The Utah State University club hockey team opened its 2017-18 campaign Friday night with a 7-3 win against Weber State in Ogden.
The Aggies are one of the premier programs in the West region in ACHA Division 2, having won 71.9 percent of their games since 2009 and have scored twice as many goals as their opponents in that span (1667 to 821).
Utah State has been a regular in the Division 2 nationals, though success there has been limited. In the last two trips to nationals, the Aggies have won just two games and didn’t make it past group play.
Head coach Jon Eccles is setting the expectations even higher for this year’s team.
“We’re trying to set our expectations higher,” Eccles said. “It’s not good enough just making it to nationals, we have to show up and play.”
Eccles noted that the youth of the team will be more of a challenge for this year’s team. Typically, the team has had a strong veteran presence in the main lines. This year that isn’t quite the case.
“This year we’ve got nine new guys and we’ve got six of them that’ll be in starting lineups and playing a lot.”
Most of the turnaround is on defense. Of the eight total defensemen on the roster, five are new. The Aggies lost five defensemen from 2016 including Shaun Gibbons, Branden Fisher and 2016 West First Team selection Joseph Chase.
Eccles said the team will have to step up to maintain Utah State’s tough defensive mentality. He also said the Aggies veteran goalkeepers, Colter Pritchard, Austin Willenborg and Christian Vivian, will need to take more on their shoulders.
“We’re going to need them to pay better,” Eccles said of his goalkeepers, “because our D is going to be a little bit softer and we also need them to win us some games.”
While Eccles said the defense may decline this year, he still said his team will maintain its physical style, but with a few differences.
“I think you’ll see a more exciting and more fast-paced game,” Eccles said. “And I think you’ll see a lot more confidence. There’s more cohesion with the players working together so I think you’ll see a lot more passing and setting each other up to score.”
On offense, Utah State returns most of its firepower. The top five goal-scorers all return for 2017, Morgan McJimsey, Alex Herman, Frank Flight, Chris Cutshall and Josh Kerkvliet. Last year, each of those five players scored 20 or more goals — the first time the team has had that many player score 20+ goals since 2011-12, when the Aggies scored a team-record 285 goals during the regular season (the Aggies scored 192 goals in 2016-17, also the most since 2011-12).
With all of the top goal-scorers returning, Eccles has emphasized retaining the balance of last year’s offense.
“We’ve really stressed we want playmakers,” Eccles said. “We want teamwork out there because if we’re all doing that then all nine of those guys will be producing for us.’
The Aggies will primarily run three lines on offense, but Eccles said he doesn’t plan on designating one as the first line.