Salem State is in a new place this season. It’s also in a good one.
The Vikings, in their first season in the newly-formed MASCAC, enter the Christmas break in first place in the league, leading the league in most of the most crucial statistics and with one of their biggest wins in years under their belts.
The Vikings (6-2-1) finished their first trip through the league 5-0-1, with the lone blemish a 4-4 tie with Westfield State. Their 5-1-1 start was the team’s best in six years.
And now that they’re finally out of a league with Norwich, with its 11 consecutive ECAC East regular-season titles, the Vikings are finally the favorites to win a crown of their own.
"We're off to a very good start, and now we've got to keep it going," coach Bill O'Neill told the Salem News earlier this month. "Not having to face Middlebury, Norwich and Williams has helped, but we will see two of those tough NESCAC teams soon along with St. Anselm's. We've got to keep playing good hockey every game."
Salem State has allowed the fewest goals in the league (16) and scored the second-most (29) in league games. They own the top power play, goaltender (James Lecour, the leader in goals-against average with 2.73) and two of the best freshmen (Nick Lampsen and Casey Terrari are tied for the rookie lead in points with seven).
Perhaps most important of all, it brought some legitimacy to the new league with a surprising 3-0 win over St. Norbert on Nov. 28. That victory followed a close loss to Saint Scholastica on Nov. 27. Both results came on the road and were part of an improved effort throughout New England against teams from the Midwest this season.
Salem State’s success, however, might have been the most surprising of all.
After all, two of the Vikings’ top players -- Justin Fox, last year’s leading scorer, and defenseman Kevin Huinich -- both transferred to Oswego State, while goaltender Ryan Hatch, the ECAC East Goaltender of the Year, graduated. All three were All-League first teamers last year.
“For the first time, I actually had people coming up to me, saying, ‘Wow, what a great win, congratulations.’ It’s putting Salem State hockey back on the map,’’ Matt Johnson told the Boston Globe after the win.
With each of the league’s teams set to face each other three times and blocking up the majority of the schedule, and with the MASCAC appearing on paper like the weakest of New England’s four leagues, the win showed that maybe the baby of the bunch isn’t so far behind the rest of the conferences.
Salem State has two more chances to prove its strength as well, with games against Colby and Bowdoin upcoming in the second half of the season.
“It’s a turning point,” Lecour told the Globe after the St. Norbert’s win. “We realized how special a team we are and we have something this year. If we keep working hard, good things can happen.’’
NEHJ Player of the Week
Matt Rigtrup, jr., St. Michael’s
Anyone who scores against Norwich this season deserves an award. Rigtrup did twice in a 6-2 loss, and then add that to a four-point night against Franklin Pierce -- all from a blueliner.
Around the NESCAC
Williams (6-0-1, 4-0-0) beat Salve Regina 6-0 to head into the second part of the season as the only unbeaten team in NESCAC and the only team with a perfect league record. Middlebury (3-1-2, 2-0-2) is also unbeaten in the league. Williams senior captain Alex Smigelski has led the Ephs and is tied for the league lead with seven goals in seven games … Tufts (5-2-1, 3-1-1) beat Connecticut College (1-7, 1-4) 3-2 to extend its winning streak to five games, its longest streak since 2000-01. … Colby (6-2, 3-2) defenseman Jeff Jarnot (Concord, N.H.) led the Mules to their first season sweep of Bowdoin (5-2 4-1) since 1996-97, scoring the game-winning goals in a 4-2 and 4-3 win last weekend. His three-goal weekend earned him the Player of the Week award.
Around the MASCAC
Fitchburg State (5-2-1, 4-2) swept the conference’s awards this week with forward Justin Quinn (Braintree, Mass.) winning Player of the Week honors with four goals and Robert Vorse (Leominster, Mass) taking goaltender honors with a pair of wins. … Westfield State (6-1-2, 4-0-2) finished its week with mixed results. The Owls stayed unbeaten in the conference and remain just a point behind Salem State with wins over Plymouth State (6-3, 3-3) and Worcester State (3-7, 1-5). They also lost their first game of the season against Trinity
Around the ECAC East
Talk about an impressive game. Norwich (7-0-1, 5-0-0) beat Southern New Hampshire 12-0, with goaltender Alex Dubois making just 11 saves in his first career start for a shutout win. Norwich has outscored its last four opponents 31-2. The Cadets have won 11 straight regular-season titles and already have a four-point advantage in the standings after just five games … UMass-Boston (4-2-1, 2-2-1) got revenge in a rematch of last year’s championship game, knocking off Babson (4-3-1, 3-2) 5-4 in overtime. … Saint Michael’s (2-5, 2-4) won its first home game since the end of the 2007-08 season when it beat Franklin Pierce 8-1. The margin was the biggest for the Purple Knights since 2005 and the goals were the most for Franklin Pierce since 2006. The effort earned two Purple Knights a share of the conference’s Player of the Week award with defenseman Rigtrup and forward Nick Sheehan splitting the honor. Both had six points. … Skidmore’s Nick Dupuis (Holyoke, Mass.) scored two four-on-four goals in 1:25 during a 6-1 win for the Thoroughbreds (4-4, 3-2) over Castleton State (1-5-2, 0-4-1). … St. Anselm goaltender Keven Fairbrother (Woburn, Mass.), a transfer from UConn, made his first start of the year and made it count, winning Goaltender of the Week honors with 26 saves in a 4-2 win over New England College (3-3-1, 1-3-1).
Around the ECAC Northeast
Nichols (5-4-1, 1-3) is struggling a year after its first league title, but its top offensive players aren’t. Freshman Zach Kohn scored a point in his eight straight game during a 5-3 win over Franklin Pierce and currently ranks third in the country with 23 points in 10 games. Kohn was named freshman of the week for the third time. His teammate, Will Munson, won the conference’s Player of the Week for the second time by scoring a goal and adding two assists. … Wentworth (7-0-1, 5-0) leads the league with 10 points heading into the second half of the season, but Curry (7-0-1, 3-0-1) is close with seven points in one fewer game. … Becker’s Jake Rosenthal was the first goaltender to win a weekly award that doesn’t go to Curry. Rosenthal was named the week’s top goaltender for making 21 saves in his first shutout of the season, a 5-0 win over Framingham State.
Chris Carlson can be reached at email@example.com.