By Ray Biggs
Managing Editor, D3hockey.com
Well folks, we finally made it. We start up yet another long, exciting sojurn to Lake Placid, or to Campus Site to be Named Later, today, and with that you can't help but start trying to visualize who will be there in the end. If you're a player, you're probably thinking that you have a chance to do it, and you should. That's why we play the game, after all. If you're an avid observer or fan like the rest of us, there's a good chance you're formulating about a hundred different ways the season could go -- and when you evaluate recent results, why wouldn't you?
|UMass Boston's Colin Larkin could help the Beacons return to the big stage after a rough season.
Photo: Eric Gulset
Who can forget Norwich's resurgence to the top lasy March after a very early postseason exit in 2016? Or the remarkable run UMass Boston had that year in the absence of the Cadets? How about Neumann in 2009, or UW-Eau Claire in 2013? Those memories help fuel our thoughts at this time of year as we try to put pen to paper on prognostications that will more than likely be wrong no matter how much research we do. And that surprise just adds to the fascination with the game we all share.
While we're on the topic of prognostications (And we're working on a national prospectus to go out as early as next week) I personally got to thinking about who that surprise team, or teams are going to be, and who may just pop back up after some tough luck taking the next step forward recently.
Get Ready, Cause Here They Come
Endicott men: After the successes they had last year in the NCAA men's tournament, it's hard to even label Endicott's men a surprise anymore, but nobody can deny that it is surprising how quickly the Gulls' men's and women's teams have become viable teams nationally. A decade after Ron Fogarty's Adrian Bulldogs debuted and immediately set Division III ablaze with a 26-3-0 record, this is the first program since whose build has shown results that are anywhere close in terms of immediacy.
Yes, in just their third year, I have reason to believe that Endicott is going to be that good. The evidence on paper is convincing, as the Gulls followed up a winless 0-2-2 start by going 24-2 the rest of the way. They fended off, on the road no less, a Hobart rally in their NCAA opening round tilt, and were a goal away in double overtime against Trinity from advancing to the Frozen Four.
Here's the scary part: Only one player off that team graduated. The Gulls return an arsenal of weapons that may be unmatched by any team in the East on paper, including junior All-American Tommy Beisinger, who was second in the nation in total points, and defenseman Logan Day, a Division I transfer who had enough poise and mobility with the puck, a raw knack for finding passing lanes before they open, and a heater of a shot to put up a Division III best 40 points from the blue line, while also providing a stable option on the back end for head coach RJ Tolan as the team's second All-American. Five All-Conference players return in all, including Commonwealth Coast goaltender of the year Kevin Aldridge, who fought off 93.8 percent of shots he saw. If that's not enough, they leverage their high skill level on a Power Play was among the best in the country last year, and that unit looked tack sharp in exhibition play. With that kind of clout and a proven track record, this observer will be very surprised if we do not see the Gulls in Lake Placid.
Endicott women: Endicott's women's conference, the Colonial Hockey Conference, holds two rising programs constructed in a similar mold. The league will be an automatic qualifier league for the first time, with those programs likely to be that potential suitor. The Endicott women bring back almost every pivotal player off a squad that went undefeated until January last season, and did a good job adding suitable pieces to the lineup like Jillian Gibbs and Jade Meier, to compliment existing stars Lexi Klein and Maggie Layo. Vendela Jonsson also returns in goal after winning 27 of her first 41 starts in 2 years.
Morrisville women: The other program in the Colonial that everyone needs to be watching is Morrisville. Melissa Lomanto's team will be without top forwards Vanessa Klimpke and Renee Stevenson, and goaltender Renee Schmaltz to begin the team's third year, but a retooled roster passed the eye test in exhibition play last weekend as it relates to challenging to the league crown. The Mustangs bring back four terrific offensive blue liners, and will start the promising Karoline Arvik in goal.
On the Rise
Concordia (Wis.) men: As I combed through prospective options for my D3hockey.com Top 15 Ballot, the Concordia-Wisconsin men immediately got my attention again. They had everyone's attention nationally in late January when they shocked St. Norbert twice in an NCHA home-and-home, and while that is far from a coronation as a national elite, it was an important milestone for the Falcons under Jasen Wise. Just a few seasons ago in 2011-12, the Falcons were somewhat of an NCHA doormat that had never won more than four games in a season. When Wise took over, that win total immediately jumped to seven, and the Falcons are now on the heels of their first winning season at 13-11-1.
A couple of rock solid recruiting classes have positioned CUW extraordinarily well, as this team's core is a group of Sophomores and Juniors that, if they find that extra gear, they will find themselves right in the heart of the NCHA mix in early February. They had tremendous balance with 12 different players at 10 points or more last year, and won seven of ten games that were decided by one goal on their schedule. The key to making a play to become a national elite may rest in goal, where Jack Romaniuk stopped less than 90 percent of the pucks he saw last season. The power play could also use some help with only 15 goals in over 100 opportunities. Those two factors could be definitive for a team that we believe could become the west's next big upstart, and indications are good for the Blue and White after a competitive scrimmage day not too long ago.
University of New England men: Although I couldn't quite find the spot for them in a packed bottom five of my poll ballot, the operation of that power play unit is poetry in motion at 33 percent, and they feature the top scorer in the nation in Brady Fleurent. He won't have his brother there anymore due to graduation, nor will the Nor'easters have Blaise Healy, but there's so much to like about what Kevin Swallow is doing at UNE in just a few short years. Along with Endicott and a Salve Regina team that made big moves under now-former coach Andy Boschetto, Swallow's team adds a measured amount of legitimacy to the Commonwealth Coast Conference. After a pair of winning seasons, the first two in UNE program history, who knows what Swallow is going to be capable of as he continues to amass quality recruits that are his very own. Among those recruits, Ryan Bloom was tack sharp as a freshman last year, and I realistically could see him winning a Sid Watson as an upperclassman.
UW-Eau Claire women were a royal pain for longtime power UW-River Falls to deal with last season, as the first legitimate challenger to appear to the Falcons in the WIAC era. All four games the two teams played were legitimately competitive, and they split the season series right down the middle at two games apiece with the Falcons needing a championship game overtime to keep their crown. With a few key parts of the River Falls lineup now missing, namely Dani Sibley and Paige Johnson, and the core of the Blugolds entirely intact in front of one of the nation's best underclass goaltenders in Erin Connolly, the Blugolds are an even bigger threat to grab a hold of the gold, and perhaps even a bid to the NCAA tournament.
UMass Boston men: The Beacons posted arguably the most underwhelming season in the country in 2016-17, a point that's tough to argue when an NCAA semifinalist returns a wealth of talent yet limped to a 12-11-3 record the following year. A lot of it didn't add up on paper, as Colin Larkin and Tyler Bishop both went on to be named All-Americans, and Ryan Cusin had a simply dazzling campaign as a freshman. Losing Bishop and captain Albee Daley will leave a void, but a returning roster otherwise should have no problem winning at least 17 games, although how they handle the addition of Hobart to the NEHC will have some defining effect on the complexion of the season.
Utica men: Just as i'm buying on Endicott, I'm also buying Utica, which tied the Gulls 3-3 in exhibition play last weekend. After making conference title game appearances in consecutive years and demonstrating considerable yearly improvement, the Pioneers appear ready to go back and recreate the magic of their 2013 NCAA tournament run, and may just sport their best overall team since that year as the United Collegiate Hockey Conference era begins on Friday night. The preseason favorite for the league's inaugural season features five returning all-conference picks, including a keystone goaltender in USHL grad Patrik Virtanen, who was the ECAC West Goaltender of the Year for 2016-17, and former Union Dutchman Roman Ammirato was the first Utica player since Louie Educate in 2012-13 to eclipse the 35 point barrier. Fellow honorees forwards Jarrod Fitzpatrick and Anthony McVeigh, and defenseman Vinny Stefan contributed as much as anyone to a team that was at its best in conference play at 12-2-0.
To boot, while losing 100 game skater Kevin Kirisits was an impactful loss, the Pioneers added pieces this offseason that make them a better team across the board. Defensive depth was thin last year, with a fair rift between the top six defensemen and those beyond it, but Utica added NAHL defenseman Brandon Young, and Division I transfer Dan Fritz to the mix, among others, meaning Utica could very well reach down eight defensemen deep in their normal rotation. At forward, Brett Everson had over 50 assists in the CCHL last year, and Connor Landrigan was over 120 total points in the NA3HL. They're joined by local returnee Gregg Burmaster, who played last year at Colorado College. All three of those players had a major impact in the exhibition last weekend. The trick for Utica will be preventing the dreadful non-conference lull that ultimately cost them the NCAA tournament, but the hard lessons learned from last year should be enough to keep their feet on the gas pedal.
Manhattanville men: Staying in the UCHC, I find it a bit surprising that there's been so little discussion abound online about them. The Valiants are still on that upward climb to becoming a title challenger again, but with Hobart out of the discussion in that league, they are, on paper, the most likely candidate besides Utica to play for the title in the new look conference this season. They'll have to replenish defensively after losing a few key pieces, but Tyler Feaver has improved greatly since being thrust into the limelight early in his college career and the Valiants have forwards who can fit into their physical style of play. Expect a continuation of the team's positives from last season, where they were able to leapfrog Hobart in the standings and take one of two from Then-No. 1 St. Norbert.
Geneseo: The Knights have tended to come and go in an alternating year cycle as it relates to serious Division III Frozen Four contention, and after a tournament miss last season, the they may just be due to go back after a postseason exit that left a lot to be desired. There's a window of opportunity for the Knights with a talented Oswego lineup getting younger this season, and a Plattsburgh team that, while largely intact, is going to put a freshman in goal after the departure of Brady Rouleau and Josh Davies. The return of Conlan Keenan, David Szymd, and Andrew Romano should cushion the impact of losing studs Stephen Collins and Trevor Hills, and Pat Condon is a terrific glue guy for their back six. In addition, the reviews of Geneseo's incoming class have been rave ones, including Division I transfers Erik Pedersen, Tanner Salsberry, and Duggie Lagrone, and a gaggle of incoming talent from the NAHL.