Army seeks to build on last season’s strong finish

Maurice Alvarez will be a key part of Army’s defense (photo: Melissa Wade).

It’s cliche to talk about Army hockey and use terms like tough, strong and physical. It’s even more cliche to talk about how the team can bounce back from anything thrown in its way. But last season, that’s exactly how it played.

Opening the season 0-5, the Black Knights traveled north to Massachusetts to take on one of the nation’s best in Boston College. They went home with an 11-0 loss. Most teams might’ve packed it in, thrown up the surrender flag on the season.

Army, however, was not one of those teams. They rebounded by pounding Sacred Heart 6-2.

Wins ended up hard to come by for West Point, a team that finished in last place in Atlantic Hockey with a 6-28 record, 5-22 in league play. But the Black Knights were able to split their final two weekends with Connecticut and Holy Cross, then took a game from Robert Morris before bowing out to the eventual league champion in three games.

“Last year’s record was not what any of us wanted,” said Army coach Brian Riley. “But we were able to finish strong. We split with Holy Cross, we beat Connecticut and we took Robert Morris to three games. It was a positive, and it gave our guys confidence heading into the spring.

“It’s something to build on starting the new season. The cadets are such an amazing group of young men. You can punch them in the nose and they bounce right back. They’re a resilient bunch, and that’s something we have to be to compete every night.”

For the Black Knights, the new season starts with one of the strongest recruiting classes ever. Four newcomers arrived on the West Point campus from the USHL, the top junior hockey league in the United States. One of them, Cole Bruns, is the goalie who could stabilize a back line that surrendered over four goals per game.

“We only lost one player [Brian Schultz] to graduation, and we have 10 very good freshmen,” said Riley. “That’s going to create competition for playing time and lineup spots. Players will have to play well in order to earn the time, and it’s something that’s going to make them bring their very best to the team every day.”

That compete level is something that can only improve on the team’s shortcomings. Army has never been known as an offensive hockey team, but it will return all of its options up front.

Rising sophomore CJ Reuschlein was the only player with double-digit goals, and he is joined by fellow 20-point scorer Joe Kozlak. The defense brings back senior Maurice Alvarez, and Parker Gahagen returns after earning 12 starts during his freshman season.

“All of these guys have to compete internally,” said Riley, “and that’s a good thing. Our strength is in our numbers. We needed to be better defensively and be a lot better than we have been. We’re starting to move back in that direction. We’re going to have good competition in goal. The only problem is that the entire AHA is bringing in more depth and is improving as well. We can’t be a team that can be offense and special teams; we have to be good everywhere each time we step on the ice.”

If nothing else, the Black Knights kick up business right away. They open the season with six consecutive league games, all at home, hosting Sacred Heart, Canisius and Robert Morris. That makes early points imperative, especially since they’ll close the season with seven straight and nine of 13 games on the road (excluding the annual exhibition with Canada’s Royal Military College).

They’ll also play a competitive nonconference schedule, hosting Brown and former AHA foe Connecticut but also traveling to Princeton and Providence.

“All points are important,” said Riley. “We can’t lose focus and we can’t get too far ahead of ourselves. You can’t worry about who you’re playing next, and you have to stay focused on one weekend at a time. We know it’s going to be tough, as it always is with Atlantic Hockey, and we have to prepare to play our best hockey down the stretch.”

About the Black Knights

2013-14 record: 6-28

2013-14 conference record: 5-22 (12th)

2014-15 predicted finish (coaches poll): 10th

Key losses: F Brian Schultz, G Rob Tadazak

Key returnees: F CJ Reuschlein, F Joe Kozlak, F Clint Carlisle, F Zak Zaremba, D Maurice Alvarez, D Mac Lalor, G Parker Gahagen

Impact rookie: Goalie Cole Bruns went 17-8-4 with the Omaha Lancers in the USHL last year, registering a 2.24 GAA. His seven shutouts is more than what Army’s had combined since 2009.

Why the Black Knights will finish higher than the coaches poll: If the freshmen come as advertised, the infusion of talent will make Army an awakening giant in Atlantic Hockey. A first-round bye isn’t out of the question for a team that finished in the bottom two of the league each of the last three seasons.

Why the Black Knights will finish lower than the coaches poll: If the new faces can’t jell right away, Army faces a rough stretch in the second half of the year. If the points don’t come early, the uphill battle might be one it can’t overcome.