2015 men’s ice hockey SUNYAC Championships Preview

The 2015 SUNYAC regular season has come to a close and Wednesday night the road to the conference championship begins in Potsdam and Geneseo. In 10 days, one of the six teams currently in the tournament field will be crowned champion and earn an automatic bid to this year’s NCAA tournament.

A week ago, No. 5 Oswego State climbed to the top of the conference standings and needed two points to clinch the conference title, but only came with one after a tie with No. 8 SUNY Plattsburgh and a Senior Night loss to SUNY Potsdam.

The Lakers’ loss to the Bears catapulted them into the No. 4 seed and a home first round game, while opening the door for the Cardinals to clinch the regular season title after a 5-2 in Cortland on the same night.

SUNY Geneseo held on to the No. 3 seed with a tie at Buffalo State on the final day of the season, a team that went undefeated over the last five games to secure the No. 5 seed.

Now, each team is back even as the postseason begins and it becomes a survive and advance scenario for all. Here are some storylines to keep in mind as the tournament begins.

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1) Cardinals’ home-ice advantage puts return to NCAAs in reach: For the first time in six years, SUNY Plattsburgh captured the SUNYAC regular season title. The No. 8 Cardinals now will not have to travel away from Ronald B. Stafford Ice Arena to capture the tournament title, and thus an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament. They are top 10 in Div. III for both scoring offense and defense. The defense led by goalie Brady Rouleau have six shutouts on the season, including four by Rouleau who has three in the last five games. Known for its balanced offensive attack, SUNY Plattsburgh has four freshmen with 10 points or more. One chink in the Cardinals armor is the fact that four of their five losses came at home.

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2) Injuries put return trip to Frozen Four in jeopardy for Lakers: At one point the favorite to run the table in the SUNYAC tournament and make a run at its sixth-straight Frozen Four without leaving Oswego, No. 5 Oswego State went winless on the last weekend of the regular season and lost home-ice throughout the conference playoffs. The reason for its struggles: injuries. The Lakers were without their top defensive pair of senior captain Bobby Gertsakis and sophomore Stephen Johnson, as well as its offensive spark plug, freshman John Jackson. The health of all three are still in question for Saturday’s SUNYAC semifinals, as is the health of back up goalie Justin Gilbert. Gilbert’s health becomes more of an issue if Matt Zawadzki goes down. Zawadzki missed the team’s two-game series against Morrisville State with a lower-body injury earlier this month. Oswego State beat plenty of odds on its way to Lewiston last spring and still touts one of the best offenses in Div. III. But, a healthy roster, especially on defense, is needed to win a conference title and one or two games on the way to Minneapolis.

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3) Clean slate makes experienced Knights dangerous: A year ago, SUNY Geneseo entered the SUNYAC playoffs the No. 1 seed and the favorite to win the tournament. After a back-and-forth offensive clash in the tournament championship went to Oswego State, the Knights still battled their way to the Frozen Four. This season, they returned all their key players except graduated-captain, and 2014 SUNYAC Player of the Year, Zachary Vit and expectations were high. Goalie Nick Horrigan had another outstanding season, but the offense took a step back besides senior Tyler Brickler who had 32 points. The rest of the Knights’ scorers have proven themselves in the past so, with the restart button being hit for the playoffs, their potential success could just propel the team back to the SUNYAC finals.

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4) Hot streak, goalie primes Bears to come out of SUNYAC hibernation: If not for SUNY Geneseo pulling out a tie in Buffalo, SUNY Potsdam may have risen to the No. 3 seed. But, the Bears were still able to earn a home first round game on Wednesday. They won four of their last five behind a huge final two weeks by goalie Jon Hall and freshman forward Dylan Vander Esch. Both players earned SUNYAC honors back-to-back weeks to end the season. Hall was Goalie of the Week and Vander Esch was Rookie of the Week. Hall put in 14 games of 30 saves or more this season and even had seven of 40 or more, two of which came in the team’s final two games at SUNY Cortland and Oswego State. The junior net-minder has carried the team this season as his conference goalie of the year-worthy season has covered up the whole in the team that is its defense. Hall’s play continuing at its current level is the only chance SUNY Potsdam has of any postseason success.

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5) Bengals go as far as trio of forwards take them: Buffalo State ended up on the wrong end of its tie with SUNY Geneseo in its regular season finale as it fell behind SUNY Potsdam, forcing it to travel to the North Country on Wednesday. Mike DeLaVergne was thrown into the Bengals’ net this season to replace four-year starter and reigning SUNYAC Goalie of the Year Kevin Carr. He did not step up to the task, but the team was still able to finish above .500 in conference play and earn another conference playoffs bid. The offense averaged just below three goals per game as a trio of scorers, Ryan Salkeld, Brett Hope and rookie Jason Zaleski were the only Bengals to break the 20-point mark. The stars will need to align offensively for Buffalo State to advance in to its fourth straight SUNYAC semifinals.

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6) One more magic run by Green Brockport’s last hope: Last season, goalie Aaron Green led the College at Brockport to four straight victories over the last two weekends of the season after replacing Jared Lockhurst in net and brought the team into its first SUNYAC Championships since 2010. Green has been head coach Brian Dickinson’s go-to goaltender this season, but is not as hot at this time of year as he was last spring. Chase Nieuwendyk led the team in points for the second consecutive season, including nine power play goals, which was second-best in the nation. The Golden Eagles were 3-2 down the stretch this season and enter the postseason off a 4-3 win over SUNY Fredonia, who finished the conference season winless. They are headed to Geneseo after finishing the season 2-5-2 on the road and going winless in both games against the Knights. The Knights shutout the Golden Eagles on Feb. 6, 3-0.

SUNYAC Tournament Predictions
First round:

No. 4 SUNY Potsdam over No. 5 Buffalo State, 4-1

No. 3 SUNY Geneseo over No. 6 The College at Brockport, 2-0

Semifinals:

No. 2 Oswego State over No. 3 SUNY Geneseo, 3-1

No. 1 SUNY Plattsburgh over No. 4 SUNY Potsdam, 5-2

Championship

No. 1 SUNY Plattsburgh over No. 2 Oswego State, 4-3