ECAC West 2011-2012 Season Preview

Although there was plenty of exciting hockey around the ECAC West last season, there was almost a feeling of the walking dead as well, as fans waited for the final shoe to drop signaling the dissolution of the league.

Hope springs eternal however, and the feeling around the league is much more upbeat this October as we head into a new season. Nazareth College, located in Pittsford, N.Y., breathed an air of life into the league in June when it announced plans to add men’s ice hockey in 2012 and apply to join the ECAC West.

While the league still isn’t out of the woods, a sense of renewed optimism abounds that there are still plenty of chapters to be added to the league’s storied history.

Three teams return nearly every player from last year’s squad to the ice this fall. Elmira, Neumann, and Utica all start the year nearly intact, and will look to remain on top of the league again as they finished one, two, three last March. Even the coaches think that Elmira, Neumann, and Utica are too close to call this season, as the ECAC West preseason poll had these teams in a three-way tie for first place. Neumann and Utica each received two first place votes and Elmira one. Hobart and Manhattanville will certainly have something to say about that, but both lost important parts of their offense that might be hard to replace.

With so many squads returning basically intact, the league race should be a catfight from the drop of the opening puck. Stay tuned for the regular season ECAC West column to cover all the action beginning the week of October 31.

Team Previews:

Neumann University Knights
2011-12 Coach’s Poll: tied first
2011-12 USCHO predicted finish: first
2010-11 Overall record: 14-9-5
2010-11 ECAC West record: 7-4-1
2010-11 ECAC West finish: second
Key Departures: Matthew Valois (four goals, three assists)
Arrivals: Daniel McDougall, Chris Bournazos, Nicolas DeSousa, Matt Mazzarolo, Jonathan Gibson, Ben Curley
Key Players: Michael Rey (15 goals, 15 assists), William Lacasse (five goals, 16 assists), Steve Gervais (eight goals, 11 assists), Jordan Zalba (seven goals, 12 assists)
Neumann returns all but two defensemen and one forward from last year’s team, and will put a very experienced squad on the ice this season. The last time the Knights had this many seniors, they won the national championship in 2009.

Michael Rey ran away with the league freshman scoring title last year. He was the only first-year player to average more than a point a game, and led the Knights with 15 goals.

In net, Neumann returns the most experienced goaltender duo in the league in seniors Ross MacKinnon and Matt Tendler.

Neumann made it all the way to the first round of the NCAA playoffs last year, and got another taste of the postseason tournament. With such an experienced team, the Knights will look forward to playing much deeper into March this season.

Elmira College Soaring Eagles
2011-12 Coach’s Poll: tied first
2011-12 USCHO predicted finish: second
2010-11 Overall record: 17-7-4
2010-11 ECAC West record: 8-3-1
2010-11 ECAC West finish: first
Key Departures: Karl Linden (six goals, 14 assists), Rick Shrank (five goals, four assists)
Arrivals: D’Arcy Oakes, Ryan deMelo, Pascal Maeder, Eric David, Josh Burnell, Andrew Ciampichini, Jay Kenney
Key Players: Kevin Willer (17 goals, 18 assists), Darcy Vaillancourt (14 goals, 19 assists), Jesper Strale (12 goals, six assists), Darren McDonald (2.16 GAA, .920 save percentage)
Elmira returns a senior-heavy class this season, with six of its top eight scorers from last year now starting their final campaign.

The players the Soaring Eagles lost to graduation were character guys who provided leadership to the team, but this year’s large senior class should have no problems filling their shoes.

The Soaring Eagles return a very potent offense, including last year’s leading scorer Kevin Willer. In net, Elmira will rely on Darren McDonald, who led the league in save percentage and wins last season.

Elmira rolled to the regular season and ECAC West playoff titles last year, but then ran into a buzz saw against Adrian in the first round of the NCAA playoffs. Elmira built a 2-0 first period lead, but watched as the Bulldogs ripped off five straight goals to end the Soaring Eagles’ season.

Elmira has been stewing on that loss all summer, and enters this year with a feeling of unfinished business.

Utica College Pioneers
2011-12 Coach’s Poll: tied first
2011-12 USCHO predicted finish: third
2010-11 Overall record: 17-8-1
2010-11 ECAC West record: 6-5-1
2010-11 ECAC West finish: third
Key Departures: none
Arrivals: Mike Baird, Peter LaFosse, Andrew Balzafiore, Zach Smoot
Key Players: Tim Coffman (11 goals, 23 assists), Evan Chlanda (11 goals, 15 assists), Jon Gaffney (11 goals, 12 assists), Trever Hertz (11 goals, 10 assists)
Utica is in the unusual position of returning every player who scored a goal last season. They entered last season with only a handful of upperclassmen and a pair of seniors. This season, Utica steps on the ice with a much more experienced squad.

The youthful Pioneers fared well during most of last season, but their inexperience caught up with them in the final weeks.

Utica enters the season coming off a trip to Europe this past August. The Pioneers won all four games during the trip against German and Italian teams, which proved to be quite the bonding experience.

The Pioneers also sport the best goaltender tandem in the league between sophomores Evan Smith and Nick Therrien. Smith led the league with a 2.14 goals against average last season, and Therrien wasn’t far behind at 2.29.

With a year’s experience, Utica should be able to build on last year’s third place finish to contend for the league lead this season.

Hobart College Statesmen
2011-12 Coach’s Poll: fourth
2011-12 USCHO predicted finish: fourth
2010-11 Overall record: 15-10-2
2010-11 ECAC West record: 4-7-1
2010-11 ECAC West finish: fourth
Key Departures: Matthew Wallace (16 goals, 12 assists), Thomas Capalbo (eight goals, 11 assists), Patrick Moriarty (five goals, 17 assists)
Arrivals: Ian Coleman, Bronson Kovacs, John Steele, Terrence O’Neill, Brendan Fitzgerald, Ryan Michel, George Wells, Peter Ryan, Peter Quigley, Michael Malady, William Burke, Connor Brown, Tommaso Traversa
Key Players: Nick Broadwater (2.45 GAA, .926 save percentage), Greg Ciciola (11 goals, 15 assists)
With junior Nick Broadwater in net, you know that Hobart is once again set for goaltending this season.

The question mark for the Statesmen is up front. The seven graduating seniors accounted for 40 percent of the scoring last season. No one will be missed more than go-to player Matthew Wallace, who was second in the league in goals.

Who is going to step into the offensive role? Good question. Hobart has strong returning depth and the usual assortment of hard-working role players that fans have come to expect from a Mark Taylor-coached team.

Senior Greg Ciciola, the only other player to score double digit goals last season, will be looked to even more to help carry the offense.

Thirteen freshmen are listed on Hobart’s preseason roster, so the Statesmen might get off to a bit of a slower start compared to some of the other teams in the league.

Manhattanville College Valiants
2011-12 Coach’s Poll: fifth
2011-12 USCHO predicted finish: fifth
2010-11 Overall record: 15-10-1
2010-11 ECAC West record: 3-9
2010-11 ECAC West finish: fifth
Key Departures: Mickey Lang (16 goals, 11 assists), Lem Randall (six goals, seven assists)
Key Players: Pierre-Olivier Lemieux (2.12 GAA, .915 save percentage), Brett Skalski (13 goals, seven assists)
Manhattanville played like two different teams at times last season. Outside of the league, the Valiants were nearly perfect, going 12-0-1, with the only blemish a Thanksgiving weekend tie at Williams.

In league play, the story was completely different. Manhattanville struggled through league play, including losing six of its last eight games down the stretch to finish in a very disappointing last place.

Manhattanville lost seven players to graduation last spring, but the hardest to replace will be leading scorer Mickey Lang, who accounted for nearly 18 percent of the team’s scoring.

The Valiants will go as far as netminder Pierre-Olivier Lemieux can carry them this season. Manhattanville will have to rely squarely on Lemieux, as he is the only returning goaltender.

Who will step forward to score goals for Manhattanville this year? The early money is on junior Brett Skalski, who tallied 13 goals in a breakout sophomore season, but the Valiants will need others to step in offensively to help carry the load.

The other twist in setting expectations for Manhattanville is the sudden change in head coach that occurred on October 12. Keith Levinthal, who started the Valiants program 13 years ago, stepped aside, turning over the reins to women’s coach Eric Lang.

The change frees up Levinthal to concentrate on his athletic director duties He leaves the ranks of NCAA Division III college hockey coaches ranked sixth all time in winning percentage with a record of 202-84-28 (.688).