Black Bears Season in Review: We Hardly Knew Ye

Kind of hard to believe that just after one season, the Black Bears are graduating players. But, as with junior hockey and trying to build a new team– you need an older player on the roster to help guide the younger guys along for the ride. And even in just one season, these players were able to make a big impact for this team and sow the seeds for the future members of this team.

Photo: Jon Pitonzo/ FOHS Media Faction

First, you have to start with the guy they call Mr. Excessive, the captain Connor Pooley. Pooley took over the captaincy when Quinn Warmuth was traded, but his leadership by example was on display as an alternate early into the season. Pooley has a strong hockey lineage, with his father Perry played in the AHL and IHL after his career at Ohio State, his brother Austin currently plays at Ohio State, his uncle Paul is another Ohio State grad with a cup of coffee in the NHL with the Winnipeg Jets, while his cousin Scott currently plays with Newfoundland in the ECHL after four years at Holy Cross.

Pooley has the hockey IQ and was the primer offensive player for the Black Bears, leading the team with 47 points (17g, 30a) on the year and being able to adapt to playing alongside anyone in most situations on the ice. Also, he’s durable, as only he and Jake Sujishi played all 60 games for Maryland. Pooley was one of the few players who had NAHL experience previous to this year, as he played 42 games with the Lone Star Brahmas in 2017-18. He knows what it takes to make it in the world of hockey and if he keeps applying himself, he’ll go far and was a solid representative for this squad.

Photo Jon Pitonzo/ FOHS Media Faction

Next is Karim Del Ponte, the Swiss import who also had NAHL time before coming to Maryland and understood the grind of the East Division, as he played with the Johnstown Tomahawks last season, while also playing for the defunct Wichita Falls Wildcats the season before. While he wasn’t the flashiest of players on the blue line, Del Ponte’s game was more consistency than anything else. He’s one of the few Black Bears who played more than 10 games for the team to finish with a plus rating in the plus/minus category.

Speaking on consistency, Del Ponte had 12 points each of his three years playing in the NAHL, though he had a personal-high three goals this season. Despite being a bit on the small on the side at 5-foot-11, Del Ponte plays bigger than his size and has solid vision and decision making on the point to know what to do and how to get out of certain spots. With a solid history in his native Switzerland, it’ll be interesting to see if he goes back to Europe or hopes to find a spot in the US college or minor league route.

Photo: Jon Pitonzo/ FOHS Media Faction

Another graduate is someone who wasn’t with the team for long, but Bradley Jenion brought a lot of impact to the team upon his arrival. Jenion brought a big presence to the team with his 6-foot-4 frame on the blue line and his willingness to throw around his body. Granted, that did get him in trouble some with ill-advised penalties, but the big Brit picked up the physical game in the absence of former Black Bear Carter Wade.

However, his short-time already was also cut short due to injury down the stretch, missing about six weeks of action due to an injury, which hampered an already thin defensive corps. It’ll be an interesting thing to see where Jenion goes from here, as he has been in North America for the past five seasons, but also has been part of the England national team program, which could mean he heads back over the pond if there’s no opportunity for him in North America. There’s plenty to his game that teams would take a shine to, which will hopefully get him some looks stateside.

These three guys left their mark on this first team. They were the right trio of players to mentor the young players and maybe lay the groundwork for something bigger down the line with the younger players passing along what they learned from these three to the next crop of Black Bears. I’m sure I’m not the only one who would like to thank Connor, Karim, and Bradley for their contribution to this team.

(NOTE: As we get closer to camp and rosters being kind of finalized, I’m sure I’ll do one of these for other players who left a mark on this team– whether it be the first year or beyond.)

NHL Playoffs 2019: Round One

Since no one asked– here’s my picks and a reason.

TAMPA BAY vs. COLUMBUS
Prediction: Tampa in 5
Reason: As much as I may no believe in the Lightning down the stretch, the Blue Jackets were too hot going into the playoffs to have much left in the tank. Also, Nikita Kucherov will most likely continue to step-up his game in the second season.

BOSTON vs. TORONTO
Prediction: Boston in 6
Reason: We’ve seen this song before and Toronto isn’t that great against Boston in the playoffs. Goaltending is a disaster for the Leafs, while their defense isn’t much better.

WASHINGTON vs. CAROLINA
Prediction: Washington in 6
Reason: Give the Jerks credit, they clawed back to get in this spot. However, the Caps seem to enjoy feasting on the Canes in life. Plus, the Caps want to get back to the Promised Land to hoist the Cup again, so they’ll do whatever it takes to win it again

NY ISLANDERS vs. PITTSBURGH
Prediction: Penguins in 6
Reason: As much as I want to believe in Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss; Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel, and a somewhat healthy Evgeni Malkin trump that. Only hope is Matt Murray stinking up the joint

CALGARY vs. COLORADO
Prediction: Calgary in 6
Reason: Goaltending aside, the Flames won the Western Conference for a reason. Especially with Mikko Rantanen just coming back from injury– who knows how effective he will be. Though, some pressure may be on Johnny Gaudreau and friends to make an unexpected run.

SAN JOSE vs. VEGAS
Prediction: Vegas in 5
Reason: Playoffs is about defense and as much as the Sharks have Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson to add some punch offensively, Martin Jones hasn’t been great. The Knights enjoyed a nice taste last year and probably want to make people know it wasn’t a fluke.

WINNIPEG vs. ST. LOUIS
Prediction: St. Louis in 7
Reason: I don’t know why, but the Blues could be a sleeper team to make some noise. They weren’t even supposed to be here, but Jordan Binnington decided that he’d show Jake Allen how to play in net. They’ll be a tough out with JB in net.

NASHVILLE vs. DALLAS
Prediction: Nashville in 6
Reason: With the window for the Preds and all their talent, it could be the perfect time for them to run wild in the West. They probably still feel the sting of the lost to Winnipeg and want to make a statement run at the Cup this year.

Black Bears Season in Review: Making the First Team

Photo: Jon Pitonzo/FOHS Media Faction

Yesterday, I mentioned the community the team built off the ice, especially when the product on the ice was going through some growing pains. Politicians and car salesmen may lie– but numbers never do. Second to last in wins, points, and goal differential. The goals-for and power play was 22nd in the league, the goals-against and penalty kill was last in the league. Defensive zone play was a little shaky with turnovers on breakout attempts, holding the puck too long, or not being able to adapt to a strong forecheck. The growing pains of a first year team.

It wasn’t for a lack of trying, however, as GM and head coach Clint Mylymok did what he could with a team that didn’t have previous experience playing alongside each other. Like most other expansion teams, there’s going to be hiccups when it comes to chemistry and the fact that they had 46 players play in a Black Bears uniform this season also stifles the chemistry of a team. Whether it be due to injury, trades, performances, or otherwise– with a roster in constant flux, hard to have a consistent performance with the shake-ups.

The team started to be built by acquiring Carter Wade and Luke Posner from the Kenai River Brown Bears before the NAHL Draft. In that draft, they went after a USHL player in Steven Agriogianis, though he would never suit up for the team. While Agriogianis didn’t play, plenty of players picked in that draft did don the red, yellow, and black. The likes of Patrick Choi, Luc Salem, Max Borst, Luke Mountain, Marek Wazny, and Thomas Jarman all got selected and played a big role in the first season. Of course, Choi and original captain Quinn Warmuth got traded to bring in Kyle Oleksiuk (EDIT: I wrongly put Christian Brune in the original. Thanks to Colin from the Black Bears for noticing my mistake), but Choi and Warmuth were big part of the first season the time they were there.

However, this was a team that looked solid for a first-year squad in the first few months. They were in a playoff spot for a decent amount of time and were in the hunt until about January, even after going 2-7-1 in November where they played the juggernaut of the Johnstown Tomahawks several times. Even in the last three months where the wins were few and far between– guys came out to play, the new additions were contributing in a big way, while the young players who will be the core for the future got a chance to acclimate themselves to the NAHL style of play.

Everyone played their role, though. I don’t think there were many guys who were passengers on the ride. Everyone had to adapt to the injuries. Hell, the last couple weekends, the team only had four natural defensemen in the line-up with Wazny going back to the point. Mountain turned it on late in the season with eight points (4g, 4a) in his last six games, 25 (6g, 19a) of Jonathan Young’s 36 points came in the 2019 calendar year (27 games). Borst became the go-to guy for the penalty with, racking up three short-handed goals which is tied for third in the entire NAHL. Lest we forget about Connor Pooley (6PPG, 7PPA) and Daylon Mannon’s (5PPG, 5PPA) power play prowess.

In net, it was a mixed bag to start, with projected starter Benjamin Beck being injured, leaving David Tomeo and Tyler Matthews to start the season. Of the two, Tomeo stood out in a big way, really keeping the Black Bears into some games they probably shouldn’t have been. Beck came back, but didn’t live up to expectation and Tomeo took back his spot in net. While his numbers didn’t show it (9-21-6, 1 SO, 3.60 GAA, .901SV%), Tomeo was an anchor in net and then slowly became a mentor to the likes of Andrew Takacs and Anthony Del Tufo later on in the season.

Speaking of Del Tufo, he was one of the many players that came  from Team Maryland and the Mercer Chiefs pipeline and were given opportunities to see if they could make it on the NAHL level. Anthony Del Tufo became part of the tandem with Tomeo later in the season, while standing out amongst the Team Maryland alumni. Connor Redden, Mac Brice, Isaac Mbereko, and Jakub Hasek are others who moved across the dressing rooms from the Team Maryland camp to the Black Bears side; while Jude Kurtas impressed in his short tenure with the Black Bears after playing with the Mercer Chiefs 18U, while Maryland native George Vonakis came up from the EHL’s Philadelphia Jr. Flyers to secure a spot on the team.

Granted, the 16-37-5-2 record isn’t what they wanted and having to end their seasons early wasn’t probably in their plans either– but it probably also wasn’t unexpected for the inaugural club; the Vegas Golden Knights probably stole a lot of that good karma for first year clubs. Yet, it could have been worse and they were in it for a while. It’s a good building block for the years to come and if they can keep even 50% of this team for next season, they’ll be better off for it and continue to grow because of it.

Black Bears Year in Review: Building a Community

Photo: Jon Pitonzo/FOHS Media Faction

The Maryland Black Bears season ended on Saturday much the way their first series of the season ended– with an overtime loss but one that was a thriller. While their record wasn’t the best thing to write home about, the first season of the Black Bears could be considered somewhat of a success off the ice, while the on-ice product does need just a bit of work.

One of the biggest things for an expansion team is building a fan base, building something that will stick and reside with the community. Junior hockey is nothing if there’s no community to stick by it and support it. Through going to the games, the billets who house these out of town players and make them feel comfortable in their experience. It’s also about the ownership and front office being embedded in the community and wanting to grow the team, but also help the area as a whole be better.

The season had plenty of exciting moments to it, with some ups, some downs, and some sideways. From Marek Wazny’s getting the franchise’s first goal three minutes into the first game or Luke Mountain’s late tying goal this past weekend to end the season, there was a lot to talk about. There were viral videos of celebrations, highlight reel goals and saves, and a community built around the area from virtually nothing.

For me, that’s what sticks out amongst this whole season. Later this week, I’ll get to the actual on-ice product, but the fact that for an area that’s not recognized as much as a hockey heavy area– the people turned out to Piney Orchard and the hockey community was brought out in force. The biggest thing the Black Bears did was get the surrounding youth hockey clubs involved. They didn’t just keep to the Nelson Hockey club, but branched out to Bowie, Howard, Baltimore, and more teams from the area. It truly made it feel like the different club teams were united by one common thread in the Black Bears.

To build this fan-base up from scratch in as little time as they did it is truly something and shows that word-of-mouth worked out for people. Maryland closed out the season with a total attendance of 11,118 for 30 home games, which works out to an average of 373 for each game– which may not seem like much; but it ranked them at third in the East Division and for a rink where the capacity is around the 350 mark (I can’t find the “official” capacity), it’s a great turnout.

The team also got it right with having entertainment between the hockey action with some solid intermission happenings, great in-period participation, as well as the fish toss after the first goal and the staple chuck-a-puck after the game. Obviously, the in-game entertainment is as crucial as the game itself for people experiencing the event. They checked all the boxes for what was needed for this team to get people talking about and get some coverage for the team in the community and grow it more.

But from the first series to the last series and all in between, the Black Bears created much more for the state of Maryland when it comes to hockey than just wins and losses. It bonded together a community that usually just stuck to their own areas of the state. It brought together fans and gave them some decent hockey to watch while giving the youth players something to aspire to when it comes to growing their own game trying to get to the NAHL level.

On the Topic Of Fickle Coaching Decisions

Sunday, both Phil Housley and Bob Boughner were fired from their teams only two years into their tenure behind the benches of the Buffalo Sabres and Florida Panthers respectively. We all know coaches are hired to be fired and often they get fired due to the general manager’s inability to build a good roster for them– but only two years behind the bench seems like a mere blink of the eye when you look at the bigger picture.

These are teams that need stability and to have coaches there for that little of a time doesn’t help their cause for that. For Buffalo, post-Lindy Ruff since November 2013– no head coach has survived more than two years. Ron Rolston, Ted Nolan, Dan Bylsma and now Housley have all had short tenures not lasting longer than two seasons. For Florida post-Kevin Dineen after the 2012-13 season the Panthers have gone through Peter Horachek, Gerard Gallant, Tom Rowe, and now Boughner.

Of course, of the two, Housley didn’t have the best of success, only going 58-84-22 in his two years while having a group of young talent at his disposal, but goaltending being a question mark since Dominik Hasek left. Boughner went 80-62-22 while having a talented group that had a top power play, penalty kill, but lacked goaltending. I’m sensing a theme with the goaltending.

Regardless of that, having only a limited time to actually figure out how to coach a team that may not be the top notch squad seems like an impossible task that makes someone destined to fail. Only one year to get situation and then if you can’t get to the playoffs in the second year, it’s done?? I get that there’s a “win now, make money” mentality, but to have this lack of stability– especially for young players on the team– can’t be great from outsiders who teams may be courting in free agency.

It seems to always come to the GMs making bad deals and the owners allowing them to make those bad deals. It hampers any kind of progress most of the times, while giving anyone behind the bench a payday, but a short-term payday. Hell, even college coaches get a full class (four years) to prove their worth. Of course, this isn’t college and some players aren’t willing to adjust and adapt to win. Some players want coaches to fit their styles rather than the other way around. That’s on the GM to get the right chemistry in the room to make them a winner regardless of the coach.

Head coaching is a fickle thing. Most times you’re given a bad roster and tasked to make them into Cup champions. Owners and GM have lofty goals from the onset and these guys aren’t paid enough to have to deal with these lofty goals and deal with some prima donnas that don’t fit the vision they have for the team they want to inherit.

Granted, if they go somewhere else and succeed with the right roster in the right situation, then these GMs and owners will look even more foolish than they have been for letting them go in such a short time.

Yellow Jackets Earn Some Stripes With NCAA Appearance

American International College entered Division One hockey in the 1998-99 season. Prior to this season, the Yellow Jackets were 160-461-68 in Division One. With a 23-17-1 season this year, it was the programs first winning season as a D1 team in history. It was also the first time the team won Atlantic Hockey in the regular season, the post-season, and locked in a spot for the National Tournament. Not only that, but it yielded the team’s first tournament win on Friday, as they beat St. Cloud State.

It’s a path that AIC head coach Eric Lang has paved in his three years behind the bench. It’s a path that he saw last season in the team as they seemed to have turned a corner within the conference.

“I think three years ago, we were hoping to win hockey games,” Lang mentioned before the tournament began. “I think last year we thought we can win some hockey games and I think our belief this year is every time we get on the ice, we have an expectation we’re going to win. It’s been really nice to witness the transformation from thinking and hoping to expecting.”

Of course, in a smaller school in a smaller conference, the pickings are a bit slim when it comes to wanting to be a Yellow Jacket. Prior to the year, AIC was 23-40-12, which didn’t really make the school desirable to some prospective student-athletes.

“Three years ago when I was making phone calls from a four, five, six-win team, it’s hard to get guys to call you back,” Lang mentioned after AIC’s loss Saturday. “It’s a little easier when you’re regular season conference champs, when you win your playoffs, and you’re making recruiting calls from first place. We’re squeezing in as many phone calls as we can in 24 hours from yesterday into today. You have to ride that momentum and recruiting. I think our program has a lot to offer.”

Lang continued, “It’s really important that we stay with an ‘A’ mindset player and we’re not tempted in recruiting anything else but the ‘A’ mindset. That supersedes everything. It actually supersedes our talent. If they’ve got an ‘A’ mindset, we know they’re going to develop, we know they’re going to be great human beings, and we know they’re going to get better.”

This AIC group will be losing three seniors: defenseman Ryan Polin, forward Shawn McBride, and graduate transfer player/mentor Ryan Papa. While all three were leaving after the loss on Saturday, all three had glowing reviews of the school.

“It was an awesome ride going from four years ago to where the program is today it’s unbelievable,” said McBride. “I was just fortunate enough to get a place to play college hockey and to be given lot of opportunity and I’ve met some many great people along the way. Tons of great memories and I feel very, very fortunate.”

“I was fortunate enough to extend my college career to six years,” mentioned Papa who came to AIC from St. Cloud State and had his career finish last season due to concussions. “This program shaped my life and I can’t thank the core staff enough for giving me a second chance here. I couldn’t think of a better group of guys to end my hockey career with.”

“We won seven games our freshman year and to see the program evolve, it’s been amazing to be a part of,” Polin added. “All the guys were buying into what coach Lang has put in our head.”

“I want to thank the athletic administration and coach Lang for revitalizing our program and made coming to the rink so much fun and helped us win games, which is so much fun,” McBride added.

With all these firsts out of the way and all of the national attention, it may be hard to replicate that for AIC if they don’t have the right mindset that coach Lang has put forth. However, he knows that the biggest thing for his team is to not be satisfied for just being there.

“You can’t be satisfied if you don’t win the last game of the year. You constantly have to have that carrot in front of you,” mentioned Lang. “We went from here (conference champions) to here (playoff champions) to here (NCAA tournament). Hopefully, I’m back in this seat next year and we’re moving on because that’s the progression of this program. We return a whole bunch of players next year, these guys will go in and like the taste of this and want to advance this thing another step. That’s really important that these guys stay hungry.”

The core of returned players like goalie Zackarias Skog, forward Joel Kocur, and defenseman Brennan Kapcheck, who all played amazing in the West Regional, the AIC Yellow Jackets have started a solid resume for their future. If nothing else, they won the hearts of the people at the Fargo regional. While it started as a foil for the St. Cloud State fans, the AIC bandwagon grew after the win, as their shirts were sold out before the end of the game Saturday night.

While their season didn’t end the way they wanted to Saturday night, it’s one that they won’t soon forget.

“I’m proud of this group, I think they’ve changed the landscape of AIC hockey. And I told them as you get a little older in life, life’s about making memories and these guys made a bunch of memories this season for each other,” Lang mentioned. “They made a bunch of memories for me and my family, and I’ll be forever grateful to them. The tough part about this group is that I don’t get to be with them for another couple of weeks. So, selfishly I want to be with these guys. I have been with them since August 30. I haven’t had a bad day since August 30. I love these guys and just very proud of them.”

NCAA WEST REGIONAL: Denver Makes Clock Strike Midnight for AIC

FARGO, ND– In what was the probably the most unlikeliest of match-ups to determine the West Regional, the American International College Yellow Jackets took on the Denver Pioneers for a berth into the Frozen Four. Both teams played a defensive game in their Friday match-ups and it was looking like it would be quite the chess match for this Regional Final.

The first period seemed that way, but a speedy chess game. Both teams had plenty of chances, though Denver would outshoot AIC 10-4 thanks to two power plays, but Zackarias Skog was solid in the first period. AIC has some chances, but could not get it past Filip Larsson. Both teams played like they knew if they got the first goal, they could lock up the game defensively from that point forward. The period ended 0-0.

Much of the same in the second period, though AIC got more of the chances in the early going. Plenty of blocked shots, odd bounces, and great saves were seen on both ends of the ice. The sustained pressure didn’t yield much until Ryan Barrow, while taking a skate around the net, found Colin Staub camped out in front, as Staub went high blocker on Skog to break the stalemate.

“We were able to get some defensemen active and started creating havoc in front,” mentioned Staub. “The puck bounced out and luckily, Barrow was able to capitalize on the turnover. He was driving to the net and found me. I wasn’t even looking at the net, I was just trying to get it off as quick as possible.”

AIC was pressing most of the third with two power plays at their disposal, but they couldn’t get it past Larsson. While they pressed hard, a mental mistake with under five minutes left. On a breakout, AIC’s Jared Pike passed back to his defense, but Liam Finlay was able to break out the second clearing attempt  which gave Finlay a mini-breakaway, which he put passed Skog to make it 2-0 and made the clock strike midnight for the Cinderella of the NCAA tournament. Jarid Lukosevicius added an empty-netter for good measure and sealing the 3-0 win.

It will be the third time in four seasons going back to the Frozen Four. An interesting note is that Denver only combined for three third period shots in the two games of the regional. All those shots went in, though only one was with a goalie in net. It’s something that head coach David Carle doesn’t seem too bothered by.

“That how we draw it up,” Carle quipped after the game. “Yeah we’d like to shoo the puck, we’d like to generate a little bit more. At the same time, our puck pressure and our ability to defend was outstanding and our team’s commitment to defense, I think as you saw for 90% of the weekend was very good. We’re pretty proud of that and our team has bought into what we need to win hockey games.”

NCAA WEST REGIONAL: Denver’s Lockdown, AIC Upset Headline Fargo’s Regional

FARGO, ND– The NCAA West Regional kicked off in Fargo on Friday. While the University of North Dakota did not make the tournament, there were plenty of green in the stands for those who decided to make the trip.

In the early match-up, they were able to watch a familiar foe in Denver University taking on THE Ohio State University in the first round match-up.

The first twenty minutes were a bit of a feeling out point, but Ohio State gradually got better as the period went on. However, despite the traffic in front of Denver’s Filip Larsson, there were no goals to be had. On the other end, Tommy Nappier had little work, only facing five shots in the first frame, the most challenge was a double-tip in the beginning, as well as a Tyson McLellan shorthanded chance that sailed over top of the goal, as McLellan was trying to go high short-side on Nappier.

A neutral zone battle took place for most of the second frame, with both Denver and Ohio State playing tighter hockey. The most chances came in the second half of the period, with both sides exchanging quality chances, but it wasn’t until late in the period when Denver broke the draw. With less than a minute left, Emilio Petterson feathered a pass over to Les Lancaster, who then beat Nappier on the glove side to make it a 1-0 game.

“That was a heck of a pass by him,” mentioned Lancaster of Petterson’s pass. “He has some great vision. I think a big part of my game is speed and I saw an opening to go up the ice and he found me. Nappier robbed me early in the period so it was good to get that one behind him.”

Ohio State had a solid chance to tie the game after Larsson had an adventure around his net, but could not bury anything in the open cage. Denver played a very tight game, in fact– they did not get any shots on Nappier with their only goal being an empty netter by Colin Staub to seal the game and advance to the Regional Final on Saturday.

Denver Wins/Photo Jen Conway

“I don’t know how many tickets were sold tonight with that game,” joked Denver coach David Carle after the game, “But I thought it was a really tightly contested game. Not a lot of open ice for either team since both teams are heavily involved on defense

————-

In the second match-up, the upstart American International College Yellow Jackets looked to give the St. Cloud State Huskies a run for their money. All the while, the Huskies tried to not be eliminated in the first round by an Atlantic Hockey team– like what happened last year against Air Force. It was also AIC’s first ever tournament appearance, which could be daunting to some, but for AIC– they seemed to take it in stride.

“I think we just had to play our game, the same way we played it all year,” mentioned Brennan Kapcheck. “We came in with big dreams and see the big crowd, which is not something we see all the time, but we played our game and it goes the right way.”

AIC was under the microscope, but were attacking early with plenty of chances, including one that rang off the crossbar. However, Joel Kocur found the back of the net, getting the first goal of the game by plugging away at a rebound around David Hrenak’s net and chipping it in for the 1-0 tally. After that goal, AIC went into a trap defense, which lead to more chances, as St. Cloud couldn’t get a good clean breakout, but the period ended 1-0 for AIC.

Knowing they needed to continue the pressure. AIC was able to play the trap defense perfectly against the Huskies, creating more turnovers and then creating another goal for the Yellow Jackets, as Brennan Kapcheck picked up the puck, threw it on net, and it squeaked through Hrenak’s five-hole to make it a 2-0 game. Despite power plays, the Huskes couldn’t put one past Zackarias Skog. Though AIC only put four shots on in the second, they were able to withstand the pressure of St. Cloud late in the period.

The Huskies, not wanting a repeat of last year, got off to a quick start, trying to get one goal back and start a rally. But thanks to stingy defense and Skog standing tall, their first onslaught was for naught. SCSU cut the lead in half on the power play, as a weird bounce off an AIC defender’s helmet went past Skog and was credited to Easton Brodzinski. After that, the Huskies went to work trying for the equalizer, but Skog and his defensemen in front were able to stave off the Huskies, upsetting the #1 overall seed by a score of 2-1.

It was AIC’s first tournament win in their first appearance during their first winning season, no less. It was also the second time in the entire athletics department that they have defeated a #1 seed, as the women’s soccer team defeated Saint Rose in Division II action.

“St. Cloud is a tremendous team,” mentioned AIC coach Eric Lang. “I could only take them in small doses. They’re as skilled a team that we’ve ever seen. But you know what, sometimes the puck bounces your way. I would say it’s puck luck, but in this sport in you earn your luck.”

AIC and Denver will take on each other on Saturday night to see who will represent the West Region in the Frozen Four in Buffalo.

Black Bears Adding Local Flavor in Tender Signings

Maryland Black Bears Salute/ Jon Pitonzo, FOHS Media Faction

When I spoke with Maryland Black Bears owner Murry Gunty early in the season, he mentioned to me that the goal of the Maryland Black Bears was to give area players a chance to play closer to home and keeping the mid-Atlantic talent in the mid-Atlantic rather than have those players migrate to the Northeast and beyond.

In one of the two tender signings that happened yesterday, it seems that the vision is continuing to take shape as the Black Bears announced that Finn McLain of Woodbridge, Virginia had signed his tenure with the Black Bears. The other tender signed was that of defenseman Nick Hauck of Ham Line, Minnesota, as the Twin Cities region becomes a pipeline for the Black Bears, as well, with Hauck joining Luke Posner (Mahtomedi), Max Borst (Edina), and Luke Mountain (Woodbury) as players from the Twin Cities region to sign with the Black Bears.

For Hauck, he had a breakout year with Blaine High School notching 28 assists and 31 points for the Bengals, as well as three assists in the state tournaments– despite coming up short to Edina in the championship game. Hauck only had two assists in his previous two seasons with the Bengals and this season could be the jumping off point he needs for his future.

However, with the McLain signing, it adds to the DC-Maryland-Virginia (DMV) feel to the Black Bears roster. McLain will join George Vonakis (Abingdon) and Andrew Takacs (Bowie) as local players to be signed with the Black Bears. Of course, you may not see a landslide of players over the off-season or into the next off-season, but what the Black Bears are doing with the local players will have an effect down the line– especially as the younger Team Maryland teams are able to get immersed into the NAHL game and see where the alumni head off to after their tenure in the league.

Now, before you start checking stats– yes, McLain was born in Honolulu, Hawaii– but he grew up in Woodbridge, went to Woodbridge High, and played in the Washington Little Caps system before going to the Kent School in New Jersey. McLain has the size at 6’0 and 205 at 19 years old, but the question is what his role would be. While he’s not overly offensive by the looks of his stats, but at the same time– his size could create him some space and perhaps give him more opportunities.

While there’s only the spoiler role to play, the Black Bears are looking to the future– not only in the immediate setting, but maybe in the future setting as a pillar for mid-Atlantic hockey players.

Wright, Savoie, and Exceptional Status

In Canadian major junior hockey, the exceptional status is given to a 15-year-old player who the league deems good enough to play an entire season at the major junior level. Otherwise, the player would only be able to play five games at age 15 in major junior until they turned 16. Before this season, the only players who were granted exceptional status in the Canadian Hockey League were Connor McDavid, John Tavares, Aaron Ekblad, Sean Day, and Joe Veleno. Of all of them, only Veleno wasn’t playing in the Ontario Hockey League; he was a Quebec League player.

This season, two players applied and only one was granted the status. Shockingly enough, it was a player from the OHL that was given the status in Shane Wright. The other– Matthew Savoie– was not given status, despite him having been compared to Sidney Crosby at age 14. It also continues the Western Hockey League not granting players exceptional status. Due to this, Savoie said that he committed to the University of Denver for the 2021-22 season. It should be noted that Jack Hughes also applied for exceptional status two years ago, but was denied and is now on his way to University of Michigan next fall….maybe…if he doesn’t get to the NHL before that, as he is projected to be one of the top two picks in this Draft.

There’s two way to think about this whole situation. The first is that it’s a travesty that the WHL isn’t letting this kid, who has 31 goals and 71 points in 31 games playing a year older than he should be. The second is that it’s good that the WHL isn’t rushing a kid who may not be able to deal with the grind of travel and physicality that the WHL often presents, not to mention the mental and maturity factor of it all.

It’s easy to see both sides of the coin. You don’t want to have a kid who’s obviously head and shoulders above his peers in bantam or midget hockey, risk him getting bored or even seriously injured, or embarrass the competition. In most of the exceptional cases– the players were able to succeed with three of the five of them being 1st overall picks in the NHL Draft and four of five being in the first round. Sean Day was the player who didn’t get pick in the first round, though he was also the only defenseman of the group who was given that status.

Some believe that Day’s performance was the reason why Hughes wasn’t given the status, but that’s subjective as hell and you could counter that by saying it takes defensemen longer to develop than forwards.

On the flip side, it’s almost good for the younger players not getting bigger than they should be if they aren’t ready for it. Again another subjective aspect of the judging process, but at the same time– to hold off on a player who the committee may have the slightest doubt of it is erring on the side of caution. You may lose a player or two– like with Savoie and Hughes– but it might be better than burning them out at a young age or having them flame out when such high expectations were placed onto them. Plus, when I mentioned maturity– these kids at 15 may or may not be ready to take on a pro-like schedule, away from home all the time, and growing up before they may be ready to.

While it could be the CHL’s loss, the NCAA does have the ability in something great. Of course, Hughes may not make it to the college level, while Savoie could be using his as a bluff or doing the same thing as Jack Eichel in playing the year before his draft year and then leaving after a season. Many claim that the major junior route is the quickest route to the NHL– and it’s probably true– but at the same time, if Savoie and Hughes can play in the NCAA, even for a year, and dominate before going to the NHL; it may change some opinions…but probably not.