This Week in the ECAC Northeast

As the boys in the ECAC NE get ready to shut it down for the holiday break, we’ll take a look this week at perhaps the biggest surprise of the first half: the Westfield State Owls.

Winners of their last six games, the Owls own a 7-1-1 overall record and are tied for third place in the conference with a 5-1-1 mark.

First year coach Jerry Keefe is not totally surprised that this relatively green squad (this is their first year in the conference) is off to the start they are.

“Things have gone well so far,” Keefe noted. “Coming in, you never know on that first night what’s going to happen, but we’ve got some good ability on our team, and we’ve got some great leadership.”

One of the leader’s is the only senior on the team, forward Jeff Chillson, who Keefe feels plays the role of captain beautifully. Chillson also has 16 points in the first nine games, with four goals and 12 assists.

Chillson has a couple of younger players on the first line with him that Keefe is very fond of:

“Dennis Zak is off to a great start. He’s got 12 goals in nine games, and he’s a pretty talented hockey player, he’s got great skills. Patrick Nelson is a freshman who’s really come on now, and he’s a real skilled forward.”

Zak, a New Jersey native, is coming off of a week in which he scored four goals and tallied an assist in Westfield’s 7-2 victory that knocked Johnson & Wales from the unbeaten ranks in the conference, earning him ECAC NE Player of the Week honors. He currently has 12 goals and 11 assists for 23 points in just nine games. Nelson leads the team with 14 assists, along with seven goals. Five of those goals came in the 10-4 win over Framingham State this week.

Although the first line is lighting it up offensively, Keefe knows he’s getting what he needs from the others.

“Even guys that aren’t scoring right now for us are doing a good job,” he said. “Everyone’s trying to buy into what we’re trying to do. We’re having success right now, and guys aren’t really concerned about their individual stuff, they’re more concerned about winning hockey games.”

One of the unsung players so far is junior assistant captain Mile Muolo.

“He’s been a little bit snake-bitten,” his coach said of him. “He’s played pretty well, he’s the guy that goes out and blocks shots and wins face-offs, and wins the little battles for you. He does all of the little things that don’t show up in the box score, but helps you win hockey games.”

A couple of rookies making their presence felt are forwards A.J. Shiverdecker and Benni Shennach. Both are averaging nearly a point-per-game so far. Keefe sees a bright future for the pair.

“I really feel that they can be two of the top freshmen in our league. Sometimes, as a freshman, it takes a few games to adjust and I think they’re starting to figure it out. They’re probably not scoring as much as they’d like to score right now, but again, they’re doing all the little things to be successful. I think with those two guys, the scoring’s going to come.”

After an opening night tie against Franklin Pierce, the Owls won their next contest against Plymouth state, then suffered their only loss to Nichols. Since then, they have gone 6-0, outscoring their opponents 38-16 along the way.

Freshman goalie Ian Wilson and sophomore Ray Monroe have been consistently good all year long, both splitting playing time almost equally. Their combined goals against average is 2.42 with an impressive cumulative save percentage of .916 — which is even more impressive when you look at the youth of the defense.

“We dress three freshmen defensemen, two sophomores, and a junior, so we’re pretty young on the back end,” Keefe said of his blue line corps. “They’ve all been doing a great job for us, too.”

Keefe has had a mantra since camp opened.

“I’ve been stressing with my guys, every day, we’re going to get better,” he said. “We really have kind of bought into that a little bit. Every kid out there is playing for me for the first time. Twenty eight guys, and everything’s new to them. When you’re doing things in practice, and working on teaching points, everything’s new to them.

“Each week, at the end of the week, we look back and say ‘We had a good week in practice, we got better at this, we got better on our special teams.’ Just doing the little things, it’s all helped. It makes it a lot easier when you’re winning, too, because guys tend to listen a little bit more when you having success.”

The first year coach has an impressive hockey résumé. A four year player at Providence College from 1996-2000, he led the Friars in scoring in the 1998-99 season with 16 goals, 36 assists, and 52 points in just 35 games. He then played professionally for five years, before beginning his coaching career. He was an assistant coach at University of Massachusetts-Boston last season, and also coached the U.S. Select Under-17 team at the National Festival in St. Cloud, Minn., and Team New England at the USA Hockey Festival.

So far, Keefe is truly enjoying his position in western Massachusetts.

“It’s even better than I imagined, to be honest with you. Coaching’s something that I always wanted to do when I was finished playing. I love teaching the little parts of the game. I was fortunate as a player to have played for some really good coaches. Paul Pooley at Providence, Mike Hastings at Omaha, Dave Peters who’s at Dartmouth now but was at Providence.

“With guys like that, you learn so much from them. I felt like Paul Pooley is one of the smartest hockey guys you’d ever speak to. I had an opportunity to play four years for him, and I think he really helped prepare his players for thinking about the game. You get an appreciation of the details of the game of hockey.”

Pooley is now an associate coach under Jeff Jackson at top-ranked Notre Dame, and he is glad to see his former player do well so far.

“He’s very passionate about the game of hockey, and I think that’s what drives him to always be learning and being involved with the game,” Pooley said. “As a player he was very intelligent, he understood the game and understood the situations. I think he had a coaching mind when he was at Providence, and always dissected the game. When you’d talk with him, he knew what you were talking about.”

Pooley said he and Keefe still stay in touch.

“We’ve talked a few times over the last couple of weeks, and the last few years, since he’s gotten into coaching. It’s been good. It’s nice as a coach to develop a relationship with one of your former players who’s gotten into coaching. It’s very rewarding.”

Keefe realizes that he has help off of the ice as well.

“The administration here has been phenomenal. They want us to have success, and they’ve really worked with us on that. It’s been fun so far, but again, you got to move forward. We’ve had success in the first eight games, but we’ve got to play a certain way to win.”