curry and went on to tally three points (two goals, one assist) in the Pioneers’ win over Cortland. Hertz went +4 on the weekend and recorded a team-best nine shots on goal.