The chance to get senior forward Jon Puskar back on a line with junior center Alexander MacMillan had something to do with it. The work of freshman forward Mike Dietrich played into the equation as well.
Those were two of the factors that figured into the thinking of American International College coach Gary Wright (Cornwall, Vt.) as he tinkered with combinations for his forward lines as the season got underway. The early returns have been impressive.
“It’s real early, but certainly some of the signs have been positive,” Wright said. “Hopefully it gives us two particularly strong lines and both are equally dangerous. We haven’t always had as much offensive depth, and there have been years in the past where we’ve had one strong line and depth has been a bit of an issue. I do think right now those top two lines are pretty close.”
Others have been chipping in, too. The Yellow Jackets have been able to pick up where they left off last year when a second-half surge sent them climbing in the Atlantic Hockey standings. At 12-17-3 overall, they hit double figures in wins for the first time since they also won a dozen games in 1998-99.
But the Yellow Jackets got hit hard by graduation. Guys who scored 35 of their 88 goals last season left, and so did workhorse goalie Ben Meisner. There were concerns. “We lost some pretty good firepower,” Wright said.
As it turns out, they have firepower back as well. They got some more from a couple of newcomers. And they added a couple of new goaltenders.
Dietrich and classmate David Norris fit right in early at the right-wing spots on the top two lines. Senior Blake Peake centers the top line and sophomore Chris Porter is on the left. MacMillan is in the middle on the second line with Puskar on the left.
The Yellow Jackets won each of their first three Atlantic Hockey games of the season in a different way, but there was one constant: The winning goal came from a player on the second line. Norris got the deciding goal in a 4-1 win over Sacred Heart, and MacMillan scored the winner in a breakout game for the line, an 8-7 triumph over Bentley.
“We’ll take that,” said Peake, the captain, of the wild win over Bentley. “We know they’re a real high-powered team on offense and we were just trying to outscore them. Hopefully we don’t have to play another game like that. I think the coaches were pulling some of their hair out in that one.”
AIC came from down 4-1 in the first period and scored on three of its four power-play chances in the game. Puskar had two goals and three assists, MacMillan a goal and four assists and Norris added four assists.
“We don’t have enough offense to play that way all the time,” Wright said. “We have to be strong in our own end.”
The Yellow Jackets (3-4, 3-1 Atlantic Hockey) turned around and held Holy Cross to 22 shots, in Worcester, in their next game. Freshman Hunter Leisner stopped them all and AIC won, 1-0. MacMillan scored the lone goal in the game. Norris and Puskar had the assists. That was Nov. 15. The Yellow Jackets won their third Atlantic Hockey game on Feb. 2 last season.
Puskar and MacMillan played well together down the stretch last year, and Wright liked the idea of getting them together again when he was able to slide Dietrich into Puskar’s spot beside Peake and Porter.
Puskar has consistently put up points in his three-plus seasons, while MacMillan has been coming on strong for the last year.
“He’s been a different player since last Christmas,” Wright said. “Whether that’s a natural maturation, he’s a late developer or because he’s been given more opportunities with good players, I’m not sure, but it’s a good thing. He’s playing with more energy and he’s really developed his battle level, and hopefully he just keeps surging.”
The Yellow Jackets will try to keep surging along with him. Leisner and Ty Reichenbach, who got the wins against Sacred Heart and Bentley, both were late recruits after a goalie who had committed changed his mind and went elsewhere. Wright expects both freshmen to help, along with senior Ryan Kerpan. “It got us scrambling a little bit, but under the circumstances we did pretty well,” Wright said. “I’ve been encouraged by the goaltending.”
Having more depth throughout the offensive line helps in subtle ways, and more than just in the scorebook, Peake said. “It does make it a lot easier,” he said. “Starting play in other people’s ends is much, much nicer. In past years, it felt like every time you started a shift, you started in your own zone. Now we’re starting to turn the tide. We can take the momentum to them, instead of being the ones on our heels. It’s a nice change. It kind of shows we have more depth and can actually play with teams and can kind of take it to them more than we have in the past.”
The start, no question, was nice. “We did lose a ton of guys, and I think a lot of people underestimated us because of that,” Peake said. “But we brought in some great freshmen and brought back some good players and guys have stepped it up. Hopefully the way we finished last semester is something we can build on and we can get in a different place and win more consistently than we have in the past.”
It’s worked out well so far. The Yellow Jackets finished 12th and last in the Atlantic Hockey standings when Peake and Puskar were freshmen. They moved to 10th the next year and were ninth last year.
“Hopefully this year we can make a big jump,” said Peake, who noted that getting home ice for the league tournament is one of the team’s goals. “It’s nice not being at the bottom.”