BRIDGEPORT — From New Year’s on, Sacred Heart men’s hockey was just about a .500 team and improving. The Pioneers won their first playoff series in Atlantic Hockey in three years in March.

With a lot of key contributors returning, that finish could be a double-edged sword.

“It could be, potentially, our greatest strength. These guys have all been there/done that,” coach C.J. Marottolo said. “They know what it takes. It also could be our greatest weakness, if they think finishing strong last year is just going to carry over. We know it’s not.”

The Pioneers will have three chances to measure up against top programs over the first two weekends of the season at Webster Bank Arena. Then comes the Atlantic Hockey season, beginning at Bentley on Nov. 2.

“We have to turn the page but realize we can reach as high as we want,” said senior defenseman Mike Crocock, a co-captain. “The sky’s the limit for us.”

The optimism comes in part from what Marottolo called a balanced roster, with a big group of talented young players, nine sophomores who played some key roles last year and another seven freshmen, including Colin Bernard of Stamford.

Pioneer homestand

Sacred Heart brings two nationally ranked teams to Webster Bank Arena to open the men’s hockey season:

WHAT: Sacred Heart vs. Northeastern

WHEN: Friday, Saturday, 7:05 p.m.

HUSKIES RANKED: 15 in both polls

YOU MAY KNOW: Huskies Soph. D Billy Carrabino of New Canaan played 13 games last year.

WHAT: Sacred Heart vs. Providence

WHEN: Saturday, Oct. 20, 7:05 p.m.

FRIARS RANKED: 4, USCHO; 5, USA Today/USA Hockey

YOU MAY KNOW: Friars Soph. F John McDermott of Darien transferred from Boston University. Fr. F Tyce Thompson is the younger son of Bridgeport Sound Tigers coach Brent Thompson.

—MICHAEL FORNABAIO

“We all went home this summer and worked hard,” said sophomore forward Marc Johnstone, an alternate captain, whose 30 points last season put him among the NCAA’s top-scoring freshmen. “We’re still underclassmen, but we’ve got to carry some responsibility for the offense and play some big minutes in the back.

The seniors include goalie Brett Magnus and Hamden’s Mike Lee, a defenseman who transferred from the University of Vermont but had to sit out last season.

“It’s been pretty hard, especially last year, sitting out and watching other guys play games,” Lee said. “I’m very excited to get back into it. My whole family’s coming to watch.”

No. 15 Northeastern comes in Friday and Saturday nights. Providence, No. 4 in one poll and one spot lower in the other, plays in Bridgeport on Oct. 20.

“That’s exactly what the plan was when we moved here, to help us attract better student-athletes, and to get programs to play us at home,” Marottolo said. “It’s the first time since I’ve been here for sure that we open with three home games in a row against quality teams, teams in the top 15 in the country right now. We’re usually playing those games on the road.”

The Pioneers have thrown in some standout wins against top teams in recent years, like when they played opening-night spoiler to top-ranked UMass Lowell in 2013, or last year’s 6-4 win at No. 5 Notre Dame.

“It’s nice to have some home games against some big-time schools,” Crocock said. “We’re prepared. I think we’re ready.”

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