Here We Go Again
It’s going to be tough to top the 2003-2004 season in terms of drama, upsets, controversy and an incredible NCAA tournament, but we’re going to try.
The usual suspects will be back, although some traditional powerhouses are on the downswing. They’ll be some upstarts making some noise. But for now, as the season begins, all we have is that great dartboard known as the USCHO.com preseason poll. The aggregation of the opinions of 15 coaches and writers, the poll is as good an indicator as any of who’s up and who’s down, and the preseason poll has a track record of picking winners (three of the last six national champions started out at the top of the preseason poll).
But it will take a while for things to settle down. A total of 27 teams got votes, so it’s clear there’s no consensus at this point. Over the next two weeks, I’ll preview the top 15 as well as a few dark horses. This week, it’s the top eight according to the poll.
1. St Norbert
Poll: 214 points (9 first place votes)
Last Season: 27-3-2; NCHA regular season and playoff champions; lost 1-0 in NCAA title game to Middlebury.
First Game: Friday, Oct. 29 vs. RIT
The Green Knights are getting closer and closer. After years of losing in the NCAA quarterfinals, St. Norbert finally made the Division III final four in 2003, only to lose in the semis. Last season, SNC took another step forward, making it to the title game, where the Green Knights suffered a heartbreaking 1-0 overtime loss to Middlebury.
What can you do for an encore? The only goal left unachieved is a national title. Head coach Tim Coghlin is optimistic. After all, last season was supposed to be a rebuilding year after the loss of most of the defensive corps and Division III player-of-the-year Maris Ziedins.
More pieces of the puzzle are in place this season compared to last.
“We certainly lost more (in 2003-2003) than we did at the end of this past season,” said Coghlin. “We now have a team with significant NCAA experience, big game experience. We only lost six players, but the big one was the guy between the pipes.”
Four-year starter Chancy Colquhoun has moved on, so expect junior Eric Van Den Bosch to take over the main goaltending duties. “It’s his first kick at the cat,” said Coghlin. “Eric has played well for us but we went with Chancy down the stretch, in the big games, last season. Now it’s up to Eric.”
The Green Knights return three All-Americans, seniors Jason Deitsch and Ryan Tew, and junior Spencer Carbury.
“We haven’t finished any lower than first since Jason’s been here,” said Coghlin. “He’s a natural scorer (53 points last season) and is a legitimate candidate for Player-of-the-Year.
“And Tew may be the best defenseman in Division III.”
Carbury contributed 41 points last season, and junior Andy Cote can build on a 21-goal season, tops on the team.
Also, watch for several D-I transfers to make in impact: goaltender Scott Sortal (Vermont), defensemen Jesse Van Nosstand (Quinnipiac) and Nick Toneys (Michigan Tech) and forwards Kurtis Peterson (Findlay) and Joe Verisno (Quinnipiac).
Poll: 210 points (5 first place votes)
Last Season: 27-3-0; NESCAC regular season and playoff champions; NCAA Division III champions.
First Game: Friday, Nov. 19 vs. Castleton State
The Panthers will go for a seventh title this season, but will have to do it without last season’s Division III player-of-the-year Kevin Cooper, who fittingly scored the goal in overtime that won the national title.
Also gone is goaltender Marc Scheuer, who came into his own midway through last season and backstopped the Panthers to the championship.
“Marc was as good down the stretch as any goaltender we’ve had here for the past 10 years,” said coach Bill Beaney. “The whole team played with a lot of confidence, knowing that Marc was back there.”
The goalkeeping duties will most likely revert to junior Yen-I Chen, who lost the starting job to Scheuer in the middle of the season after a few bad outings.
“The challenge for Yen-I is to step up and play at a level that he’s capable of,” Beaney said. “And I think he will.”
As has been the case for most of their title runs, defense will be key to the Panthers’ success. Led by seniors Brian Phinney and Patrick Nugent, Middlebury’s defense is among the best in the nation.
“We’ll be very good in back,” Said Beaney. “We’ve got a group of solid defensemen. The key for us is how the younger players will step up. We won’t be as big as we were last year, and we don’t have a guy that will score 30 goals, but we’ve got a talented group of young players that will get better as the season goes on.”
Poll: 188 points (1 first place vote)
Last Season: 24-4-0; ECAC East regular season and playoff champions; lost in NCAA semifinals to Middlebury.
First Game: Saturday, Nov. 13 vs. Curry (exhibition)
It may be rebuilding vs. reloading time at Norwich, as the Cadets need to replace a whopping 11 graduating players including All-American defenseman Lou DiMasi. To make matters worse for coach Mike McShane, Paul Mattucci (43 points last season) graduated early and linemate Mario Chinelli (30 points) has a back injury that will keep him out of action indefinitely.
On the positive side, expect Kurtis McLean to have a monster season. He’s led the Cadets in scoring each of his previous three years, and will need to carry more of the load in the absence of over 60% of the offense from last season.
“He’s been a huge impact player right from the start,” said McShane. “There are so many positives to Kurtis.”
Also back are goaltenders Mike Boudreau and Kevin Schieve, who each have big-game experience. McShane is also high on his recruits, who will be expected to produce immediately.
“I’m optimistic,” said McLean. “We’re going to have 11 freshmen, but the guys that are coming in are pretty good and we have a lot of strong players returning.
“There’s a lot I want to accomplish this season,” McLean added. “We’ve won one championship while I’ve been here and we came close two other times. I want to bring home another one my senior year.”
Poll: 154 points
Last Season: 23-5-3; SUNYAC regular season and playoff champions; lost to St. Norbert in the NCAA semifinals.
First Game: Friday, Oct. 22 vs. Carleton (exhibition)
The Cardinals overachieved last season, and outpaced favored Oswego to earn a conference title and a trip to the NCAA tournament. Can they do it again?
“We had good leadership and hard work last season,” said coach Bob Emery. “We weren’t the most talented team in the league but we had good chemistry and worked hard. We need to do that again this season.”
Chad Kemp and Rob Retter will be missed, but the Cardinals otherwise return intact, including the goaltending duo of junior Craig Neilson and senior Tony Seariac. Expect Neilson to be the main guy, at least early in the season.
“It’s Craig’s job to lose,” said Emery. “But I have no hesitation going with Tony.”
Also back are junior center David Friel, whose 36 points led the team last season, and senior forward Paul Kelly, whose 15 goals were second only to Friel last year.
This time around, Plattsburgh will be the favorites — the Cardinals were picked to win the league by the SUNYAC coaches in their preseason poll.
5. St. John’s
Poll: 141 points
Last Season: 22-4-1; MIAC regular season champion; lost to St. Thomas in overtime in the MIAC title game.
First Game: Friday, Nov. 19 at Northland
The Johnnies lost only one game after Jan. 10 last season, but it was a big one — the MIAC championship game, where they fell 4-3 to St. Thomas just 31 seconds into the extra period. The loss gave St. Thomas the automatic qualifier to the NCAA tournament, and St. John’s lost out in a numbers game to Curry and Wisconsin-River Falls for the two at-large berths in the NCAA tournament.
Paced by a whopping five All-Americans, the Johnnies won 16 games in a row prior to that heartbreaking loss. Four of those five All-Americans are back this season: juniors Darryl Smoleroff (first team defense) and Scott Bjorkland (first team forward), senior Adam Holmgren (second team defense) and sophomore Adam Hanna (second team goalie).
Besides these fab four, look for Ryan Langenbrunner to put up big numbers again (his 39 points last season was second only to Bjorkland’s 44) and sophomore Andy Johnson to pick up where he left off (15 goals last season, including a team-leading eight on the power play).
With the MIAC looking like a two-horse race between the Johnnies and St. Thomas, and the NCAA field stuck at nine teams (it will expand to 10 next season), the margin of error for St. John’s is low.
6. Wisconsin-River Falls
Poll: 132 points Last Season: 21-6-4; Second place in the NCHA; lost in the NCHA championship to St. Norbert; lost in the NCAA semifinals to St. Norbert.
First Game: Tuesday, Oct. 26 vs. MSOE
The Falcons were one of only two teams to defeat St. Norbert in the regular season last year, but lost to the Green Knights in the games that counted the most — the NCHA championship and the NCAA quarterfinals, both by shutouts.
Typically a sound defensive team, Wisconsin-River Falls will have to again rely on defense to get back into the national tournament.
Gone are the team’s top three scorers, including All-American Jim Murphy. Both starting goaltenders return, including Andy Scanlon, who had a miniscule 1.74 GAA and a .937 save percentage, second in Division III last season. Dan Meneghin contributed a 2.03 GAA and .915 save percentage. You’re going to win your share of games if you only allow two goals or less, so it will be up to those junior netminders and a skilled defensive unit that includes All-NCHA blueliner Marc-Andre Lalande to keep UWRF in games until their scoring punch develops.
A large recruiting class culled almost exclusively from the USHL and NAHL will be expected to contribute immediately. “This year’s team should grow as we go and we’ll certainly be in the hunt,” said coach Steve Freeman.
“River Falls will be one of the best teams in the league, as usual,” said St. Norbert coach Tim Coghlin. “They’re always balanced and never seem to have to rebuild.”
Poll: 114 points
Last Season: 13-7-5; finished second in the ECAC West; lost in ECAC West championship game to Hobart.
First Game: Saturday, Oct. 23 vs. St. Claire (exhibition)
The 2004-2005 will be a pivotal one for the Tigers. Was last season’s relatively disappointing performance an aberration, or are their years of dominance in the ECAC West over?
“I’m feeling pretty good about this team,” said coach Wayne Wilson. “With all the injuries we had last season, we were still a goal away from making the (NCAA) tournament.
“I think this team is a better one than last year’s.”
The rest of the ECAC West coaches don’t agree, picking the Tigers to finish third this season behind Hobart and Manhattanville. That’s the team’s lowest predicted finish in 10 years. The team has made it to the ECAC West title game every year since 1994.
RIT lost captain and All-American Mike Tarantino and four highly capable defensemen to graduation, but gets back Mike Tucciarrone, who had 34 points in just 14 games before suffering a knee injury in January. In all, the Tigers return seven of their top 10 scorers.
RIT will be young, with just four seniors on the roster, and a total of 14 freshmen and sophomores.
Wilson likes his crop of newcomers, which include four forwards and four defensemen. “We’ve got a lot of speed up front,” he said. “And our ‘D’ are big and move the puck well.”
Junior George Eliopoulos will get the bulk of the starts again this season. He was brilliant at times last season, but had his share of poor outings, too. “The key to George is consistency,” said Wilson. “That’s what we’ll be looking for from him this season.”
Poll: 95 points
Last Season: 24-4-1; ECAC Northeast regular season champions; lost to Wentworth in the ECAC Northeast championship game; lost to Plattsburgh in the NCAA quarterfinals.
First Game: Monday, Nov. 8 vs. Franklin Pierce
After a breakthrough 24-4-1 season, including a perfect 16-0 conference record, the Colonels still have some unfinished business. An upset loss to Wentworth in the ECAC Northeast title game, followed by an overtime loss at Plattsburgh in the NCAAs, leave Curry eager for more.
Returning 97% of its offense, plus the entire defensive corps and all three goaltenders bodes well for Curry, which also added a couple of talented recruits and a D-I transfer (Kevin Brooks from Providence).
“On paper we’ll be better,” said coach Rob Davies. “But last season is just numbers now. The games will tell the real story. You never know which way the puck is gong to bounce.”
Back are high-scoring forwards Brett Adams (51 points last season), Brian Doherty (49 points) and Michael O’Sullivan (58 points) as well as former defenseman Manu Mau’u (37 points), who will move back to the forward position this season.
There is still plenty of room for improvement, according to Davies. “We have some real good players here that still have potential they haven’t tapped yet.”
NEXT WEEK: Teams 9-15, plus a few others to watch.
Everyone’s got an opinion about the USCHO.com preseason poll; after all, that’s what it’s for.
Overrated: Plattsburgh (4th) — The Cardinals overachieved last year and were an improbable member of the D-III Frozen Four. I don’t think they’ll be there again this season. I would have Plattsburgh around ninth or tenth.
RIT (7th) — The Tigers are picked third in their conference by the other ECAC West coaches, but apparently are thought of more highly outside of their league. There are too many good teams to rank them this high. 13th or 14th is more like it.
Wisconsin-Superior (10th) — The Yellowjackets are coming off a disappointing season that saw them bounced from the NCHA playoffs in the first round. They have enough returning talent to be in the poll all season, but I wouldn’t have put them in the pre-season Top 15.
Underrated: St. Thomas (11th) – Several Western coaches have mentioned to me that this may be the most loaded Tommie team in years, losing just three players and adding a crop of D-I transfers. I’d rank St. Thomas a few spots higher, 8th or 9th.
The rest I can live with.
What’s your take? Make yourself heard on the USCHO Fan Forum .