Fresh off a loss in the first round of the playoffs, the team from San Jose is planning to take on a rival from Southern California. Unfortunately, I'm not talking about the Sharks. With negotiations stalling, their season opener against the Ducks is now canceled. Luckily for South Bay hockey fans, there's no lockout in the ACHA.
The San Jose State Spartans get their season underway this Friday as USC (0-2) comes to town. Last year, the Spartans finished as the eighth-ranked team in the West, while USC was just outside the top 15. But SJSU has a lot of work to replace the ten seniors who left from last season.
"We're missing some really key players that we had last year that had a lot of points," said center Kyle Dutra. The forward trio of Robbie Vaughan, Lathan Logan and Jeff Malave put up 95 points between them in a combined 102 games last season. "It's hard to miss people like that, but we're going to try to fill them in as much as we can."
The top line remains mostly intact. Kyle Dutra and winger Sam Cimino proved to be one of the most dangerous duos in all of ACHA Division II, finishing 20th and 23rd in scoring at roughly 2-points-per-game each. They'll be joined by the versatile newcomer, Arthur Arias. "I've played with Arthur ever since I was six or seven years old," said Dutra. "Some of the best hands I've ever seen. He can put the puck anywhere he wants. He should be a good addition to our line."
Scoring is not lost on the second line, either. Nicholas Matejovsky and Mason Console were point-per-game players themselves last year. Ian Seidl saw some limited time with the first line in 2011, and is looking for a breakout year. The bottom six looks like it will need someone to step up in scoring, and John Germaine looks like a prime candidate after posting 10 points in his first 12 games before suffering an injury that cost him most of his 2011-2012 season.
Back on the blue-line, the team has a good balance of veterans and rookies. The Spartans have solid veteran defensemen returning with Eric Jones, Neil Schumaker and Alex Azevedo. The team is also very excited about freshman Christian Rendino. "He's a real offensive defenseman, which really compliments my defensive style," said Jones.
Salvatore Barranco is the veteran puck-mover for the team, putting up 38 assists last year, yet no goals. "I haven't scored in a while," said Barranco. "So I'm looking to break off the schneid." Barranco had some extra practice back in June when he skated with San Jose Sharks alumni, including Owen Nolan and Evgeni Nabokov, in an exhibition game against the team of Russian legends that visited Sharks Ice. "It was a great honor, and I'm fortunate to get that opportunity," said Barranco.
Another hole the team must fill is in net. Last year's starter, Michael Steininger has moved on from the team. That will open up some competition between the team's three goaltenders. Early on, it looks like the majority of the starts will be split between impressive newcomer Mario Retana and Justin Linn. As a freshman last year, Linn put up comparable statistics to Steininger in limited starts.
The team will have to adjust to more than just a few new players. Mike Watson comes in as the team's new head coach, taking the place of Aaron Mullagh, who had to step aside due to other commitments. This year's team will likely be a smaller, quicker team than last year, but that may play right in to Coach Watson's hand. The new motto for the team is "speed kills," said Watson. "We want to get through the neutral zone as quick as possible, we want to get out our zone as quick as possible, and we want to get the puck in the opponent's net as quick as possible."
Watson will bring on Steven Stichler as his assistant coach. Stichler, who will primarily focus on SJSU's special teams, was lacing up his skates as a player just last year. Over the course of his six years on the team, Stichler finished with 309 PIM, second all-time for SJSU. While he hopes the team doesn't spend quite as much time as he did in the box this year, "there definitely needs to be that edge," said Stichler.
With USC coming in to town, Stichler said the key for the Spartans was to getting the guys use to playing in front of a good crowd for the first time this year. Beyond that, the team needs to "set the tempo for the next 30-40 games." Players and coaches agree that the team needs to improve. The goal is to get back to Nationals, and get themselves in a good position to win it all.
The team is not looking past USC, however. The Trojans will be looking for their first win of the year after dropping a pair of close games last weekend to Loyola-Marymount and Long Beach State. Their top line looked impressive, and the goaltending performance was very good.
With all the moving pieces, it's a good test for the Spartans to open the year. "We want to make sure that we're rock solid in our own zone," said Coach Watson. "We're going to wait for them to make mistakes and we're going to take it to them." The team will need to be defensively responsible, but the team will still push the pace. "It's going to be a very good show," said Watson. "This is fast-paced, high-speed, checking hockey."
The Spartans get their season started this Friday against USC. The game starts at 7:30 pm from the North Rink of Sharks Ice in San Jose. Tickets are available at the door. The game will be broadcast on 90.5 fm KSJS San Jose, and a video stream is available on BlackDogEnterprises.org. By the way, I hear the team's play-by-play guy is pretty handsome.
Fight on, Spartans!