Men’s hockey aims for first-ever SUNYAC title in 2013-14

Mens hockey looks to stay consistent in 2013.

Men’s hockey looks to stay consistent in 2013.

It’s a year of redemption for the Buffalo State men’s hockey team in 2013-14.

The upcoming season will serve as the last chance for a group of nine seniors who have built the program higher than it has ever stood to push the benchmark for the future even further.

Buffalo State is in the midst of its best string ever, having made the SUNYAC playoffs three straight years. Still fresh in the mind of the Bengals, specifically, is the way they exited the postseason the last two seasons.

Each of the last two years is the only time the Bengals have won a playoff round, beating Potsdam (2012) and Fredonia (2013), respectively, in the quarterfinals. But each of those standard-setting victories were quickly halted.

In 2012, it was a heartbreaking triple-overtime loss in the semifinals to No. 2 seed and nationally ranked Plattsburgh. Last year, also in the semis, the Bengals pulled within two early in the third period before falling, 5-2, to eventual national championship runner-up Oswego.

“Every year it’s been frustrating,” senior goaltender Kevin Carr said. “Coming back every year knowing we’re close, we’re close. But this year we really have to push and make sure we’re doing things right.”

The veteran laden group, while mindful of the past, is not letting it become a distraction. Instead, led by returning leading goal-scorer and captain Mike Zannella, the Bengals are well positioned to win that elusive first SUNYAC title in team history.

“Personally, I’m a senior, and all I can think about is this is my last kick at the can,” Zannella said. “But I know as a whole, we’re really preparing like this is our year. We’re focused on one week at a time, one game at a time, but we didn’t forget about the last couple years, and we do feel a little snake-bitten.”

To get to the top of the conference, coach Nick Carriere said consistency in the regular season is a key area that needs to be addressed. Despite finishing as the No. 4 seed in the conference playoffs with a 7-8-1 SUNYAC record (13-12-2 overall) a year ago, the team struggled to get on a consistent roll. Its longest winning streak was three games, as the Bengals competed at a high level against the SUNYAC elite while playing down to the level of some teams below them in the standings.

To combat continuing that trend, Buffalo State has participated in physical and mental “team-building” drills since practice officially opened Oct. 15. Developing more of a consistent approach is a good start to vaulting the Bengals over the hump that has stymied them recently.

“I think we’re doing a little bit of a different job of looking within our group and making sure that we’re operating the right way,” Carriere said. “That’s why we’re looking from within and say ‘all right, we have to make sure we can take care of as many of these situations as we can.’”

Joining the experienced Bengals in their pursuit of a conference championship are eight freshmen and two transfers. But the incomers don’t come without a few primary subtractions, as Buffalo State loses a trio of double-digit goal-scorers from last season.

Gone from the team are Nick Melligan, who led the team in scoring last year with 13 goals and 17 assists but quit after the season, and graduated seniors Matt Bessing (12+9) and Trevor McKinnney (12+9).

Mixing eager youth with a core of veterans that have been part of multiple playoff runs is the Bengals’ solution to overcoming the departures.

Aiding Zannella in providing leadership is assistant captain Carr, who Carriere considers one of the best goalies in the country. The senior has been named to the All-SUNYAC team each of his first three seasons, and played in every game in 2012-13 while posting a career-best 2.52 goals against average.

Sophomore Brett Hope was voted by teammates as the other assistant captain, and he will provide scoring depth, coming off a 17-point freshman campaign (4+13). Getting contributions from all over has played a substantial role in the Bengals registering three straight seasons of at least 12 wins. Intact on this year’s roster are plenty of regular faces on at least one of those teams.

Other returners include senior forwards Shane Avery (8+3 a year ago) and Mac Balson (6+4), and sophomore defensemen Ben Kramer (10 assists) and 6-foot 5-inch Todd Graham, who played in 24 of 27 games with five points his freshman year.

The Bengals will open the season this weekend with a pair of road SUNYAC matchups. They play Cortland on Friday at 7 p.m. before a rematch with Oswego on Saturday at 7 p.m.

Zannella noted treating this weekend’s games and each subsequent one like it’s a championship game is the sight of the team. After all, a SUNYAC title is seemingly the only thing missing from the last three years of esteem at Buffalo State.

“We’re definitely trying to build some tradition here,” Zannella said. “Our focus has to be that we can’t be a .500 team and expect to beat an Oswego or a Plattsburgh or Geneseo. We can’t come one day to play and the next day not. We’ll lose to anybody if we have that mentality.”

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