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Final Thoughts

Another Division II/III season has come to an end, and in my final column for 2005-06, I’d like to share some parting thoughts before we all turn to other things like the D-I Frozen Four, the NHL playoffs or whatever else strikes your fancy (for me, it’s Little League. Pitchers and catchers have already reported, once they got their homework done and passed their steroids tests.)

Groundhog Day

What can I say about Middlebury that hasn’t already been said eight times? The Panther’s dominance is getting ridiculous. “It’s like (bleeping) Groundhog Day,” muttered a sportswriter in the press box at First Arena. “Same thing every year.”

Well, the last three years anyway. Three wins. Three different goalies. Three shutouts. It’s actually four shutouts in a row plus change if you go back to the Panthers’ stretch of five straight titles from 1995-99. Middlebury defeated Wisconsin-Superior 5-0 in 1999 before somehow yielding its title to Norwich (twice), Plattsburgh and Superior.

Some impressive (or frightening) stats:

The last time Middlebury allowed a goal in a title game was near the end of a 2-1 win over Wisconsin-Stevens Point in 1998. Since then, the Panthers have not allowed a goal in 265 minutes and 57 seconds of title-game hockey.

Since 1994, when Middlebury and other NESCAC schools were first allowed to play in the NCAA tournament, the Panthers’ overall NCAA record stands at 31-5-2. Eight titles. No second places. The Panthers are 8-0 in title games. Their average seasonal record since 1994 is 24-3-1.

And this could go on for a while. Middlebury graduates just two seniors who saw action this season: All-NESCAC defenseman Jeff Smith and goaltender Yen-I Chen. Chen appeared in three games this season. The Panthers’ two leading scorers this season were sophomore Mickey Gilchrist (24 goals, 26 assists) and freshman Jamie McKenna (17 goals, 23 assists). In net, Middlebury platooned sophomore Ross Cherry and freshman Doug Raeder (Needham, Mass.), who were first and second in the nation in goals against.

The only team that can beat Middlebury is Middlebury, if they let their expectations slide. And don’t expect that to happen.

“The biggest thing about putting on a Middlebury jersey, and playing for Coach Beaney is we set the bar really high,” said junior forward John Sales. “You can’t go through the motions out there. Guys work their tails off all year long … the guys are really close in the locker room. That’s what leads to our success.”

“We’ve always known that they’re a very skilled team, but I think they’re more skilled than people even know,” said St. Norbert coach Tim Coghlin. “They skate really well. They protect the puck very well. They all swarm the puck and they have exceptional puck skills, stick skills, and they compete. They’ve got it figured out.”

Sounds like I may be writing the same column next season.

Best of the Best

The 2006 All-American teams were recently announced by the American Hockey Coaches Association. A worthy group, but like every year, there are some picks that seem contradictory, mostly when looking at the national picks vs. All-Conference teams.

For example:

• Adam Hanna was selected Player of the Year for all of Division III (Sid Watson award), but was not Player of the Year in his own conference.
• Jon Dryjowicz-Burek being named to the second team when we was not on the first team All-ECAC Northeast squad. Plymouth State goaltender Karl Helgesson was all-league and Player of the Year in the ECAC Northeast.
• Oswego’s Ryan Woodward was one of six finalists for the Sid Watson award but was not a first-team All-American.

But that’s what happens when you get a large, diverse group making the picks — there will be inconsistencies and not everyone will be happy with the result. The same may be said of the All-USCHO teams, as voted on by the staff at USCHO.com. Here’s my ballot. As usual, there were a lot of tough choices to make:

East First Team
Goal — Jon Dryjowicz-Burek, Fr., Mass.-Dartmouth
Defense — Jon Landry, Sr., Bowdoin (played some games at forward)
Defense — Jeff Smith, Sr., Middlebury
Forward — Mickey Gilchrist, So., Middlebury
Forward — Gus Katsuras, Sr., Hamilton
Forward — Garrett Winder, Sr., Norwich

East Second Team
Goal — Ross Cherry, So., Middlebury
Defense — Tom Maldonado, So., Middlebury
Defense — Brett Smith, Jr., St. Anselm
Forward — Jason Murfitt, So., Manhattanville
Forward — Mitch Stevens, Jr., Geneseo
Forward — Ryan Woodward, Jr., Oswego

East Rookie Team
Goal — Jon Dryjowicz-Burek, Mass.-Dartmouth
Defense — Dallas Bossort, Wesleyan
Defense — Nick Dumoulin, Elmira
Forward — Ryan Ellis, Oswego
Forward — Nikita Kashirsky, Norwich
Forward — Anthony Monte, Nichols

East Coach of the Year: John Rolli, Mass.-Dartmouth

West First Team
Goal — Kyle Jones, So., St. Norbert
Defense — John Bottoms, Sr., St. Thomas
Defense –Andrew Derton, Jr., St. Norbert
Forward — Scott Bjorklund, Jr., St. John’s
Forward — Connor Hughes, Sr., St. Norbert
Forward — Aaron Johnson, Jr., Augsburg

West Second Team
Goal — Adam Hanna, Sr., St. John’s
Defense — Jon Keseley, Jr., Gustavus Adolphus
Defense — Darryl Smoleroff, Sr., St. John’s
Forward — Andy Cote, Jr., St. Norbert
Forward — Mike Kneeland, Fr., Lake Forest
Forward — Dan Krmpotich, Sr., St. Thomas

West Rookie Team
Goal — AJ Bucchio, Wisconsin-River Falls (he’s technically a sophomore, but first real college action was this season).
Defense — Mark Menzies, St. Scholastica
Defense — Clay Rehm, St. Thomas
Forward — Kent Bostrom, Bethel
Forward — Derek Hansberry, Wisconsin-River Falls
Forward — Mike Kneeland, Lake Forest

West Coach of the Year: Tim Coghlin, St. Norbert

Division III Player of the Year: Mickey Gilchrist, Middlebury

Remember, this is just my ballot. Look for USCHO’s Official All-Star Team to see the consensus of our staff.

Stuck in Neutral?

There’s been a lot of chatter on the USCHO Fan Forum about the use of predetermined sites for the Division III Frozen Four. It’s probably unfair to use First Arena as an example, since Elmira was a virtual home team at First Area. A crowd of 2,554 on hand for the Elmira-Middlebury semifinal, and my personal observation was that there were more people than that. A more reasonable estimate of what we might find at a truly neutral site would be the 1,474 who attended the championship game on Sunday.

Critics of this experiment will point to larger crowds and a more electric atmosphere at the last four championships held at Middlebury and Norwich. While this is true, I still think the NCAA is taking the right path with neutral, predetermined sites. Here’s why:

1. Division III is primarily for the athlete. Every player and coach I talked to at the Championships talked about how special it was for them; how much planning had gone into things and how this was the best organized Frozen Four ever. The extra time and preparation allows for a more memorable experience for the athletes involved. Sure it’s special to win a title on your home ice. But only one in four teams got the chance to do that under the old system.

2. Less chaos, more fairness. Under the old system, the usual suspects submit bids in January in the hopes that they will make the D-III Frozen Four. The NCAA then selects from the surviving teams just five days before the semifinals. The list of schools both good enough to make the finals as well as having a top notch facility is very small.

3. The extra time makes it much easier for fans to make travel arrangements and get tickets.

4. Last, but not least — TV. This trumps everything. One would have to expect that this game drew an audience in the tens of thousands, making it by far the most watched NCAA Division III title game ever. This could not have taken place under the old system.

We’re going to try this for two more years, and hopefully many more after that.

Farewell … For Now

This is my final column of the 2005-06 season. My season isn’t officially over yet — I will be covering the Division I Final Four this week — but I want to take this opportunity to again thank the players, coaches and sports information directors who took time to provide information and insight each week.

Thanks also to my wife Kathleen and boys — I missed a lot of weekends with you guys, and I appreciate your patience and understanding.

A big thanks to my fellow RIT broadcasters, Randy Bloechl, Ed Trefzger and Scott Biggar. We entered the brave new work of Division I this season — with commercial radio, TV and all that came with it. Nice job, guys.

And finally, thank you faithful readers, who come here each week. I feel like we have these conversations over a cold one each time … and sometimes when I have the good fortune to meet some of you, we really do. Some have asked why I “stuck around” after the team I do radio for, RIT, left Division III. The answer, quite simply, is that I still like Division III better. Not to take away from covering games at Cornell, Clarkson, RPI, etc., or the Frozen Four each season, but there’s something special about Division III hockey. And I know you feel it, too.

God Bless and see you next season.