This Week in the ECAC East and NESCAC

The season is finally underway and after one weekend of conference play and some terrific tournaments over the Thanksgiving holiday, the ultra-competitive nature of the league is already showing through just the first handful of games.

Quick: name the only team without a blemish (loss or a tie) on their record in the first couple of weeks of the season in either league? Here’s a hint: there is only one team unbeaten and untied in the first two weeks. Still no? Here’s your last hint … :

Huskies Hulk Up

By now you should recognize that it is the Southern Maine Huskies at 4-0-0 who is unbeaten early on. What that says about the level of competition in both leagues is that once again anyone can step up and win on any given night. What it tells you about Jeff Beaney’s squad is that they have reloaded nicely after the departures of key contributors from last year’s team including forward Mark Carragher and goalie David Beckles.

After opening the season with what many consider an upset over Norwich by a resounding 8-3 score, the Huskies followed that up with a shutout of St. Michael’s for two convincing home wins to open the season. This past weekend the Huskies won their Skidmore Invitational opener against Salve Regina by a 3-2 score and defeated Cortland for the tournament championship, 4-1.

The Huskies have outscored their opponents 19-6 early on and already have seven power-play goals this season to support some solid defense and excellent goaltending from the tandem of Ryan Sullivan and transfer Jamie Gilbert.

“We have pretty high expectations for the transfer students this year,” noted head coach Jeff Beaney. “We are going to need a group of players to step up and replace some of the goals from Sparkes and Carragher last season and hope that Ryan and Jamie can give us strong goaltending to keep us in the tight games.”

So far the goaltenders have alternated games this season and have a combined 1.50 goals against average with Gilbert picking up his first shutout against St. Michaels.

Offensively, the Huskies have exhibited some early balance led by senior forward Mike Stevens (3-4-7) and junior forward Kyle Smith (3-3-6) who both already have one game-winning goal among their tallies and have combined for five of the teams seven power play goals.

Freshmen Paul Conter (2-3-5) and Zack Joy (2-2-4) have also started out strong for Southern Maine. With Chris Travis, Dan Gordon (another UMass-Amherst transfer) and Dane Marshall expected to contribute more offense and balance to the team; the Huskies may find they have the depth to stay at the top of the ECAC East standings.

Next test is this weekend on the road against Williams and Middlebury and the battle of the Beaney Brothers with Jeff currently holding a one game winning streak and looking to extend the family bragging rights. Two very good teams in what should be a fun game to watch so mark it down if you are in Vermont on Saturday afternoon.

Win One for the Dunner?

Everyone is familiar with the expression “win one for the Gipper.” In Trinity’s case this past weekend represented an opportunity to recognize the recently retired head coach of the Bantams, John Dunham, for whom the holiday tournament hosted by Trinity was named after this weekend.

After opening the season on the road with a 4-1 loss at Amherst and a 1-1 tie at Hamilton, the Bantams — under first year coach Dave Cataruzolo — returned home to their still new arena to host the all-NESCAC tournament and found themselves with a pair of wins to claim the inaugural title.

Their first round win over Wesleyan by a score of 4-1 saw the Bantams limit the Cardinals to only 15 shots on goal and use two second period goals to open up a lead they never relinquished. In the championship game, Trinity had a rematch of opening night and used a late in goal in the third period to tie the game at 4-4 before winning it in overtime on a goal by senior Matthew Crum.

At the beginning of the season, coach Cataruzolo noted that he really thought that the experience gained by last year’s team would help them compete, maybe sneaking into the win column on some of the close one goal games that went the other team’s way last season.

Toward that end, much has been expected from junior defenseman Chris Powers (1-3-4). So far, he leads the team in points and has been a major contributor to the style of play that has the Bantams aggressively attacking the goal in the offensive end and strongly supporting the goaltending tandem of sophomore David Murison and freshman Wes Vesprini.

The power play really needs to get going as 1 for 22 isn’t going to help the offense much nor put a lot of pressure on their opposition if they can’t cash in on those extra man opportunities. This weekend the Bantams will be tested when defending ECAC East champion Babson comes to town on Friday night. For a young team looking to find out where they stand early in the season, this is a great test.

Babson Off and Running

Say what you will about superstitious athletes but coaches may be just as bad.

I don’t think this column has ever come close to the dreaded Sports Illustrated cover jinx but that said I can understand completely when a coach respects the streak his team is on and doesn’t want to chance things with alterations to the daily activities.

“It is just starting and there is a long way to go for sure,” stated head coach Jamie Rice. “It sure beats the alternative as to how we have started this year but there is a lot to be encouraged by so far with this team. This is a great bunch of kids — they are a really fun group that is very loose and relaxed but get ready and focused to compete hard.”

Certainly coach Rice has much to be excited about as his team has picked up right where it left off last season. And it definitely is hard not talking about when things are going well.

The Beavers have had one of the more challenging opening schedules in the country and have demonstrated how good this club can be against some of the best teams in the ECAC East.

After opening with home wins against Bowdoin and Colby, Babson defeated nationally ranked UMass-Dartmouth by a 3-1 score on the road. In the game, they controlled in shots and on the scoreboard, just missing a shutout for goalie Skylar Nipps in the last minute of play in the game.

Babson then took the title in its own Invitational Tournament for the first time since the 2002-2003 season by defeating Potsdam in a shootout, after a 4-4 tie in regulation. This came after they downed previously unbeaten Curry, 4-2, including a late empty-net goal to clinch the title for the home team.

Yes it’s only five games into the season but Babson is showing great balance with 11 players accounting for the team’s 19 goals thus far and 13 players contributing points on the score sheet, led by junior Brad Baldelli (3-4-7), sophomore Jason Schneider (4-2-6) and junior captain John Geverd (3-3-6).

“The balance is really the strength of this team,” noted Rice. “We don’t have a big roster and no JV team so everyone here is out to compete and contribute and really likes playing hockey at Babson so I am not surprised by the balance we have shown so far.”

Sophomore defenseman Casey Fazekas (1-3-4) has also stepped up to support the offense, including the decisive shootout goal against Potsdam in the tournament last weekend.

According to Rice, “Casey just loves to play hockey, a real rink rat, and it shows in his game. He has such joy from the playing the game that it has produced success and he was the fifth name on the shootout list having practiced his ‘Sid the Kid’ move in practice just a couple of days before in anticipation that a shootout was possible in the tournament format.

“It certainly was a great thing for our seniors who have played in the consolation game the past two seasons and very nice to beat a strong Curry team which is becoming a growing rivalry now that we are playing them every year.”

Junior goalie Skylar Nipps has been very consistent to start the season with a .908 save percentage and 2.16 goals against average to backstop the Beavers to the top of the league standings early in the season.

“Skylar has really earned his keep as the number one guy and even in the game against Potsdam where they made it very difficult for him to play well while they were aggressively attacking the goal, he made the first stop in the shootout and you had a feeling on the bench that he was going to shut them down,” observed coach Rice.

Another challenging weekend against NESCAC opponents awaits in Connecticut this weekend and for coach Rice’s team, a chance to build more confidence in their strong play to date against tough opponents.

It’s almost December and already it’s getting real good all around the leagues.

Hey ref: drop the puck!