Starting big

Utica has gotten off to a quick start this season, marked by a big 3-2 win over No. 2 Oswego last Saturday. The Pioneers scored a pair of goals in the second period to take a 3-1 lead, and then hung on for the 3-2 victory in front of 3,500 screaming fans.

With a team loaded with freshmen last year, Utica had problems winning the close games. They lost two games to Oswego by 3-1 and 2-1 scores, but exacted a little revenge this time around.

“Last year, we lost those close games,” said Utica coach Gary Heenan. “I hope this is a sign of things to come.”

Two indicators of a maturing Pioneers team are discipline and focus. Through two NCAA games so far, Utica has only taken seven total penalties, compared to 11 by its opponents. Having the special teams numbers on your side of the balance sheet can make the game much simpler to win.

“[Discipline] is extremely important, especially early in the year when things tend to get called a lot tighter,” said Heenan.  “In our three games now, we have been very disciplined. That carries forward from last year. I like the way our team is very disciplined, not only penalty-wise, but within our systems as well.”

Utica got a jump preparing for the season with a trip to Europe in August. With a roster loaded with veterans, the Pioneers had the manpower returning for once in a collegiate career trip. Utica won all four games, three by a single goal.

“The trip was super,” said Heenan. “Going over the summer was a little different. It was nice to get the guys back. We stole a couple of games we should have lost. The goaltenders played well.”

While there certainly is a benefit for a college team to play during the summer, something normally not allowed unless it is part of a special trip like this, it can be a bit tough on the players.  After practicing for a week, then two weeks on the trip, the players return to the States, only to not be able to practice or play again until the middle of October.

“There are definitely some mental issues you have to face when you get back,” said Heenan. “All of the sudden, you have to hang the equipment up for six weeks. That’s tough. You get the competitive juices flowing, and then it is taking too long a break.”

The trip was a bonding experience for the team as well. They did some sightseeing, rode around the countryside on bicycles, and ate all their meals together. While that was good for the veteran players on the trip, it did present a bit of a dilemma when the team returned to campus in the fall.

“There is a mixed answer about that (bonding experience),” said Heenan. “You think the answer is yes, and then all of the sudden you are introducing your freshmen who weren’t a part of that. That doesn’t sit well with me, and for that reason I’m not sure I would do it that time of year again.”

Division I Princeton?
Back in the ’80s, it was very common for Division II or III teams to play games against their Division I big brothers. Many teams would play upwards of three or four games per year against the top tier teams, and it led to some classic battles.

When the NCAA started placing emphasis on mathematical ratios to determine playoff bids in the ’90s, teams at all levels were forced to take a more parochial view, and the number of games between divisions dwindled to almost zero.

Princeton however, re-started the tradition two seasons ago when they played new program SUNY-Morrisville. They also played an exhibition game last season.

This year, Neumann was able to play an exhibition game against Princeton, thanks to relationships coach Dominick Dawes developed during summer hockey camps.

Neumann lost the game to Princeton 5-1 on October 23, but used the experience to gauge itself against a team at another level.  Special teams was the undoing of the Knights, as Princeton scored three power-play goals and a short-handed goal.

“The game was fun,” said Dawes. “The guys really enjoyed it. We dressed five forward lines and eight defensemen to try things out. Going into it, it was a good chance for us to set the bar and see where we are at. We got a lot out of it.”

The Knights then had two weeks off before finally getting into NCAA play this Sunday against Curry. They have used the off time to work on improving specific areas of the team.

“We are enjoying breaking up the Princeton game into sections, addressing one specific area each day,” said Dawes.

The seniors on this year’s squad were mere freshmen when the team won the national title in 2009, but the entire team got a taste of the national tournament last year when Neumann received a Pool C bid. This year’s squad is loaded with upperclassmen hungry to go deep into the tournament this year.

“There are more expectations this year,” said Dawes. “The guys got a little tease of a national bid last year. Now it is about starting to do the little things that ensure we are challenging year after year.”