Last season — let’s not talk about last season any more. We all know how it went.
The new season is here. It starts Friday with the first of two games at Colorado College, followed by the home opening series against Bowling Green on Oct. 17-18.
Here’s what to look for with the 2014-15 UAH Chargers:
The top three scorers for UAH last season were two sophomores and a freshman. Their continued growth will be a factor in whether the Chargers will start lighting the lamp with more frequency.
Jack Prince was the team’s leading scorer in his second season, scoring eight goals and 13 points. Matt Salhany notched five goals and seven assists in his first campaign, exhibiting the speed and puck-swiping techniques that were the origin of the term “Stealhany”. Chad Brears tallied six goals as a sophomore, three on the power play.
From the upperclassmen, Jeff Vanderlugt hopes to rebound in his senior season after scoring five goals in an injury-shortened 22 games. Captain Doug Reid and Craig Pierce are the other two senior forwards.
Three other sophomores return after pitching in a couple of goals as freshmen last season: Regan Soquila, Brent Fletcher, and Cody Marooney. Marooney played in all 38 games for the Chargers last season, setting a school record.
While the returnees look to their year of WCHA experience to improve, an intriguing crop of incoming forwards look to make their mark on the program early.
UAH has four freshman forwards trying to inject some energy into the offense. Max McHugh is one of SBN College Hockey’s freshmen to watch in the WCHA, coming off of a 21-goal campaign with Dubuque of the USHL last season. Continuing a focus on adding speed to the lineup, Brennan Saulnier joins the Chargers after a 49-point season with Fort McMurray in Alberta. Josh Kestner, after scoring 41 goals with Sarnia of the GOJHL, reminds Mike Corbett some of another Huntsville native, Nic Dowd.
“It was funny watching those two guys (Kestner and Dowd) skate together this summer,” Corbett said at last week’s WCHA coaches’ media teleconference. “Hopefully he can become somewhat of the player Nicky Dowd has become as a college player. [McHugh, Kestner, and Saulnier] are three guys we want to throw into the fire.”
Where will the scoring come from? First, the Chargers have to see if Fletcher and Salhany can keep their groove going, or if 22 is better suited to be on McHugh’s wing. Second, Brears and Soquila need to see if they can find the chemistry that seemed promising from their junior careers. Third, Vanderlugt needs to be healthy, and he and Prince probably need to be on opposite lines from a speed perspective. Finally, we have to see if Kestner can make the huge leap and live up to Corbs’s hype.
Graeme Strukoff and Ben Reinhardt are UAH’s two senior defensemen, both blocking more than 70 shots last season. Anderson White and Frank Misuraca, who scored the game-winning goal in overtime at Bowling Green, are the juniors. Sophomore Brandon Carlson was second on the team in blocks with 75 in his rookie year.
Corbett brought in some size with Richard Buri, a 6-5, 215-pounder from Slovakia. He and goaltender Matt Larose are the first Chargers to be listed at 6-5 since Steve Borko in the 1995-96 season.
Speed was also brought to the blue line with Cody Champagne, who comes from Topeka of the NAHL to boost the power play. Brandon Parker, from Brookings of the NAHL, will also be key in improving the Chargers’ special teams.
The key on defense is to be getting the puck out after the blocked shots. The Chargers really struggled in transition last season, and the only thing that will help the blocks and GAA numbers will be for the ice to not be so tilted towards the UAH end. Corbett was very high on White going into last season, and the Chargers could use a re-emergence from him.
Matt Larose and Carmine Guerriero were the MVPs of last season’s squad, and with good reason. Both received about equal playing time in their freshman season. If there’s a true No. 1 job to be hand, who will grab it?
Larose (4.72 goals against average, .888 save percentage) had the greater share of rough outings, but started to come on at the end, stopping 40 of 41 shots in the late-season road win at Bemidji State.
Guerriero (3.90, .905) showed more consistency throughout last season, and set a UAH Division I-era record with 61 saves at Minnesota State.
Jordan Uhelski, a 6-1 netminder coming to UAH from Muskegon of the USHL, will be pushing for playing time and provide added depth.
“There’s no better place to start building your program than in net,” Corbett said. “We have two sophomores in net who will continue to battle for a No. 1 position, but we believe we have a 1A and a 1B.”
In the end, the likely winner of the goaltending battle among 30 and 35 will be who put in the work this summer to get in better physical shape. We’ve never met a freshman goaltender (or a coach of one) who didn’t talk about the need to get stronger and have more stamina even halfway into their freshman campaign.
The Chargers will play a 36-game schedule, with 14 at home plus two exhibition matches against the USA Under-18 development team.
The WCHA slate will be book-ended with series against travel partner Bowling Green. Among the expected top contenders, UAH will play home and home with Ferris State and will travel to Minnesota State. This season, the Chargers will travel to Alaska once, at Fairbanks in December. Only two games will be played against Bemidji State, in Minnesota in January.
Non-conference play includes two series at NCHC foes — the season opener at Colorado College, which finished seventh out of eight teams and is predicted to finish last, and at Nebraska-Omaha, which finished third. The Chargers visit WCHA mate Northern Michigan in a non-conference series to complete a contract signed before UAH joined the league. UAH also visits former CHA foe Air Force, where Corbett coached as an assistant for a decade before coming to Huntsville.
“[The WCHA] is a fast league,” Corbett said. “It’s a high, competitive league, and every game is entertaining and up and down. We believe our biggest key to be able to compete was to pick up a step, and we feel we’ve picked up a step, and those freshmen will definitely help as well as our other guys getting a year bigger, a year stronger, and a year more experienced in this league.”
We’ve got UAH pegged for somewhere between five and eight wins and a tenth-place finish in the WCHA. This season will be about bringing in the next wave, consolidating our gains, and relying on senior leadership — and boy do we have some leaders in Reider, Reino, Pierce, Struky, and Vandy — to set the tone of where this program needs to be going forward. This will be another season of watching the playoffs from the outside, but it’s pretty clear to us that you’ll see the development that we need to see to reward our belief in #TheHerd.