Surprise, Surprise, Surprise
The 2002-03 Division III season has been full of surprises. Some teams expected to challenge for league titles have gotten off to very slow starts, while others, dark horses at best, are leading their leagues and riding impressive winning streaks.
That’s the high-level view. The ground-level events that produce these surprising results are upsets, and there have, in terms of poll rankings, been more upsets so far this season than in any one I can remember. There are only two unbeaten teams left — Norwich and Bowdoin. Four teams lost for the first time last week.
In this final column of 2002, let’s take a look at who is hot, and who is not. The lists are full of surprises.
Manhattanville — The Valiants have made great strides in just four seasons, and Saturday’s 7-2 win over RIT was a milestone event. It was the first time ever that Manhattanville had beaten the Tigers in nine attempts, many of which had gone down to the wire.
“It’s a great win for the program,” said Manhattanville head coach Keith Levinthal. “I can’t overestimate how important it was. We talked before the weekend that we were ready to make history, to have the greatest weekend in the history of Manhattanville hockey.”
Because of the current NCAA selection process, not only was the win over RIT a big confidence boost and a critical two points in the ECAC West standings, it keeps the Valiants firmly in the running for their first NCAA tournament bid. Since the ECAC West has no automatic qualifier, the lone bid available will come down to head-to-head play.
“That’s the reality in our conference,” Levinthal said. “We lost to RIT in our second game of the season, and if we had lost to them again the first week in December, our season was probably over. That doesn’t make sense, but that’s the way it is.”
Manhattanville enters the holiday break at 8-1-2, it’s lone loss coming at RIT on November 8, a game where the Valiants outshot the Tigers and dominated for significant stretches. Levinthal says it’s that kind of hard work that his team needs to take it to the next level.
“The key now is to see how we perform,” he said. “We can’t get complacent. We have the confidence — we always knew we could win any game we played, but we have always had trouble with RIT.
“The thing we needed to impress on our new players who were used to junior hockey is that every game we play is a playoff game.”
Goaltending was a question mark coming into the season for the Valiants. Three-year starter Jon Peczka decided not to play his senior season, leaving the door open for freshman Jay Chrapala, who leads the league in GAA (2.11) and save percentage (.923). Is Levinthal surprised at the performance of his rookie netminder?
“We knew he was that good,” said Levinthal. “He’s very quick for a goalie of his size. He really slipped though the cracks in terms of not landing in D-I.”
Fredonia — The Blue Devils are out in front in the SUNYAC, holding a huge five-point lead at the halfway mark. But it wasn’t until last weekend’s sweep of Plattsburgh and Potsdam that they got the “for real” label. In the 5-2 win over Plattsburgh, freshman Simon Maignan shined in net, making 27 saves. Four-year starter and former SUNYAC player of the year Will Hamele had to miss the game to attend his brother’s wedding in Michigan.
Miss the biggest game of the season? According to head coach Jeff Meredith, it was the right thing to do.
“He had my blessing,” Meredith said. “I believe it’s family before anything else. We knew about this long in advance. That’s why Simon got the start in Hobart. There was design behind that. He played well in that game — we didn’t — we scored only one goal — but it got him some experience at the college hockey level. We felt very confident with Simon”
Hamele was back in time for Saturday’s contest against Potsdam.
“Will left Michigan at midnight on Friday, drove all night and got to Fredonia at 5 a.m.,” said Meredith. “He slept for three hours and was the first person at our morning meeting.”
Even though they are 7-0 in the SUNYAC, there was some skepticism about how good the Blue Devils were. Last weekend erased that, but how does Meredith explain the Blue Devils’ 2-3 nonconference record, which includes a pair of losses to Hobart?
“I think it’s more of an early-season versus now thing than conference games versus nonconference games,” he said. “We were 2-2 after four games; since then we have lost just once.
“The new players are learning that each game is a season in itself. It all comes down to how hard you work and how prepared you are.”
Norwich — The Cadets have won some blowouts and some close games to maintain their undefeated record. Norwich was the unanimous number one in this week’s USCHO.com Division III poll. This team appears to have no weaknesses.
Wentworth — The Leopards have been surprisingly challenged by some of the weaker teams in the ECAC Northeast (1-1 tie with Suffolk, 4-3 win against Assumption), but are 2-0-1 so far against the NESCAC and ECAC West, including a 10-0 thrashing of Amherst and a 2-2 tie with RIT.
The MIAC — After a down season in 2001-2002, the league has come back strong. Four teams (St. Thomas, St. John’s, Augsburg and Concordia) are ranked, and St. Mary’s is also much improved at 8-3. The conference is winning its share of big games against the NCHA, including St. Thomas’ win over Wisconsin-River Falls and Augsburg’s win against Wisconsin-Superior.
The NCHA “Big Three” — It’s usually the “Big Four,” but one team has floundered so far (see below). Wisconsin-River Falls, St. Norbert and Wisconsin-Superior are a combined 32-5-2 and all ranked in the top 10.
The NESCAC — This is another conference off to a fast start, especially in league play, where NESCAC teams play an interlocking schedule with the ECAC East. All but one NESCAC team is over .500 in league play, and Bowdoin joins Norwich as the only undefeated teams in college hockey.
The ECAC East — Six of the ten teams have not won a conference game and are a combined 5-28-2 overall. It appears at this point that only Babson, Salem State and New England College are going to give Norwich a challenge.
Wisconsin-Stevens Point — Deja vu? The Pointers started slow last reason, but regrouped to challenge in the NCHA playoffs, losing to eventual champion Wisconsin-Superior in overtime. Point has dug itself a hole, currently tied for fourth place and trailing league-leading Wisconsin-River Falls by five points.
Gustavus Adolphus — The Golden Gusties were my pick to win the MIAC this season, but got off to a horrendous 0-9 start. Things are looking up with a sweep last weekend of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and Wisconsin-Stevens Point, but Gustavus must make up six points in the standings in order to make the playoffs.
MSOE, Bethel, Franklin Pierce, Plymouth State — All still looking for their first victory of the season.
Plattsburgh, RIT, Middlebury — Let’s call these teams lukewarm. They have a combined record of 16-6-4, but have underachieved so far.
Plattsburgh finds itself an unfamiliar five points out of first at the turn, and is battling Oswego and Potsdam for second place. The Cardinals were stunned by Cortland a few weeks back, but regrouped to pound both Middlebury and Potsdam before dropping a key game to Fredonia last weekend.
RIT has just one loss, but has yet to play a complete game. Manhattanville outplayed the Tigers twice, and RIT looked sluggish in a tie to Wentworth. After starting the season 6-0, RIT was 1-1-1 in its final three games before the holiday break. A whopping eight home games in January might help right the ship.
Middlebury has started slow before and rebounded to win national titles, so a 3-3 start is not the end of the world. How much will the Panthers miss Bill Beaney as they move into January with key contests against Colby, Bowdoin and Plattsburgh?
When Norwich and St. Michael’s got together on Tuesday (a 14-2 Norwich win), there were plenty of family and school connections:
This information was relayed to me by friend and former RIT Sports Information Director Dave Caspole, who used to hold that job at St. Michael’s and is currently the SID at, you guessed it, Norwich.
‘Tis the Season
This is my last column of 2002. Spanning two seasons, last year has been a great one for college hockey, with two of the most exciting Frozen Fours (D-I and D-III) in recent memory. This season is off to a memorable start as well, full of surprises and great games. Hopefully, this coming year will be just as exciting.
Best wishes to all USCHO readers, and we’ll see you in 2003.