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Smitty’s Scrum: Previewing the Battle at the Beach

After a long wait, the Tigers are finally getting their season underway.

Photo via Justin Peart, Auburn Hockey

It’s been quite a while since the Auburn Tigers played a hockey game that mattered. The last regular season game the Orange & Blue took the ice for was all the way back in 2019 in a playoff loss to the Ole Miss Rebels; now, after a long wait, the team returns to play in a three-game series in Daytona Beach.

The Battle at the Beach will be of enormous consequence for this Auburn team considering the nature of their schedule (10 confirmed games at the moment), especially given that other SECHC powerhouses like Georgia, Tennessee, and Georgia Tech are all off to hot starts. If the Tigers want to earn a berth to the College Hockey Federation Federal Cup in March, they’ll likely need to take at least two of the three contests on this road trip.

With that said, this isn’t some poorly constructed non-contender we’re talking about. Auburn has shown that it can hang with the best in the conference in recent years, and with the addition of some exciting new talent this roster projects to compete all season long for the program’s first SEC Championship and possibly more. Who stands in the way of this goal, what storylines will we see this weekend, and why should Auburn fans watch? All of that (and more) below.

What’s the deal with UCF?

The Battle at the Beach features a pair of Southern Conference opponents, with the first of the two being the University of Central Florida Knights. UCF is a proud, storied program that at one point produced nine consecutive national championship appearances, but recently has fallen on harder times as new powers like the University of Tampa and University of Southern Florida have dominated the conference.

The Knights are led by captain Donovan McClellan, who sits at second in points per game by SCHC defenders. The 6’1”, 199 lb. senior isn’t a particularly flashy skater or shooter, but his strength on the puck and ability to dictate the pace of play are impressive. With three goals and four assists through five games, he doesn’t lack finishing ability, either. Pay attention to No. 4 in black and gold whenever he’s on the ice.

The Knights also have another standout in No. 17, the sophomore center Max Weinstock. The 6’0”, 175 lb. pivot flashed some impressive hockey IQ and playmaking ability when I was watching film of UCF’s game against ERAU earlier this year; what particularly stuck out was his talent at recognizing when to step up in the play as opposed to being conservative. Weinstock doesn’t appear to be a dazzling skater (he had a few moments where he got beaten by raw speed or fine edgework), but he’s a dangerous player nonetheless and somebody to be aware of.

The Knights play a 1-2-2 neutral zone forecheck and rely mostly upon stretch passing and dump-and-chase tactics to produce quality zone exits and entries. The Tigers’ best bet for effective counterplay is rooted in playing fast and physical on the forecheck, looking to anticipate the first and second pass while sealing potential receivers along the boards.

Who are the ERAU Eagles?

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University is a medium-sized private school focused on flight and aerospace development. Located in Daytona Beach, the ERAU program has been around since 1999 but until recently hadn’t seen much success. The image of a perennially under-the-radar program took a big step forward in 2020, when the Eagles made history via a magical run in the ACHA’s Southern Regional Tournament.

The Eagles, a five seed entering the bracket, upset the SECHC’s Georgia Tech and No. 4 Florida Gulf Coast en route to a national tournament berth, the first in school history. Under head coach Bob Joyce, ERAU rose from the doldrums of a tough conference and assembled a strong contender. For the Tigers, this opponent will be no easy task to handle.

On the year, ERAU features four of the SCHC’s top six point scorers. Led by the diminutive Kyle Usiak, who continues to build upon his breakout 2019-20 season, the Eagles also feature high-flying scoring forwards Ryan Marks and Noah Austin. Anchored by a rock-solid blue liner in Jack Bokun, the top-end talent on ERAU’s roster is diverse and imposing.

The deciding factor for the Eagles lies in net. Both Mitchell Quinn and Mitchell Kihm currently possess save percentages below the .900 mark, a surprisingly disappointing success rate given ERAU’s dominant play through the first seven games of the season. Joyce’s crew leads all SCHC teams in goals scored, but also allows more tallies against them than any other team in the conference. Watching back games, you could mostly chalk that up to defensive breakdowns in the lower parts of the lineup as the Eagles played a high-octane, “defense optional” style. If one of the dual Mitchells shows up and starts hot, Auburn could end up in trouble.

Opening SECHC play against Florida State

Lastly, the Tigers and the Florida State Seminoles will close out the weekend with Auburn’s first conference game since 2019. While the earlier matches against UCF and ERAU are certainly important, drubbing a lowly Florida State team is a must for a Tigers roster looking to have a dominant start.

The ‘Noles have one of the SECHC’s worst teams this season, allowing 34 goals and scoring just three of their own in their first two games of the year. Losing 16-0 and 18-3 against Florida Atlantic emphasizes just how dire things are down in Tallahassee; similarly to how the Auburn Tigers were flattened by opposing teams in the early days of the program (a 29-0 loss to Arkansas comes to mind), this squad appears bereft of any defensive or offensive capability befitting a competitive in-conference team. This ought to be a one-sided brutalizing of an overmatched roster. If it isn’t, Auburn might be in trouble next week when facing off against the talented Tennessee Ice Vols.

Three Big Things

  1. The Tigers need to get goalies Cam Denk and Chris Clement comfortable, early. Auburn are inexperienced between the pipes, with the two netminders remaining the biggest unknown on a team laden with more proven talent and veterans scattered about the rostered skaters. The Orange & Blue didn’t have a defensive performance to remember against D-I Alabama in exhibition, but Denk looked shaky and rusty at times. With more practice and game action under his belt, the talented sophomore should improve, but he’ll need to do so quickly against some tenacious competition this weekend. Clement has had zero game action as of yet, but the team seems to like what they have in him. We’ll have to wait and see.
  2. The big guns need to step up. Brandon Weis, Blake Robison, and Sam Edwards are guys who have performed in this league for their entire careers, but they couldn’t find the back of the net in their exhibition outing despite driving offense well. They’re getting some nice support from a newer name in Noah Henry, who projects to be one of the better players in the conference this season, but still need to get things done. Expect them to come out of the gate motivated and playing hard as the veteran core hungrily pursues a hot start.
  3. Team defense will be critical, especially in the absence of the excellent Henry Humphrey. Freshman James Willoughby-Ray stood out as a bright spot against Alabama, but he can’t be expected to carry the load all by himself. With two wild cards in net, playing sound defense, winning puck races, and countering the other team’s forecheck with smart and rapid decision making from the back end might decide how Auburn’s weekend plays out.