The Syracuse Men's Hockey team (20-8-2, 8-1-1 NECHL) clinched the Northeastern Collegiate Hockey League, and an automatic bid to the national tournament last weekend in a 4-3 win against Cortland State. It will be their second trip to Nationals in the span of three years. It's high time we got to know the team a little better as the playoffs begin next Friday.
A Rough Start
The Orange began the season with several games against highly-ranked opponents and the wear and tear showed as they went 5-7-1. They faced No. 24 Navy and split the series to open the season. Then, they hosted No. 2 Stony Brook, keeping it close the first game, but getting blown out the second. Six games later, in mid-October, they faced No. 18 Delaware and split the series. The following weekend, the matched up against No. 21 SUNY-Buffalo and lost. The weekend after that, however, was the start of their 15-game winning streak.
"I think early on in our season, we had not started the way we'd hoped," said assistant captain, and senior forward J.R. LaPointe. "I think after our Buffalo weekend, it was a real eye-opener for us that we really needed to start taking things a lot more seriously and to really figure out what we needed to do in order to be more succesfull as a unit."
The scoring leader continued, "I think for us, it was just taking it one game at a time."
Finding Their Stroke
Before last night, Syracuse had been on a 15-0-1 tear that started back on Halloween against conference foe Oswego State. During the run, they rifled off wins against Temple, Villanova, Niagara, Rhode Island, RIT, Erie Community College, West Virginia, Canisius, Cortland, plus a shootout loss to SUNY Buffalo.
"When I think about it, I think one of the turning points was when we went down to Rhode Island and took two games," captain and senior defenseman Nino DiPasquale said. "It's always a tough place to play, and once we got down there and took two games, it really gave us confidence to kind of keep on going and keep on working hard and continuing our success."
Starting goalie, senior Jaime Ketchabaw thought differently. "We were playing really good teams at the beginning of the year, so to everyone who thinks that we were doing poorly, I don't think that that's necessarily the case."
"You could say that the first game sparked the winning streak, but everyone was so resillient and playing such good teams that once we got over the hump, we really started to click and once we started winning, we relaxed a little more and focused on what we were doing right, rather than what we were doing wrong," he added a bit later.
However you decide to see it, the Orange were pretty much unstoppable for that stretch. It's the reason why they're headed to Nationals again.
Back to the Promised Land
For the second time in recent history, Syracuse is headed to the national tournament. It's no easy feat for any team to get there, as Head Coach Nick Pierandri explained.
"There's two ways you get to go to the national tournament. One is you win your league. Our league has literally three excellent hockey programs: it's got Buffalo, Niagara, and Syracuse. As far as I'm concerned, it's been a three-dog race every year. But, you can't have one slip-up. I mean, we went 8-1-1, and we lost in a shootout. That shootout loss is actually what got us in. If we had lost in overtime or straight-up lost, we wouldn't have won the league. You can't really lose games in our league."
The second way has to do with your national ranking. Unlike NCAA sports, though, there is no committee to select the teams that go to the tournament, nor does everyone ranked in the Top 25 get to go to the tournament. The ranking system is very strange, but that's a separate post for another day.
The bottom line is, you have to win as many games as you possibly can, and preferably win your conference title.
Playing Hockey the Syracuse Way
I asked Coach Pierandri, LaPointe, DiPasquale, and Ketchabaw how they would best describe the Syracuse #BRAND of hockey, and they all agreed that it's fast, exciting, smart, and an overall fun experience to watch.
"The culture now is there's an expectation that this is going to be a successful hockey team, or you come to Syracuse University and you're going to play hockey there, you're expected to win," Coach Pierandri said.
This year's crop of seniors is one of the biggest in recent years. All three players that I spoke with said that they took it upon themselves as a class to step-up and lead the team back to Nationals, one game at a time.
Ketchabaw added, "I think we're a very good mix of skill and work ethic.... We have a lot of fast skaters, a lot of good puck handlers, good shooters, and we work our butts off, so I think we have a really good dynamic in the team."
DiPasquale talked about the other teams in the conference in reference to the upcoming Memorial Cup. "You're gonna see great league match-ups between rivals Niagra, Buffalo, Oswego, Courtland.... You're gonna be surprised at the talent level these teams bring to the sport and to the Division 1 club level."
LaPointe reiterated DiPasquale's point about the talent level both of Syracuse and the rest of the NECHL. "I know that a lot of stigmas with clubs is that they're not as competitive as varsity sports, but I think we have a really good program, I think we're really competitive," he added.
"I think they (fans) would be very happy with what they see and maybe get a chance to see some great hockey here in Upstate New York."
- J.R. LaPointe, senior forward, assistant captain: 32 goals, 14 assists, 7 game winning goals
- Nolan Metzler, senior forward: 14 goals, 17 assists
- Nino DiPasquale, senior defenseman, captain: 5 goals, 20 assists
- Jaime Ketchabaw, senior goalie: 18 wins, 7 losses, 69 goals-against, 2.60 goals-against average, 809 saves, .921 save percentage
I know we've talked about wanting a men's hockey team for a while on this site, and we've got a pretty darn good one already. Sure, they're not a "varsity" team, but they're just as competitive. Coach Pierandri compared the play of the American Collegiate Hockey Association to the Division 3 level of the NCAA, and, based on they're results the past few years, I wouldn't doubt it.
Why not go and support the team as they try to make history?
All Memorial Cup games will be held at Tennity Ice Pavilion on South Campus starting this Friday, February 19th.
If you don't already, you can follow the team on Twitter: @syracusehockey
And, as always, G'Orange!
*stats don't reflect the weekend's results.