Is it last season all over again? For five of the six teams, it just might be. Every team except for Neumann has the exact same league record now as it did at this point of the season last year.
Manhattanville and Utica are off to 2-0 starts — just like last year — having dropped the same Elmira and Hobart teams.
Hobart finally got on the board by beating Elmira, matching its 1-2 start a year ago to the same teams.
Elmira is stumbling along at 0-3 again, while Lebanon Valley joins the Soaring Eagles in the basement at 0-2.
The only team with a different league record at this point is Neumann, who is sitting at 2-0 compared to its 1-1 start last season.
Of course, with how last year worked out for Elmira and Hobart, maybe a little stumble out of the gate isn’t so bad?
A Different Formula
While Manhattanville may be off to a similar undefeated start as last year, the way they are winning games is quite different. The Valiants, sometimes called the “Violents” by opposing fans, have been known as a physically big team that liked to grind their opponents into the ice.
But this year’s team is based on speed and quick puck movement, and that is forcing many around the league to rethink their opinion about Manhattanville’s brand of hockey.
“We have won a lot of games historically by grinding them out and wearing the other team out,” said Manhattanville coach Keith Levinthal. “We haven’t played that way this year. We’ve had four or five periods where we have put up big numbers. That has been different. We have been able to score goals in bunches in short periods of time.”
Another area of the game that has been key for the Valiants so far is penalty killing. Manhattanville leads the ECAC West, and is second in the nation, with an impressive 96.8% penalty-killing rating.
“Your penalty killing starts with your goaltender, and our goaltending has been very good,” said Levinthal. “The more penalties they call, the easier they become to kill.”
With six games under their belt, several of the freshman are stepping forward to lead the young Manhattanville team. At the top of that list is freshman Matt Peigza who is fifth in the nation in points by a freshman with seven goals and four assists.
“The one thing that has been a noticeable difference with our team is that our newcomers have brought speed,” said Levinthal. “Matt Peigza can flat out skate and can shoot the puck hard. He has been able to be very productive offensively for us. We knew he would be good but we didn’t expect him at this point to be putting up the numbers that he is.”
What makes Piezga’s numbers even more impressive is that he is not a regular member of the Valiant power play. Only one of his seven tallies has been on the man-up advantage.
Among the blueliners, freshman AJ Mikkelsen leads the way statistically racking up eight assists so far.
“AJ Mikkelsen has done a really nice job as a freshman, seeing lots of key situations especially power play,” said Levinthal. “His ability to move the puck allows us to be faster.”
But there are also a host of other key newcomers that have been making their presence felt for the Valiants.
“[Juniors] Mike and Matt Ruberto have been good additions to the team,” said Levinthal. “There are a host of other guys I would hate to leave out like [freshman] Arlen Marshall who is playing a ton of ice for us. [Freshman] Niklas Berntsson is seeing lots of time both power play and penalty kill.”
While averaging more than six goals a game puts wins on the board and looks good on the stats sheet, it is still early in the season and coaches are always looking for ways to improve.
“I don’t know if our scores are reflective of our team just yet,” said Levinthal. “Both games this past weekend, we were in a position to lose at different points. Obviously, we are pleased with the progress the team has made given the expectations a lot of people had on it. But there is a lot of hockey to be played. I’m not sure that this early sample of games is fair to give a true assessment of the team yet.”
“What makes me concerned about this team, is that because we have been able [to score goals in bunches], we haven’t played a sixty minute game either,” continued Levinthal. “That’s why I don’t think the scores are reflective of our team yet. We are playing maybe thirty minutes a game right now. We got lucky at Elmira because they outplayed us for much of that game. I’m happy with the confidence of the guys scoring big numbers, but I am more concerned that when we start having to go in to the tough league places on the road that we need to compete for sixty minutes. We have been able to get by so far on a talent, but that only lasts so long.”
A Flicker of Power
Hobart got a big lift both in the standings and emotionally last Saturday when it beat Elmira 4-1 in the Thunderdomes. The Statesmen had been struggling to score goals in the first three games of the season, and it was starting to get to the team.
“We were happy with how the guys regrouped and pulled back together,” said Hobart coach Mark Taylor. “Record-wise, it is the same start as last year, but I thought the performance was a little bit different last year compared to this year. We took a big step forward from how we were playing before. Some guys for us showed up in a big time way. We came to play with the spirit and passion that we are known to play with.”
The key to the Hobart offensive woes has been the power play, or more specifically the lack of a power play. The Statesmen managed to go O-fer through 33 power plays in the opening three games of the season.
“We were moving the puck around very good other games, but just weren’t scoring,” said Taylor. “In the Potsdam game, we hit the post with nice plays and nice shots. We looked good, but weren’t getting it done.”
Seeing the renewed emphasis on calling penalties, Taylor and his staff spent quite a bit of time practicing the power play units before the season started. While that strategy has worked for other teams this year, particularly power play league leaders Neumann and Utica, the strategy backfired for Hobart.
Taylor’s players have always been given more freedom to be creative on the power play, but the added emphasis in practice took away some of that freedom.
“We didn’t practice [the power play] all last week,” said Taylor. “The power play is an interesting thing. So much of it is personnel and chemistry. You can practice it a ton and those go great. Or you can not practice it at all and it can click. We practiced it a lot early because it is going to be a huge part of your success in college hockey with the number of penalties that are called. We put a lot of emphasis on it early, and maybe too much so.”
The change in emphasis worked, as Hobart scored two power play goals last Saturday that were key in the victory over Elmira. But the Statesmen still have a long way to go before they can get the current 4.7% power play percentage back to respectability.
Game of the Week
Actually, this week it might be better to call this segment of my column “Team of the Week.” Neumann is the team to watch this weekend as they hit the road to Utica and Manhattanville.
The Knights have put up an impressive record and tallied buckets of goals against teams like Potsdam, Geneseo, and Lebanon Valley already this season.
Neumann also climbed into the No. 14 spot this week in the USCHO D-III Poll.
But the real test for Neumann will come this weekend. If the Knights have truly turned the corner and want to be taken seriously as contenders (which I think they are), they will need to earn at least a split. A sweep would go even further to thrust Neumann on to the national stage.