FAIRFIELD, Conn. - With an established group of veterans and an almost equally large group of newcomers, the Sacred Heart men's hockey team opens the 2013-14 season on Friday night at preseason number one UMass Lowell.
After posting a record of 2-30-4 in the last campaign, the Pioneers are looking for this new group of freshman to be a catalyst heading into the new season. As head coach C.J. Marottolo points out, the incoming class has the tools to help make Sacred Heart a tougher team to match up with.
"We want to try and be harder to play against," said Marottolo, who is in his fifth season as head coach. "With that comes size, which we've addressed in our incoming freshman class, as well as skill and speed. Those are the three areas that we targeted going into last year's recruiting cycle. Every young man that we brought in is a piece to the puzzle and we like the pieces we have right now."
The Pioneers return four of their top seven scorers from a year ago, led by junior Brian Sheehan (St. Louis, Mo.) who had 11 goals and 17 assists. Senior captain Chad Filteau (Regina, Sask.) is Sacred Heart's second-leading returning goal scorer after tallying nine goals last season.
"We expect big things from Chad Filteau," added Marottolo. "He's got all the tools – he's got speed, he can shoot the puck, he's a smart player. We expect Brian Sheehan to do what he has done in the past producing points. Drew George and Ben Lake could move their games up to the next level with every shift and every game."
The forwards will also look to freshmen like Justin Danforth (Oshawa, Ont.) and Jeff Carroll (Kingston, Ont.) to provide an immediate impact. Danforth led the Cobourg Cougars of the Ontario Junior Hockey League with 56 points last season. Carroll will provide size and skill up front with his 6'3" frame. He had 59 points for Smiths Falls of the Central Canada Hockey League last season. There is a lot of size in the freshman forwards with 6'2" Daniel Lisi (Toronto, Ont.), 6'3" Spencer Graboski (Quesnel, B.C.), and 6' Nick Lotito (Staten Island, N.Y.). Carroll and Lotito each had an assist in Sacred Heart's 3-0 exhibition win over Simon Fraser on Sunday.
"Hopefully the puck can go in the net for me as well as my teammates," said senior Chad Filteau. "We've got a lot of skill up front. The freshmen play like more mature players. They've been through the grind of juniors. They know how to play."
The blueline will look different for Sacred Heart in the new season. Four defensemen return from last season – senior captain Neil Fachini (East Hampton, Conn.), junior Will Rayner (Needham, Mass.), and sophomores Jacob Brightbill (Anneville, Pa.) and Josh Phillips (Toronto, Ont.). With the addition of freshmen like Erlich Doerksen (Toronto, Ont.), David Iacono (Newmarket, Ont.) and Mitch Nylen (Lawrenceville, Ga.), the defense looks to be a more dynamic unit in 2013-14.
"We needed to add some size on the back end, because last season we were too easy to play against in our own end," Marottolo said. "We brought in some freshmen with size, and we wanted to create scoring from the blue line. In today's game, you need your defense to be joining the rush, scoring goals, and making plays. Will Rayner and Neil Fachini will be looked at to be the rocks on defense. Both of them have played a lot of hockey here and we expect them to be great leaders for our group of defensemen."
"We do have a lot of size this year, which is good," added senior defenseman Neil Fachini. "All the returning guys are paired with freshmen, which helps ease the transition for them. It'll definitely help having new guys back there with size and skill."
One thing that will have to change for Sacred Heart this season in order for it to be successful is better possession of the puck. Last season, the Pioneers were outshot by an average of 11.7 shots per game. This preseason, an emphasis on improved possession will look to make an impact on the ice.
"Something we've been stressing in the preseason is working hard to possess the puck and if you don't have it, you're working harder to get it back," said Filteau. "The guys this year are willing to work harder because we want to win. We know what it takes and we're going to learn how to win and carry that momentum throughout the season."
More play in the offensive end looks to lessen the workload for Sacred Heart's goaltenders. As a group, the Pioneers' goalies made 1,244 saves last season led by Andrew Bodnarchuk's (Saskatoon, Sask.) 584. Between Bodnarchuk, sophomore Fredrik Melander (Uppsala, Sweden), and redshirt-sophomore Alex Vazzano (Trumbull, Conn.) who transferred to Sacred Heart from Vermont, the competition for time in the net will be something to watch this season.
"Our goaltending situation is very competitive," said Marottolo. "They're pushing each other and are making each other better. They've been working extremely hard with our new goaltending coach Jared Waimon. I think he's done a tremendous job so far with our group and will continue to do so. There's a lot of give and take, a lot of coaching going on, and I think the goalies have responded to that."
"At this point in the game, it's anyone's net to jump in to," added Bodnarchuk, entering his junior season. "The coaches are looking for that one goaltender who's going to step up and give the team a chance to win. We all want it, so it's a good friendly competition that's going to come down to who wants it more and who is playing better."
Sacred Heart could potentially play three of the four team's from last season's Frozen Four this year. Besides UMass Lowell, the Pioneers play at Yale on Nov. 16 and could play Quinnipiac in UConn's tournament after Christmas. A challenging non-conference slate could bode well for the Atlantic Hockey schedule ahead.
"We want to play the best teams we can, because that makes you better," Marottolo said. "Our league is growing and getting better and better every year. We had two teams reach the NCAA tournament last year and almost had three. With the way the RPI has changed this year, winning on the road and beating good teams on the road is a tremendous boost to our league. Playing UMass Lowell is a tremendous challenge for us, but it's one that our guys are looking forward to. What better way to open the year than play the preseason number one team? We have an exciting non-conference schedule this season, and that'll help us with our conference games."