WEST POINT -- Army hockey coach Brian Riley pointed to this season, as far back as two years ago, when the Black Knights would challenge for the Atlantic Hockey title on the strength of Class of 2018 recruiting.
To his surprise, his youth came together ahead of time. Army has reached the league semifinals two straight years, but each time finished the season with one-goal losses to Robert Morris (in overtime) in 2016 and Air Force last season.
With the bulk of the team returning, featuring four goal-producing lines and a defense ranked fifth in the nation last season, hopes are to surpass that tripping point to win the program's first Atlantic Hockey playoff title and the accompanying NCAA tourney berth.
"Obviously, with our last two finishes, we're not happy with where we ended up," said senior Tyler Pham, an all-star hopeful. "I think that we all agree our team has more depth. I think for sure the expectations are a bit higher."
The season got underway this weekend with Army recording two wins at American International College, 5-1 on Friday and 2-1 on Saturday. Army, 18-14-5 last season and 15-10-3 in league play, is considered one of the top teams in the league. They are picked to finish third in the preseason coaches poll behind defending playoff champion Air Force and Robert Morris. Army was selected fourth in the media poll, and considered the best team in the eastern half of the league by U.S. College Hockey Online.
"This is probably the most experienced team that we have returned in a long time," Riley said. "Really, if you look at the defensive corps, we have everybody back but (Nick) Ryan; up front, we have everybody back."
Army proved last season that it can produce goals from all four forward lines, and Riley believes the top two units are as good as any in the league. Army returns 90 percent of its offensive production and its top nine goal scorers. Brendan Soucie (15 goals), Conor Andrle (14) and Zach Evancho (13) led the goal scoring, and Pham had a team-high 16 assists to go with five goals.
"We are a really deep team and you will see that throughout the year," sophomore Dominic Franco said. "I think it's going to be good for us down the road having guys who can take the next step here."
The forward lines and defensive pairings return nearly intact, so the biggest change is the establishment of senior Cole Bruns as the starting goalie after two years of mainly riding the bench behind all-league goaltender Parker Gahagen.
"This is a great opportunity for Cole Bruns," Riley said. When Gahaghen injured himself late in the season, it was Bruns who "saved" a game in relief against Holy Cross and another in the decisive quarterfinal game three against Mercyhurst. "I think that bodes very well as far as giving our team a lot of confidence in him," Riley said. "They saw him come up big when we needed him to."
Riley believes this team has the makings of a championship team.
"It's a team that has been to Rochester (for the semifinals) two years in a row," he said. "I think they understand what it takes to get there, but more importantly, they want to get there and finish the job."
This article is written by Ken McMillan from The Times Herald-Record, Middletown, N.Y. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.