NESCAC Season Preview

We are still more than a month away from Christmas and all of the good New England hockey fans have been patiently waiting for their conference season to begin after enduring daily looks at the box scores from every other league in the Northeast, including the newly formed MASCAC conference.

The wait is over: Friday night begins what will likely be the most hotly contested and tight race in the NESCAC conference in years. And considering how close the standings have been — and how playoff positions have shifted right up until the final day of the season for the last five seasons in a row — that is a noteworthy statement.

In keeping with the holiday theme, many coaches are very thankful that the season is getting underway as nearly three weeks of practicing has teams with the fever (not Swine flu) to play a real game against somebody, anywhere! There are lots of new faces in the league this year, so coaches are anxious to see what the pieces look like on the ice and start the process that will improve the level of play from November right through February. And beyond.

The theme from all of the coaches has been optimism, as one would expect with everyone sitting with a 0-0-0 record right now. Most are happy with what they have seen over the multiple practice sessions as well as liking the all important team chemistry that brings the new and old players together in the new puzzle that starts every season.

“I really don’t believe things will be much different than the past few seasons,” said Connecticut College head coach Jim Ward. “It may be the most competitive season we have seen with virtually everyone having the ability to finish near the top of the standing. Everyone wants to get off to a good start early, earn some points and find the consistency needed to be competitive every night. It will be a lot fun and it all starts with some great conference games this weekend.”

So, here we go again. Get ready for the rollercoaster action to begin starting on Friday night; it’s going to be a very exciting season. This year like most others will really challenge anyone’s prognostication abilities — but here’s my best effort at figuring it all out.

Amherst Lord Jeffs

2008-2009 Overall Record: 22-5-1
2008-2009 League Record: 16-2-1
2008-2009 League Finish: First
2009-2010 USCHO Prediction: First

All-American goalie Cole Anderson returns to lead Amherst in search of back-to-back NESCAC titles (photo: Tim Costello).

All-American goalie Cole Anderson returns to lead Amherst in search of back-to-back NESCAC titles (photo: Tim Costello).

Team Overview: “You can’t expect to replace a player like Jeff Landers with just one guy so we will be looking for the entire group, particularly upfront, to find those goals and points that he produced last year,” said head coach Jack Arena. “We are young on the defensive side but also have Cole [Anderson] back which should help cover up for a few mistakes while things get settled.”

Special Teams: The Lord Jeffs have built a reputation for an excellent power play and penalty kill rankings as last year’s numbers will attest to. This season will be no different as Arena will be looking for production from a number of people, including captain Keith Nelson who takes over as the leader on the power-play unit hoping to improve on his 26 points from last season.

Players to Watch: Junior goalie Cole Anderson (1.51 goals against average, .954 save percentage), along with his teammate Jonathan LaRose, were nothing short of spectacular last year and gave Amherst the best goaltending tandem in the country. LaRose has left school, so the burden will fall to Anderson to backstop an inexperienced defense early. If he can come anywhere close to last year’s numbers, Amherst will be in position to repeat last year’s title run.

Summary: Last season saw the Lord Jeffs win their first NESCAC championship based on great goaltending, strong defense and timely scoring. This year’s formula for success will need to see an uptic in offense from a talented group of forwards — including Ted Vickers, Mark Colp and Eddie Effinger — that can take some pressure off the defense.

Middlebury Panthers

2008-2009 Overall Record: 19-7-1
2008-2009 League Record: 14-4-1
2008-2009 League Finish: Second
2009-2010 USCHO Prediction: Second

Team Overview: “I really like what I have seen from this group, starting out in practice this month,” head coach Bill Beaney said. “We won’t score as many goals as we did last season and based on personnel will have a more traditional Middlebury look focused on being solid in the defensive end of the ice. We have a lot of new players this year and we are excited about what they can do on the ice.”

Senior captain John Sullivan leads a young Panther squad looking to play in their 11th consecutive NESCAC title game (photo: Tim Costello).

Senior captain John Sullivan leads a young Panther squad looking to play in their 11th consecutive NESCAC title game (photo: Tim Costello).

Special Teams: Captain John Sullivan and freshman phenom Martin Drolet return as the top scorers from last year’s team and will be expected to continue to produce numbers on the power play along with Charles Nerbak and Ken Suchoski.

Player to Watch: Sophomore goalie John Yanchek hopes to build on a solid freshman season that saw him go 12-1-0 with a 2.56 GAA. A return to the 3-2 forecheck system will help Middlebury continue the team’s reputation for solid goaltending and tight defensive play.

Summary: The Panthers lost several key players to graduation but have added some talent to build on their reputation for aggressive defense, team speed and opportunistic offense. Scoring goals may be a challenge for this team but if the back-end is solid, they won’t need much to continue the program’s winning ways.

Williams Ephs

2008-2009 Overall Record: 15-9-2
2008-2009 League Record: 12-5-2
2007-2008 League Finish: Third
2008-2009 USCHO Prediction: Third

Team Overview: “I really like our team,” said head coach Bill Kangas. “We have some key players back from last season which should help us and the experience some of our young guys had filling in for some of injured players last season should help us with our balance upfront. We have two solid goaltenders and three good lines so we should be able to compete every night.

Special Teams: The special teams will really need a boost on the power play and the return of a healthy Alex Smigelski should help the Eph’ production. Limited to only 17 games last season, Smigelski had eight goals and five assists. Look for those numbers to improve with a full season of opportunities.

Players to Watch: Sophomore defenseman Justin Troiani returns to lead the defense for Williams. Last season, he was a key on both ends of the ice, chipping in six goals and five assists from the blueline.

Williams goaltender Ryan Purdy will backstop the Ephs towards their first conference title (photo: Tim Costello).

Williams goaltender Ryan Purdy will backstop the Ephs towards their first conference title (photo: Tim Costello).

Summary: Williams enjoyed a solid campaign last year and returns a solid nucleus of players to challenge the conference elite. To succeed, the goaltending tandem of Ryan Purdy and Marc Pulde will need to build on last year’s solid numbers while the offense will need to provide balanced production.

Connecticut College Camels

2008-2009 Overall Record: 13-9-3
2008-2009 League Record: 9-7-3
2008-2009 League Finish: Fifth
2009-2010 USCHO Prediction: Fourth

Team Overview: “We are certainly more experienced and every group the past three seasons has continued to improve and do something the previous team had not achieved,” observed head coach Jim Ward. “I really like the skill of these kids and expect that we will continue our trend of achieving more as a team as compared with the previous season. We have high expectations and believe we can play with the consistency needed to compete at the top of this league.”

Special Teams: Special teams will be a key focal point for the Camels, who hope to better their 77% kill rate on the opposition’s power play and bump up their own 15.7 efficiency rate with the man advantage. Look for forwards Ryan Riffe and Julien Boutet to improve on their individual totals of four goals apiece on the power play.

Player to Watch: While Ward would like to see this team to increase shots on opponents’ goalies and heighten their scoring opportunities, he would also prefer to see the shots against reduced to help out senior netminder Greg Parker, who has demonstrated over his first three seasons that he is one of the league’s best goaltenders. Parker will be expected to continue his strong play for the Camels and build on his outstanding career statistics.

Summary: This team returns a speedy and talented group of forwards from last year’s team that just missed out on securing a home ice in the playoffs. If the Camels find consistency early in the season — better offensive output and solid netminding — the Camels fighting for home-ice advantage.

Bowdoin Polar Bears

2008-2009 Overall Record: 11-12-2
2008-2009 League Record: 8-9-2
2008-2009 League Finish: Sixth
2009-2010 USCHO Prediction: Fifth

Team Overview: “Last season I thought if we improved our goaltending and overall save percentage to around .900 we would be right there in the hunt,” said Bowdoin head coach Terry Meagher. “This year I would like to see that number around .915 and we need to produce some more goals, especially from players who have had some success scoring points in the past.”

Special Teams: Senior Mike Corbelle scored six of his 10 goals last season on the power play. Look for some other contributions from the Polar Bears with the man advantage, as they try to improve upon last season’s 21.7% success rate.

Players to Watch: Senior forward and captain Colin MacCormack really got his game going late in the season, producing nine goals and 13 assists for 22 points. Meagher has been impressed with MacCormack’s leadership and hopes some of the other upper classmen return to form this season. In particular, Senior forward Ryan Blossom will be looking to improve on his 8-8-16 totals from last season.

Summary: The Polar Bears have a ton of talent and a young group of players that gained a lot of experience last season on the power play, penalty kill and support roles which should translate to a balanced line-up this season. The new Sid Watson Arena opened in mid-season last year so this is the first full campaign for the team playing in their new rink. If Bowdoin scores more goals, they will be looking at playing a home playoff game in their new arena.

Trinity Bantams

2008-2009 Overall Record: 16-9-0
2008-2009 League Record: 12-7-0
2008-2009 League Finish: Fourth
2009-2010 USCHO Prediction: Sixth

Team Overview: “Our strength starts with Wes [Vesprini] in goal,” said Trinity head coach Dave Cataruzolo. “Our real question is going to be about who steps up defensively where we have a lot of new faces and lack experience. With so many new faces on the roster this season the team has a new feel so we will need to focus on playing our style and good defense.”

Special Teams: The power play was pretty effective last season, but graduation took away more than 50% of the Banrtams’ goal scoring with the man advantage. Look for junior Adam Houli and sophomore Paul Jaskot to lead the attack and add to last season’s double digit goal totals.

Player to Watch: With defense a clear focus for the Bantams, junior goalie Wes Vesprini is going to need some help out front. Blueliners Regnar Alksnis and sophomore Mike DeMayo are expected to be factors on both ends of the ice for Trinity.

Summary: Newcomers abound on this roster so all of the moving pieces may take some time to figure out. Trinity plays a disciplined style and strong goaltending should have them in every game while some of the young players grow accustomed to the much faster college game. If the young players contribute and some experienced players like Egor Petrov and Richard Hollstein take their games to the next level, Trinity may sneak up on a few teams at the most important time of the year.

Hamilton Continentals

2008-2009 Overall Record: 9-15-1
2008-2009 League Record: 8-11-0
2008-2009 League Finish: Seventh
2009-2010 USCHO Prediction: Seventh

Team Overview: “I really like our depth up front and in goal,” stated second year head coach Norm Bazin. “I think we have improved our team speed and level of competitiveness which will be important keys to our desire to push the pace and play aggressive transition hockey. We are inexperienced on the blueline so we will see how that develops now that we start getting some real game action this weekend.”

Special Teams: Nearly 50% of the team’s power-play goals last season were scored by forwards Chris Lorenc and Joe Buicko, who each tallied seven times. Both players return this year as the leading scorers from last season and will be expected to continue to produce points in all situations.

Player to Watch: The departure of defenseman and captain Kyle Roulston has been a loss both on the ice and in the locker room. This year’s captain Joe Buicko will be expected to pick up the leadership role as well as lead by example on the ice as the Continentals will be looking to improve on last year’s jump back into the NESCAC playoff picture

Summary: It’s year two for Bazin and his first recruiting class has been added to this year’s roster. The team understands the system and expectations and will now need a core group of freshmen and sophomores to develop quickly on defense in order for this team to exceed last year’s much improved record. The Continentals are not going to sneak up on anyone, but they have the talent to make sure playing against them is never easy.

Colby White Mules

2008-2009 Overall Record: 6-15-3
2008-2009 League Record: 4-13-2
2008-2009 League Finish: Tenth
2009-2010 USCHO Prediction: Eighth

Team Overview: “We lost a number of one goal games last season and certainly did not have the success we are used to on the power play for example,” recalled head coach Jim Tortorella. “We struggled to score goals in all situations but the opportunities and effort was there so we can build on some things with the group of returning players we have that will grow from last year’s experience. Our style is about taking care of the defensive end first so if do that well we will continue to be competitive in this league.”

Special Teams: The power play has always been a strength for Colby, but last year the productivity dropped to just 13.4 %, with forward Michael Doherty accounting for five tallies. Look for these numbers to improve this year with help from junior Billy Crinnion and senior Michael Belliveau.

Players to Watch: Junior goalie Cody McKinney has a career .910 save percentage and has played in 42 games in his first two seasons for Colby. While last year’s goals against average was up, McKinney is still one of the league’s best and if he gets some support offensively, can make a couple of goals stand up for a victory.

Summary: As in the past, defense and goaltending will be the foundation of Colby’s success. If the offense comes to life early and the three newcomers make contributions, look out for the White Mules come February, when Tortorella’s crew is usually playing its best hockey.

Tufts Jumbos

2008-2009 Overall Record: 11-12-2
2008-2009 League Record: 7-10-2
2008-2009 League Finish: Eighth
2008-2010 USCHO Prediction: Ninth

Team Overview: “I am really excited about this team,” admitted Tufts head coach Brian Murphy. “In the past we have had two or three guys that could take over a game but this year we have solid depth from the goal out and guys that have improved a lot over where they were at the end of last season. This is the best group we have had here and I am looking forward to a good season and competing with this team every night starting this weekend.”

Special Teams: The Tufts power-play unit will need to improve on their 16.9 percent success rate and also cut down on the seven shorthanded goals scored against the Jumbos. Goalie Scott Barchard will look to be the team’s best penalty killer and match last season’s impressive .927 save percentage.

Player to Watch: Junior Tom DeRosa, who transferred to Tufts from Division I Merrimack College, lived up to expectations last season in leading the Jumbos in scoring. This season, he is anticipated to build on last year’s numbers, which included a team leading line of 15-13-28 and five power play and game-winning goals.

Summary: This is clearly the deepest team Murphy has had at Tufts. If they can get balanced scoring and consistent play from Scott Barchard, the Jumbos could be in the playoff mix yet again — and from there anything could happen.

Wesleyan Cardinals

2008-2009 Overall Record: 4-17-2
2008-2009 League Record: 4-13-2
2008-2009 League Finish: Ninth
2009-2010 USCHO Prediction Tenth

Team Overview: “We have a lot of new faces around here this season,” said head coach Chris Potter. “Clearly we have struggled to score goals over the past several seasons including last season and we will need to find ways to create more opportunities. We have some inexperience in some areas that will need to develop and prove itself out but there is great potential here if we can focus on playing our style and our game from the outset.”

Special Teams: Both special teams need some improvement for the Cardinals to take the pressure off 5-on-5 play. Having scored just 43 goals as a team last season, Wesleyan will need to limit the opponent’s man advantage opportunities and exceed last year’s 17 power-play goal output.

Player to Watch: Goalie Tim Archibald enters the season as the number one netminder but has seen action in just 13 total games, including five last season. His .902 save percentage last year was more than respectable, but he will have to prove he can be consistent while playing two games each weekend.

Summary: The Cardinals have a lot of question marks entering the season and will be looking for answers from players both old and new. It may take awhile for the chemistry and assembly of all the moving parts to come together, but if the offense can produce and the goaltending play consistently, Wesleyan may not be looking from the bottom up.

The offseason is finally over. The weeks of tryouts and preseason practices are finally complete. The game uniforms are clean and ready.

Drop the puck!

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