In order for the Pioneers to accomplish this goal head coach Shaun Hannah said the most important thing is to play a full season. "Last year we had a major let down in the last month of the season and we lost our last six games," Hannah said. "This year we have to go hard start to finish in order to be at the top."
Returning to lead the Pioneer attack is junior Pierre Luc-O'Brien. O'Brien led the team in scoring in 2004-05 with 18 goals and 17 assists for a total of 35 points. He was named a member of the Atlantic Hockey All-Conference first team. This year O'Brien will serve as an assistant captain for the Pioneers.
"Pierre has developed a lot in the last two years," Hannah said. "He has become a key part of the team and we look to him to drive the offense."
A fifth year senior, Henck was an anchor on the blue line for the Pioneers last season, as he skated in 33 contests registering a pair of assists for two points on the season. His veteran presence will lead an experienced and deep group of seven returning defensemen.
Hannah expects both of his senior captains to be solid in the face of competition. "Both guys bring a ton of experience," Hannah said. "They don't get rattled and lead by example."
Molinaro, one of the best face-off men in the conference, played in all 35 games last season, scoring six goals and tying a career high with 16 assists for 22 points on the year. His playmaking and face-off skills will be a key cog in the Sacred Heart scoring engine.
The Pioneers will have a pair of big shots up front to complement the two captains on the attack. Senior Andrew Billinghurst and sophomore Alexandre Parent both were big contributers to the Pioneer attack a year ago and are expecting big things in 2005-06.
Billinghurst found the back of the net 11 times and added 10 assists for 21 points, while Parent had nine goals and 16 assists in his freshman season. Parent was selected to the Atlantic Hockey All-Rookie team for his performance.
Without question, the Pioneers biggest hole to fill is in net, where two-year starter Kevin LaPointe was lost to graduation and ultimately to a professional career. LaPointe, who had been in training camp with the Detroit Red Wings, will play this season with Muskegon of the United Hockey League. Replacing him in net for the red and white of Sacred Heart will be junior Jason Smith, who was LaPointe's backup for the last two seasons.
Smith played eight games during the 2004-05 season, turning in a 3-5-0 record with a 3.77 goals against average and .886 save percentage. Smith knows he has big shoes to fill, but he and coach Hannah are confident he'll get the job done.
"He's a compeitor and brings some good experience from his career in Junior Hockey," Hannah said. "His butterfly style will help him cut off a lot of angles."
In addition to the returing veterans, the Pioneers welcome a strong recruiting class. Up front Sacred Heart will welcome Bear Trapp, Kyle Tyll, Eric Giosa and David Smith. On defense, two new recruits will don the red and white: Dave Grimson and Paul Ferraro.
In goal the Pioneers welcome Stefan Drew. In 48 games played for the Terriers Drew had four shutouts, 28 wins, 14 losses, and four ties, with a 2.87 Goals Against Average, and a .908 save percentage. He was the leading goaltender in Manitoba Junior Hockey League Playoffs. He backstopped his team to the Royal Bank Cup in the Canadian National Junior A Championship Tournament.
Hannah is excited about his new players. "We are very pleased with the caliber of our incoming class," he said. "They are extremely committed to making significant contributions to the success of our program on the ice, in the classroom and in the community."
The Pioneer schedule is, as always, a challenging one including several non-conference games against regional powers. The Pioneers open the season on the road against Union, and will make another trip to New York's capital district to face RPI in early December. There will also be a trip to New Hampshire in January for a date with Dartmouth. At Christmas time the Pioneers will compete in the Dunkin Donuts Coffee Cup Tournament in Providence. The four team, two day tournament also includes Brown, Providence and Colgate.
"Playing a strong non-conference schedule can only help you get better," Hannah said. "It will help us prepare for the Atlantic Hockey schedule."
The conference schedule includes a double home-and-home slate with each team. The Pioneers open their Atlantic Hockey Schedule October 28th at home against Canisius. On November 18, the Pioneers will travel to Erie, PA for their first meeting with defending champion Mercyhurst. The Pioneers will get their first crack at Holy Cross, the team that knocked them out of the last year's playoffs on January 6th. The regular season concludes with a home-and-home with Connecticut on March 4th and 5th. The Atlantic Hockey playoffs begin the following weekend.
Hannah expects the conference to be even more balanced then it has been recently. "By playing each team four times, its going to provide for more upsets and more parity then we've even seen in the last few years, he said.
One thing is certain. No matter how much parity there is, the Pioneers won't be satisfied unless they are atop the Atlantic Hockey standings at the end of the season.