Atlantic Hockey-Take Heed, the Colonials Are Coming

Back in November, when the Chargers of Alabama Huntsville took on the Colonials of Robert Morris, a lot of parallels in terms of physicality and grit showed through in that opening series. While the Chargers frustrated Robert Morris a bit with their speed, the Colonials played sound defensively and drew a litany of infractions from a young team.

Why?

The Colonials seem to be able to score with consistency this year. In addition, given their location they have played some tough non conference opponents this year, first among them being the Falcons of Bowling Green. In a game that they had no business being in, they lead the top ten Falcons late into the third period.

As Colonials’ Head Coach Derek Schooley said of that affair, “I loved our game for 55 minutes, but unfortunately 55 isn’t 60.  We got away from what was working for us for five minutes, and a very skilled team made us pay. I thought we won the battle at 5-on-5, but they won it on special teams and that ended up being the difference. I’m proud of the way we played for the most part, and there’s some real positives to take away from it for us, but we needed to close that game out. It’s about playing smart and playing a mature game and at times we got away from that.”

With that small detail, let’s move back to this team in Atlantic Hockey. For anyone to challenge the back-to-back defending champions in AIC, they need to play a similar game relying on good goaltending, quick scoring in bunches, and consistent defense. These Colonials have all of that as their 4-1 conference record shows.

As Ed Trefzger, RIT play-by-play voice and USCHO writer said quite elequently, ” The addition of UConn transfer Jordan Timmons, a Pittsburgh native, has given Robert Morris a potent top line with juniors Timmons, Grant Hebert, and Justin Addamo. And they’re intimidating, with Addamo at 6′-6″, Hebert at 6′-3″. and Timmons at 6 feet even. That’s a pretty big forward line at any level and especially in Atlantic Hockey.”

This line did well against UAH, and has continued to improve as the year has gone on. For immediate offense, defense, and physicality, one can start with this line. Should they continue to score in bunches, the NHL could be the future home of many of these talented players. In addition, the depth of the Colonials does a superb job at allowing their stars, like their first line, to be themselves a bit easier by not forcing scoring looks.

In addition, following the Bowling Green tough effort, these Colonials knocked off a fast Niagara side 6-1. While the Colonials have a more well rounded team, Niagara plays a very fast game and likes to get on the board early and defend. Today, after freshman Noah West played a strong start to the game in net, the Colonials found their scoring touch in bunches in the second, and poured it on from there. After a tough loss to a nationally ranked team, they came back and dominated time and space against a team that can do a lot without either of those two things.

Why does Robert Morris matter?

Well, given the subjective nature of the tournament this year, and its selection, how they have played against Bowling Green gives credence to, under the right setup, Atlantic Hockey maybe earning two or more bids this season because of the dearth of teams (only four) playing in the ECAC, among other things. Also, this is a veteran team that has not seemed to waver all year or play beyond their skates at all. Schooley has all of them on the same page and ready to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014.

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Previewing the Michigan Tech Series: A Quick Glance Beyond the Box Score

This weekend, the Chargers of Alabama Huntsville head north to Houghton Michigan to take on the Huskies of Michigan Tech. Head Coach Joe Shawhan’s team is one similar to Tech teams past. They defend really well, make you go through them to win, and get great goaltending. Blake Pietila, is looking to earn the full time job, but former Charger Mark Sinclair hopes to earn some of the net back. So far, from watching both play, Pietila has been markedly better, but Sinclair has a veteran pedigree and the ability to keep his team in games despite long stretches of being outshot, as Chargers fans would be the first to let you know.

One wrinkle these Huskies do have is their addition of RPI center Tristian Ashbrook. He has not been on a campus this year to practice with anyone because his now former school has been all remote, and he has had to train elsewhere. Shawhan mentioned that his conditioning is good so far, and that Huskies fans could see him take on the Chargers this weekend.

What does he bring to Houghton?

Simply the thing that this program has been in perpetual need of, goal scoring ability. Ashbrook’s speed and desire to camp out in the dangerous areas are a true addition to a Huskies team already plenty skilled at puck possesion and gap control.

How players like Coyotes’ draft pick Carson Bantle match up against the speed of the Chargers is what we will be watching for this weekend. The Huskies, on paper, have the better pedigree, but also have never faced a vast portion of this team. Of the returners, all of them have taken some step to get better, head among them being Bauer Neudecker, The speedy winger has helped the first line of the Chargers drive play forward, and has already put home two goals in four games to start this campaign. In addition, the team play of this group makes them much harder to defend than last year’s iteration of these Chargers. How Shawhan deploys his lines against this team will be an indication of how good he thinks each line is to some degree. For instance, if Bantle’s line draws Bronte’s line, then it will be clear that Shawhan thinks Bantle and company can shutdown the speed of Bronte and his wingers to turn play the other way. Deployment is a good test to see how coaches view their team, not just line chart locations.

A good show of improvement at the individual level is Neudecker’s work. Last year in 31 games played did not find the back of the net. In addition, playing on the line centered by Tyrone Bronte has given him the benefit of not being the fastest player on the ice for the Chargers. The biggest issue that the two opponents of UAH have faced in defending this team is dealing with its speed. That is the one area that the Chargers have an advantage on paper against this Michigan Tech side.

With that said, the Huskies have scored in waves this year when they have found twine and, like the Chargers tend to score by committee. For offense this is a four line team that the Chargers will face with defenders who can stay at home and keep the play going. On defense, these Chargers, to some degree or another know Sinclair’s tendencies as the returners have all practiced with him. Regarding Pietila, he has been the main person for these Huskies so far. When he is dialed in behind this defense, most teams in college hockey, regardless of their station will have to up their game to score. Expect no different for these Chargers. Reflexes are his best skill, and these Chargers will have to find ways to continue their improvement in net-front presence goals to generate more rebound looks.

Finally, if these Huskies can knock off a strong Bemidji State team, and an even better Minnesota State Mankato squad, then they are not to be taken lightly. This is a big series for these Chargers to set the tone for their final season in this WCHA. How they will be remembered in this conference starts with what they do this weekend. Their final chance to rise above their station and shock some people over these next few months all begins in Houghton.

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Carmine Guerriero: A Competitor in the Net and Mentor Behind the Bench

(Photo Credit: Charles Edgeworth IV.-UAH Athletics)

University of Alabama Huntsville Hockey Assistant Coach Carmine Guerriero has been a goalie most of his life. He played with a competitive fire to be the best he could growing up in the Montreal area. The Charger alumnae and assistant coach on this developing team became a goalie when he was in pee-wee hockey. When he was younger his dad, coach of his team put him in net because it was his turn to play the position, a few weeks into the year his dad played him for the rest of the year because no one else wanted to do it.

The following season Carmine in net made sense as his teammates wanted him in net, and from there he sought to get better and improve. The Quebec native that grew up watching Patrick Roy dazzle the world in net for his hometown team, and a few years later, Carmine would go on to dazzle college hockey.

In 2015, he set the single game Alabama Huntsville Hockey record for saving 76 shots on net over five periods of hockey in a postseason game against Michigan Tech. This single game record is one of the many highlights Guerriero had while playing goalie for the Chargers . The opposing netminder in that game, Jamie Phillips, is now the volunteer goalie coach for the Huskies, the opponent UAH is set to face this weekend.

After Carmine set multiple records at UAH, he played in the ECHL for a brief stint before finishing his time on the ice in the second tier French League. While Carmine earned a tryout chance with the AHL Springfield Thunderbirds for the next season, he decided to move on to his next venture, and one he had done as a summer job growing up, coaching. He credits Brent Brekke with St. Lawrence University for giving him a chance in the 2019-2020 campaign as the Saints’ Volunteer Goalie Coach.

He then joined Lance West’s staff this fall as he moved up the ranks to being a paid assistant coach. The NCAA does not allow for more than two paid assistants per team, and often times, goalie coaches have to find other work to allow them to be volunteers with the team they want to help, as Carmine did at St. Lawrence University.

Guerriero has the same desire to get better and preach accountability with his team behind the bench as a coach as he did on the ice as a goalie. When one of his goalies are out of position, he said that, “I don’t let them slack off.” That is, when they are not in position, Carmine coaches them and mentors them to get better, and in equal measure he is their biggest advocate and encourages them at all times, especially when they remedy position issues and play where they need to be. He appreciates the daily hard work of all of his goalies provide on a daily basis as they work to get better under his tutelage.

For the rest of the team, Carmine on the bench is a massive help. As a goalie he sees the game differently as he has an instinctive eye for plays developing. To put that more practically, he knows how to harness the growing speed of this Chargers’ forward group and works with them to get better shots on net. As a netminder he knows what is tough to defend against and he pushes his team in the offensive end to get more of those chances. For the defense corps which he has been a part of radically improving, he knows where defenders need to be that minimizes top-quality looks along with how they should block shots.

On this Charger team, he notes the buy in from all who have chosen to return and come to Huntsville saying that, ” everybody who didn’t want to be here, left.” Of course, Carmine was added to the staff well after the roster churn over the summer, but he appreciates the hard work and the little things this group here does. For example, he notices that the entire bench cheers in equal measure for practice shot blocks as they do in the game.

He followed that with saying, “we have a group that wants to be here.. they know what it takes to be successful.”

In addition to being thankful to be back on campus with this team, Carmine was effusive in his praise for Lance West and Karlis Zirnis, in equal measure to there thoughts of him. They both provide him valuable advice and help him get better as a coach every day, just as he mentors his goalies and everyone else on this team.

In addition to all of this, Carmine is the lead administrative liaison for the staff. He runs the UAH Hockey Twitter Account, and has done a superb job in program promotion along with helping ensure the numerous off-ice tasks that need completion each day get done.

Every day Guerriero also studies the game. Breaking down video is one of his favorite parts of coaching, and he is able to analyze events in a unique manner given his background. As Charger fans have seen, having a goalie as an assistant coach has benefits in all areas of the ice beyond just the net. The increase in goals per game is a testament to that fact. Regardless of what happens next, Guerriero is as grateful for being back in Huntsville as West, Zirnis, and fans of this team are that he has returned.

Look for his influence in how the Chargers adapt to things in the second half. When defenders get out of position look at their response in the next shift, when forwards fire a shot into the crest of a goalie with time and space, look at what they do in their next shift. When a goaltender for this team kicks a rebound to a high danger area, look at the next shot they face. While all three men have a say in what happens next, Carmine’s voice is a big part of that equation. Like the Chargers on the ice, his improvement behind the bench is consistent, and he wants to get better each day.

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Attention NCHC: Beware of Omaha

(Photo Credit: Kelsey Lee-Violet Turtle Photography)

Every year for the past three, we have covered the Mavericks of Omaha when they play the Fighting Hawks. Each time in those spans they have put together efforts centered on speed and transition, while needing some timely goaltending. The margins have gotten consistently closer, and the Mavericks have put on tape a road map to beat one of the top teams in the country.

This year is no different, in the need to heed the Mavericks of the NCHC.

As we wrote back in September in our NCHC preview for Steve Kournianos Draft Analyst on these Mavericks:

“The Mavericks display a free-flowing, up-tempo style that is at its best when it forces the opponent to defend on turnovers. Although they were hit hard with several key graduations on defense, the goaltending of starter Isaiah Saville (VGK 5th/2019) will play a critical role in whether or not Omaha can finish above .500 for the first time since 2016. Additionally, coach Mike Gabinet will ice two critical transfers in former North Dakota puck-moving defenseman Jonny Tychonick (OTT 2nd/2018) and ex-Michigan winger Jack Randl (2000). They will join a trio of top-scoring wingers in Tyler Weiss (COL 4th/2018)Taylor Ward (1998), and Kevin Conley (1997). Therefore, scoring goals shouldn’t be a problem considering the notable transfers and returning firepower up front. It should be the Mavericks’ ability to limit the chances against, however, and minimizing the amount of energy Saville has to expend that could swing Omaha into one of its best finishes in recent team history.”

All of this still rings true, and now Omaha has everyone on notice with their strong play in the NCHC Pod. Boasting a 6-3-1 record, these Mavericks seem to be living up to the promise that their previous two iterations had, but never fully capitalized on. The past month showed how we underestimated how far this team has come. We picked the Mavericks fifth in the referenced article, and feel comfortable moving them into the top four at minimum.

During the Pod, this team was shown to play the same style that Mike Gabinet has been using over the past few years. That is, they attack fast, downhill, and care not for staying in their opponent’s end for too long unless they are celebrating a really good goal. Last year, it was jarring to see this team come to Ralph Engelstad Arena and knock off the Fighting Hawks playing this way. This year, that January night proved not to be a one-off, but a positive harbinger of the future for these Mavericks. Saville has gotten better since that game in January, through his improved rebound control and ability to play odd-man rushes, as an example. There are many more as Ward and Conley have each seemed to progress closer to an NHL look following the end of their time in Omaha. They both are catalysts for the speed game Gabinet likes all five skaters to play consistently.

If the Fighting Hawks play a buttoned up system game that relies on cycles and wearing down opponents, Omaha is their polar opposite. The Mavericks gain the zone, and get shots on net, whilst always looking to make the simple pass and carry the puck through the neutral zone instead of dumping the puck in deep. They have a goalie that allows them to play this way in Saville, and when he is on his game, very few in the country can put home anything against him.

How this team plays UND this weekend and beyond in the second half will show how much these Mavericks have grown. How they can play the Fighting Hawks on back-to-back nights and what they do to agitate their system will once again serve as a model for other teams, and come tournament time will probably be used by coaches of other teams to pre-scout ways to beat them, or at least make their lives a bit more difficult on the ice.

Donate: To help us cover more games and tell more stories not found elsewhere about all of college sports, especially under represented athletes everywhere across the college sports landscape like unique untold stories across college hockey please click the below link and consider donating what you can. If you do, I will list you in every story about we write as a supporter of crowd-funded  journalism that can truly be free for all at this link: https://www.paypal.me/oliverfrancies your donation will help expand what content we can offer and how many stories we can tell.

AIC Just Misses a Split Against Quinnipiac: Beyond the Box Score

(Photo Credit: Kelly Shea-AIC Athletics)

The Yellow Jackets of American International College (AIC) came within one shot of equalizing on a Sunday afternoon against the Bobcats of Quinnipiac. They were swept on the weekend after losing 8-3 last night on the road. Despite that result, combined with today’s 3-2 loss, this program is still set up for success. At even strength, the Yellow Jackets looked right on pace with the always potent Bobcats. As AIC’s Head Coach Eric Lang acknowledged, they took far too many penalties and allowed the Bobcats a long time with the extra skater. That team with the extra skater faced an AIC squad still adjusting their penalty kill with multiple new freshmen on it. They have had to replace some top quality penalty killers from previous AIC teams.

Do not let these two scores warp your perception of Head Coach Eric Lang’s program. This is still the program that is one of the hardest working ones in college hockey, and to Lang’s credit, that statement was true this weekend regardless of the deficit or brief lead AIC had.

For example, look at Aaron Grounds, shortly after a Luka Maver took a major penalty during Saturday’s game, Grounds blocked multiple shots on the five minute penalty kill in rapid succession despite being down by the margin that AIC was, and continued to play his truculent game on the fourth line during both games of this series. That example from Saturday night is emblematic of this program, and something not every player is programmed to do given the massive deficit AIC was facing.

Another example of the resilience of this program can be found in a game Lang and his staff did well to move on from that very same night. After the Yellow Jackets gave up two goals on that major penalty, they went to work and even put a bit of a scare in the home team. Tobias Fladeby (the national scoring leader in goals per game) and Brett Callahan cut the gap to three and the body language on the bench of AIC never wavered. They peppered opposing netminder Keith Petruzzelli with 58 shots over two nights, and were outdone on many high percentage looks by him. That is to say, the looks and chances were there in both of these games, and goalies without the talent of Petruzzelli will not stop as many of them.

One final thing given that Lang’s side has to face the Sharks of Long Island University tomorrow afternoon, is Lang himself. It is rare for us in hearing countless press conferences after the game to have a coach come out and stand up for a goaltender not only in word, but in action. Stefano Durante, as Lang noted, is one of the better goalies in this game, and he would probably like one or two goals conceded on Saturday night back. That said, Lang could have pulled him at any time before Stefano came out after the second period to give him a break before today’s game in which he rebounded in spectacular fashion. He chose to wait for the intermission because Lang feels that pulling the goalie early in that situation, in the middle of a period, has an affect of absolution on the team in front of him. As Durante took no penalties Saturday night, and has a stellar track record to back his coach up, Lang has a strong point.

The arc of this season is long enough to hope for a national tournament and a chance for AIC to come out the victor in another skirmish with these Bobcats come postseason time should one be played. As Lang said, he hopes that” we’ll see them again.” Even in their toughest moments this weekend, AIC showed they are up to that challenge should it arise in the future. Lang and his good humans he brought to Springfield would have it no other way.

Donate: To help us cover more games and tell more stories not found elsewhere about all of college sports, especially under represented athletes everywhere across the college sports landscape like unique untold stories across college hockey please click the below link and consider donating what you can. If you do, I will list you in every story about we write as a supporter of crowd-funded  journalism that can truly be free for all at this link: https://www.paypal.me/oliverfrancies your donation will help expand what content we can offer and how many stories we can tell

NCAA Men’s Ice Hockey Tournament: Past Should Not Be Prologue

(Photo Credit: Kelsey Lee-Violet Turtle Photography)

Recently, National Collegiate Hockey Conference Commissioner (NCHC) Josh Fenton gave Grand Forks Herald sportswriter Brad Schlossman some thoughts on how to select a 16 team field in this pandemic-truncated season we are playing through.

In that interview Fenton lays out reasoning for why historical data going back to the formation of the Big 10 and NCHC should be used to provide an allocation of at large teams for each conference this year. Even after limiting the number of teams the ECAC teams gets to one , that at most would give two other conferences one extra bid.

As Fenton says

“We’ve got historical data going back seven years now, if you want to go back to when the NCHC and Big Ten first started, where we have an understanding, on average, how many institutions from each conference have been in the NCAA tournament, That’s data that could be used. I fully understand and respect that this year is not the same as last year, a team this year is not the same as a team last year. But when you’re presented with a circumstance of potentially just using an eye test of a committee that I think is watching hockey, but I don’t know is watching hockey across the country to the level to be able to say this team is better than that team.”

We disagree with this reasoning strongly

The eye test as a metric is used in some measure by every other Division One Committee in some way, outside of Hockey and it seems to work. It worked in selecting a four team College Football Playoff Field this year when most of the teams involved played no non conference games at all. Every conference in this game is a little different, but the ability to play good defense and get timely scoring enough to be at or near the top of your league are easy to spot traits. Every team has a record and stats by the end of the year that show who they are in a comparable way. We compare quantitative data on teams all the time even when they have no common opponents, finding enough quantitative data to prime the eye test should not be a hard task to do at all.

While Fenton makes some good points throughout this interview and provides some reasoning for historical data, Fenton does not explicitly state that past postseason performance should be used. If it did, then one would wonder how many more bids Atlantic Hockey could justify given Air Force and AIC’s wins over St. Cloud State in two consecutive tournaments. In addition, allotments raise another concern. Let’s say that given the lack of a meaningful pairwise due to limited non-conference games we have a situation where Lake Superior State finishes third in the WCHA. Using the allotment formula, they could be left out, even if, like previous years, a gulf opens between the upper echelon of the WCHA and everyone else. Fenton does acknowledge this reality but seems set on using historical data. Given that he runs the conference who has won every national Championship since 2016, it makes sense, yet harms the broader audience of college hockey.

No Magic Formula

No one is going to be completely happy with how the at-large spots are given out this year, given the lack of non conference play. With that being said, there are other things to do that would be more fair to all teams still playing this year. The very eye test Fenton dismisses is how teams are compared all the time in selection for other sports, even when there is no non conference play to look at. You could use tournament performance as a seeding guide to break ties, or to justify a team’s inclusion in the field, but not conference-wide prior season’s data. It is fundamentally not fair or balance to this sport to punish AIC for the fact that Atlantic Hockey plays non equitable non conference games in normal years, where Atlantic Hockey has a lower win rate in a year where you do not have enough data for it to matter. Also, this sport has a first year program this year in Long Island that has no historical data and competes as an independent. Where do the Sharks fit in this picture? We do not know, and suspect no one on the committee does.

To fix the problems of lacking common opponents and other common data, we would suggest changing some of the metrics or find common data to use that equates to success. If an average of all national polls is the best replicate for the pairwise this year, then they should matter and weeks spent in them should be a positive. Using that data seems a more quantifiable and justifiable way of ranking than helping or harming teams, especially teams in Atlantic Hockey or the WCHA for the loses of teams before them.

Donate: To help us cover more games and tell more stories not found elsewhere about all of college sports, especially under represented athletes everywhere across the college sports landscape like unique untold stories across college hockey please click the below link and consider donating what you can. If you do, I will list you in every story about we write as a supporter of crowd-funded  journalism that can truly be free for all at this link: https://www.paypal.me/oliverfrancies your donation will help expand what content we can offer and how many stories we can tell

UAH Hockey: Four Games in, Miles Different

(Photo Credit: Kelsey Lee-Violet Turtle Photography )

While the fate of this 2020-2021 Alabama Huntsville Hockey team is unknown. We know some things. For instance, it has a group of 13 freshmen developing daily under the tutelage of this new staff lead by Lance West. Some stats already stand out showing a sharp divide between this and last year’s first four games.

This is showing how far this team has come in four games, year over year. While the Chargers played a superb Lowell side last year, then a speedy Omaha side, this team has not played slouches. Robert Morris is a heavy veteran group that could challenge AIC for Atlantic Hockey supremacy, and Lake Superior State is a veteran laded group poised to rise above their finishes the past few years with a longshot Hobey Baker Award contender in net, Mareks Mitens. These teams are both veteran heavy groups that have taught these Chargers a lot about what they need to rise up the standings in the WCHA this year.

Let’s look at some comparisons from last year to this year.

Goals Scored

19-20 team: Three goals in four games

20-21 team: Nine goals in four games

So far, this is the most immediate improvement this team has seen. Goal scoring was a desperately neeed commodity and these Chargers seem to possess more of that ability than some of their previous iterations. The speed of this forward group is a big reason for that. Their speed combined with the hard work of driving the net has lead to some tap-ins that last year’s team did not have as many of. These Chargers would probably like to get that average up, but the offense from year to year has improved about three times in terms of raw per game output.

Goals Conceded

19-20 team: 19 goals in four games

20-21 team: 14 goals in four games

This is another area of immediate improvement for this team. Also this includes conceding five goals in the third period of their opener against Robert Morris, where David Fessenden sustained an injury during the final frame’s warmups. While this staff will not make excuses for that period or any other goal conceded, we will note the difference in this team that allows the immediate reduction. The team defense of this side is miles ahead of the previous year’s group. So far, we have seen defenders not over-extending and trying to rush up too much, focusing on playing a more neutral zone trap style of game. It’s not always conducive to high scoring affairs, but it stretches’ the value of your goals when you do put one home. This team also prides itself on quality shot suppression. They will let you take unscreened shots all day and box you out for the rebound. In basketball terms, these Chargers guard the key and force you to bang home three-pointers from the blue line on one look when they are humming, which aside from a third period against the Colonials, they have been.

Power Play

19-20 team: Two goals in 19 chances

20-21 team: Four goals on 14 chances

This statistic shows two things for this current group. First off, this team has less than half of their goals on the power play, which is good to get some diversity of goal scoring chances on different situations. If you cannot score at full and even strength, you will not win win many games in any league. This team’s power play utilizes the found speed of their freshmen like Tyrone Bronte to set up things. In addition, we are impressed with the steps of sophomore defender Lucas Bahn. Coach West was quite happy that he has taken on a bigger role, including running a power play unit. He is a cerebral defender who is adept at making key passes, and has already put home half of his point total from last year (31 games) in four games played this year getting two assists to his name. In addition, this also shows how well this team is doing at drawing penalties, averaging almost four power plays per game, which makes the even strength play easier as benches shorten to kill penalties and optimal deployment for non penalty killers is not always achieved.

These are just three of the stats through the first four games that have stood out to us. Lance West and his staff have managed to change the culture of this program in about half a year during a pandemic. That alone is impressive. Regarding these stats, look for the 13 freshmen to continue to improve and make their own history as Chargers. Every good thing this team does is proof positive that the infusion of youth on this roster is what was needed, and further proof of the success of West.

Donate: To help us cover more games and tell more stories not found elsewhere about all of college sports, especially under represented athletes everywhere across the college sports landscape like unique untold stories across college hockey please click the below link and consider donating what you can. If you do, I will list you in every story about we write as a supporter of crowd-funded  journalism that can truly be free for all at this link: https://www.paypal.me/oliverfrancies your donation will help expand what content we can offer and how many stories we can tell

The Fighting Hawks Win the Pod: What’s Next?

Photo Credit: Kelsey Lee-Violet Turtle Photography

Over the past three weeks, the Fighting Hawks of the University of North Dakota have done quite well for themselves in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference Pod, valuting into first place as we head into the second of half of an always competitive conference. These past few weeks have shown a lot about this team, with the good far outweighing the things that need working on to ensure a long postseason run, should one be played. Let’s look at the good and areas to improve on in the second half here.

The Good

This team has two capable goaltenders that can stymie the opposition. While Adam Scheel stole the show in the Pod, getting the majority of the reps, Fighting Hawks fans saw what happened last year. Peter Thome took Scheel’s job down the stretch, and given the weeks of having three games in three days this year, we think that Thome’s time in net is only just beginning. His “worst” game in the Pod was the loss to the Huskies of St. Cloud State, where the team in front of him did not do much. Both can start at any time, and for now Scheel is the number one. With that said, Thome has played well enough over his time at UND to get some reps in the second half, and should see it.

The depth of this team is even better than a year ago. Missing two defenders to the World Juniors Tournament, in Jake Sanderson and Tyler Kleven, we have seen Ethan Frisch elevate his game into a Tucker Poolman-esque two way star that can contribute offensively. If Frisch can maintain this level of play this season, the NHL may be on his radar for some development camp invites soon, and perhaps a contract. He is smooth-skating, and seems less out of position than some of UND’s more offensively gifted defenders.

With that said, this team has a lot of good to it this year, and we will close with the most intriguing forward on this team. Riese Gaber has been the most electric player for the Fighting Hawks in this pod. He is in a three way tie for first in goals scored nationally, and yet, 31 teams passed on drafting him over 400 times when you include the drafts he has been eligible for selection in. Gaber is wearing Tyson Jost’s number that he wore as a Fighting Hawk, and has a better release than Jost ever had or will have. For a team built around puck possession and grinding a team down, Gaber off the rush is an extra arrow in their quiver that last year’s NCHC Champions did not possess. His shot alters how teams can attack the Fighting Hawks, and how conservative they have to be in defending the top line of UND. Last year, this group lost games where it turned pucks over and gave up a lot of fast break looks. That has happened this year, and will happen in the future, but Gaber on this roster has kept the team in more of those games and helped them win some more in the second half.

What to watch for

With all that good said, these improvements need to happen. This team seems to be turning the puck over a bit more in its own end, which have given teams a lot of grade-a looks. Those turnovers have a cascading effect as they lead into another area of improvement for this team, taking less penalties. The Fighting Hawks average 11.96 penalty minutes per game played, second behind St. Cloud State for most penalty minutes per game. That is another number that needs to come down a bit. While five minute majors and misconducts do affect that, this team can afford to take neither of those in this conference. Eventually, something of this team will regress a little bit as film and scouting over a more series-driven second half, and if the team keeps giving up six power plays per game or so, the penalty kill seems a logical pick.

With all of this said, if not for Boston College’s pedigree and Minnesota’s results, this team would be ranked number one in the nation after a grueling three week stretch of games. There is still work to do for this group, but this team does so from a good vantage point.

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Opinion: Do Not Sleep on the WCHA

(Photo Credit: Kelsey Lee-Violet Turtle Photography)

Given this wild season we find ourselves in, we will go to the eye test for a lot of our argument here, but this article was spurred by the Bowling Green Falcons’ sweep over the 11th ranked Quinnipiac Bobcats on the road in one of the biggest true non conference series that will happen in this pandemic influenced season. The Falcons swept a team with one of the best undrafted free agents in the country in Odeen Tufto, along with an incredibly stout defense. Bowling Green has shown that they will be a threat for the McNaughton Cup. In addition, we see nothing going against the Minnesota State Mankato Mavericks or Bemidji State from being in the mix as well. Both teams’ good performances have not been surprising given the play of their returners. The rest of this will focus on some potential up and comers to watch as we slowly inch towards conference play.

That’s just the Falcons, we move to the state of Michigan to note other up and coming teams in the Lakers of Lake Superior State. They have not lost any of their games, and still have some room to improve. The team has not put together a full 60 minute effort against any of their opponents and still has not lost. They have one of the better goalies in the country backstopping them in Mareks Mitens to start with. Ashton Calder’s development into one of the better goal scorers in this league early on has been interesting to see. Following them, we have the Huskies of Michigan Tech. They have the highest retained draftee of the Arizona Coyotes from the Arizona Coyotes on their roster (Carson Bantle, 2020 Fifth round) and a lot more. Blake Pietila in net for them as a Freshman has been a revelation early on this year, and has a sub 1.6 goals against average. They also have a veteran backup in Mark Sinclair to mentor him as well as an always stout defense. If this team gets any scoring throughout the year they could finish higher than predicted.

Finally, we will touch on the Alabama Huntsville Chargers. While this team is unheralded, after talking to their coaches, and a few of their players, they seem to prefer that moniker. Tyron Bronte up front for them is our pick for fastest skater with the puck in the league. In addition, they have a goalie that has not lost for them in David Fessenden, and a developing defense corps that seems to be getting better each week. The Chargers have a lot of things to work on, but they are trending upward for now, and Head Coach Lance West wants to keep it going that way.

The WCHA this year outside of the Mavericks, looks to be underrated again. We only offer one bit of advice to those across this level of men’s college hockey this bit of advice regarding your view of what this conference’s representatives will do in the tournament. Underestimate the WCHA at your own risk.

Donate: To help us cover more games and tell more stories not found elsewhere about all of college sports, especially under represented athletes everywhere across the college sports landscape like unique untold stories across college hockey please click the below link and consider donating what you can. If you do, I will list you in every story about we write as a supporter of crowd-funded  journalism that can truly be free for all at this link: https://www.paypal.me/oliverfrancies your donation will help expand what content we can offer and how many stories we can tell

Aaron Grounds: Tall and Still Growing for AIC

(Photo Credit: Kelly Shea/AIC Athletics)

Aaron Grounds is a 6 feet 2 inches tall freshman forward for the Yellow Jackets of American International College (AIC). He makes his living in front of the net providing screens to make goalies’ lives difficult, while providing solid help defending in his own end. The Jamestown, North Dakota native compares his style to Ottawa Senators’ forward Austin Watson. Both are physical customers who use their size to contribute both on and off the score sheet. For instance, in AIC’s 3-1 win over Bentley today, he put home his second goal of the season while playing a defensive role on the fourth line. Over time look for Grounds to use more of his frame and add some more skill in his four years in Springfield.

When he filled out forms during his draft year indicating strengths and weaknesses, the physical nature of his game was near the top of his positives. Over his time learning from AIC Head Coach Eric Lang and his staff, Grounds will look to grow his capabilities to use time and space on the rush and get a bit more creative with his options in the offensive zone, especially on breakaways.

With all of that being said, Grounds had an interesting introduction to hockey, his first and really only sport he has played consistently growing up. His mother, Kristy, was a daycare provider when Grounds was younger, and his first experience with hockey gear came when he saw the gear of one of the older girls at daycare when she brought it in that day That was the first experience with anything hockey related he had as neither Kristy, or his father Micheal played hockey.

Ever since then, the mission has been simple for Grounds. As he said, “ever since I was a little kid I’ve had this dream of playing in the NHL and I don’t plan on letting anybody stop me anytime soon.”

Grounds moved to Minnesota when he was 12, and credits the larger availability of ice in Minnesota for his ability to continue training over summers a bit easier, along with having more time to hone his craft.

As for getting to AIC, well, like a lot of America, his introduction to the Yellow Jackets came when they earned a win over number one ranked St. Cloud State in the first round of the 2019 West Regional in Fargo. From there he did his research and had a little bit of help from one of his assistant coaches during his time with the Fargo Force, Eli Rosendahl. He reached out to Lang and his staff, and it was not long before the connection was made. After that momentous win, and weekend for AIC, Eric Lang told the media he had a lot of good conversations with recruits, and opened a lot of people’s eyes. One pair of those eyes now plays for the AIC Family. How Eric Lang runs his program in all facets of it, combined with the culture there are two of the main reasons Grounds is playing for AIC.

All of Lang’s talented staff takes time each day to make sure their players are doing ok in all facets of their lives. Simple things like asking a question about his parents make a big difference to Grounds and show that the AIC Family the program talks about is a lived, not just promoted value. Lang and his staff value the whole person, not just what shows up on the ice or stat sheet.

Finally, regarding the Yellow Jackets this year, Grounds describes the Yellow Jackets’ program quite well as a small budget one, but he notes that “we have something that I value way more, which is our family which is incredibly important, we will outwork anyone on the ice.” To sum things up, his view is one more of college hockey is coming around to regarding AIC. As Grounds said “we’re starting to be a team that people know about and don’t like to play.”

Donate: To help us cover more games and tell more stories not found elsewhere about all of college sports, especially under represented athletes everywhere across the college sports landscape like unique untold stories across college hockey please click the below link and consider donating what you can. If you do, I will list you in every story about we write as a supporter of crowd-funded  journalism that can truly be free for all at this link: https://www.paypal.me/oliverfrancies your donation will help expand what content we can offer and how many stories we can tell.