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Stony Brook hockey seeking major bounce back after letdown season

The Stony Brook hockey team on the sideline during a game against Rhode Island on Oct. 29, 2022. The Seawolves will look to make it back to the national tournament this year. PHOTO COURTESY OF AZTEKPHOTOS

After missing out on the national tournament for just the second time in program history, the Stony Brook hockey team looks to make its return to the big dance.

The Seawolves finished the 2022-23 season 18-11-4 overall and ranked No. 18 in the nation amongst American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) Division I teams. That ranking was just low enough for them to be bumped from the 2023 ACHA National Tournament, breaking a nine-year streak of berths to the event.

Stony Brook also underperformed in league games, finishing just 7-5-2 in official Eastern States Collegiate Hockey League (ESCHL) games. The team finished in fourth place in the ESCHL after winning it in 2021-22. The Seawolves were a semifinalist in the 2023 ESCHL tournament, losing 4-2 to the conference-champion Pittsburgh Panthers in the penultimate round.

With the way last season transpired, head coach Chris Garofalo said his team has approached this season with a chip on its shoulder.

“You can see it in their eyes, you can see it in their work ethic,” Garofalo said in an interview with The Statesman. “When you are a returner and you were part of a team that missed nationals for the second time in 23 years, you take that to heart, and I see a lot of guys that are very driven right now.”

In order for Stony Brook to return to its former glory, it will likely ride the back of star goaltender Matvei Kazakov. A two-year starter entering his third season with the club, he is the team’s strength. Kazakov posted a .911 save percentage and two shutouts last year.

With the players taking a more selfless approach to the season, Kazakov believes the team has a shot at being title contenders again.

“We tried to implement a different mentality compared to last year,” Kazakov said. “Last year, we were like ‘Should I play for points?’ Now, we have a team and as a team, we want to make that spot [in nationals].”

Behind Kazakov will be a trio of goalies who are competing to be the team’s top backup. The favorite to win the position is goaltender Scott Barnikow, who is going into his third season with the team. He made his ACHA debut last year and was inconsistent. Overall, he posted an .897 save percentage which was skewed downward by a poor relief appearance against Niagara. Garofalo said Barnikow is in much better shape after losing around 30 pounds this offseason.

The other two competing with Barnikow are new additions in Heath Goldsmith and Ben Monsivais. Goldsmith is a freshman, while Monsivais is a transfer who played last year with Saint John’s University’s ACHA Division II team.

Garofalo hopes the backups can give Kazakov some much-needed rest after leaning on him for most of the previous two seasons.

“We definitely can’t put all the load on Kazakov like we did last year and the year before,” Garofalo said. “He needs to have breaks and we need to know we have a really confident number two. I think we have really strong goaltending, so I’m not worried about it.”

Beyond Kazakov, the Seawolves were very inconsistent last season. After winning their first eight games, they finished the rest of the season just 10-11-4. Garofalo believed that a lack of depth was their main issue, so he went shopping and addressed the problem by recruiting freshmen and transfers.

“We brought in a ton of talent … we won’t have that problem this year, assuming everybody stays healthy,” Garofalo said. “We definitely addressed our issues. I think some of these guys are going to be filling top roles, not just a depth role.”

Some of those new guys are candidates to be in the top six of Stony Brook’s forward group. Center Nick Gallo and wingers Justin Nakagawa, Grant Ermellini and Max Zarkhin are the top freshmen forwards added this offseason, as Garofalo said they will likely play a big role immediately. They are all coming off gap years that were spent playing junior hockey. However, Gallo broke his hand during training camp, and the injury will keep him sidelined for at least the first month of the regular season.

Winger Victor Nikiforov is another forward who Garofalo expects to make a difference. Nikiforov is a transfer from SUNY Potsdam — an NCAA Division III school — who played in 22 games over the previous two seasons with the Bears.

The newcomers will be accompanied by returning wingers Devin Pepe and Matt Minerva, who were top-line guys last year. Minerva has a powerful slap shot and was Stony Brook’s second-best scorer last season. Though he missed half the season due to injury, he averaged 1.56 points per game and scored 11 goals in 16 appearances.

Garofalo believes that Minerva can carry the team to victory on his best day.

“Matt Minerva is a powerhouse,” Garofalo said. “I think he has an NHL-kind of shot. He can take over a game when his mind is right there.”

Pepe was the team’s captain and one of the offense’s leading facilitators, as his 16 assists trailed only former right winger Brandon Avezov’s 18 for the team lead. Pepe’s 25 points were tied for the fourth most by a Seawolf in 2022-23.

After spending all of the previous offseason rehabbing his torn anterior cruciate ligament, Pepe got to spend the summer perfecting his craft. He expects that to help him improve upon his offensive production.

“I really feel like I’m returning to myself before the injury and that’s something I’m looking forward to: having a clearer mind when I’m playing,” Pepe said. “I was happy with my production, but I still have a lot of room to improve and I expect more from myself this year.”

Other guys vying for ice time on the wing are Kristian Malec, Tom Liebold, Kyle DePalma and Matteo Daita. Malec is a sophomore who was a top-line guy for the second half of the season and finished his rookie year well, scoring three goals in his final four games. Liebold and DePalma are veterans, while Daita was a late addition to the team last season. Center Frankie Anastasio is also a player who Garofalo said may see some time this year after joining the team in the second half of last season.

Another forward with potential to break out this year is James Kozicki, whose role is still up in the air after playing both left winger and center last year. Garofalo said that he was the most improved player during camp and the coaching staff is currently using him as a winger. However, Gallo’s injury opens the door for Kozicki to center one of the lines to start the season.

The returning centers are some of Stony Brook’s best players. Nick Zarrilli and Will Kormanik are moving to center after playing on the wing last year. Both are natural centers, but were forced to flank the position last season. Now with former center Greg Barnych — the team’s second-leading scorer from a year ago — stepping away from the game, a spot opened for them to fill the void. Center Jesse Edwards has also returned for his senior season. All three players scored 10 goals apiece last year.

Kormanik was the most productive of the bunch. He won the team’s Rookie of the Year award after becoming its third-leading scorer with 26 points.

For an offense that averaged 3.85 goals per game but only 2.94 after Avezov’s mid-season departure, the new group will hope to withstand its scoring success through the season’s entirety.

In order for Stony Brook to play a full season of hockey, Garofalo believes the team must buy in.

“In sports, everybody comes out of the gate flying because they are motivated and pumped, then you get into a little bit of a lull,” Garofalo said. “The biggest thing for me is our culture and our locker room needs to be at an all time high, and our standards need to be raised. If you don’t want to create a slump situation, it starts with how we are in the locker room and how we are as a team.”

On the back end, Stony Brook has three returning defensemen that Garofalo expects to see increased playing time. Defenseman Andrew Mancini is the team’s only returning assistant captain from last year, while defensemen Spencer Boris, Brendan Fess and Joey Trazzera will see the ice, as well. Boris headlines the returning group after making the 2022-23 ESCHL All-Rookie Team back in March.

Garofalo did some major work to replenish a blue line that allowed 3.50 goals per game in 2022-23. After losing five of his top defensemen from a year ago (four to graduation), he brought in several transfers and freshmen to supplant those players.

Freshmen defensemen Owen Larson and Dylan Kowalsky will add depth to the defense after playing in juniors last year. Larson is in the running to be in the team’s top four on defense. Stony Brook also added three transfer defensemen as well: Nolan Towne, Jon Critelli and Teddy Valenti.

Garofalo looks at this group as more defensively inclined, which should help lessen Kazakov’s load in net.

“We have a lot of really strong, solid defensemen,” Garofalo said. “Instead of it being a lot of offensive defensemen, we’re going to have very strong defensive defensemen that will be able to move the puck, break out the forwards, play tough in the corners, around the front of our net. It’ll give our goalie a chance to make those saves.”

With Mancini still filling a leadership role, he is trying to help the acquisitions acclimate to the new environment.

“I think it’s a good opportunity for these guys,” Mancini said. “Everyone comes from different lines of experience. I know for myself, it’s showing the guys the ropes and walking them through what things are like here.”

Even though Mancini led his positional group with 11 points last year, he was not happy with how he performed and hopes to bounce back this season.

“I think it’s going to be pretty key for me to lock down on some of my offensive-minded things,” Mancini said. “I did a lot of skating this summer, was in the gym a lot, put on some more weight, which is really good for myself.”

Garofalo is still figuring out the special teams unit. Neither the power play nor the penalty kill units have been determined. Last year, Stony Brook’s traditionally-great penalty kill had a down year, but it still ranked 11th in the nation at 84.4%. The power play struggled immensely, scoring on only 17.2% of its opportunities.

Not being able to bury shorthanded teams cost the Seawolves several winnable games last season, making the power play one of Garofalo’s top areas of concern.

“Our power play was not very good,” Garofalo said. “If [it isn’t], we won’t win games that are close. When you get down to the wire and you’re playing a team that is just as talented as you are, the power play and penalty kill is decision time for whether the game is yours or theirs.”

Stony Brook will begin its revenge tour with a two-game series at The Rinx in Hauppauge, N.Y. against the Oswego Lakers. Opening night is scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 6 at 8:30 p.m. The series will wrap up the next day with a 3:30 p.m. puck drop. The Lakers opened their 2023-24 season already and are 5-1-0 after splitting their two-game series at one of the Seawolves’ ESCHL rivals: the Rhode Island Rams.

Mike Anderson and Anthony DiCocco also contributed reporting.

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