May 14, 2012

From NEHJ: Union's Bennett blazes new trail

By Dan Guttenplan

This time last year, the Union College hockey program appeared to be ECAC Hockey’s version of a one-hit wonder. 

Union first-year coach Rick Bennett led the Dutchmen to the Frozen Four, the ECAC's first trip since 2003. (Dave Arnold/New England Hockey Journal)

The Dutchmen were coming off a season of firsts with the first ECAC Hockey regular-season title and the first NCAA tournament berth in program history. But the immediate future didn’t look bright.

ECAC Coach of the Year Nate Leaman left Union to accept the head coaching position at Providence College. Without a returning coach, the Dutchmen figured to take a step back.

What happened instead is a new leader emerged. Rick Bennett (Springfield, Mass.) steadied the ship, making subtle adjustments to the program Leaman had in place. He kept the Dutchmen at the top of the league all season, eventually leading the team to its second regular-season title in a row.

That’s when Bennett began blazing his own trail. He guided Union through the ECAC Hockey tournament, avoiding the same disappointing, early defeat the team suffered last year. The Dutchmen won their first conference tournament by defeating Harvard in the championship game in Atlantic City, N.J.

Still, Bennett wasn’t content. His squad earned one of the four No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament and proved worthy of that distinction. The Dutchmen were the first ECAC Hockey team to win two tournament games and advance to the Frozen Four since 2003.

At the Frozen Four in Tampa, Bennett drilled home the point to any reporter who would listen that Union wasn’t a feel-good Cinderella story. The Dutchmen expected to be back. They were starting something for the future.

Tampa was a long way away from where the program sat a year ago, without an experienced ECAC Hockey head coach, and without the continuity that helped put the program on the map during Leaman’s tenure.

We’ll reflect on the 2011-2012 season and attempt to project how things will look in ECAC Hockey at this time next year. But if Bennett’s ability to unexpectedly steady the Union ship this season is any indication, the latter is simply impossible.

BROWN

The Good: The Bears’ highlight of the season came in April when the Hockey Commissioners’ Association named Brown senior forward Bobby Farnham (North Andover, Mass.) as the recipient of the Derek Hines Unsung Hero Award. Farnham was selected among all Div. 1 hockey players. He was an “Ambassador to Team Impact,” a nonprofit group whose mission is to connect and cultivate meaningful relationships between athletic teams and children facing life-threatening diseases.

The Bad: The Bears finished last in ECAC hockey with a 5-13-4 league mark. They did not win a single game in February.

The Future: Four of Brown’s top six scorers this season were freshmen or sophomores. Freshmen Ryan Jacobson (12 goals, nine assists, 21 points) and Matt Lorito (4-13-17) are solid pieces to build around.

CLARKSON

The Good: Senior goalie Paul Karpowich started and played all 22 ECAC Hockey games for Clarkson, leading the squad to a 9-9-4 league record. He made the most saves in league play with 638 and recorded eight league games with 30 or more saves, including two with 40 or more stops.

The Bad: Clarkson did not play well when it mattered most. The Golden Knights went 0-2 on the last weekend of the regular season when they needed a point to secure a first-round bye in the ECAC Hockey tournament. They then lost to RPI in the first round.

The Future: Clarkson’s incoming class features forward Christian Finch, the Most Valuable Player of the Ontario Junior Hockey League; and his teammate with the Stouffville Spirit, Paul Geiger, who was voted the top defenseman in the OJHL.

COLGATE

The Good: Colgate earned a first-round bye in the ECAC Hockey tournament and a trip to the semifinal round in Atlantic City. Senior forward Austin Smith led the nation in goals with 36 and was in the final three candidates for the Hobey Baker Award.

The Bad: Smith graduated, and talented sophomore linemate Chris Wagner (Walpole, Mass.), who was second in the conference in scoring with 17 goals, 34 assists and 51 points, decided to forgo his final two years of eligibility to sign with the Anaheim Ducks.

The Future: You have to figure Wagner saw the writing on the wall for a rebuilding process at Colgate when he decided to forgo his final two years of eligibility. The leadership is strong going forward between veteran coach Don Vaughan and captain Thomas Larkin, the first two-year Colgate captain since Rejean Boivin in 1986-1987 and 1987-1988.

CORNELL

The Good: The Big Red recorded the biggest upset of the opening round of the NCAA tournament, beating top-seed Michigan in the Midwest Regional. Cornell earned its 19th NCAA tournament invitation by winning the third-place game against Colgate in the ECAC Hockey tournament.

The Bad: Cornell was painfully close to making a good season great. With a chance to secure a share of an ECAC Hockey regular-season title on the final night of the season, the Big Red lost to RPI. With a chance to advance to the ECAC tournament championship game and secure an NCAA tournament berth, the Big Red lost to Harvard, 6-1, in the semifinal. With a chance to advance to the Frozen Four, the Big Red lost to Ferris State in the Midwest Regional final.

The Future: The defensive-minded Big Red should be back next season. They graduate only four seniors — Sean Collins, Keir Ross, Sean Whitney (Scituate, Mass.) and Locke Jillson. Freshman forward Brian Ferlin (7-10-17) was named ECAC Hockey Rookie of the Year.

DARTMOUTH

The Good: The Big Green, playing as the No. 9 seed in the ECAC Hockey tournament, posted an upset sweep of No. 8 St. Lawrence in a first-round matchup on the road. On the season, Dartmouth got more scoring production from its freshman class than any school in ECAC Hockey.

The Bad: Dartmouth had the worst power-play unit in the conference, scoring on 14.2 percent of its chances.

The Future: Five of Dartmouth’s top six scorers were freshmen or sophomores. Freshmen forwards Tyler Sikura (11-14-25) of Saugus, Mass., Brandon McNally (10-8-18) and Eric Neiley (7-11-18) will join sophomore forward Matt Lindblad (6-18-24) and sophomore defenseman Eric Robinson (12-12-24) of Foxboro, Mass., in ushering in a new era.

HARVARD

The Good: The Crimson advanced to the championship game of the ECAC Hockey tournament, and actually held a lead over Union in the third period of a 3-1 loss. The Crimson also had the nation’s best power play, converting on 27.2 percent of their advantages.

The Bad: It’s a matter of perspective, but the NCAA-record 11 ties in 34 games seemed to indicate a lack of finishing punch for the Crimson. They trailed in 28 of their 34 games.

The Future: Juniors Danny Biega (10-25-35), Marshall Everson (13-20-33) and Alex Fallstrom (13-12-25), along with freshman Pat McNally (6-22-28) played key roles on the power-play unit. Alex Killorn and Biega (Salisbury School, Conn.) were named first-team All-ECAC. Goalie Steve Michalek (Glastonberry, Conn.) and McNally (Glen Head, N.Y.) were named to the All-Rookie team, and freshman Colin Blackwell (North Andover, Mass.) earned time on the top forward line.

PRINCETON

The Good: Sophomore forward Andrew Calof (17-13-30) had a great season on the heels of being named ECAC Rookie of the Year in 2010-11. Calof, who may be one of the top players in ECAC Hockey next season, was named All-Ivy along with Princeton junior defenseman Michael Sdao.

The Bad: Calof (plus-4) and sophomore defenseman Jeremy Goodwin (plus-1) were the only Tigers who had a positive plus-minus rating. The Tigers finished 11th  out of 12 teams in ECAC Hockey.

The Future: Calof certainly is a piece to build around, much like Colgate coach Don Vaughan built around Austin Smith. The sophomore had a huge first-round series against Yale in the opening round of the ECAC Hockey tournament. In the final two games, he netted four goals, including a game-winner in overtime of Game 2.

QUINNIPIAC

The Good: Twin brothers Connor (13-28-41) and Kellen Jones (14-22-36) were the only Bobcats to post double digits in goals and assists. The Jones brothers and freshman standout Matthew Peca gave Quinnipiac its first trio of 30-point scorers in two seasons.

The Bad: Quinnipiac took the fewest shots per game in ECAC Hockey play, and also had the worst penalty kill. The Bobcats also went 7-10-3 on the road compared to 13-4-3 at home.

The Future: The Bobcats will return the Jones brothers, Peca and junior goaltender Eric Hartzell (2.18 GAA) from a team that won 20 games this season. They undoubtedly will be looking for a first-round bye in the ECAC Hockey tournament next season.

RPI

The Good: The Engineers played like a top-four team in ECAC Hockey over the second semester. They closed out their regular season with a record of 6-4-2 in their final 12 ECAC Hockey contests, and they won at Cornell and Colgate on the final weekend of the season. They then upset Clarkson in the opening round of the conference tournament.

The Bad: The first semester. The Engineers had separate losing streaks of eight and six games in the first semester. They were 3-16-0 through 19 games.

The Future: You have to think RPI coach Seth Appert got the program back on the rails after a brutal first semester. He talked at the time of recommitting himself to recruiting and program building, commitments that had slipped in past years, when RPI was competing for conference titles.

ST. LAWRENCE

The Good: After a year of playing under an interim coach, St. Lawrence has closure with its coaching situation. Veteran coach Joe Marsh (Lynn, Mass.) retired in March after spending a season on medical leave. Greg Carvel has been named Marsh’s successor.

The Bad: St. Lawrence showed little consistency in the second semester. The squad started with a 1-5-1 record in its first seven games after Jan. 1. The Saints then won five in a row. They closed out the season with losses in four of their last five games.

The Future: Carvel will have a chance to put his stamp on a team of returning players next season. Sophomore Greg Carey (15-22-37) and junior Kyle Flanagan (14-23-37)  tallied 37 points each on the season.

UNION

The Good: The Dutchmen answered the questions regarding first-year coach Rick Bennett and first-year goalie Troy Grosenick as each won ECAC Hockey’s highest awards for their particular positions (coach, goalie). The Dutchmen’s trip to the Frozen Four should boost recruiting.

The Bad: Union didn’t play its best game on the biggest stage of the year against Ferris State in the Frozen Four. There’s no telling when a school of 2,200 students will get another shot.

The Future: The Dutchmen will be hurt by the loss of four seniors, including the team’s second-leading scorer Kelly Zajac (8-34-42). What they weren’t expecting was to lose junior forward Jeremy Welsh (27-17-44), who has started his career with the Carolina Hurricanes.

YALE

The Good: The Bulldogs led ECAC Hockey in goals per game with 3.51. Yale captain Brian O’Neill had an All-ECAC season, tallying 21 goals, 25 assists and 46 points.

The Bad: Yale was picked by many publications to be the preseason favorite to repeat as ECAC Hockey champion. At no point during the season did the Bulldogs challenge for the ECAC title. They lost to Harvard, 8-2, in the deciding Game 3 of a quarterfinal matchup in the conference tournament.

The Future: The Bulldogs have three 30-point scorers returning in junior Andrew Miller (7-29-36), sophomore Kenny Agostino (14-20-34) and Antoine Laganiere (19-14-33). The goaltending situation is a little unsettled, as this season’s starter, Jeff Malcolm, went 10-11-2 in net with a 2.77 GAA.

This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Dan Guttenplan can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com