Forward Devin Pepe in a game from the 2021-22 season. Pepe was recently named team captain of the 2022-23 Stony Brook club hockey team. COURTESY OF STONY BROOK HOCKEY

With the 2022-23 season opener just one day away, the Stony Brook club hockey team has its sights set on a national title.

After having the 2020-21 season taken from them, the Seawolves almost won it all in 2021-22. Last year’s team made it to the second round of the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA) Men’s Division I National Championship Tournament and finished the regular season ranked eighth in the nation. It took the best team in the nation to eliminate them, as No. 1 Lindenwood wound up going all the way after ending the Seawolves’ run.

A national championship has eluded Stony Brook since head coach Chris Garofalo took over. Now in his 13th year as head coach, the team looks to finally get over the hump by staying consistent from beginning to end.

“There’s only one thing we haven’t done: we haven’t won a national championship,” Garofalo said. “When you think about our program, I think we’ve shown year-in and year-out that we’re a consistent, strong hockey program. That consistency stems from having the right culture and the right people. I think that’s the biggest thing we need to do this year.”

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The team has qualified for the national tournament in 21 of the last 22 years, with the 2011-12 season being the only exception. They have won five Eastern States Collegiate Hockey League (ESCHL) championships, with the most recent league title coming last year. They enter this year as a heavy favorite to repeat their success. They are ranked sixth in the nation amongst Division I club hockey teams.

In order to make sure they repeat that success, defenseman and assistant captain Davin Van de Zilver says that they have to stay bought into the program.

“We really have to buy in,” Van de Zilver said. “I think we just have to take no days off, make sure we’re doing the little things on and off the ice and as a whole, just bond as a family and work together.”

The Seawolves will be missing several talented players from last year’s squad who played valuable roles on the ice and in the locker room. Forwards Chuckie Peck and Joey Slevin were their two leading scorers, respectively. The two were also assistant team captains to defenseman Brendan Pepe, who was their third-leading scorer. Another offseason loss was forward Michael Conlin, who was fifth on the team in points per game. They also lost forward Scot Lawson played in a total of 25 games for the Seawolves last year.

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“We didn’t just lose talent,” Garofalo said. “We lost character, and we lost leadership.”

Despite these losses, Stony Brook has more than enough depth to supplant its losses. Forward Devin Pepe will be taking over his older brother’s former role as team captain after his teammates voted him into the position. The younger Pepe is coming off a torn ACL and MCL but is healthy for the new season. Van de Zilver, who is returning to fill his role as an assistant captain, spoke highly of Pepe.

“We’re getting Devin Pepe back … he’s an absolute grinder of a player,” Van de Zilver said. “He puts up points.”

The two new assistant captains are defensemen Andrew Mancini and Robert Distefano. Mancini was fourth on the team in assists last season. Distefano was fourth on the team in goals and fifth in scoring.

“We’re looking forward to them wearing the letter,” Garofalo said.

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The Seawolves return several other good players who will likely fill even bigger roles this year. Forward Brandon Avezov is a skilled skater with good hands who joined the team late last year but made his presence felt. Avezov tallied seven goals and 10 assists in just 10 games played with the Seawolves, leading the squad with an average of 1.7 goals per game. They also return a tall, powerful forward in Matt Minerva, who scored 13 points in just nine games. 

Defenseman Dominick Molfetto is another returning player who was highlighted as a breakout candidate by Garofalo himself.

“He’s a top-four D whose overall game is very strong,” Garofalo said. “He does everything very well. It’s not like he’s one-dimensional. He can skate really well for a big boy. He can be a defensive defenseman, he can be an offensive defenseman. Dom is a guy that I feel is going to step up his came and fill the shoes of Brendan Pepe.”

Forwards William Kormanik, Greg Barnych and James Kozicki are all expected to be in the regular rotation of players this year. Garofalo also mentioned defensemen Garth Swanson and Spencer Boris, along with forwards Aidan Gallagher and Kristian Malec, as newcomers who may find playing time this year.

“Those guys are going to be really challenging guys for spots,” Garofalo said. “They’ll be right there on their heels. They’re guys who through practices, we’re really impressed with.”

Elite goaltending helped lead last year’s Seawolves to a successful run, as three different goalies combined to post a .935 save percentage. That group was led by Matvei Kazakov, who posted a .932 save percentage in his 23 games in net. While Kazakov was out with an injury last year, his backups Brandon Sherman and Thomas Sullivan combined to post a .950 save percentage and lead Stony Brook to a 5-1 record in his absence. Sullivan and rookie Scott Barnikow are back with Stony Brook for this season.

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“That kid [Kazakov] stood on his head in goal all year and definitely saved us a few times,” Van de Zilver said. 

 In order for Stony Brook to finally win a national title, Van de Zilver says that the Seawolves are going to have to peak at the right time.

“It’s such a hard tournament to win,” Van de Zilver said. “I think the one thing we have to do is continue to build throughout the season to where our best game is our national championship game. We just have to peak at that moment, because that’s what a championship team does.”

As the ranking, numbers and names on paper may suggest, Stony Brook is one of the best Division I club teams in the nation. They will begin their quest for a ring on Friday, Sept. 30, when they travel to Syracuse, N.Y. to take on the Syracuse Orange. Puck drop is scheduled for 7 p.m. as the Seawolves will play a two-game series to open the new season.

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Mike Anderson is the sports editor of The Statesman. He is a junior majoring in journalism with aspirations of becoming a sports journalist. His love of sports comes from his time spent as a baseball player. As a reporter for The Statesman, he has covered baseball, softball, football, men’s and women’s basketball, men’s and women’s soccer and hockey. He has also interned at Axcess Sports as a high school and college baseball and softball reporter. He is a local product from Port Jefferson, N.Y., and is a diehard Mets, Jets, Nets and Islanders fan.

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