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Defensive breakdowns, injuries hurt Golden Knights this season

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POTSDAM — The first period of the opening exhibition game set the tone for what to expect from the Clarkson University men’s hockey team this season.

On that Sunday afternoon in October, Clarkson gave up four goals on 10 shots to Ottawa’s Carleton University and went on to lose its exhibition opener 6-2.

The 2012-13 season evolved into a long struggle for Clarkson, which knew going in that it would have to replace a lot of its scoring from the previous season, as well as rely on an inexperienced goalie.

But a 9-20-7 overall record was unexpected as Clarkson never seemed to be able to find any consistency.

The Golden Knights went 8-11-3 in ECAC Hockey play, finishing in a tie for ninth place.

Coach Casey Jones, who just finished his second year, knew he was going to have to replace 33 goals lost from seniors Nick Tremblay and Louke Oakley, as well as the all-time leader in saves in school history in goalie Paul Karpowich.

But what Jones wasn’t expecting was the wave of injuries that hit his team early in the season.

Captain Ben Sexton missed eight games, defenseman Sam Labrecque missed eight and senior Adam Pawlick missed 10. The team was also hurt by the loss of sophomore defenseman Kevin Tansey, who was assaulted in Canada last summer and had to redshirt the season.

“With injuries early we showed some lack of depth that hurt us out of the gate,” Jones said.

After the exhibition game, Clarkson started the season with four straight losses and was still winless after its first seven games (0-4-3).

Clarkson went 1-9-4 in nonconference games and the only win was against local rival St. Lawrence University, 3-1 in Lake Placid.

The Golden Knights also struggled at home, going just 4-10-3 at Cheel Arena.

What hindered Clarkson the most was its defensive play. The Golden Knights went from allowing 2.79 goals-per game in the 2011-12 season to allowing 3.14 this season. Clarkson’s save percentage dropped from .914 to .898 and its penalty kill fell from 82 percent to 77.5 percent.

“We have to shore up some things defensively,” Jones said. “The defensive stats have been the Achilles’ heel this year. It’s been a focal point of our recruiting to shore up that area. We have to do a better job as a team to recognize we have to get better in those areas.”

While Clarkson struggled on defense, freshman goalie Greg Lewis showed some signs of promise, beginning the season as the third-string goalie and emerging as the starter. Lewis recorded two shutouts against teams that finished in the top five in ECAC Hockey and finished with an .898 save percentage.

“Greg played the last month hurt and he was batting through a situation,” Jones said. “At the stage of the season when he was hurt we had gone with him for most of the season and it affected him on some nights, in terms of his ability to move. The experience he gained this year will make him better.”

Clarkson also received several promising seasons from freshmen and appears to have a returning group of players who should show improvement in the upcoming years.

The biggest challenge will be changing the mentality of a program that has not had a winning season for five straight years and has now graduated two straight senior classes that never experienced a winning season.

“That’s our biggest hurdle as a team, is that when we face adversity in the course of a game we revert back to our old habits,” Jones said. “That’s the next step for us, to trust the process, continue to move and continue to play the game. With winning will come that confidence and getting past that panic point where we lose our winning habits.”

Sportswriter Cap Carey covers Clarkson University hockey for the Times. He can be reached at ccarey@wdt.net. Check out his blog “Knights Tales” at www.watertowndailytimes.com

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