by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer
"Our goal from the onset was to get to the Frozen Four, but it might be the impetus for us next year... remembering what happened tonight."
So spoke Clarkson head coach George Roll, moments after his Golden Knights squad fell to Massachusetts in the first round of last year's NCAA East Regional in Rochester. Less than 30 minutes earlier, Kevin Jarman, then a senior for the Minutemen, had knocked a rebound past Clarkson goaltender David Leggio for a stunning 1-0 win in overtime.
The Rochester Regional may seem like a distant memory to many, but for both Clarkson and Massachusetts, their matchup seven months ago represented a grand emergence on the national stage. It was the first ever NCAA tournament appearance for UMass, and the first since 2001 for a storied Clarkson program. Over 67 minutes of scoreless hockey later, the Knights and Minutemen were engaged in what was ultimately one of the most tense games of the entire tournament.
Seven months later, it's clear that, while Jarman's goal may have represented a sudden end to a stirring defensive contest, it also represented a beginning for both teams — the birth of a new wave of expectations for the players, coaches, and fans. And seven months later, naturally, each team is determined to fulfill those lofty expectations.
Said Roll this week about the prospect of returning to the NCAA tournament, "We want it to be an expectation. That's our goal. We feel we want to have an opportunity to play at the national level."
Massachusetts coach Don "Toot" Cahoon echoed Roll's sentiment, saying, "That's one of our goals — to sustain a high level of play and remain in that theater."
Last season, the theater curtain closed on the UMass season the day after their victory over Clarkson. With a trip to the Frozen Four on the line, the Maine Black Bears defeated the Minutemen, sending them back to the drawing board after a wildly successful year.
But over the summer, as Cahoon and his team began the preparation that might lead them back to the national tournament, Jon Quick — their starting goaltender who posted the 33-save shutout over Clarkson — opted to sign a professional contract instead of returning for his junior season. This loss, coupled with the graduation of last year's captain Matt Anderson, has left the Minutemen with a considerably different team dynamic for the 2007-08 season.
And before commenting on how these personnel losses affect this year's team, Cahoon offered his opinion on the early departure of Quick.
"I wish Jon a lot of luck and success," said the veteran coach. "He's a great athlete and a terrific player. Kids are leaving [college] awful early now, and that's the way the Collective Bargaining Agreement in the NHL is played out. But there are advantages to being a college player — the intensity of balancing a social, academic, and athletic life. It helps people grow and confront issues that face pro athletes."
Continued Cahoon, "What we lost with Quick's athleticism and the maturity of the seniors, the mentality that they brought — clearly there is a void to be filled. But we're working real hard with a terrific group of upperclassmen to help them pick up the slack and hopefully train the younger players to complement the older players."
One of those younger players for the Minutemen? The man trusted with taking over Quick's duties between the pipes, freshman Paul Dainton, whom Cahoon praised as having a "good mental makeup in terms of preparation and competitiveness" and as being "physically the best prepared" goaltender.
And in what could be deemed, at least for Clarkson fans, poetic appropriateness, the first opponents for Dainton and UMass this regular season were, of course, the Golden Knights themselves. Perhaps playing with a little extra motivation, Clarkson overcame UMass in another overtime contest, this time at Cheel Arena in Potsdam, N.Y..
The win was also the first ever for Clarkson against Massachusetts.
"Certainly, when a team ends your season, you have a little bit of extra incentive," said Roll, before continuing, "but it's a new season with a new set of guys. You have to win every game you play no matter the situation."
Starring for the Knights in the rematch victory were Leggio in net (one goal allowed in over 60 minutes) and Hobey Baker hopeful Nick Dodge (one goal and one assist). And it's fair to say that much of Clarkson's hope to return to the national picture in March rests on the shoulders of Leggio and Dodge.
Said Roll, "It's hard to improve on what either one of them did last year. Nick is off to a good start again — point-wise and with the same kind of intangibles that he brings to the table. He brings it every night. And if David has the same kind of year, if he can maintain that, we're going to be in great shape."
Those intangibles — the competitiveness, the will to win — of Nick Dodge memorably propelled the Knights to an ECAC championship last season. With Clarkson trailing Quinnipiac heading into the third period of the title game, Dodge fired up his team in the locker room after calling a players-only intermission meeting.
"He is the pulse of our team," said Roll matter-of-factly.
And after his team fell behind 3-0 to archrival St. Lawrence last weekend, Dodge proved his worth yet again, helping lead the Knights back to yet another thrilling victory by assisting on Chris D'Alvise's game-winner in overtime.
Roll, certainly, would be the first person to point out that it's just one game, that there are many games left to be played. Cahoon, too, is maintaining his perspective now that the new season is underway, a season that will feature nonconference contests against Cornell, Notre Dame, and of course their usual league foes Boston College, Boston University, Maine, and New Hampshire.
"We have to deal with who we are and stay in the present. If we do well in preparation week to week, we'll be a whole lot better at the end as a result."
Again, it's been seven months since Rochester. They will focus on playing one game, one week, at a time, but will Clarkson and UMass find themselves back in the NCAAs — the "national theater," as Cahoon puts it — in another five months?
That, of course, remains to be seen. But rest assured — the Knights and Minutemen will be working overtime to make sure they do.