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October 21, 2008 E-MAIL PRINT Bookmark and Share

Horse Play

Some Unsung Teams Are Ready to Make a Move as November Nears

by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer

As we head to late October, most teams are out of the proverbial gate by now, with three or four games played in the young season. Of course, that includes this year's fleet of dark horses — the Princetons and Notre Dames of recent years — and even though we can't necessarily identify them all in the shadows just yet, some are beginning to emerge already.

Here's a look at four teams who, after years of jockeying for position in their respective leagues, may be looking to surprise many this year by galloping towards a successful season.

Minnesota-Duluth

Since advancing to the NCAA tournament in 2004 with a team that featured Hobey winner Junior Lessard, nothing much has gone right for the Bulldogs. And four consecutive losing seasons have taken them off most radars headed into 2008-09.

But there's still reason to hope in Duluth: the reigning national champion women's team is still there.

Just kidding.

11 of UMD's top 13 scorers from a year ago return this season, as well as a sophomore goaltender in Alex Stalock, a San Jose Sharks draft pick who boasted a respectable 2.35 goals-against average. In fact, that goals-against average was the 23rd best mark in the nation. But those numbers did not translate to a winning record.

Why? The Bulldogs had the third-worst offense in the NCAA last year, scoring barely over two goals per game. So it's no surprise that head coach Scott Sandelin appears to have focused on improving the offense headed into this year. And early on, it seems to be clicking.

Led by senior captain MacGregor Sharp and sophomore winger Justin Fontaine, the Bulldogs have already scored 18 goals in four games, good for a 3-0-1 record. By comparison, Duluth couldn't even manage 18 goals in its final 12 games last season.

So, keep an eye on UMD, although fans of the team may be wary if they recall that the Bulldogs started last season 3-0-1 as well before the scoring wells dried up.

Yale

From one team of Bulldogs to another.

At the start of the 2006-07 season, Keith Allain inherited a program from Tim Taylor that had seen its glimpses of success. But they were only glimpses (Yale's 1998 NCAA tournament appearance comes to mind). But after years of struggling to keep up with ECAC powerhouses such as Cornell, Harvard, and Clarkson, the Yale athletics department made what at the time was a controversial change. Allain came in and replaced the very man who coached him when he played in New Haven in the late 1970s.

They were hoping for a fresh start.

And last year, in just his second year on the job (just his second year as an NCAA head coach, in fact), Allain helped the Bulldogs to just their third winning season since 1993. And things are only looking up now, as all six of Yale's top scorers last season were underclassmen, led by sophomore sensation Sean Backman.

If Yale can find steady goaltending from a tandem of returning upperclassmen in Alec Richards and Billy Blase, the Bulldogs may find themselves in the top four of the ECAC standings for just the second time this decade. In addition, Allain is now in his third year of coaching, which means that he is beginning to coach a team comprised mostly of his own recruits.

Yale kicks off its 2008-09 campaign at Brown, on Nov. 1.

Northern Michigan

The Wildcats hold the somewhat interesting distinction of being the Division I team that has won the most games since 2000 without actually having an NCAA tournament appearance during that time. In fact, from 2000 to 2006, the Wildcats had seven consecutive winning records but still no trip to the NCAA tourney.

Well, perhaps things are ready to change in Marquette.

Last year's season ended strongly, with coach Walt Kyle's crew knocking off Michigan State in a thrilling CCHA quarterfinal series, advancing to the league championships at Joe Louis Arena. There, they were tied 4-4 with Michigan with just four minutes remaining in their semifinal matchup before the Wolverines scored the go-ahead and game-winning goal.

Still, the following night, Northern Michigan beat eventual national runner-up Notre Dame in the third-place game, meaning they were still able to end their season on a winning note.

Now, in what is a running theme for this list of dark horses, nine of the Wildcats' top 10 scorers from last year return for this season — which has already included a win over Michigan.

The Wildcats will likely find out more about where they might stand in the CCHA this season during the next two weekends, which include a pair of games in East Lansing against Michigan State as well as a pair of games against Notre Dame.

Northeastern

As of press time, the secret may already be out about these Huskies.

Last season's record of two games under .500 was their best mark since 2003, and headed into this year after graduating only one senior (the fewest in Hockey East), it's likely that Greg Cronin's group is tired of simply being "that fourth team" that plays in the Beanpot.

Already, the Huskies have made a statement in Hockey East, handing Boston College its first loss since winning the national championship in April. The rematch between the Eagles and the Huskies will be on Feb. 2, in the first round of the Beanpot tournament.

Headed into this year, Northeastern's strength may be goaltender Brad Thiessen, who appears poised to make major waves as a junior. And the outgoing senior class will certainly be motivated by the fact that, as freshmen, they managed only three wins in 34 games

With their win over BC last weekend, the undefeated Huskies have already won their third game of the season.
 

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