October 9, 2009 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Time to Break the Ice

2009 Early-Season Tournament Preview

by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer

Thursday's college hockey season opener between Rensselaer and Massachusetts marked the first college hockey action since Boston University's stunning national championship triumph over Miami at approximately 10:06 p.m. on April 11.

And since that dramatic turn of events in the nation's capital, it's been a long six months of uncomfortably warm weather. Now, at last, the ice is back on the arena floors, and the road to the Frozen Four begins all over again.

Among the notable games scheduled for the 2009-10 opening weekend are two-game series between Northeastern and Colorado College, Vermont and Denver, Clarkson and Michigan State, and St. Cloud and Miami — with all eight of those teams looking to return to the NCAA playoffs this season after experiencing a taste of the postseason in recent years. Denver and Miami of course hold the top two positions in CHN's Preseason Top 10.

In addition, this weekend features the traditional Icebreaker tournament and two additional sets of showcase showdowns — to borrow a phrase from The Price is Right — with the Kendall Hockey Classic and the Superior Showcase.

IceBreaker (Omaha, NE)

The IceBreaker is played in a traditional four-team tournament format and is hosted this weekend by Nebraska-Omaha at the Qwest Center.

Friday's first game pits St. Lawrence against Mass.-Lowell. The Saints have enjoyed four 20-win seasons during the past five years, including last year, but enter their season opener having lost four of their top five scorers from a year ago.

It's no wonder, then, that preseason expectations are mixed. St. Lawrence was picked to finish seventh in the ECAC by the ECAC Hockey Writers and Broadcasters Association but just 10th in the Coaches Poll.

And by the sound of it, even Saints head coach Joe Marsh is uncertain how things might turn out.

Said Marsh, "When you look at our team, we were a real good club last year, and a lot of the talk is about who graduated. We had seven seniors sign professional contracts. But we're excited about this group. We lack a little bit of the name recognition players, but we have guys who have been go-to guys for a long time. We're going to have to be really, really strong defensively.

"I don't see us as a team that will necessarily put up huge numbers, but I think we can be pretty consistent."

The Riverhawks, meanwhile, are coming off an inspired run to the Hockey East championship game last March, where they ran into eventual national champion Boston University. Mass.-Lowell has been picked to finish second in the conference by the Hockey East coaches.

Coach Blaise Macdonald's crew will be excited to get into the swing of things quickly, starting with this weekend at the Icebreaker. They then won't have to wait long to find out how they stack up against the Hockey East elite, as their first five conference games are a matchup against Northeastern at the friendly confines of Tsongas Arena, a home-and-home with BU, a trip to Vermont, and a home-ice meeting with New Hampshire.

Friday night's second matchup in the IceBreaker features the return to college hockey of former national champion Dean Blais. Blais will coach Nebraska-Omaha this season in its final year in the CCHA.

"I am very happy to be back in college hockey," said Blais. "My best time of the day is spending that half hour in practice. I really don't know my team all that well yet. I am trying to find chemistry in our lineup."

The Mavericks will face off against Army on Friday night. Army had a disappointing season a year ago, but the Black Knights return nine of its top 10 scorers, as well as talented junior goaltender Jay Clark.

"We are excited to once again have an opportunity to play in a Tournament hosted by UNO," said Army head coach Brian Riley. "We were down there in 2005, and it was a great experience for all of us. All of us here at West Point are looking forward to the upcoming season, and we know that playing against teams like UNO and either Mass.-Lowell or St. Lawrence will help to prepare us for our upcoming league schedule."

The winners of each of Friday's "semifinals" will square off on Saturday night, with the third-place game to be held earlier in the afternoon.

Kendall Hockey Classic (Anchorage, AK)

The State dubbed "The Land of the Midnight Sun" will showcase its two Division I hockey programs in its largest city — Anchorage (population: 300,000). Making the long journey to the Last Frontier this weekend are Mercyhurst and perennial powerhouse Michigan.

Mercyhurst and Alaska-Anchorage will kick things off on Friday afternoon local time. With a large amount of returning talent, the Seawolves figure to fly under the radar as a legitimate sleeper team in the WCHA this season.

Said Anchorage coach Dave Shyiak, "We are happy with our group of players right now and like how it looks on paper. Our team has a good mix of upperclassmen and has a lot of new faces. We will experience some growing pains early as we sort out who's playing with who and what roles some players will perform. This is probably the deepest team we've had in a while and are hoping that will lead to successful season.

"I think the Tourney is a great way to start the season. The other three teams participating were all at the top of their respective leagues so it should provide for some great competition. I think it is also good to play different teams outside your league and add a little flavor to your schedule."

Mercyhurst, meanwhile, will play almost half of the WCHA teams this season in a very strong out-of-conference schedule for the Lakers. That should serve Rick Gotkin's crew well after winning 22 games last season.

"We are very excited once again to return to the beautiful state of Alaska, and open up the 2009-2010 season against two terrific programs like [Alaska-Anchorage and Alaska]," said Gotkin. "I like the potential of this team, and I think we will hopefully be a team that keeps getting better, and better as the season progresses."

Following the Seawolves and Lakers is the matchup between CCHA foes Michigan and Alaska — the first of three meetings between the teams this year but the only one within the Alaskan time zone.

Said Wolverines coach Red Berenson of his squad's outlook,"Hopefully, our team will be a little healthier this year than we were at the start of last year. Bryan Hogan will be our starting goaltender. We are a little more settled in goal and a little deeper on defense. We really need Louie Caporusso to have another strong year up front but he will have a lot of help."

While Hogan, a junior, looks to continue his strong play from a year ago, the Alaska Nanooks will have to replace their recently graduated netminder, Chad Johnson, who was one of the nation's top goaltenders last season.

"Obviously those aren't easily shoes to fill, but we have to move forward," said Alaska coach Dallas Ferguson. "Opportunities for other players are created when you have players leave the program. Scott Greenham is going to be our goaltender and log a lot of minutes. I feel real good about where he is at and being our starting goaltender from day one."

After Friday night, the teams switch dance partners for Saturday, with Michigan taking on Alaska-Anchorage and Mercyhurst facing Alaska.

Superior Showcase

Two CCHA teams go on the road to take on two WCHA foes in this weekend's third annual Superior Showcase. On Friday night, Lake Superior takes on Minnesota-Duluth and Northern Michigan faces Michigan Tech, in the season openers for all four teams.

A week removed from its first practice and a 7-1 exhibition win against Nispissing, Lake Superior will be looking for its first win ever in the Superior Showcase, in which it is 0-2-2 all-time. Following two dreadful seasons in Sault Ste. Marie, the program seems a far cry from its national championship winning teams in the early 1990s.

Still, coach Jim Roque is well aware that the trend needs to be changed.

"I think we've underachieved the last couple of seasons, and we've had to look hard at what we've done here and where we can change and get better," said Roque. "Our guys have done a very, very good job in terms of conditioning. I think it's the strongest team we've ever had since I've been here. We only have four freshmen, and I think three will play, so we have very big junior and senior classes. What we need is better play from the middle of our lineup."

Minnesota-Duluth, meanwhile, is coming off a season in which it fell a win shy of the NCAA Frozen Four, falling to Miami in the West Regional Final. Over the summer, coach Scott Sandelin signed a two-year extension with the team after leading the Bulldogs to their best record since 2004's squad led by Hobey winner Junior Lessard.

The Superior Showcase continues in Houghton, Mich., as Michigan Tech hosts Northern Michigan. The pressure may be on Michigan Tech and head coach Jamie Russell to turn things around this season after winning just six games a year ago — the fewest in Russell's six-year tenure at the helm.

Last season, only two players on the team reached the 20-point plateau.

Said Russell, "We love getting the year kicked off by playing our biggest rival - NMU. We have had epic battles with the Wildcats and we expect our building to be rocking on the 9th. We want to represent the WCHA proudly and gain some early momentum with two wins. We return some veteran leaders to our team and we welcome eight freshmen into the Michigan Tech family."

The aforementioned Wildcats enter the season with high expectations for goaltender Brian Stewart, forward Mark Olver and defenseman Erik Gustafsson. All three were named to the preseason All-CCHA team.

"Erik Gustafsson has earned the right to be a first-team player based on his play last year," said Northern Michigan coach Walt Kyle. " The other guys have not earned it yet. The voting for them is based on what others think their potential is and because they think that they will have a breakout year."

Continued Kyle, of Gustafsson, "He is one of the best players that I have had the privilege of coaching. He is a very good two-way defenseman and contributes offensively. He is our captain and has been nothing but an exceptional leader."

The Superior Showcase concludes on Sunday, with Northern Michigan visiting Minnesota-Duluth and Michigan Tech hosting Lake Superior.

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