NESCAC Season Preview

The other half of the interlocking leagues, NESCAC also starts this week with their ECAC East partners with the level of competition in this league no different top to bottom which is going to make for some very interesting results. Last season saw the top five teams separated by just three points and virtually all of the playoff positions were up for grabs right down to the last whistle of the games on the last Saturday of the regular season. Can it get much more exciting than that?

“Absolutely,” states Amherst College Head Coach Jack Arena. “Without a doubt it just seems to get tighter and tighter each year and after last season it looks like everyone will be in the mix this year.”

Overall most teams did not lose much coming into this year and expect that new recruits will contribute to improving the level of play. As we saw last season teams are getting better across the board and certainly in the NESCAC where surprise teams like Wesleyan and Connecticut College began to assert themselves. Who will be this year’s team in the post-season chase for the conference title? Really too close to call but I will take a shot at it anyway as I get everyone ready for some great hockey in New England!

Middlebury Panthers

2006-2007 Overall Record: 20-8-3
2006-2007 League Record: 11-6-2
2006-2007 League Finish: Second
2007-2008 USCHO Prediction: First

Team Overview: “I am really pleased with the way the guys came into the season both physically and mentally this year,” said head coach Bill Beaney, whose Panthers fell an overtime goal short of winning their fourth consecutive national championship.

“It all starts in the back for us with Ross (Cherry) and Doug (Raeder) in goal and our defense led by senior All-American Tom Maldonado and senior Samuel Driver. Mickey Gilchrist is back and we have some other guys that can put the puck in the net.”

Special Teams: Not many teams are better on both sides of the specialty teams but the Panthers will be looking to replace seven power play goals contributed by the graduated John Sales this season. Look for more balance from a number of contributors.

Player to Watch: Freshman Trevor Dodds has impressed in early practices and along with sophomore John Sullivan figures to add to a potent panther attack.

Summary: Year in and year out, the reasons the Panthers keep winning are team defense, great goaltending, great special teams and an attitude about winning. Look for the Panthers to play with skill and passion right into March.

Bowdoin Polar Bears

2006-2007 Overall Record: 16-7-3
2006-2007 League Record: 11-6-2
2006-2007 League Finish: First
2007-2008 USCHO Prediction: Second

Team Overview: “There is a lot of excitement on campus,” noted Coach Terry Meagher. “People aren’t just excited about he new Watson arena but also what we have going for this year’s team. We have nice balance among the classes and a lot of league experience on the roster and that’s valuable in this league for sure.”

Goaltending is an open competition with Chris Rossi hoping to build on last year’s 11-4-0 record. Up front sophomores Colin MacCormick (8-13-21) and Mike Corbelle (12-8-20) are the leading scorers back to lead the offense for the Polar Bears.

Special Teams: If nothing else Bowdoin is incredibly consistent on special teams and this year looks no different; expect some key seniors to step up and produce some numbers this season.

Player to Watch: Junior Captain Matt Smith has proven to be a solid contributor in a conventional team alignment but in the Bowdoin system has the ability to control the game from the back.

Summary: The Polar Bears fell one step short of the league title last year and would like to send Dayton Arena out in style.

Colby White Mules

2006-2007 Overall Record: 14-9-2
2006-2007 League Record: 11-7-1
2006-2007 League Finish: Third
2007-2008 USCHO Prediction: Third

Team Overview: “We will rely heavily on the senior class this year,” noted head coach Jim Tortorella. “It’s a very talented group that has produced for us from the time they arrived at Colby and I am sure their own expectations for the season are high.”

Forwards TJ Kelley (15-16-31) and Josh Reber (9-25-34) along with defensive standouts Joe Rothwell (9-19-28) and Arthur Fritch (12-25-37) will be key perfumers on both ends of the ice for Colby.

The graduation of last year’s starting goalie Ben Grandjean brings open competition among five goalies to see playing time in Waterville this season. Freshman Cody McKinney is a leading contender to play significant minutes but there other goalies pushing for their share of ice-time as well.

Special Teams: The power play is consistently one of the best in all of D-III but the penalty killing (79 percent) will need to improve this year to help the White Mules succeed.

Players to Watch: The Big 4 (Kelley, Reber, Fritch, and Rothwell) as coach Tortorella defines his key seniors will be counted on heavily to continue the success they started as freshmen.

Summary: The seniors will carry the load but one of the goalies will need to step up for this team to reach its full potential.

Wesleyan Cardinals

2006-2007 Overall Record: 14-9-4
2006-2007 League Record: 9-6-4
2006-2007 League Finish: Fourth
2007-2008 USCHO Prediction Fourth

Team Overview: The team lost just a couple of players from last year’s team that had a shot at the regular season title heading into the final weekend. While perennial all-star Will Bennett will be difficult to replace there is a strong nucleus of young talent ready to challenge at the top again this year.

The strength of the team is in goal with junior Mike Palladino (10-6-4, 2.12 GAA) and defensive stalwarts Captain Brenton Stafford (2-7-9), Scott Burns (3-4-7) and Dallas Bossert (5-8-13). The Cardinals didn’t score a lot of goals last season but neither did their opposition.

Special Teams: Last year saw the Cardinals improve to 20.5 percent on the power play and there is still upside among the talented forwards on the roster. Goaltending and strong defense will continue to support the successful penalty killing efforts for Wesleyan.

Player to Watch: Sophomore forward David Layne (13-12-25) was a potent scorer on the power play and will now look to add to his numbers during even strength play.

Summary: The Cardinals are not going to sneak up on anyone anymore and appear to have the talent to compete again for a home-ice berth or more this season.

Amherst Lord Jeffs

2006-2007 Overall Record: 14-10-1
2006-2007 League Record: 10-8-1
2006-2007 League Finish: Fifth
2007-2008 USCHO Prediction: Fifth

Team Overview: “I like this team a lot,” noted head coach Jack Arena. “We have great depth and balance and some freshmen that are going to find it difficult to crack the line-up. No doubt there will be good hockey players sitting in the stands on game nights so it should foster some healthy competition for playing time.”

The junior class is the defensive core for Amherst this year led by Rylan Burns (5-9-14). Up front senior Captain Kyle Schoppel (10-13-23) and last season’s leading scorer, junior Joel Covelli (11-24-35), will be expected to create some offensive spark among six returnees who score five or more goals last season.

Special Teams: Like everyone in the conference, the Lord Jeffs also have a deadly power play that can score in bunches. Improving on the less than 80 percent penalty kill stat will be a key to success this season.

Players to Watch: Freshman goalies Jonathan LaRose and Cole Anderson are likely to see early action while AJ Scola gets involved following the football season. Good depth in goal for the first time in some years at Amherst which can only help the team.

Summary: For the past two seasons the final six games of the regular season have made a huge difference in playoff position and momentum going into the postseason. With four of the final six on the road, that trend will undoubtedly continue.

Connecticut College Camels

2006-2007 Overall Record: 10-13-2
2006-2007 League Record: 9-9-1
2006-2007 League Finish: Sixth
2007-2008 USCHO Prediction: Sixth

Team Overview: “After the success we had last year, there is a lot of excitement about this team,” observed head coach Jim Ward. “The guys all put a lot of time in on their training in the off-season and it shows. We will be a bit stronger and faster but we’ll need it as so will everyone else in this league.”

Last year’s two freshman phenoms, goalie Greg Parker (8-7-2, .916) and forward Ryan Howarth (13-7-20) are ready to build on last year’s success and make sure their first trip to the playoffs is not their last. Some newcomers are expected to help the offense which last year only scored 69 goals.

Special Teams: With only 22 power play goals, the Camels will need to improve their success rate in order to help this young team get some confidence. Too much reliance on strong goaltending for an effective penalty kill will hurt any team; if Connecticut College could improve in this area, they could see results immediately.

Player to Watch: Senior Rob Campbell (11-18-29) led the Camels in scoring last season and has improved on his numbers every season. Look for him to cap off a solid collegiate career with his most productive season.

Summary: Last year’s young squad is back with a year of experience under their belt. While making the playoffs was nice, there are higher expectations this season so don’t count the Camels out.

Williams Ephs

2006-2007 Overall Record: 8-14-2
2006-2007 League Record: 8-9-2
2006-2007 League Finish: Seventh
2007-2008 USCHO Prediction: Seventh

Team Overview: “Our leadership could be a difference maker for this team,” noted head coach Bill Kangas. “The seniors have really done a great job acclimating the new guys and building that chemistry on the team even before we started practice. It’s great to see and hopefully it translates positively on the ice.”

While the scoring production was down last year, Williams played in a lot of close games backed by two returning goalies in junior Rick Redmond and sophomore Marc Pulde who will both see their fair share of playing time this season.

Look for sophomore forwards Owen Holm (5-8-13) and Alex Smigelski (7-5-12) to build on their freshman results and improve Williams’ attack.

Special Teams: The power play last year was anemic scoring at just better than 10 percent. For a team that produced only 65 total goals, a stronger power play would help bolster the offense and swing some of the close games in favor of the Ephs.

Player to Watch: Senior forward Brandon Jackmuff (11-4-15) only played 20 games last year due to injury but has demonstrated a knack for scoring big goals for Williams in the past. If he stays healthy, he could be a big part of the Ephs offense.

Summary: Last year’s team struggled at home and on the road. Williams will have to play better at home and build the confidence this year to succeed on the road if they want to compete for a home ice playoff berth.

Trinity Bantams

2006-2007 Overall Record: 13-10-3
2006-2007 League Record: 9-7-3
2006-2007 League Finish: Eighth
2007-2008 USCHO Prediction: Eighth

Team Overview: Last season the Bantams opened a new arena on campus and this year the squad will transition from the school’s only head coach, John Dunham, to long-time associate coach Dave Cataruzolo.

“There will definitely be some transitional things going on this year but we should have pretty good continuity with the return of some young guys that played a lot of hockey for us last season,” predicted Cataruzolo. “Last year we were brand new on the blue line and this year I expect it will be an area of strength for us.”

Captain Dan Maturi (7-5-12 in 14 games) is healthy and in great shape this season and brings important leadership to this year’s team.

Sophomore goalie David Murison (7-12-4, 3.25 GAA) made great strides in his freshman season and will have competition from incoming freshman Wes Vesprini.

Special Teams: Over one-third of the teams goals came on the power play and the new coach is placing an emphasis on offensive creativity. Sophomore Richard Hollstein (four power play tallies) will look to replace some of the production lost to graduation.

Player to Watch: Junior defenseman Chris Powers (10-7-17) will look to increase his offensive output this season and continue to play big in the big games.

Summary: If the goaltending is more consistent and if the team can score more goals and if … you get the picture. The Bantams will continue to play tight games and if they can win a couple more of the close ones they won’t be struggling to be in the top eight come February.

Hamilton Continentals

2006-2007 Overall Record: 7-16-1
2006-2007 League Record: 6-12-1
2006-2007 League Finish: Ninth
2007-2008 USCHO Prediction: Ninth

Team Overview: “For the first time in about 17 years, we didn’t make the playoffs,” commented head coach Phil Grady. “The majority of this team is still going to be freshman and sophomores but I think we are going to be a much improved hockey club. We go four lines deep and have six good defensemen.”

Junior Kyle Roulston (4-13-17) is this year’s captain and sees a lot of ice time but look for greater contributions from senior Andrew Decristoforo (9-5-14), sophomore Chris Lorenc (6-9-15) and junior Travis Blood (7-11-18).

Special Teams: Staying out of the box and avoiding major penalties was real problem for the Continentals last season. Coach Grady believes the penalty kill will be better just by limiting the trips to the box.

Player to Watch: Senior Matt Mesi, who played in just two games last season, returns from an injury; his leadership and production will be welcome additions on a young team.

Summary: Hamilton is still building with a young squad and they are very young in goal. If everything can come together for this team their playoff exodus could be short-lived.

Tufts Jumbos

2006-2007 Overall Record: 6-18-0
2006-2007 League Record: 3-16-0
2006-2007 League Finish: Tenth
2007-2008 USCHO Prediction: Tenth

Team Overview: “No more Tuesday games,” observed head coach Brian Murphy. “We have virtually no mid-week games which is good for the kids and should help us in terms our physical condition in the second half of the season. We also have a European trip planned around the holidays in Switzerland so hopefully that will help us as a team as well as competitively.”

Senior goalies Issa Azat and James Kalec have played brilliantly at times during their career at Tuft’s. The Jumbos need one or both to step up this season if they are going to compete for a chance to play in March.

Special Teams: The Jumbos gave up too many goals last season in general and, in particular, too many soft goals while a man down. Improve on those statistics and this team can improve upon its 17 percent success rate they exhibited last season.

Player to Watch: Senior Captain Ross Gimbel (12-13-25) will need to lead this young squad and add to his team leading goal production on the power play.

Summary: Expectations from the goaltending tandem this year are high and for the Jumbos to have success they will need to play a better game defensively in this league. Top to bottom the league has talent and Tufts is not out the playoff hunt with some young talent.

Are you getting excited yet? Drop the puck!