The old cliché reads that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so Holy Cross coach Paul Pearl should take it as a compliment that Sacred Heart coach Shaun Hannah wants to imitate last year’s Holy Cross hockey season.
“We learned a lot from the Holy Cross team last year,” said Hannah, whose upstarts shocked many and advance to the inaugural Atlantic Hockey title game before losing to the ‘Cross. “They played solid hockey from the day the puck dropped in October to the last buzzer against North Dakota.”
With a solid nucleus of returning players, Hannah hopes that his team can take a page out of the Holy Cross book and put together a solid season wire-to-wire. Last season, that was the biggest downfall for Sacred Heart, which lost its first seven games and when the end of January rolled around had only four wins, total. A weekend series sweep of UConn on the 30th and 31st of January seemingly turned things around and the Pioneers lost only four contests the rest of the way.
“We looked at our season last year and knew we had a slow start,” said Hannah. “There were obviously some reasons for that with a young team and whatnot … but I think if you want to win and you want to be champion, you have to play a really clean season. There are going to be peaks and valleys but you have to get it done for 34 games.”
This year could be there year that SHU does exactly that. Sacred Heart lost a total of four players, all of which Hannah considered key losses, but his recruiting this year, he believes, addressed those holes.
“We’re really happy with our recruiting class,” Hannah said. “There are five of them and they all have real strong work ethic and they’re real strong character people. We think they have the skill level to play at this level and fill in some gaps on our roster.”
Hannah brought in two rookie defensemen with the hopes that they can fill the void left by standout blueliner Konn Hawkes. Up front, Hannah hopes that his three rookies can help replace the offense lost by the departures of Marc-Andre Fournier and last year’s second leading scorer Mike Regan.
Hannah went so far to say that he’ll lean on this recruiting class rather than the emergence of specific returning role players, to fill gaps in the lineup.
“I think we’ve done a pretty good job recruiting guys for the roles we have in our roster,” said Hannah, admitting that whether or not he hoped veterans would take on new roles was a tough question to address. “We believe, though, that we have the right guys to fill the holes in our system and in our game plan.”
One area where there was no need for addition was goaltending. The Pioneers return two solid goaltenders, senior Kevin LaPointe, who saw most of the time last season, and sophomore Jason Smith, an NHL draft pick with a lot of potential.
“Lapointe had a real breakout year for himself last year,” said Hannah. “He proved that he can be a real good goaltender in this league and at this level.
“Our non-conference games he always played strong and gave our team a chance to win or hang in there. We’ll be looking for him to have the same kind of year he had last year.
“We’ll also be looking for Jason Smith to play. He really matured and came a long way last year in the limited playing time that he got. But he’s going to be a goaltender that can challenge Kevin for some playing time, so I feel really good about our goaltending situation.”
A luxury of the past that will be missing is the club’s ability to play the underdog role and surprise opponents. The Pioneers were tabbed second in the preseason coaches’ poll, putting plenty of expectations on this emerging powerhouse.
“I think we’ve taken some steps each year and we’re at a point now where we’re a program that will contend for a championship,” said Hannah. “That’s what we’ve tried to build at Sacred Heart and we knew this day would come.
“We caught some people by surprise with the young team that we had. I just don’t think that element of surprise is there for us any more, and we’ve talked about that as a group. Our guys know and understand that every night they have to play solid hockey and play their game. We knew opponents will come at us with everything they have a try to beat us. We feel real good, though, about our attitude and their outlook for the season.”
Hannah’s goals are simple and twofold: finish first and win the league championship.
“There’s a lot of work required to get that done,” said Hannah. “Our coaching staff and everybody involved recognize what that level of commitment is. With that, we’ve taken another step in terms of getting to where we want to go.”