Sacred Heart started the 2013-14 season with a bang and finished it nicely, too.
The Pioneers navigated a few potholes in between, and in the end they were one of three teams in the country to improve on their previous year by 10 wins or more. Ferris State and Alaska-Anchorage were the others.
The even better news is that Sacred Heart, which was paced in scoring by a strong group of freshmen, loses only three players to graduation and is poised to climb higher in the Atlantic Hockey standings.
“We were pleased with how the season progressed and we have some things in place that will hopefully allow us to continue to build,” said head coach C.J. Marottolo (North Haven, Conn.). “We’ve got some good momentum with our young group.”
The Pioneers needed only three games to match their win total from a rough 2012-13. They knocked off UMass-Lowell, then the No. 1-ranked team in the country, in Lowell in their season opener. After a loss to Rensselaer, they beat Bentley, which ended up being the runner-up for Atlantic Hockey’s regular-season championship.
Three games in, the Pioneers were 2-0-1. They went 2-30-4 the year before.
Sacred Heart struggled some after the good start and then won six of its last 10 regular-season games.
Brett Gensler, Sr. F, Bentley
Gensler wrapped up his highly productive career with his third
straight Atlantic Hockey first-team all-star accolade. A 5-foot-10,
180-pound forward out of St. Charles, Mo., Gensler concluded his
career as the highest-scoring player in Atlantic Hockey history
with 73 goals and 94 assists for 167 points in 145 games. As a
senior, he put up 21-32-53 totals to lead the Falcons in scoring
for the third straight season.
More signs of good times ahead: Forward Justin Danforth pulled down honors as Atlantic Hockey’s Rookie of the Year, and the Pioneers were the only team to place two players on the All-Rookie squad, with Danforth and defenseman Mitch Nylen.
“Justin Danforth is a very dynamic player with the puck,” Marotollo said. “He’s fast, he plays at a fast tempo and his compete level is off the charts. Any time a freshman comes in and puts up points like he did, it’s beyond what you thought he could do. We knew he was a very good player and we knew he had the skill set, and he came in and got it done.”
He wasn’t alone among the freshmen. Three of the top four scorers and five of the top eight were first-year guys.
Danforth was at 5-24-29 for the season, and junior Drew George (12-13-25) led the way in goals. Freshman forward Jeff Carroll was next on the scoring list at 7-14-21, and classmate Jordan Minello was at 9-11-20. Nylen had four goals and six assists and was one of three freshmen who played at least 28 games on the blue line.
The Pioneers will look to step up and score more than the 2.28 goals they managed per game. They’ll attempt to clamp down on defense even a little more in front of goalies Alex Vazzano (Trumbull, Conn.) and Andrew Bodnarchuk, who return for their senior seasons.
Between the goalies and overall team defense and possessing the puck more on offense, the Pioneers cut their goals-against average from a shade over five goals a game to 3.8 in 2013-14.
“We knew we had to address that going into this season,” Marotollo said.
The Good: The Falcons hit the 20-win mark for the third time in the last four seasons and again qualified in the top four to earn a bye for the first round and home ice for the quarterfinals. Along the way, they fashioned a couple of five-game win streaks.
The Bad: Air Force set the bar high with tournament titles in five of its first six years in Atlantic Hockey. Now the Falcons have gone two seasons without a championship and have been upset at home in the quarterfinals each of those seasons.
The Future: Freshman Chris Truehl did a nice job while sharing the goaltending duties (.921 save percentage, 2.01 GAA and 8-3-0 record) this season and becomes the main man. The top four scorers were juniors, led by Cole Gunner (15-29-44) and Chad Demers (15-26-41).
The Good: The Yellow Jackets didn’t make it to double figures in wins in their first nine seasons in the league, and this year they hit that mark for the second year in a row at 10-25-1. Among the wins were triumphs over Bentley, Air Force, Niagara and Massachusetts. AIC also took Niagara to double overtime in its opening game of the first round, but ended up losing, 1-0.
The Bad: AIC climbed to a No. 9 seed in the tournament in 2012-13 and slipped back to 11th this season. The tough season included a nine-game losing streak.
The Future: Five teams placed players on the All-Rookie team, and AIC was among them with forward David Norris. He was second in scoring at 7-26-33. Two other players who hit double figures in goals, junior Alexander MacMillan (12-17-29) and sophomore Charlie Porter (11-6-17), also return.
The Good: The Black Knights gave eventual champion Robert Morris all it wanted in the first round of the league playoffs. Army lost the first game at Robert Morris and rebounded for a 4-2 win in that Saturday game. Army’s season ended with a 3-1 loss on Sunday.
The Bad: A couple of brutal stretches helped Army to its third straight season of seven overall wins or fewer (6-28-0). The Black Knights got off to a 1-10-0 start and then lost 13 straight games in a month starting on Dec. 20.
The Future: Army will try and build off a finish that also included wins over UConn and Holy Cross. There’s plenty to work with since there was only one senior on the roster. Two of the top three scorers were freshmen, led by C.J. Reuschlein, who at 11-11-22 was the only Black Knight to hit double figures in goals.
The Good: Much went well for the Falcons. They upped their overall win total by seven games and at 19-14-4 matched their high in Division 1 and had their best winning percentage in 15 years at that level. They also jumped from 10th to second in the Atlantic Hockey standings.
The Bad: Bentley was unable to match its regular-season success in the postseason and got knocked out of the league tournament for the second straight season by Canisius. The Falcons won the first game of the quarterfinal series, 3-2 in overtime, but were unable to close out Canisius and lost, 5-4 in double overtime, and 3-2 in Game 3.
The Future: High-scoring Brett Gensler is gone, but Bentley returns lots of firepower led by forwards such as Alex Grieve (25-22-47) and Andrew Gladiuk (22-15-37) and defenseman Steve Weinstein (137-38). The question mark is in goal where Ryan Soderquist (Stoneham, Mass.) and his staff must come up with a replacement for workhorse Branden Komm.
The Good: The Golden Griffins hoped to follow a familiar script to a second straight Atlantic Hockey tournament championship. They again were the No. 7 seed in the event and started knocking off higher seeds. They took out No. 2 Bentley in the quarters and then No. 1 Mercyhurst in the semis.
The Bad: The ride to a repeat ended in the title game, and the Griffs fell to Robert Morris, 7-4. Each time Canisius scored in a wild third period to tie or get within a goal, Robert Morris answered quickly.
The Future: The Griffins have some holes to fill with the loss of standouts in forward Kyle Gibbons, defenseman Ben Danford and goalie Tony Capobianco. Keegan Asmundson, who did good things when he got chances in goal, gets his turn as a junior.
The Good: The Huskies put together their second winning season in a row and again grabbed one of the top four spots in the league and a first-round bye, this time under first-year coach Mike Cavanaugh (North Andover, Mass.). Robbie Nichols emerged as a freshman in part-time duty and put up impressive numbers with a .939 save percentage and 1.91 GAA.
The Bad: UConn picked a tough time to have its only three-game losing streak of the season. The Huskies had not lost even two straight since mid-November before they lost to Sacred Heart, 2-1, in their regular-season finale. Then they lost a pair of home games in the first round to Robert Morris, 3-0 and 3-2.
The Future: There is no Atlantic Hockey future for UConn, which is bound for Hockey East for next season. Losing their top three scorers in seniors Billy Latta, Brant Harris and Jordan Sims will not help the cause, but having Nichols back will.
The Good: Holy Cross rallied in the final two months of the season and climbed in the standings to a tie for seventh. The Crusaders rallied in the first round of the playoffs at home to get past RIT, too, after losing the first game of the series, 3-2, in overtime.
The Bad: After a pair of 20-win seasons and a third-place finish in the league, the Crusaders took a step back to 14-22-3 overall. They fell into a big hole in part because they had problems scoring, especially early. After losing four of their top six scorers from the season prior, they averaged 2.49 goals a game, down half a goal from the 2012-13 season.
The Future: Two of the top three scorers move on and coach Paul Pearl (Winthrop, Mass.) will be looking for folks like Matt Vidal, who will be a junior, and Mike Barrett, a sophomore, to step up. Matt Ginn, who will be a senior, is back to mind the net.
The Good: Led by junior goalie Jimmy Sarjeant, the league’s choice as Player of the Year, and Rick Gotkin, Coach of the Year, the Lakers won their first Atlantic Hockey championship in the league’s 11 years. They had been runner-up in the title chase three times, most recently in 2005-06.
The Bad: Looking to win its second tournament title to one acquired in the 2004-05 season, Mercyhurst came up just short in the semis and didn’t make it to the championship game. The Lakers outshot Canisius, 62-47, in the semifinals, but lost 5-4 in double overtime.
The Future: Sarjeant, who had a .930 save percentage and 2.46 goals-against average to go with his 18-5-6 record, heads a talented and large group of juniors who led the Lakers to the championship. Six of the top eight scorers were juniors, paced by the 17-26-43 totals of Matthew Zay. Ryan Misiak, another junior, was at 13-25-38.
The Good: The Purple Eagles pulled down the No. 6 seed in the league tournament and went to Colorado Springs and ousted No. 3 Air Force in the quarterfinals. Niagara lost the first game, 2-1, won 4-3 the next night and then advanced to the semifinals with a 4-3 victory in overtime.
The Bad: Niagara was in sixth place because it fell off from its league-best 20-5-2 mark the previous season to an 11-11-5 record against Atlantic Hockey teams. The Purple Eagles were last in the league on the power play with 16 goals and a 10.1 percent success rate.
The Future: The top three and five of the top six scorers return, led by junior-to-be forward Hugo Turcotte, who was at 13-16-29 for the season. Freshman goalies Jackson Teichroeb and Adrian Ignani were thrown into the fire when Carsen Chubak did not return for his senior season and are experienced now.
The Good: Coach Derek Schooley’s Colonials got hot in the second half of the season, entered the league tournament as the fifth seed and rolled to their first Atlantic Hockey title. After sweeping UConn in the quarterfinals, they took out Niagara, 5-4 in overtime, in the semis and knocked off defending champion Canisius, 7-4, for the crown.
The Bad: Robert Morris had a tough time getting out of the gate at the start of the season. The Colonials were 2-12-2 on Dec. 28. They turned things around from there and went 17-6-3 the rest of the way.
The Future: There was not a senior among the top seven scorers and junior Cody Wydo was the leader of the group with a league-best 31 goals and 54 points. The goalies were sophomore Terry Shafer, who went 14-15-5 with a .911 save percentage and 3.02 goals-against average, and freshman Dalton Izyk, who sported a 5-2 mark with .917 and 3.00 numbers.
The Good: The Tigers had some of the best numbers on special teams in Atlantic Hockey. They were first in penalty kill at 15.5 percent and third in power play at 21.4. Their nice stretches during the season included five straight wins in late November into December and four straight late against Air Force, Canisius twice and Holy Cross.
The Bad: RIT had a rough 2012-13 season and its slide continued. The Tigers had their first sub-.500 season as an Atlantic Hockey member in 2012-13 and they fell further off the pace with an overall record of 12-20-5 and league mark of 10-14-3.
The Future: The Tigers struggled to score at times — they averaged 2.54 goals a game — and they lose their top two scorers, Mike Colavecchia and Greg Noyes. Todd Skirving (8-14022) and Dan Schuler 13-8-21) are back to help lead the offense. Freshman goalie Mike Rotolo did a nice job and is a positive. He had a .912 save percentage, 2.77 goals-against average and record of 9-9-3.
The Good: The Pioneers won six of their last 10 games to make a late season move to 10th place in the Atlantic Hockey standings and were just three points out of seventh. The flurry gave Sacred Heart 10 more wins overall than it had the previous season.
The Bad: A couple of tough stretches were costly. Sacred Heart lost seven straight games at one point, came up with a pair of wins against Army and then lost eight of its next nine before posting a 3-2 win at Canisius on Jan. 12. The Pioneers had trouble on special teams, in particular. They scored 19 power-play goals (12.7 percent) and their opponents had 41 (22.9).
The Future: Sacred Heart took some major strides to climb out of the Atlantic Hockey basement, but still has a ways to go. Returning the top 12 scorers and a couple of goalies is certainly a step in the right direction.
This article originally appeared in the May edition of the New England Hockey Journal. Click here to access the FREE digital edition.