After slump-riddled season, Brown has a lot to prove

For a while there, they may as well have been the Brown Bear-skins, with which the rest of the ECAC warmed its feet and decorated its basement. But since the school welcomed native son Brendan Whittet back to the Meehan bench, the school has elevated its hockey program to something resembling the un-Bear-ables: unbearably physical, unbearably tough and unbearably determined to give opponents everything they’ve got … but with unbearably inconsistent returns in Whittet’s first two years at the helm.

Last year’s promising 3-2-3 start included a four-point road weekend at Colgate and Cornell, and culminated with Hockey East-stunning ties at New Hampshire and Boston University. Something failed to carry over, however, as Bruno fell into an enduring slump thereafter. A late-season surge that included a matching home sweep of the Raiders and Big Red also bore a devastating injury, as then-leading scorer Jack Maclellan was lost with a foot injury. Quinnipiac buried Brown in the first round of the playoffs with consecutive 4-0 thumpings in Hamden.

Gone, now, is high-scoring, hard-hitting and hot-tempered Harry Zolnierczyk, who finished his senior campaign as the team leader with 16 goals and 31 points (tied with Maclellan), as well as a whopping 128 minutes in penalties. Graduating with him were fellow forwards David Brownschidle (7-9–16, 29 games played) and Jesse Fratkin (6-7—13, 26 GP). Overall, the senior class accounted for 30 of Bruno’s 83 goals in 2010-11.

Meehan is still home to the likes of seniors Maclellan (14 goals in 25 games) and Bobby Farnham (eight goals, 31 games), as well as sophomore defender Dennis Robertson (6-11–17, 30 GP).

“We’ve had some successes in the past two years in terms of some big wins, and I’ve definitively seen progress in the type of players we’ve been able to attract to Brown,” Whittet said.

While not one of Whittet’s recruits, Maclellan rates high to the coach.

“Jack, in my eyes, may be the best player in the East, or one of them, in terms of his pure skill,” Whittet said. “He’s a magician with the puck, he’s a pure leader, and on any given night will produce some big plays and put up points. He’s a guy we’ll lean on heavily this year: he’ll play a lot of minutes. There’s unfinished business for this team, and there’s unfinished business for Jack.”

Senior Mike Clemente returns to Bruno’s crease with something to prove as well after last year’s lackluster 3.28 goals against average and .896 save percentage.

“Mike was up and down last year,” Whittet said. “We need him to be much more consistent this year, but he’s proven in the past that he does have the ability to win games and win series.”

With a “very, very young” team this year — 19 of the 31 players on the roster are freshmen or sophomores — the early going will be a critical time for the team … especially since one of Whittet’s shiny new prospects is at least a month or more from suiting up.

“The one guy that sticks out as maybe an elite offensive guy would be a kid by the name of Matt Lorito,” Whittet said. “Very, very skilled forward, and a kid that we expect big, big things out of. Unfortunately, he fractured his forearm the other day in a freak collision with another player, so we probably won’t be seeing him for a little bit. He’s one that I expect will come to the forefront in terms of being able to put up points at this level, and being a guy that we lean on.”

Injuries, youth, and a spotty track record notwithstanding, Whittet is not easing up on his standards one bit.

“Heading into this season, we have very high expectations as a program,” he said. “Our goal is no different from the rest of the league. We want to win the ECAC championship, and I feel we’re well on our way to being able to field a team talent-wise that will be able to do that.”

About the Bears

2010-11 overall record: 10-16-5

2010-11 ECAC record: 8-12-2 (ninth)

2011-12 predicted finish (coaches poll): 12th

Key losses: F Harry Zolnierczyk, F David Brownschidle, F Jesse Fratkin

Players to watch: Senior G Mike Clemente, senior F Jack Maclellan, junior F Chris Zaires, sophomore D Dennis Robertson

Impact rookie: F Matt Lorito

Why the Bears will finish higher than the coaches poll: Clemente and the defensive corps will jell quickly, the underclassmen will chip in right away, and Maclellan will be this year’s Chase Polacek.

Why the Bears will finish as predicted by the coaches poll: The defense won’t be able to bear the burden early, and consistent offense will never fully materialize.