May 11, 2012

From NEHJ: Holy Cross eyes defensive holes

By Allen Lessels

Paul Pearl and his Holy Cross hockey staff have a little building to do on the back end. 

Returning five of its top eight scorers, including Adam Schmidt (above), Holy Cross' question mark is on defense. (Photo by Peter Cooke)

The Crusaders led Atlantic Hockey in scoring by the slimmest of margins — 3.08 goals a game to the 3.05 of Air Force — and five of the top eight Crusader scorers return, paced by Adam Schmidt (18-19-37) and Erik Vos (15-18-33) at the top of the list.

The question going into 2012-13 is, who’s going to patrol the area in front of Matt Ginn, who will be a sophomore, and the other Crusaders goalies?

Pearl (Winthrop, Mass.) has some folks in mind, to be sure. But he also knows he has some holes to fill.

The Crusaders lose eight players to graduation and four of them were mainstay defensemen. Mike Daly (South Burlington, Vt.), Matt Clune, Kyle Atkins and Matthew Davis played 515 games between them over the past four seasons.

The leadership on defense going forward should come from the likes of Nilan Nagy, a freshman this season, and Jeffrey Reppucci (Amesbury, Mass.), who was a sophomore.

“Nilan Nagy was as good a freshman as I saw,” Pearl said. “Reppucci was All-Rookie as a freshman and was banged up this year and should be back in full force.”

Evan Zych, who will be a senior, and Ryan McGrath, a junior, also return.

Reppucci had three goals and 16 assists as a freshman, but was in and out of the lineup this season with injuries and totaled 1-4-5 in 26 games.

Between Reppucci and Nagy, the other returners and recruits, Pearl and Co. will try to mold a unit.

“We’re excited about the people we have,” Pearl said. “If we can quickly remake the defense and become reliable and not turn the puck over, depending how quickly that happens, we can be pretty good right away.”

AIR FORCE

The Good: It doesn’t get much better than a second consecutive and fifth overall Atlantic Hockey tournament title in six years. The Falcons, who also won the regular-season championship, and sophomore goalie Jason Torf had it going at the end and knocked off Mercyhurst, 5-2, in the semifinals and RIT, 4-0, in the championship game on the way to yet another NCAA tournament appearance.

The Bad: Air Force survived a 0-3-3 patch at midseason that included consecutive weekends in which they got one point each in series against Holy Cross and Bentley. The Falcons came up with a big effort against Boston College but fell 2-0 thanks in part to a late Eagles power-play goal.

The Future: Torf, who already has backboned the Falcons to the two tournament titles, will try to make it three as a junior. Air Force loses a four-year standout pairing on defense in Tim Kirby and Scott Mathis, but coach Frank Serratore believes his blueliners may still be able to tighten things up on the back end. Juniors Kyle De Laurell and John Kruse led the offense and return.

AMERICAN INTERNATIONAL

The Good: Coach Gary Wright noted early in the season that it was not the type of goal a coach likes to talk about a whole lot and it’s not an end-all type of thing worthy of celebration, but it still had to be nice for the Yellow Jackets to finally bust out of the league cellar. AIC beat out Army and Sacred Heart for 10th place and then took Robert Morris to three games in the first round.

The Bad: Tenth place is still 10th place and the Yellow Jackets actually finished with the same number of points this season as last and took advantage of their rivals having rougher years. AIC also had a couple of three-game unbeaten streaks but lost eight of nine league games at one point.

The Future: Adam Pleskach, who has 44-38-82 totals through three seasons, and goalie Ben Meisner, who had a 3.25 goals-against average with a .905 save percentage, are due back for their senior seasons. The Yellow Jackets will look to increase their scoring, which dipped from 2.59 goals a game to 2.22 and at the same time keep lowering their goals against, which improved from 4.24 to 3.70.

ARMY

The Good: Junior forward Andy Starczewski put up 13 goals and 11 assists for 24 points to nearly match his point totals for his first two years combined to lead the Black Knights offensively. Army collected a couple of nice road wins in back-to-back games at Bentley and UConn at the end of January and beginning February.

The Bad: A winless streak of seven games preceded the win at Bentley and Army lost its last eight games after UConn. The Black Knights slipped into a last-place tie in the league with Sacred Heart and then were swept out of the league tournament by Holy Cross.

The Future: Three of the top eight scorers this season were freshmen, including defenseman Maurice Alvarez at 5-9-14. The Black Knights need to improve at both ends of the ice: Their goals scored per game dropped to 1.91 (from 2.46) and their goals against rose to 3.53 (from 3.29).

BENTLEY

The Good: Led by sophomore Brett Gensler (23-27-50), the Falcons made a nice jump in the standings, adding 10 points to their total from the prior season and jumping three spots to sixth place, only two points out of second and three out of first.

The Bad: Bentley got past Sacred Heart in the first round in three games, but then had to go to RIT. The Falcons won the first game, but lost the second in double overtime and were shut out in the third, closing out their season.

The Future: Fueled by Gensler and sophomores-to-be Alex Grieve (15-19-34) and Brett Switzer (14-19-23) and backed by junior goalie Branden Komm with his 2.41 goals-against average and .923 save percentage, the Falcons are primed to give it another run. Boosting an 11.4 percent power play would help.

CANISIUS

The Good: The Golden Griffins collected wins over RIT and Bentley early in the season and in February knocked off Robert Morris and Mercyhurst. They took UConn to overtime in the opening game of their first-round series, but then were eliminated.

The Bad: Canisius scored a league-low 1.83 goals a game, down just over a goal from the season before, and its 10 wins were the fewest the team had since getting nine in 2006-07. The Griffs managed just 11 power-play goals in 133 chances (8.3 percent). 

The Future: The pieces are in place to bounce right back. The top four scorers were sophomores, led by Kyle Gibbons and Taylor Law, who were each at 11-15-26. Sophomore Tony Capobianco shared the goaltending duties with Dan Morrison and just about matched the senior’s numbers with a .913 save percentage and 3.08 goals-against average.

UCONN

The Good: Sophomore forward Cole Schneider at 23-22-45 and junior goalie Garrett Bartus at .923 and 2.55 each had huge years to help the Huskies to a second straight .500 mark in the league. The power play led the league at 25.7 percent.

The Bad: The Huskies squandered a chance for a better finish in the standings when they went 0-4-2 in their first six games in February. They also led Air Force late in the second period in the final game of their quarterfinal series but could not quite hold on.

The Future: Stay tuned. A couple of news items broke soon after the season ended that will impact the future. Word came out that UConn was applying for membership in Hockey East, which is looking for a 12th team for the 2013-14 season. More immediately, Schneider signed a professional contract with the Ottawa Senators, passing up his final two years of eligibility.

HOLY CROSS

The Good: The Crusaders are getting into a nice habit of playing their best hockey at the end of the season. After compiling a 12-game unbeaten streak late in the 2010-11 season, they went 7-0-1 in February this time around.

The Bad: Also like the season prior, Holy Cross stumbled a bit just before it got hot. This season, the Crusaders were 1-4-2 going into February. As one of three teams with 34 points, Holy Cross came up short in the tiebreaker and had to play at Mercyhurst, which also had 34 points, in the quarterfinals.

The Future: Sophomore Adam Schmidt (18-19-37) led in scoring and five of the top eight scorers return to the team that paced the league at 3.08 goals a game. The Crusaders will be looking to get a little more consistent in their scoring: They were shut out four times.

MERCYHURST

The Good: Bouncing back from a pair of 15-win seasons in which they were under .500, the Lakers went 20-16-4 overall, earned the fourth seed in the Atlantic Hockey tournament and advanced to the semifinals, where they fell to eventual champion Air Force. Freshmen Daniel Bahntge at 10-21-31 and Nardo Nagtzaam at 11-19-30 led the way offensively.

The Bad: Despite being four games over .500, Mercyhurst was outscored for the season, scoring 2.77 goals a game and allowing 2.90.

The Future: Max Strang did a nice job replacing Ryan Zapolski in net and now Jordan Tibbett gets his turn. He had a 2.96 goals-against average and .916 save percentage in eight games this season as a sophomore. Three of the top four scorers were freshmen and overall 12 of the top 13 scorers return.

NIAGARA

The Good: The Purple Eagles compiled a seven-game win streak at one point and a seven-game unbeaten string at another, thanks in large part to senior goalie Chris Noonan, and were able to keep pace at the top of the league to finish second, just a point behind champion Air Force.

The Bad: Niagara and RIT were tied 0-0 when RIT scored early in the third period of their semifinal game. Chris Lochner got that one back, but RIT went on to win 2-1 in OT. Niagara took a hit after the season when sophomore forward Scott Arnold signed a professional contract.

The Future: The loss of Arnold will hurt, but the other 12 of Niagara’s top 13 scorers are eligible to return, led by Giancarlo Iuorio (10-14-24) and Pat Divjak (6-18-24). Six defensemen who played at least 21 games each, including Kevin Ryan are back. Noonan rose to the top of the goaltenders this season and now the other three goalies on the roster will get another shot.

ROBERT MORRIS

The Good: The Colonials have now gone 13-9-5 in league games in each of their first two Atlantic Hockey seasons. A year ago that mark earned them a tie for third place and this season it landed them seventh. They had the best penalty killing in the league at just a tick under 90 percent.

The Bad: Upset in the first round of the tournament last year, Robert Morris needed three games, and overtime in the third, to get past AIC in the first round of the playoffs. The Colonials then were swept out in the quarterfinals by their old CHA rival, Niagara.

The Future: For the second season in a row, the Colonials lose their top two scorers and overall 10 seniors leave. Adam Brace, who will be a senior, was the leader in goals with 14 and Cody Wydo, a sophomore in the fall, had 13. Next year’s group will include 15 freshmen or sophomores. Senior Eric Levine, who had a .921 save percentage and 2.61 goals-against average in 12 games, takes over in net.

RIT

The Good: The Tigers (20-13-6) once again were one of the most dangerous teams in the league and for the sixth consecutive season won at least 19 games. Led by senor goalie Shane Madolora, they finished in a three-way tie for third place, two points behind first-place Air Force, and advanced to the championship game for the third straight season.

The Bad: For the second consecutive season, Air Force shut out RIT in the finale, this time 4-0. It was the sixth time the Tigers were shut out during the season. They averaged 2.54 goals a game, their lowest output in their six years of Atlantic Hockey.

The Future: Coach Wayne Wilson’s team should get an immediate boost with the return of defenseman Chris Saracino and forward Bryan Potts, both of whom missed most of their junior seasons with injuries. He expects Josh Watson, who will be a junior, and Jordan Ruby, a sophomore, to capably fill the skates left by Madolora.

SACRED HEART

The Good: Starting with a 4-2 win over AIC on Jan. 27, the Pioneers closed out the regular season with a 4-4-2 run. They beat Bentley in Game 2 to even their first-round series before falling in the finale. They also had a 7-6 win over rival Yale, then ranked No. 8 in the country, on Nov. 8.

The Bad: The win over Yale was the only victory Sacred Heart owned until stopping AIC in late January. The Pioneers lost their first 11 games of the season and were 1-22-1 when they went to play AIC.

The Future: Top scorer Matt Gingera is gone, but the next five leading scorers are back, led by Drew George (14-9-23) and Brian Sheehan (10-12-22), who will be sophomores. The Pioneers need to shore up at both ends of the ice: They scored 2.21 goals a game and allowed 4.68.

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

Allen Lessels can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com