October 8, 2013

ECAC 2013-14 season preview: Dartmouth's next step?

By Dan Guttenplan

Brandon McNally, above, had 11 points through the first 16 games last season before dislocating his shoulder. Cab Morris, below, returns in goal. Photos/Mark Washburn (McNally); David Silverman (Morris)

Dartmouth wasn’t celebrating as a team last April when two ECAC Hockey teams — Yale and Quinnipiac — faced off in the NCAA tournament national championship game.

Sure, ECAC Hockey was bound to start getting more respect after years of being deemed an inferior Northeast conference to Hockey East. But for the Big Green, they saw two familiar foes facing off on the biggest stage in college hockey, and they wondered why they weren’t one of them.

“We played (national champion) Yale at home early in the year, and we dominated them,” said junior forward Brandon McNally (Saugus, Mass.). “It was tough watching them go in an opposite direction. They didn’t have a great year to start, and we didn’t have a full, complete year.”

Dartmouth looked every bit the part of an NCAA tournament team in the 2012 portion of the 2012-13 season, starting 5-0-1 with the five wins coming against Brown, Yale, Brown again, RPI and Union. By season’s end, Yale, RPI and Union earned first-round byes in the ECAC Hockey tournament, and Brown advanced to the championship game.

Dartmouth, on the other hand, went in the other direction after playing a tough non-league schedule just before the turn of the calendar. The Big Green played the top-ranked team in the country, Boston College, to a 3-3 tie midway through the third period of a game in late November before falling 6-3. On Dec. 30, Dartmouth beat the second-ranked team in the country, UNH, 4-1.

From that game forward, the Big Green went 7-12-3 overall and 5-8-3 in the conference. On the final weekend of the regular season, Dartmouth needed two points in a weekend series against Princeton and Quinnipiac to clinch a first-round bye in the conference tournament. Instead, the team  came away with just a point for tying Princeton (10-16-5) and was forced to play on the opening weekend of the conference tournament.

“I think we were content,” said senior forward Eric Robinson (Foxboro, Mass.). “We had that start to the season, and everybody just figured we’d win a lot of games. We stopped playing the same way, and a lot of other teams passed us by.”

On the surface, it was a season of improvement for the Big Green. They jumped from ninth in ECAC Hockey in 2011-12 to fifth last year. Still, coach Bob Gaudet (Saugus, Mass.) isn’t ready to label the season a success.

“It was disappointing to start that strong and lose the momentum,” Gaudet said. “We had a lot of injuries to key players, but every team deals with injuries throughout the season. We’re shooting for the top. That’s our motivation, just like Quinnipiac, and just like Yale. We’re not going to settle for mediocrity.”

If a college hockey team needs to learn to crawl before it walks, the Big Green could be primed for their first NCAA tournament berth since 1981. Last year’s team, laden with 18 underclassmen, climbed to No. 8 in the national rankings in January — the team’s highest slotting since the inception of national rankings in 1996.

Dartmouth returns its best player in junior Tyler Sikura, who has led the team in points scored for each of the past two seasons. Gaudet is also excited about a three-man competition for the starting goaltender position, between senior Cab Morris (right) and sophomores Charles Grant and James Kruger.

“Cab Morris had an excellent year last year, and Charles Grant had good numbers,” Gaudet said. “Kruger has done an excellent job in what I’ve seen from him since August, so we have three solid goaltenders. We’ll find a way to get them all in.”

The biggest subtraction from last year’s team might be forward Matt Lindblad, who left school before his senior year to play professionally after tallying 10 goals and 18 assists. The graduation of Dustin Walsh (11-11-22) and defensive captain Mike Keenan (5-11-16) also will leave holes.

“I’m optimistic; I like the team a lot,” Gaudet said. “We did lose a key player in Lindblad who left early, but we’re happy he will get a chance to play out his dream. Tyler (Sikura) is a super player and captain as a junior, and we have some key players back from injury this season.”

McNally is one of those key players who missed significant time last season. He had 11 points through the first 16 games last season before dislocating his shoulder. He missed the remainder of the season, but still finished eighth on the team in scoring. Robinson, who tied for second on the team in goals (11) last season, believes the team’s preseason trip to Switzerland and Italy helped create a unique bond between the players.

“There wasn’t one particular moment throughout that week where we all came together, but I found myself hanging out with teammates I usually don’t see off the ice at school,” Robinson said. “We were a bunch of goofy American and Canadian tourists in Europe, so we had to come together.”

By the end of last season, Dartmouth looked gassed — possibly from the weight of high expectations after the strong start. Because the team missed out on the first-round bye in the ECAC Hockey tournament, it was forced to play its quarterfinal round at Union, a seasoned postseason team that outscored the Big Green 9-3 in two games. This year, a first-round bye is at the top of Dartmouth’s list of goals.

“It makes a lot of difference when you don’t get the bye,” Gaudet said. “I’m disappointed looking back, but the experience gave guys opportunities to play in key situations. Ultimately, we lost to the conference tournament champion in Union, and it was a really valuable experience. We feel like we proved we can play with those top teams in the conference last season when we were at our best. We want to play at that level all season this year.”

ECAC PRESEASON RANKINGS

1. Union

 2. Quinnipiac

 3. Dartmouth

 4. Brown

 5. RPI

 6. Yale

 7. Cornell

 8. St. Lawrence

 9. Harvard

10. Colgate

11. Princeton

12. Clarkson


To read Dan’s in-depth analysis of each team in ECAC Hockey, check out his
team capsules in the digital edition of our October issue.

Twitter: @Dan_Guttenplan
Email: feedback@hockeyjournal.com