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Split Season: After Up-and-Down 2012-13, Big Green Hockey Searches for Consistency

  • Dartmouth College forward Grant Opperman, right, is one of five freshmen on the Big Green's roster this season. Dartmouth opens its home schedule Friday night against defending ECAC champion Union. Valley News - Tris Wykes

    Dartmouth College forward Grant Opperman, right, is one of five freshmen on the Big Green's roster this season. Dartmouth opens its home schedule Friday night against defending ECAC champion Union. Valley News - Tris Wykes Purchase photo reprints »

  • Dartmouth College center Nick Bligh prepares to take a faceoff against Ontario Institute of Technology during an Oct. 18 exhibition game at Thompson Arena. The Big Green host defending ECAC champion Union on Friday in its first home game. Valley News - Tris Wykes

    Dartmouth College center Nick Bligh prepares to take a faceoff against Ontario Institute of Technology during an Oct. 18 exhibition game at Thompson Arena. The Big Green host defending ECAC champion Union on Friday in its first home game. Valley News - Tris Wykes Purchase photo reprints »

  • Dartmouth College forward Grant Opperman, right, is one of five freshmen on the Big Green's roster this season. Dartmouth opens its home schedule Friday night against defending ECAC champion Union. Valley News - Tris Wykes
  • Dartmouth College center Nick Bligh prepares to take a faceoff against Ontario Institute of Technology during an Oct. 18 exhibition game at Thompson Arena. The Big Green host defending ECAC champion Union on Friday in its first home game. Valley News - Tris Wykes

Hanover — Entering New Year’s Eve last season, the Dartmouth College men’s hockey team had won seven of its first 10 games and was ranked eighth in the national polls. Hopes arose that the Big Green would reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since coach Bob Gaudet tended goal in 1980.

And then … Dartmouth won just seven of its final 22 contests, being swept out of the ECAC playoff quarterfinals by eventual conference champion and regional finalist Union College. The Big Green still finished fifth in the regular season standings and went 15-14-5 overall and 9-9-4 in ECAC play, but there was no debating the hollow feeling left at winter’s end.

“We had a few injuries and the lines were mixed up,” said junior forward Charlie Mosey. “Because of that, we just couldn’t get on a roll.”

Gaudet agreed, pointing to the loss of forwards Brandon McNally, Dustin Walsh, Jack Barre and Matt Lindblad. The latter left school a year early and signed with the Boston Bruins last spring. He’s now playing for their American Hockey League affiliate in Providence, R.I.

“We had a really good team to start and then some pieces fell out, but we should have been able to forget about that and move on seamlessly,” said Gaudet, whose team opened the current campaign with losses to Ivy League foes Princeton and Brown in a Newark, N.J., tournament. “I thought we were really good at times down the stretch, but not consistently good.

“Maybe we struggled at times, but some guys got key ice time that they wouldn’t have otherwise, and I think it will make us a better team this year.”

Dartmouth returns its leading scorer in junior center Tyler Sikura, who had 32 points last season. Voted team captain, the Canadian flourishes as both a scorer and a playmaker, with 23 goals and 34 assists during his 67 college games. The Big Green lost last season’s second- and third-leading scorers, Lindblad and Walsh, to graduation, but return senior Eric Robinson and junior Eric Neiley, who combined for 37 points last season.

Other forwards with potential for breakout years include junior McNally, sophomore speedster Tim O’Brien and junior Jesse Beamish, who bounced back from being benched early last season and went on to score some big goals down the stretch.

Defensively, Dartmouth graduated anchor Mike Keenan, now in the pros, but returns five other rearguards — juniors Andy Simpson and Rick Pinkston, sophomores Geoff Ferguson and Ryan Bullock and senior Taylor Boldt — who all played at least 27 games last winter. Sophomore Brett Patterson, who switched back from forward late in his freshman campaign, has remained there this season and might be the best of the bunch.

Dartmouth’s goaltending duty was split by junior Cab Morris and freshman Charles Grant last season. Both were solid but not outstanding, with Morris going 8-7-3 with a 2.14 goals-against average and a .915 save percentage and Grant coming in at 7-7-2, 2.77 and .911.

Rare is the team that makes a deep postseason run without a stellar netminding, so this position is crucial if Dartmouth hopes to end its NCAA drought. Morris and sophomore James Kruger, who played only once last winter, split the games last weekend.

“Our players are fairly close in talent from top to bottom,” Gaudet said. “Our hope is when guys go down, now we’ll be able to fill in without much of a drop off. Our numbers might not show it, but I think we have more depth than last season.”

The ECAC was nationally derided as the “EZ-AC” in the past for its lack of national tournament success, but that changed last season. Yale won the title over Quinnipiac and Union (1-2-2), which provides the opposition in tonight’s home opener, reached the regional final.

“It’s a very, very tough league and those teams that emerged last year showed that,” Gaudet said. “I was cheering for them because you want our league to get the level of respect it deserves.”

Starting tonight, Dartmouth hopes to show its fans that it too deserves to be mentioned with the best in the conference and the country.

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com or 603-727-3227.