October 29, 2011

Defending MIAC Men's Hockey Champs Open Season Saturday

 At first glance, it would appear that the only new head men’s hockey coach in the conference would have a serious rebuilding job on his hands. After all, roughly half of Scott Steffen’s initial Hamline team is new to college hockey. Eight of the top 11 scorers from last year’s team that won the conference championship and advanced to the NCAA quarterfinals last year are gone.

 But there is still plenty of talent. That talent, along with a solid influx of fresh faces (including a 3rd round NHL draft pick), leads the 1997 Hamline grad to conclude that the Pipers will be able to compete again for top honors in the highly competitive league.

“I think we might be a better scoring team than they were last year,” he said. “We have some kids like Austin Cihak (Fy., Roselly, Ill.) who are proven scorers. We knew we needed that. However, they will need to make the adjustment to playing college hockey. Once they do so, we’ll be okay.”

Chief among the returnees is Brian Arrigoni (Sr., Saint Paul, Minn.)  A 19-goal scorer last year, Arrigoni may be headed for better numbers this year. “He just a natural feel for the net- a proven scorer,” Steffen said. Arrigoni, who was a  member of the USCHO.com West Division All-American  first team and  was a second team overall All-American last year, is one of three returning All-MIAC players on the Pipers. (He is considered by many to be one of the top preseason contenders for the Division III Player Of The Year honors.)  The others – Forward Jordan Van Gilder (Sr., Lino Lakes, Minn.) and goalie Beau Christian (Sr., Moorhead, Minn.) are being counted on to provide the necessary guidance to help the younger players early in the season. “These guys know the ropes,” Steffen said. “Along with guys like Grant Fahnhorst (So., Plymouth, Minn.), Ryan McElhone (So., Zimmerman, Minn.) and Zach Johnson (So., Mound, Minn.), we have guys who know how to step up when needed.”

One newcomer forward to really watch for is Nick Widing (Fy., Somerset, Wis.). He comes to HU with excellent credentials, having played on a state champion at High-Murray High School and scoring over 100 points in two years of juniors at  Owatonna.

Steffen is replacing Scott Bell, who coached the Pipers to their first MIAC hockey title in decades. If all goes as planned, the Pipers may score more goals than they did last year (94 goals in 29 games). “We want to be up tempo but under control,” he said. “We like puck possession. The key early will be getting everybody on the same page, working to make their linemates better.”

Among the new faces who may make an immediate impact  on the blue line is 6-3 Troy Hesketh (Fy., Chanhassen, Minn.). Hesketh is a rarity for the league. He was drafted by Edmonton in the third round of the 2009 NHL draft. At 20 years old, he is a very experienced first-year player. Hamline returns three defensemen from last year. Hesketh and Joe Rubbelke (Fy., North Saint Paul, Minn.) have impressed in practice.

Christian, who started 23 games last year, offers a steadying presence in goal. Not only did he finish with an excellent 2.39 goals-against average, he had a gaudy .922 save percentage. “He’s everything you want in a goalie,” Steffen said. Matt Hemingway (So., Alexandria, Minn.), who appeared in seven games last year with a 2.47 GAA, is likely to be the solid backup.

With a pair of games in the annual MIAC Showcase and then a non-conference pair on the road next week, Steffen hopes his veterans will guide the youngsters through the early ropes. The Pipers face Bethel Saturday at Blaine's Fogarty Arena. They return to action Sunday against Augsburg, also at Blaine. Both games begin at 4 p.m.

In an indication of how tight the conference race might be, when Augsburg defeated Bethel, 3-2, Friday night, it was the most lopsided decision of the event's first day. The other two games played Friday (St. Thomas-St. Olaf and Gustavus-St. John's) ended in OT ties.

There is a link to all the games in the tournament here.


Steffen's compatriots don't see a repeat in the cards. In the annual coaches' poll, Hamline drew just one place vote and is picked to finish in fourth place. The league preview is linked here. USCHO.com, however, thinks highly of the Pipers. In their preseason poll, Hamline came in 10th in the country, the only MIAC team to get mentioned. That poll is linked here.