How It Ended Up: Utica finished the 2021-22 season with an overall record of 25-3-1. The Pioneers won their third UCHC tournament title in the last five years and qualified for the NCAA Tournament for the third time in program history. Utica lost in their NCAA Quarterfinal to the University of New England by a 2-0 score. Over the course of the year, the men in Blue and Orange tied their single-season wins record and set a new program standard for conference wins in a season (17). The 2021-22 version of the Pioneers also set new single-season program records for goals (164), assists (312), points (476), power play goals (49), goals against average (1.4), and shutouts (seven).
In The Polls: The Pioneers start the year at #3 in the US College Hockey Online Men’s Top 15, up from #4 in last season’s year-end poll. The team also was picked to win the UCHC in the conference’s preseason coaches’ poll released on Thursday.
Recent History: The Pioneers have been fortunate to enjoy their position as one of the winningest programs in the nation over the last half decade. The team has recorded twenty wins or more in a season in their last four opportunities to do so, including two 25 win seasons, and were 8-2 during the shortened 2020-21 season. Along the way, the program has won all five United Collegiate Hockey Conference regular season championships, and has won six straight regular season titles in total dating back to the days of the former ECAC West. Utica also has recorded twelve consecutive winning seasons, with their last below-.500 finish happening in the 2009-10 season.
By The Numbers: The Blue and Orange may have been the most entertaining show on ice in all of Division III last season, and the numbers firmly back up that statement. The Pioneers ranked second nationally with 5.66 goals per game, and held opponents to a Division III best 1.38 goals per game. The special teams were also virtually spotless. An 89.7 percent penalty kill rate was third-best in the nation last year, and the Pioneers led the country on the power play with a positively vicious 34.3 percent.
Guess Who’s Back, Back Again: The Pioneers return five AHCA Division III All-Americans from their 2021-22 team, including a remarkable three first team selections. That is a distinction no other men’s team in Division III can make from the 2021-22 All America lists. The group of first team selections includes UCHC Player of the Year and returning senior captain Dante Zapata (Huntington Beach, CA/Austin Bruins (NAHL)). In his junior season, Zapata finished the year with 43 points on 16 goals and 27 assists. He finished in a tie for fifth in the nation with eight power play goals. Six of his power play goals came over eighteen conference regular season games. He has also established himself as one of the nation’s premier faceoff centermen. He was a finalist for the Sid Watson National Player of the Year award. Graduate student Regen Cavanagh (Chesapeake, VA/Sioux Falls Stampede (USHL)) had a career season en route to first team All America honors of his own. He finished tied for the team lead with 46 points (20 goals, 26 assists) last season. Cavanagh is now tied for first in Utica’s single-season record book for points and he is second in goals (20). Cavanagh finished the year tied for fifth nationally with 1.64 points per game. He currently sits at 90 career points. The two first team forwards were joined on the first team All-America squad by defenseman Justin Allen (Hilton, NY/Rochester Monarchs (NCDC)), who returns for his graduate year. Allen, who is the highest scoring defenseman in program history, finished fourth on the team last year with 40 points. His 32 assists set a new single-season program record. He wrapped up the season ranked third in the country with 1.14 assists per game. He has totaled 87 points (14 goals, 73 assists) in 97 games played.
On the second team, defenseman Jayson Dobay (Weymouth, MA/Youngstown Phantoms (USHL)) made history as the program’s first sophomore All-American. He totaled 35 points. Five of his seven goals last season came on the power play, which helped Utica achieve the best power play percentage in the country. Dobay finished the year ranked eighth nationally with an average of 1.00 assists per game. Senior Buster Larsson (Malmo, Sweden/Utica Jr. Comets (NCDC)) was also picked to second team All-American status. Alongside Cavanagh, he led the team with 46 points, a mark that ties the program’s single-season record. Larsson’s 30 assists last season tied for second all-time at Utica in a single year behind new record holder Justin Allen (Hilton, NY/Rochester Monarchs (NCDC)). He ranked fifth nationally in points per game (1.64) and sixth in assists per game (1.07).
In The Forward Group: Behind the three forwards who return as All-Americans, the Pioneers have a host of depth to draw from up front as eight of the team’s top nine scorers from the 2021-22 season return for this year. Brandon Osmundson (Virginia Beach, VA/Hampton Roads Whalers (USPHL)) starts his fourth season with the team as a two-time all-conference pick, and was the 2020 USCHO National Rookie of the Year. Last year, he had 37 points on 11 goals and 26 assists. He has 93 career points in just 68 career games. Senior forward John Moncovich (Wilmington, NC/Hampton Roads Whalers (USPHL)) has 67 career points, and is coming off a career-best 36 from last season. Graduate forward Mic Curran (Arlington, MA/Curry College (CCC)) had 27 points on seven goals and 20 assists last season. He has over 100 points for his career, and was an Commonwealth Coast Conference first team all-conference pick with Curry College prior to transferring to Utica.
Boys on The Blue Line: Behind Allen and Dobay, the Pioneers return an exciting duo of defensemen. Brian Scoville (Agawam, MA/Alabama-Huntsville (NCAA DI)) has fit right in since transferring from Alabama-Huntsville, and is one of the most consistent in-zone defenders and shot blockers on the team. He had 17 points while appearing in all 29 games last season. Junior Joey Berkopec (Hamilton, Ontario/Coquitlam Express (BCHL)) also returns after playing in 21 games as a sophomore, and senior Jaxon Rutkowski (Rome, NY/Hampton Roads Whalers (USPHL)) played in a career-best 12 games last year. Rutkowski, from Rome, is one of two locally-raised players on the team. The other is sophomore forward Shane Murphy (Oriskany, NY/Danbury Hat Tricks (NAHL)).
Between The Pipes: With career shutout leader Sean Dickson (San Francisco, CA/Hampton Roads Whalers (USPHL-Premier)) moving on, Bryan Landsberger (Montreal, Quebec/Nepean Raiders (CCHL)) opened camp as the leading candidate to be the team’s opening night starter. The 6-foot-6 menace was awesome in relief of Dickson as a freshman, with a 96.5 save percentage and 5-0-1 overall record.
Who’s New On Defense: The Pioneers bring in a pair of exciting transfer defensemen from midwestern Division I programs for this season. Six-foot-tall senior Connor Fedorek (Bethel Park, PA/Ferris State University (NCAA DI)) joins the Pioneers after three seasons playing for coach Bob Daniels at Ferris State. He had a goal and seven assists in 67 games with the Bulldogs. Kimball Johnson (Coppell, TX/University of St. Thomas (NCAA DI)) is a junior from Coppell, Texas, located just outside of Dallas. Johnson spent the last two seasons with St. Thomas during their transition from Division III to Division I, and he appeared in 31 games playing for head coaches Jeff Boeser and Rico Blasi. Johnson had two goals and six assists during St. Thomas’s first Division I season.
The New Guys Up Front: A mix of transfers and freshmen will come together on the team’s forward lines this season and entrench themselves in a deep group. One of them stays in the building after a tremendous career with the Utica Junior Comets. Forward John Gutt (Middletown, NJ/Utica JR Comets (NCDC)) starred for the Comets’ NCDC and USPHL Premier teams over the last three seasons, and had an impressive 54 points in 49 games last year. Fitting to this week’s matchup is the fact that his father, Stan, played for SUNY Potsdam for a portion of his college career. Freshman classmate Chris Carroll (Islip, NY/New Jersey Titans (NAHL)) averaged over a point a game while splitting his last NAHL season between North Iowa and New Jersey. Rookie Drake Barnish (Reynoldsburg, OH /Cincinnati Cyclones (USPHL)) joins the Pioneers after a record-setting USPHL Premier career with the Cincinnati Junior Cyclones. Barnish finished his USPHL junior career with 220 regular season points, and held the USPHL Premier career scoring record for two days at the end of last season. Senior forward Lucas Herrmann (Elma, NY/University of New Hampshire (NCAA DI)) spent the last three seasons in Hockey East with the University of New Hampshire, and had three goals and eight assists for eleven points with the Wildcats. He is a former college teammate of 2021-22 Utica Comet Patrick Grasso. Junior Jakob Breault (Acton Vale, QC/Alaska-Fairbanks (NCAA DI)) played eighteen games last season for Alaska-Fairbanks, and had three goals and an assist with the Nanooks. Rookie goaltenders Andrew Doran (Orchard Park, NY/Peoria Mustangs (NA3HL) ) and Avery Sturtz (Marion, IA / Maine Nordiques (NAHL)) round out the group entering their freshman seasons. Doran spent his final year of juniors with thirteen appearances with NA3HL Peoria, and one with Springfield in the NAHL. Sturtz stopped 90.4 percent of the shots he faced in 40 games with the NAHL’s Maine Nordiques last season.
About Potsdam: The Bears finished 5-16-1 under head coach Chris Bernard last season. Four of their five wins came against SUNYAC opposition. Top scorer Robert Clerc returns for his graduate year after recording fourteen points in 20 games last year. Junior power forward Josh Bifolchi also returns for the Bears after netting five goals last year. Three of those five goals were scored on the power play. The 2021-22 season was a collective statistical struggle for the team from the North Country. They averaged just 1.9 goals per game, allowed over four per game, and the power play unit converted at just ten percent for the season. Senior Connor Green is the returning favorite to be the team’s opening night starter in goal.
It’s Been Awhile: The Pioneers have not matched up with Potsdam since the 2017-18 season, with Utica nailing down a 5-4 win on January 13th, 2018, and has won seven of the eleven all-time regular season meetings between the two programs.
What’s Next: Regular season play begins with arguably the biggest test of the year next weekend. The Pioneers will invade defending national champion and current #1 Adrian as the program that handed the Bulldogs their most recent loss. Puck drop is set for 8 p.m. on Friday, October 28th, and the teams meet again for a Saturday matinee at 3 p.m. on October 29th. A pair of massively important conference games against Stevenson will follow, before the team plays its regular season home opener on November 12th against Chatham University.