You might think that a feeling such as winning a championship, especially the inaugural championship in the MAAC hockey league, is something that you never forget.
And though that is probably the case, Holy Cross coach Paul Pearl, who led the Crusaders to exactly that berth two seasons ago, probably wishes that the memories of skating the championship trophy around the ice were the most vivid in his mind.
Instead, though, Pearl and his players have memories of an 8-24-3 record last season, a seventh-place finish in the MAAC, and a quick exit by means of a 10-3 loss against Mercyhurst in the first round of the playoffs. Maybe not the best memory for a coach, or anyone for that matter, but for Pearl, it’s a building block.
By returning 17 players, including his top two scorers in Brandon Doria (30 points) and Pat Rissmiller (27 points), and adding 13 new faces to the dressing room, Pearl expects the Crusaders to be competitive.
— Holy Cross head coach Paul Pearl
The MAAC coaches may disagree, as Holy Cross was picked eighth in the MAAC preseason poll. But Pearl is quick to point out that parity is the name of the game in his league.
“I think [Quinnipiac and Mercyhurst] are going to be the top two teams in the league,” Pearl said. “But I think three through 11 will be [up for grabs].”
Now familiar with both the top and the bottom of the league, Pearl knows better what it will take to get his Crusaders to back to the upper-tier of the MAAC: consistency.
“Our biggest challenge will be to get all the guys going a little earlier than we did last year,” noted Pearl, entering his sixth season with the Crusaders. “Last year we finished great and had a good run at the end, and even the year before, we were .500 at the break, but put together a stretch of wins in the second half and ended up winning it all.
“We need to do that a little earlier this year so that we’re not battling to get into the playoffs, but in the thick of it for home ice.”
Pearl will look to his young personnel to lead his team back towards the top of the MAAC. Of the freshmen entering Holy Cross, Pearl expects eight or nine players to take immediate impact roles. That includes one of the Crusaders biggest holes last season — goaltending.
Junior Derek Cunha, a transfer from Trinity College, will be eligible to start this season after sitting out a mandatory NCAA redshirt. Junior Matt Smith, injured for much of last season, will be given a chance to compete alongside two freshmen, Ricky Massey, who played last year for BB&N in the New England Independent School League, and Brad Holzwart, from the New England Coyotes.
Pearl admits that he has no clear favorite for who will play between the pipes, but whoever gets the first call will have the unenviable task of facing St. Lawrence University, one season removed from a berth in the NCAA Frozen Four, in the opening round of the Black Bear invitational in Orono, Maine. A win there, as great an upset as it would be, would likely set up a date with always powerful Maine in the championship game.
The non-league schedule, which will be strong for its second consecutive year for Holy Cross, will also include games against UMass-Lowell, Vermont, Providence and Yale. Undoubtedly, Holy Cross will play one of the toughest slates in the MAAC. And that’s tough from day one.
“For all the five years I’ve been here, we’ve been a great team in February and March,” Pearl finished. “Now it’s time to be a good team from the beginning, to be a good team at Thanksgiving break. If we do that, we can be a great team.”