ECAC East season preview: Norwich still loaded

 (Tim Brule)

With hope and prayers that everyone in the Northeast has safely come through the effects of Hurricane Sandy, I now turn to what is sure to be turbulence and shifting winds throughout the ECAC East season set to begin on Friday night. While the picture at the top seems quite clear in what Norwich and Castleton bring to the table, the forecasting of the rest of the league is truly as difficult as predicting the direction and time shifts of the hurricane this week.

Yes, like this week’s storm, there are some surprises and prognostications based on what we know today before the season starts. Every team has high hopes and expectations to go with a clean slate entering the weekend. The coaches had their say late last week, so while I agree to disagree in some cases, here is my predicted finish for the regular season in the ECAC East.

Norwich Cadets
2011-12 Conference Record: 15-2-1 (1st)
2011-12 Overall Record: 24-3-2
ECAC East Coaches’ Poll: 1st
USCHO Predicted Finish: 1st
The first line of seniors Pier-Olivier Cotnoir, Blake Forkey, and Kyle Thomas is as good as any in the country, and Norwich’s second line may be just as good. This group of seniors can taste the rarified air of four consecutive Frozen Four appearances, and certainly would like to bookend their careers by matching the national title won as freshmen. Goaltending appears to be solid with the return of Parker Carroll and Chris Czarnota, but the challenge for this team may be the experience on the blue line. Traditionally a strong defensive team, Norwich has surrendered eight goals in two exhibition games this fall. No doubt coach Mike McShane will be looking for some early maturation from a group that includes four sophomores and a freshman.

Castleton Spartans
2011-12 Conference Record: 12-4-2 (2nd)
2011-12 Overall Record: 19-7-2
ECAC East Coaches’ Poll: 2nd
USCHO Predicted Finish: 2nd
The Spartans have been close behind Norwich during the past couple of years, but have not been able to get past the conference champs when it has mattered most: at the end of the regular season or in the playoffs. This year’s squad includes some great senior forwards who are looking at their last chance to garner Castleton’s first ECAC East title. Dan Bell, Justin Alonzo, Josh Harris, Brett Zeggil, and Ben Schoeneberger lead an experienced group of forwards that knows how to play in coach Alex Todd’s system and provides depth and balance in scoring. Expect Erick Cinotti and Thomas Shelley to see most of the action between the pipes for the Spartans while supported by a defensive group led by senior Brad Barber. Castleton got off to a blazing start last year, but finished inconsistently in March. Look for a stronger and more consistent effort from a group that knows its time is now.

Skidmore Thoroughbreds
2011-12 Conference Record: 10-8-0 (4th)
2011-12 Overall Record: 12-13-2
ECAC Coaches’ Poll: 5th
USCHO Predicted Finish: 3rd
Skidmore returns five of its six top scorers from last year, and looks for bigger and better things from junior Tony Giacin and senior Zach Menard. The heavily-laden junior roster has experience and has competed well, particularly last season, when they earned a home-ice playoff berth. Workhorse Colin Bessey has graduated, so the goaltending duties fall to a pair of sophomores in Spencer Sodokoff and Brad Cray, who both saw very limited action last season. Sodokoff’s numbers were solid in just three games played, so if it translates to the whole season, the Thoroughbreds will be running at the top where they want to be. Four of the first six games are on the road, so early season points will be key for a team that has definitely found itself playing its best hockey in the second half of the season over the past couple of years.

Babson Beavers
2011-12 Conference Record: 9-5-4 (3rd)
2011-12 Overall Record: 9-13-4
ECAC Coaches’ Poll: 3rd
USCHO Predicted Finish: 4th
Last year’s team really took advantage of building momentum after their Frozen Fenway match-up with Norwich, and virtually ran the table into a strong playoff run in the tradition of Jamie Rice-coached teams. The non-league schedule was not so kind to the 2011-2012 edition of the Beavers, and certainly this year there is expectation for consistent play earlier in the season. Offensively, the Beavers get a significant boost with the transfer of NESCAC’s leading scorer, Nik Tasiopoulos from Wesleyan, joining the team. Tasiopoulos is a proven scorer who should help bolster the offense and help to make other teammates like Mike Driscoll, Matt O’Neill, and P.T. Donato more productive, both at even-strength and on the power play. Senior Zeke Testa will be expected to provide the solid goaltending behind a strong defensive unit that played well to finish last season. This team has proven it doesn’t matter where it finishes the regular season; it will be there when it counts. This year’s version may just have all of the pieces to build a consistent regular season into a championship run.

Massachusetts-Boston Beacons
2011-12 Conference Record: 9-8-1 (5th)
2011-12 Overall Record: 13-10-3
ECAC Coaches’ Poll: 4th
USCHO Predicted Finish: 5th
Nearly half of the roster is made up of freshmen for coach Peter Belisle, entering his seventh season behind the bench. The Beacons do return some experience in senior defensemen Tim Niedzielak and Rob Florentino, which will help greatly as they look to identify a number one goaltender among two freshmen and a sophomore. The strong defense will also help support the young group of forwards that will be led by junior Travis Daniel. Nine freshmen forwards are on the roster, so finding the right combinations will be among the early-season challenges. Belisle will need to make quick evaluations and adjustments in order to generate offense. Four of the first six games are at the friendly confines of the Clark Center, but opening weekend offers an early road challenge against teams the Beacons are likely to be fighting all season for position in the standings. Any and all points, each and every weekend, are key to how far up this team can finish.

New England College Pilgrims
2011-12 Conference Record: 6-8-4 (8th)
2011-12 Overall Record: 9-12-5
ECAC East Coaches’ Poll: 7th
USCHO Predicted Finish: 6th
The Pilgrims graduated some key players from last year’s team and will be looking for a jump to the next level by many of last year’s freshmen, who saw significant playing time. While four of the team’s top seven scorers have graduated, coach Tom Carroll does have a good nucleus of players up front and on defense that can put up points and play solid hockey in all three zones. Forwards Ben Souders, Jonathan Boxill, and Samuli Turunen combined for 22 goals last season and will look to contribute more on the scoresheet. Defenders Andre Stalberg and Jacob Andersson enter their sophomore seasons looking to build on solid first year performances and support incumbent Shawn Sirman in goal. The Pilgrims aren’t used to finishing in the bottom half of the standings, so look for a rebound if the old and new gel quickly.

St. Anselm Hawks
2011-12 Conference Record: 7-8-3 (7th)
2011-12 Overall Record: 14-8-5
ECAC Coaches’ Poll: 6th
USCHO Predicted Finish: 7th
The Hawks will again look to defend their Northeast-10 championship this year against the other D-II schools, but that is not the focus coach Ed Seney brings to the St. Anselm team. They are driven to perform and challenge their D-III brethren in the ECAC East, and want to achieve the very best results in the regular season to show they can compete with the best each and every night. Forwards Tucker Mullin, Tim King, Johnny Daniels, and Liam McKillop all scored over 20 points last season and will be relied on to spearhead the offense. Goaltenders Nick Dries and Robert Kang will push each other for playing time, as both saw significant action as sophomores last season. The Hawks open the season with a very challenging first six games that include home match-ups with Mass.-Boston, Babson, Norwich, and St. Michael’s and road games against Castleton and Skidmore. Having faced the iron of the conference by the end of November, coach Ed Seney should have a very good idea of what his team is made of.

Southern Maine Huskies
2011-12 Conference Record: 7-7-4 (6th)
2011-12 Overall Record: 10-11-6
ECAC East Coaches’ Poll: 8th
USCHO Predicted Finish: 8th
Of 28 rostered players for the Huskies, 14 are freshmen, including all four goaltenders. With the departure of Braely Torris, coach Jeff Beaney will be looking for one of the newcomers to emerge as his number one netminder while the rest of the team comes together. The good news about many of the incoming freshmen is that six come from Bridgton Academy, where former USM All-American Jon Lounsbury is the coach and head of hockey operations. Billy Boudreau, Alex Pompeo, Ryan Connors, and Bob Ganley are the most recent skaters to join a roster that finds seven BA alums playing for the Huskies, so familiarity and cohesiveness may be easier to come by than for other teams. Friday night’s opening contest with Castleton will be a challenge for all of the young players, and will provide a strong test for whomever earns the start in goal. If everything develops right, USM can be a factor come playoff time.

St. Michael’s Purple Knights
2011-12 Conference Record: 3-14-1 (9th)
2011-12 Overall Record: 6-18-2
ECAC Coaches’ Poll: 10th
USCHO Predicted Finish: 9th
The Damien DiGiulian era begins for St. Mike’s, as the new coach begins his first season behind the bench as a head coach, following successful assistant stints at UVM and Middlebury. So what does that mean for the Purple Knights? Based on his past track record, DiGiulian will be looking for more creativity offensively and a strong level of offensive play from his blueliners to create better chances and more scoring. With the defense joining the rush, the Purple Knights will rely on a pair of senior goaltenders who have seen their fair share of rubber in Winooski. Mike Dizgun and Eric McGuirk are among 13 seniors on the roster that are looking to make quick adjustments to the new style of play from their coach and have it translate quickly into goals and wins.

University of New England Nor’easters
2011-12 Conference Record 2-16-0 (10th)
2011-12 Overall Record: 4-19-2
ECAC Coaches’ Poll: 9th
USCHO Predicted Finish: 10th
Of 27 players on the roster, 18 are either freshmen or sophomores, so coach Brad Holt is really looking for a combination of youthful exuberance and talent development to carry this team to the next level. The senior captains, Brett Bourgeois, Russ Franey, and Tyler Fleurent, will be the key to leading this team to compete at the highest level each and every night, starting this weekend when conference contenders Castleton and Skidmore come to Biddeford for the opening weekend. Junior goaltender Keith MacDonald will be expected to step up his game, as will junior Ian Edwards, who previously played with Southern Maine in the 2010-11 season.

Each and every team has had enough time scrimmaging against each other and now is really looking forward to playing guys in different-colored uniforms. The intensity level is about to get ratcheted up a few notches to hurricane level. Time will tell who can weather the storm and come out on top at the end of the season.

The regular season gets underway this weekend – drop the puck!


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