The SUNYAC is now halfway through the league schedule, and, beyond the top two, the standings are just a bit different than we are used to.
Perennial powers Potsdam and Fredonia are battling for the league’s last two playoff positions, while recent doormats Cortland and Buffalo State both find themselves above .500, and within a win or two of effectively clinching a post-season berth.
This week, we’ll look at the top four teams in the standings at the semester break.
On Top Once Again
Plattsburgh finishes the first half of the season with a perfect 7-0 league record, though the Cardinals just slipped past their last two opponents, taking overtime to top Potsdam, 3-2, on Tuesday, and downing Geneseo, 3-1, last Saturday.
“We’re playing pretty well. We’re just not scoring goals,” said coach Bob Emery.
But it’s not for a lack of shots. Goalies have brought their “A” games against the Cardinals, including a 50-save performance by Elmira’s Rob Ligas, two by Ryan Venturelli of Potsdam in which the Bears were outshot by Plattsburgh, and a 41-save effort by Geneseo netminder Brett Walker.
Emery said that the Cardinals have dominated play in every game, except for a 3-2 overtime loss in the Primelink Great Northern Shootout’s first round. “Norwich is the only team that’s played with us pretty even. Everyone else, we really took it to.
“It’s not that we’ve been playing bad,” said Emery. “Our defense and our goaltending have been great. With a few more bounces, we could be undefeated.” The Cardinals have lost all three non-league games.
Not surprisingly, Emery is very happy to be undefeated in conference halfway through the schedule.
“We’re sitting great where we are. We have the toughest games at home in the second semester.” Those contests include the two teams after Plattsburgh’s top spot, Oswego and Cortland.
In SUNYAC play, the defending national champs lead the conference in goals per game, at 5.29, and are second in with 1.86 goals allowed per game. Plattsburgh has outscored league opponents 37 to 13.
Plattsburgh’s power play is tops in conference play at 25 percent. The Cardinals are fourth on the penalty kill in conference, allowing five goals on 34 attempts. But Plattsburgh, who last season scored as many shorthanded goals as it alllowed, has two shorthanded in league play.
Three Cardinals have at least 10 points in conference play. Seniors Brian Toussaint and Mark Coletta each have 11, and junior Jason Kilcan has 10.
Center Adam Richards is tied for second in the conference in freshman scoring with six points and Offensive-minded defenseman Peter Ollari is fifth among blue-liners in scoring with 3 goals and 2 assists.
Toussaint and Coletta are tied for first in conference in power play goals with three apiece.
Goaltender Niklas Sundberg (5-0-0) is second in the league in goals against, with an average of 1.92 per game, better numbers than this point last year.
Young Lakers Nip at Cards’ Heels
Second-place Oswego reaches the midway mark of the SUNYAC schedule with some momentum, having won six in a row in conference after dropping the season and league opener to Plattsburgh, 6-4.
“We’re happy with our performance so far. We’re certainly where we thought we’d be at this stage,” said coach George Roll.
Oswego was 5-2 in the SUNYAC at the same point last season.
The Lakers are second in conference scoring, averaging an even five goals per game, and lead the league in defense, with 1.71 goals allowed per game.
“I think that’s one of the things we try to pride ourselves on, our defensive game. I preach to [the team] that that’s the way you win championships, by playing solid defense,” said Roll. “We really feel strongly about our six defensemen. They’ve played very well in every game this year.”
Goalie Joe Lofberg (4-0-0) has two shutouts in conference, against Geneseo and Fredonia. He leads the SUNYAC among goalies who have played at least a third of his team’s minutes, with a .970 save percentage and a 0.75 GAA in six league games.
Lofberg has emerged has the team’s number one goalie. “I think each game, especially in these last four, he’s gotten better and better each game,” said Roll of the junior netminder. “His strongest game of the year was against Cortland the other night. He just looked in control.”
Sophomore Tyson Gajda also earned a shutout in his SUNYAC start, a 6-0 win at Brockport.
Oswego ranks third in conference on the power play, scoring on just over 17 percent of its chances, and also ranks third in penalty killing, at .857.
The Lakers have distributed their scoring. In conference play, senior Jonathan Hoose leads Oswego with nine points. The team’s overall leading scorer, sophomore Mike Lukajic, has eight, as does senior Nate Elliott, who is the SUNYAC’s top-scoring defenseman.
Freshman Andy Rozak leads SUNYAC rookies in conference scoring with two goals and five assists. Two rookie defensemen, John Nadalin and Mark Strzoda, both have been standouts for Oswego.
Roll has had two very good recruiting classes in a row, including Lukajic, last year’s SUNYAC rookie of the year.
“Our freshman class, from top to bottom, we’re very happy with. had no choice this year. We lost a lot of seniors last year,” noted Roll. “But every one of them has responded to this level. We have a lot of confidence in this freshman class.”
After five home games in the first half of the SUNYAC schedule, the Lakers will be on the road a lot in the remainder of the season, with home games against only Brockport and Geneseo.
“The one good thing is that before that stretch we’ve got a few games on the road,” said Roll, as the Lakers participate in Brockport’s Jimmy Mac Invitational and the Plattsburgh Cardinal Classic, and visit Johnson & Wales, Wentworth, and Hamilton.
“We’re going to get used to playing on the road in those games. I think the guys will be road-tested before we get back into SUNYAC play,” said Roll.
Shows What You Guys Know
In the pre-season coaches poll, Tom Cranfield’s colleagues didn’t even pick Cortland to make the playoffs. In third place, with a 5-2 record at the semester break, the Red Dragons have won more conference games than last season, and may have already won enough games to make the playoffs for a second straight year.
Cortland was just 2-5 at the halfway point last season.
“At the beginning of the year we talked about being a top four team,” said Cranfield. “Now, we’re talking about breaking into the top two, and having the first round bye, and maybe home ice advantage.”
While Cortland has surpassed other SUNYAC coaches’ expectations, the same can’t be said for their rookie coach: “I didn’t know what to expect.”
The first half of the season has given him a good idea what to expect from his squad here on out.
“We’re right where we should be right now,” said Cranfield. “We’ve won the games we should have won, and the games that we haven’t won, being a young team, we have to learn how to win those games.”
Cortland has the best record in the conference in combined special teams and leads the conference in penalty kill, at better than 94 percent.
“I think the reason for that is that we lead the conference in penalty minutes, so we’ve had practice at it,” joked Cranfield. The aggressive Red Dragons are tops in the league with an average of more than 36 penalty minutes per game.
“We’ve got an extremely young team, and we’re trying to go out and play uptempo with a lot of intensity all the time,” said Cranfield. “Some of those kids haven’t learned to play uptempo without getting a lot of penalties.”
Cortland is second in the league on the power play at 23.8 percent.
Cortland has outscored its conference opponents 24-16, but nine of the goals against came in the team’s only two conference losses, to Plattsburgh and Oswego.
Two forwards, senior Jeff Olsen and sophomore Matt Donskov, are tied for sixth in the league with 10 points each, while senior Trevor Bauer, tied with Donskov for the team’s overall scoring lead at 17, had nine points in conference.
Two Cortland rookies, forwards Nate Gagnon and Kevin Watters, are tied for second in scoring among freshmen, with two goals and four assists each.
“They’re both great players. Watters came out of the Rochester [N. Y. Americans] Junior B program and he’s been just a huge surprise for us.” Gagnon, a transfer from the University of Maine, “just seems have a knack around the net,” said Cranfield.
Junior goaltender John Larnerd has the league’s second best save percentage, .935, and is third in the conference with a 2.36 GAA. Backup Mark Paine has a .963 save percentage in two-and-a-half league tilts, with a 1.34 GAA.
Cortland has two road trips in the second half, to Buffalo State and Fredonia, and to the north country against Potsdam and Plattsburgh. Brockport, Geneseo, and travel partner Oswego visit the southern tier.
Definitely In The Picture
Last season, Buffalo State finished just out of the playoff picture. At the midpoint of this campaign, the fourth-place Bengals have already won as many conference games as all of last year.
“We’re pretty happy to have gone 4-and-3 in the SUNYAC,” said coach Jim Fowler. “Our goal was to make the top six. We control our own destiny and we’ve got to keep working.”
At the same juncture in the 2000-2001 campaign, Buffalo State was 2-5.
Senior Todd Nowicki leads the SUNYAC with 13 points in conference and 20 points overall. Junior Joe Urbanik has the most goals in league play, with seven, and is tied for second in scoring with 11 points. The third member of the Bengals first line, senior Jason Comardo, has nine points in conference.
Ricardo Hernandez is tied for second in scoring among defensemen, with all seven of the junior’s points coming on assists.
The Bengals have been outscored 30-26 in SUNYAC play, and 17-4 in their three losses. They are third in scoring offense, but only seventh in scoring defense.
“It’s definitely something we want to work on,” said Fowler. “I had a talk with my goaltenders. I told them straight out that I don’t think anybody’s stepped up as number one, and when we need the big saves, nobody’s making them.”
Fowler said he “put a challenge out there,” and goalie Nick Berti stepped up to it in the team’s last SUNYAC game, a 5-2 win at Fredonia.
Berti, a junior, has seen most of the action in goal, with a 3-2 record, an .881 save percentage, and a 4.20 GAA. Freshman Adam Horvath has a .870 save percentage and a 4.80 GAA. Junior Steve Thering was to have gotten the start against Potsdam, but is out with a broken hand.
Five of the Bengals’ seven league games in the second half of the season are on home ice. “It’s nice to have the guys sleeping in their own beds,” said Fowler, who is not looking past his first two visitors of the second semester.
“Geneseo’s playing some good hockey right now. We were lucky to get out of there with two points. Brockport is a team that’s going to battle for 60 minutes. There’s no guarantee in those first two games.”
With a finish in the top six almost in hand, is Fowler ready to raise the bar?
“We made our goals as a team the first day. We’re worried about just the top six right now. We’re not going to revise that to home ice or anything like that, as of yet,” said Fowler.
“That’s our long-term goal. Our short-term goal is staying the same, and that’s to compete every day.”
USCHO is giving its columnists the next two weeks off for the holidays. In our December 28th edition, we’ll catch up on the rest of the league: resurgent Geneseo, struggling Fredonia, and the youthful squads at Potsdam and Brockport.
Not The Only Game In Town
Last week, we told you about Plattsburgh’s WIRY. But Plattsburgh fans have more than one source for Cardinal hockey on the radio.
In addition to Ducky Drake’s broadcasts, student station WQKE (93.9 FM) also carries all of Plattsburgh’s home games. The station will broadcast a pair of road games this season, including Friday’s game at Middlebury and the season-ender at Potsdam.
Sports Director and play-by-play man Alex Newman and commentator Ken Sherwood broadcast the games and also cover the Cardinals on WQKE’s weekly sports show, Real Sports Talk Live.
“While WIRY provides Ducky and a perspective meant to serve the local community, WQKE strives to create a program which interests the college community,” explained Newman via e-mail.
While “The Quake” doesn’t yet stream audio on the net, you can visit the station’s web site at www.wqke.net.
Brockport’s WBSU, Geneseo’s WGSU, and Oswego’s WNYO also carry most of their teams’ schedules.
College sportscasters at the D-III level often have to put up with poor facilities and the occasionally condescending sports information director. Many times, college stations are the only media at a game, and they deserve the same courtesy and respect any other print or broadcast professional would receive.
Newman, and other student broadcasters and stations, get a big thumbs up from me for their dedication and effort.
Last Week’s Question
How many current SUNYAC coaches have been named SUNYAC coach of the year at least once?
Five. Brian Dickinson, Bob Emery, Jeff Meredith, George Roll, and Ed Seney have all been SUNYAC coaches of the year. (Don’t be surprised if the number grows by one this season.)
This Week’s Question
Who is the only SUNYAC coach ever to win coach of the year in two consecutive seasons?
Game of the Week
This one is also arguably the Division III game of the week — Plattsburgh at Middlebury on Friday night, Dec. 7. I expected these two teams to meet for the Primelink championship, but the Cardinals’ overtime loss to Norwich prevented that from happening.
Last season, the two squads split regular-season games, with the home team winning each by a 3-0 score. Plattsburgh took both quarterfinal games against the Panthers in the NCAA tournament, despite being outshot, as Niklas Sundberg was absolutely huge in net.
“It’s going to come down to goaltending,” said Plattsburgh’s Emery. “Nik [Sundberg]’s got to play well, and obviously they hope that [Middlebury goalie Christian] Carlsson plays well.”
One concern for Emery is the big sheet at the Chip Kenyon Arena. The Cardinals play on a 185′ ice surface at home. “It’s tougher to go from a small sheet to an Olympic-sized sheet,” he noted.
Emery has a request for Santa: “Hopefully we can get some goals for Christmas.”
It should be a great battle between two teams who may once again this season compete in the NCAAs.