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College hockey: Role reversal for Canyons ice hockey

Team changes perceptions with national championship, now it will look for its second

Posted: March 11, 2012 1:55 a.m.
Updated: March 11, 2012 1:55 a.m.

College of the Canyons ice hockey team used to be ridiculed as a soft team from California, now the defending American Collegiate Hockey Association Division III national champions will go for their second straight title starting Wednesday.

College of the Canyons will head to Vineland, N.J., this week and defend its American Collegiate Hockey Association Division III national championship.

The Cougars won it after years of being labeled as a soft team from the West Coast.

Despite the championship, head coach John Taferner said that perception hasn’t totally changed.

“This year, we’re the hunted and the hated,” he said.

Canyons will open the National Championships on Wednesday against Davenport University of Michigan, the first of three Pool A games. The other two are against Robert Morris on Thursday and Central Florida on Friday.

There are four pools, and each pool winner advances to the semifinals on Saturday morning. The national championship game will take place Saturday evening.

This season, the Cougars won the Pacific Collegiate Hockey Association for the fourth year in a row, the first time in the 40-year history of the league the feat had been accomplished. That automatically qualified them for nationals.

“We’re going back into it as the No. 1 team in the nation and defending champions,” said COC defenseman Justin Wilmers. “We’re going in with the mentality that everyone’s going to give us their best shot.”

Last season, COC beat Hope College 5-3 in the national championship behind two goals from forward Brian Voogt and the play of goaltender Michael McGrath, who was named the tournament MVP. McGrath has since graduated, but Voogt, who was named to the all-tournament team, has returned with a vengeance.

He leads the team with 110 points on 60 goals and 50 assists, while fellow forward Ben Conroy has 80 points on 27 goals and 53 assists.

Together, they’ve given Canyons (20-7) a dynamic scoring punch that Taferner believes will complement the team’s defense-first mentality.

“We can work our offense around these guys,” Taferner said. “There’s an old saying, ‘The team that scores the most points is the team that wins in the regular season. In the playoffs, the team that allows the least points is the team that wins.’”

The Cougars have counted on three different goaltenders to help prevent goals this season. Taferner said that Taylor Spesak brings size and experience, while Taiyoh London has speed and Christian Kramer is a calming, mature influence between the pipes.

Spesak stops 90 percent of the shots he faces and has an 8-3 record with a 3.53 goals against average. London is 11-3 with a 4.16 goals against average and a 0.88 save percentage.

Kramer has played less than the other two, but he’s still stopped 82 percent of the shots he’s faced.
Taferner likes the diversity of his goaltenders.

“It’s a good problem to have,” he said.

COC boasts a solid group of defensemen in front of the goaltenders, defensemen that even do damage on offense. After Voogt and Conroy, the next five points leaders are defensemen, led by Wilmers’ 33 points on 15 goals and 18 assists.

When COC traveled to face Arizona State for a two-game series in mid-February, Taferner said Sun Devils head coach Greg Powers complemented the Cougars.

“He told me, ‘You guys are much deeper this year than last year,’” Taferner said. “I think we’ve got four strong lines now, whereas last year we had three strong lines.”

That could be due to the schedule. This season, the Cougars played 10 ACHA Division II teams, which accounted for all seven of their losses.

Two of them came against Arizona State in the two-game series, which was also the last time Canyons played. Through all the ups and downs this season, Wilmers says the coaching staff has kept the team grounded.

“Sometimes, they’ll even punish us after a big win, just to keep our heads out of the clouds,” Wilmer said. “They tell us, the real season doesn’t start until we get to nationals.”

Of the three Pool A games that COC will play at nationals this week, Taferner believes the opener against Davenport will be the most difficult.

“Davenport is like a Dickens novel,” he said. “It could be the best of times or the worst of times. It depends on which team shows up.”

Should COC win its pool, it could possibly face Hope College again in the national semifinals.

Hope College found out how tough the Cougars are last season. They’ll try to remind everyone else of that beginning on Wednesday.


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