PLYMOUTH, N.H. - Before the 1997-98 college hockey season, Plymouth State College coach Sal Leale said nothing less than a trip to the play-offs would be a success for this year's squad.
The Panthers achieved that goal, battling back from a slow start and winning seven of their last nine games to grab the last spot in the ECAC North-Central-South Tournament. PSC placed fourth in the North with a 9-6-1 league mark, but an 11-2 drubbing at Fitchburg State in the play-offs left the final overall record at 11-14-1.
"We had a goal of making the play-offs, and we did," said Leale. "Everyone gave up on us. Everyone. We got better as the season went on. Three teams we lost to early we beat later in the season. A team that makes the play-offs with only three seniors and so many young players is pretty damn good."
The young Panthers struggled to a 1-7-1 start, and it looked like it was going to be a long season. But a key win at Worcester State in the final game before the mid-season break added hope for the second half of the campaign. PSC turned in a 9-6 record over the second semester, including victories in rematches against teams who had won the first in the two-game series - Curry, Nichols, and Framingham State.
"We had a tough schedule up front, combined with a tremendous amount of young players in the line-up," said Leale. "We had freshmen on the power play and man-down situations. We needed the freshmen to come through for us."
To gauge the team's youth, just look at the scoring leaders. The top four scorers were three sophomores and a freshman. Sophomores Kevin Creighton (Falmouth, MA) and Eric Ryan (No. Chelmsford, MA) were the team's top scoring leaders all season long, each earning several weekly honors from the ECAC. Creighton finished at the top with 16 goals, 24 assists and 40 points in 25 games, while Ryan was right behind with a team-high 19 goals, 16 assists and 35 points. Ryan scored six times and Creighton five on the power play unit.
"Kevin and Eric were asked as sophomores to carry the load," said Leale, "and that's a lot of responsibility. But they did it, and did it well. They are both on pace to become two of the all-time leading scorers in school history."
Two other underclassmen who contributed to the offense were sophomore Rich Vega (New Milford, CT) and freshman Erik Nadeau (Waterville, ME). Vega finished with 10 goals and 28 points, while Nadeau was third on the team and one of the top freshmen scorers in the league with 12 goals, 19 assists and 31 points in 25 games.
"Erik Nadeau had a hell of a freshman year," said Leale. "He played on the first power play unit, he killed penalties, he centered the second line the entire season as a freshman. That's very impressive. Vega is a very steady player. He'll get in the area of 30 points a year, and he's a solid two-way player."
The only senior on the Panther offense was Derek Hengstenberg (Clark, NJ), who saw action as a third-liner and during penalty-kill situations. He scored three goals and assisted on three others, finishing his 64-game career with 11 goals and 14 assists.
Three juniors in the Panther line-up were Josh Perry (Falmouth, MA), Chris Ticconi (Shaker Heights, OH), and Todd Hengstenberg (Clark, NJ). Perry slumped to a 16-point season (7-9-16) after averaging 20 points in his first two years, and Ticconi (8-10-18 in 15 games) left the team at mid-season. Hengstenberg was injured much of the year, and skated in only 10 games.
Leale used a host of freshmen, led by forwards Chris Tanis (Bangor, ME), Matt McPhee (Plymouth, MA), Tom Beaulieu (Hudson, NH) and Eric Gilbert (So. Portland, ME), and defensemen Chris Casey (Niskayuna, NY) and John Powers (Reading, MA).
"Matt McPhee, Chris Tanis and Chris Casey all had great first years," said Leale, "and were relied on heavily as freshmen to play a lot of minutes, and come through at times. We needed the freshmen to come through for us."
The backbone of the Panther defense was junior captain Steve Colonna (Falmouth, MA), who used his size (6'1", 200 pounds) and strength to patrol the zone in front of the Panther net. He also saw time during man-up and man-down situations, scoring six goals and seven assists.
"When Steve got injured and missed five games, our defense lost some," said Leale. "The kid's a rock on D. Penalty kill, even up, power play....Having him out of the line-up really hurt us. We were glad to get him back."
Two of the three seniors on the team skated regular shifts on defense - Mark Memmolo (Reading, MA) and Mike Flaherty (Reading, MA). Memmolo was the highest scoring Panther blue-liner with one goal and 15 assists, and Flaherty was among the national leaders with three short-handed goals. Joining them as regulars on the defensive unit were junior Rob Fox (Mashpee, MA) and sophomore Tim Conroy (Cohasset, MA).
Leale used three goaltenders, a junior and two freshmen, in search of the right man at the right time. Junior Jeremy Roberge (Concord, NH) got nine starts, posting a 3-3-1 record, freshman Cliff Mask (London, Ont.) had eight starts, going 3-6-0, and Dan Baker (Clifton Park, NY) was between the pipes for seven starts, posting a 4-4-0 record.
"We struggled in the nets this year," said Leale. "Hopefully that will improve next year. These guys will have to step it up, and I think they can."
While Leale would've liked more wins along the way this season, he is proud of how his team responded.
"This team defined perseverance," said Leale, who is now 23-23-2 in two seasons at PSC. To start out 1-7-1 and end up the regular season at 11-13-1 is pretty damn impressive. This year we got in the play-offs, and next year we want to win the whole thing."
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