The first game of the season, Candice Moxley was going to learn a lot about her team. About their resiliency. About the way freshmen would step up. About the way they would respond after having the joy of the game sucked out of them.
The first game of the season for the Buffalo State women’s hockey team was a 4-4 tie with Plymouth State. The contest featured 48 total penalty minutes – all on two-minute minor penalties.
“We knew the referees had an area of focus with obstruction and we had full video sessions with the team, hopefully so they could be smart about what the refs would be calling,” said Moxley, in her fourth year as the Bengals’ head coach. “The officials called it really tight. Then there were some phantom calls I felt. It’s an adjustment for the officials, too. It was their first game and they have a learning curve as well.”
But while the officials were getting their first-game kinks out, Buffalo State was throwing freshmen into the fire right away.
“Everyone was so gassed because you were constantly on special teams,” Moxley said. “We were adjusting and tweaking our special teams and since the freshmen played so much, it should be good for their confidence.”
Confidence has been growing for the women’s program since Moxley took over for the 2013-14 season. Last year they set a program record in wins with an 18-8-0 mark, this after having just three wins in Moxley’s first season.
No longer cellar-dwellers in the ECAC West or Division III hockey, the Bengals need to stay focused to make the jump from leader of the mid-pack to contender.
“That’s our challenge as a staff. When you’re the underdog, you have nothing to lose,” Moxley said. “When we took over the program three years ago, there was nowhere to go but up. Now we need to make that jump to the next group of teams that consistently make an NCAA tournament. The last few years, we’ve been able to play with them. We need to win those games and take care of business in conference.”
The Bengals (4-1-1) will get their shot when they host No. 3 Elmira at 4 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Saturday.
Meanwhile, it wasn’t an easy opening night for the Buffalo State men, either. After being ranked 14th in the D3Hockey.com preseason national poll, the Bengals managed just one point against Fredonia, losing their opener on Nov. 4, 4-2, then taking a 1-1 tie the next night.
Some of the team’s best veteran players weren’t at their best that weekend, second-year coach Steve Murphy said.
But the Bengals rebounded in a big way, knocking off then-fifth ranked Plattsburgh, 4-1, on Nov. 11.
Statement wins have become part of the expectations for a Bengals program which set school records last season and looks to build toward its first State University of New York Athletic Conference Championship.
“The win over Plattsburgh got us going in the right direction,” Murphy said. “We talked after the game that it’s nice to beat the No. 5 team in the country and a national powerhouse, but it’s just a start. Going off the success of last year, we’ve come to be expected not only to compete in those games to beat some of those high-end teams. Hopefully we made that statement.”
Last year the Bengals set a school record for most wins with their 15-7-4 record and got a first-round bye before falling in a home game to Geneseo in the SUNYAC semifinals.
The team returns some key players from last year’s run but also features 13 new players and 12 freshmen. That’s a big class. No really. It’s a big class – more than half of the freshmen are 6-feet or taller.
“We’re heavier, stronger with more skill up front,” Murphhy said. “That’s much needed after losing Ryan Salkeld.” Salkeld, who graduated last year, racked up 56 points in his final two seasons with the Bengals, including 28 goals.
“We’re looking to the freshmen to pick it up. They’ve given us depth. Every day and every week there’s competition to get in the lineup. They push each other. They push the older guys. It makes it a difficult decision who to play and that makes our team different than last year.”
The Bengals, now 2-1-1, host Canton at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday.