Can the University of Vermont mark the 50th anniversary of its hockey program by returning to post-season glory? Does Norwich University have enough experience to extend its streak of appearances in Division III’s Frozen Four? And is Middlebury College poised to end a three-year absence from the NCAA tournament?
The answers to those questions will begin to come into focus this weekend when the men’s college hockey season in Vermont shifts out of neutral into a higher gear. UVM, which is 1-1-1 after spacing three games over the month of October, hosts Hockey East newcomer and second-ranked Notre Dame on Friday and Saturday to begin conference play. Norwich takes on Plymouth State on Friday in Northfield in its season-opener while Middlebury finally begins practice this weekend in preparation for its first game on Nov. 16.
Damian Julian begins his second season as head man at St. Michael’s on Nov. 8 against Norwich looking to reverse last year’s 8-17 record. Castleton opens the same night against Southern Maine as former Plattsburgh State assistant coach Steve Moffat makes his debut for the Spartans, looking to improve upon last season’s 15-10-2 mark.
But the sharpest focus will shine on Vermont, the state’s lone Division I program, and Norwich and Middlebury, who have teamed to dominate Division III over the last two decades. Here’s a look at what each team faces this winter:
UVM welcomes Notre Dame after knocking off Penn State 5-2 last weekend in the Hockey East-Big Ten Challenge in Philadelphia. Coupled with a loss and a tie at No. 5 North Dakota to open the season a month ago, the Catamounts are on solid footing to begin conference play.
Coach Kevin Sneddon, beginning his 11th season, knows his team must hit the ice skating in full stride, as the league schedule has been reduced from 27 to 20 games with almost half of those coming before the Christmas break.
“It’s the first weekend of November and we’re essentially entering the playoffs – that’s how we’ve presented it to our players,” Sneddon said. “There is going to be a lot of excitement, with this being our 50th season, a lot of alumni coming back, and welcoming Notre Dame into the league. But the bottom line is these are four important points.”
The larger question hanging over Vermont is whether it can duplicate the success that carried it to the Frozen Four in 2008-09 or are the Catamounts stuck in a down cycle that has seen them fall to 25-66-15 the last three seasons and become a non-factor in post-season?
“I’ve always believed in sustaining excellence, so these dips have been tough to take,” Sneddon said. “There were some recruiting mistakes and some coaching mistakes. But Vermont has a great fan base in a great college hockey town and we have everything in place to be successful.”
This season’s roster carries as many freshmen (10) as upperclassmen, but Sneddon likes the mix. Connor Brickley and Chris McCarthy turned down pro contracts to return for their senior seasons and provide both leadership and experience.
Newcomers Mario Puskarich, Brendan Bradley, Brady Shaw and Mike Stenerson were prolific scorers for their junior teams and should boost the Catamount attack immediately.
“We haven’t scored much and we’ve struggled on the power play (UVM is 2-for-23 with the man advantage this season),” Sneddon said. “These kids have had success and will contribute offensively immediately.”
Last winter a lack of depth in goal forced Brody Hoffman to play in all 36 games. He will return to action this weekend after missing the first month with an injury. In his absence, Vermont has found a capable alternative in freshman Mike Santaguida, who has stopped 93 of 102 shots in three games.
“There were times last year that Brody needed a break and we just couldn’t give it to him,” Sneddon said. “There’s no question that Santaguida gives us options we didn’t have before.”
Vermont was picked to finish ninth out of 11 teams in both the Hockey East coaches and media preseason polls. Sneddon understands the thinking, but doesn’t agree with it.
“I fully believe we can be a lot better than that,” he said. “I thought we took a little step forward last season (going from six wins to 11) and I think we can take a much bigger step this winter.”
The Cadets are coming off a 24-4-1 season that delivered their 15th consecutive ECAC East regular season championship and sent them to the NCAA semifinals for the fourth consecutive year. But a core of seniors who helped Norwich win the last of its three national championships in 2009-10 is gone and coach Mike McShane is looking at a roster that could carry as many as 14 freshmen.
“We had a great senior class last year, maybe the best since I’ve been here,” said McShane, who is beginning his 19th season in Northfield. “You know you’re not going to replace that group, so it’s going to be a little bit of wait and see for us.”
Among the losses were captain Pier-Olivier Cotnoir, and Colin Mulvey, a first-team All-American and the New England Division III player of the year. Adding to the uncertainty is an unsettled goaltending situation where Chris Czarnota, Matic Marinsek and Parker Carroll all saw time in net last season.
“All of them played well at times, but I don’t think we’re going to have one dominant guy,” McShane said. “I don’t like to go this way, but it could be more like a committee for us, approaching it like a pitching staff.”
Senior captain Travis Janke (15 goals, 23 assists) is the top returning scorer but a lot will ride on the first-year players, almost all of who came through the junior hockey ranks. Keep an eye on forwards Mike Kelly, Tyler Piacenti and St. Brendan Boyce of St. Albans.
“We have a team of hard-nosed players, good checkers who can skate and have some skills,” McShane said. “We have some speed but we have so many freshmen who are going to be thrown right into the fire.”
Bill Beaney has won just shy of 500 games since he stepped behind the Panther bench in 1986. Under his guidance, Middlebury has brought home eight NCAA Division III titles, including five in a row from 1995-99.
But the last crown came in 2005-06. The Panthers have sat out the post-season the last three years, sputtering to an overall record of 38-29-11 in that span.
“It’s hard to say, as long as I’ve been here, that you’re particularly excited for a season, but I really am this year,” Beaney said. “We played really good hockey down the stretch (going 7-3) and most of those key players are back with a much more determined attitude and mindset. But if we’re going to go to the next level, a lot of our players are going to have to play at a higher skill level with more consistency.”
Parts of Middlebury’s recent struggles are related to the changing face of recruiting in Division III and Beaney’s personal philosophy. More and more first-year players arrive on campus after spending two or three seasons competing in the many junior leagues that have sprung up in the U.S. (Norwich coach Mike McShane estimated that 90 percent of his roster came from the juniors).
“We have a few older players, but I would much rather go out and recruit a high school player I think has the potential to become a good college player,” Beaney said. “But sometimes it’s tough to have an 18, 19-year old player going against a 24 or 25-year old junior or senior. It is literally the men against the boys in terms of maturity and experience,”
That said, Beaney concedes Middlebury hasn’t had the talent level of late to match that of its championship runs.
“Maybe we just got a little too comfortable and that is totally my responsibility,” he said. “But I have more optimism going into this season than I have the past few years because I think we are gradually raising our talent level.”
Junior captains Rob Donahoe and Louis Belisle will be the Panthers’ go-to guys after combining for 19 goals and 20 assists last season. But the centerpiece of Middlebury’s large sophomore class will be Matt Silcoff, who was named New England Small College Athletic Conference rookie of the year last season after scoring 11 goals and 13 assists.
A huge question mark looms in net where Beaney used four goaltenders last season.
“I’d never done that before but it was by necessity,” Beaney said. “This year we’re going to play the guy who creates the most confident team in front of him and a lot of times, that’s not the guy who just makes all the saves.”