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2004-05 Atlantic Hockey Season Preview

Depending on where you’ve been for the past five or six months, a lot has changed in Atlantic Hockey. In essence, it became known that the league was somewhat a home for the “wannabes” of the college hockey world, though those who know the league well won’t find that a strange discovery.

The summer brought about what had to at least be a little bit worrisome times for Commissioner Bob DeGregorio. No less than four of the league’s nine members filed applications to leave the conference in search of perceived higher ground.

Holy Cross, Sacred Heart, Mercyhurst and Holy Cross all applied to the ECAC to replace Vermont in 2005-06 when the Catamounts head for Hockey East.

For a while no one knew exactly which direction the ECAC would head. Would they take just one team? Could they take two? Three? Four? The concern over the outcome held up talks within the league on such topics such as expansion and scholarships.

The result was that only one team was taken, that being Quinnipiac, which promised the ECAC a new arena that is set to be built in the coming years. The move reduces the number of teams in Atlantic Hockey to eight, but that won’t take effect until next season.

merc gotkin 2004 05 Atlantic Hockey Season Preview

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So with the current season upon us we can wonder how this will affect Quinnipiac and the eight other teams. The Bobcats, a lame-duck member, will obviously look to win it all and take what could be the program’s last bid to the NCAA tournament for a while. The other eight teams will hope to stand in the way, and according to preseason coaches’ predictions, that shouldn’t be a problem.

For the second straight year under the Atlantic Hockey name and for the fourth straight year overall, Mercyhurst was tabbed by the coaches as number one, that despite losing brand name players like Adam Tackaberry, Mike Carter and Peter Rynshoven. But the Lakers do return plenty of talent up front as well as two goaltenders who at times last year showed skill, though maybe not consistency.

Last year’s champ, Holy Cross, has a similar makeup to the ‘Hurst, having graduated a couple of brand-name players in Jeff Dams and Greg Kealey, but is still returning a good nucleus. Senior goaltender Tony Quesada will once again be relied upon to carry the load, though similar to last season will have Ben Conway with him to make possibly the best one-two combo in the league. The ability of the Crusaders to replace the offense lost in Dams and Kealey, particularly in the early portion of the season, will be critical to the team’s success.

Sacred Heart, which last season was seen as a solid contender but nothing more after the team got off to a very slow start, surprised many down the stretch and shocked the league by advancing to the championship game for the first time in program history. Pierre-Luc O’Brien, last year’s rookie of the year, will pace the Pioneer offense this season with goaltender Kevin LaPointe once again providing the club with a solid last line of defense.

The aforementioned Bobcats should come out hungry, but their success will be based upon the performance of their offense. Once thought of as the league’s powerhouse offense, the Q last season struggled to score goals and missed advancing to the semifinals for the first time in Division I history. Though standout goalie Justin Eddy departed, senior Jamie Holden is ever-present to control the Bobcat net.

Canisius followed a path similar to Sacred Heart’s last season, turning on the jets late in the season. Its 1-0 overtime thriller over Quinnipiac in last year’s quarterfinals could serve as a positive springboard to a success ’04-’05 campaign. Last year’s rookie phenom Billy Irish-Baker returns to guide the Griffs’ offense while Bryan Worosz is back for his fourth year in goal.

The bottom of the league should be similar to years past in that any team in the bunch has potential to surprise. Connecticut and Bentley and both teams that were incredibly young a year ago and could make their move up the standings if either gets out of the gate early.

Army, last season’s underachiever of the year, has 15 new faces on the ice and a somewhat new look behind the bench. Brian Riley, brother of last year’s head coach Rob Riley, took over the reign over the program last summer. Immediately, the younger Riley began cleaning house with one-time standout Chris Casey one of the casualties, asked not to return for his fourth season. Riley had served as an assistant last season under his brother.

And rounding out the league’s lineup is American International. Gary Wright’s team demonstrated one thing late last season, and that was its heart. Wright will need to replace the leadership and the scoring that came from senior captain Guillaume Caron, but youth combined with the solid goaltending of Frank Novello could bring this team out of the cellar.

Besides the on ice excitement of the Atlantic Hockey season, off the ice the league is examining expansion. Three schools — Robert Morris, Air Force and Division III RIT — have applied for membership. Sources say that the league is trying to convince Niagara to also file application for an expansion that is expected to take place entering the 2006-07 season.

It’s time, though, to put the women and children to bed and go hunting for dinner. So here I’ll take my shot at predicting the always-impossible league standings.

If you’re thinking about placing wagers based on these picks, I’d advise you to save your money and play poker (heck, take a few bucks and try to win the World Series of Poker for $5 million — your odds are better at making money there than with my picks).

Consider yourselves warned.

Mercyhurst
2003-04 overall record: 20-14-2
2003-04 Atlantic Hockey record: 16-7-1
2003-04 Atlantic Hockey finish: Second
2004-05 predicted finish: First
The short story: The Lakers have the firepower up front and the defense that accompanies to win a league championship. The one question that looms is whether either Andy Franck or Jordan Wakefield can elevate their games in goal to carry this team when needed.

Holy Cross
2003-04 overall record: 22-10-4
2003-04 Atlantic Hockey record: 17-4-3
2003-04 Atlantic Hockey finish: First
2004-05 predicted finish: Second
The short story: If I could pick two champions, I would, as Holy Cross should have what it takes to be a competitive team. Last year’s club got off to a fast start and never looked back. That will once again be the key if Holy Cross wants to repeat.

Sacred Heart
2003-04 overall record: 14-17-5
2003-04 Atlantic Hockey record: 12-8-4
2003-04 Atlantic Hockey finish: Fourth
2004-05 predicted finish: Third
The short story: If ever there is a year for Sacred Heart to move into the elite of Atlantic Hockey, this is it. The players are experienced, the goaltending is solid and if the recruiting class Shaun Hannah has brought in can have immediate impact, don’t be surprise to see this club win it all.

Quinnipiac
2003-04 overall record: 15-14-6
2003-04 Atlantic Hockey record: 12-6-6
2003-04 Atlantic Hockey finish: Third
2004-05 predicted finish: Fourth
The short story: Quinnipiac is trying to bounce back from its worst finish since jumping to Division I. The fact that that finish still netted the Bobcats third place says something impressive. Last year, though, things just didn’t seem to flow as easily for the Q, and that’s something the Bobcats will need to change.

Canisius
2003-04 overall record: 10-16-8
2003-04 Atlantic Hockey record: 9-11-4
2003-04 Atlantic Hockey finish: Sixth
2004-05 predicted finish: Fifth
The short story: When Canisius beat Quinnipiac, 1-0 in overtime, in last year’s quarterfinals, one player on the ice stood out: goaltender Bryan Worosz. His success this season could dictate the club’s as well, and could translate into Canisius hosting a playoff game in Buffalo.

Connecticut
2003-04 overall record: 12-16-7
2003-04 Atlantic Hockey record: 9-10-5
2003-04 Atlantic Hockey finish: Fifth
2004-05 predicted finish: Sixth
The short story: It’s quite possible that Connecticut is badly misplaced in my rankings. When you have one of the most talented players on your club in senior Tim Olsen, it’s hard to imagine that this club could finish sixth. But until UConn can prove that its defense and goaltending can shut down the opposition, it’s hard to give too much credit.

Bentley

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2003-04 overall record: 9-19-4
2003-04 Atlantic Hockey record: 7-13-4
2003-04 Atlantic Hockey finish: Seventh
2004-05 predicted finish: Seventh
The short story: After advancing to the league final four a season earlier, last year’s seventh-place finish for Bentley was a disappointment. The 2003-04 edition of the Falcons simply couldn’t score goals. If that anemic offense doesn’t improve, seventh or worse is likely. But if Bentley turns things around on O, home ice is possible.

American International
2003-04 overall record: 5-25-4
2003-04 Atlantic Hockey record: 3-17-4
2003-04 Atlantic Hockey finish: Ninth
2004-05 predicted finish: Eighth
The short story: Frank Novello is one of the better goaltenders in the league, though his winning percentage doesn’t show it. His case to sue his teammates for lack of support could stand up in court. AIC will be competitive but it will be hard to take the jump from the league’s bottom.

Army
2003-04 overall record: 8-18-3
2003-04 Atlantic Hockey record: 6-15-3
2003-04 Atlantic Hockey finish: Eighth
2004-05 predicted finish: Ninth
The short story: If you were grading Army on potential, you’d have to give an incomplete. With Brian Riley installing the new look from behind the bench, don’t be surprised if this club wears, “Hello … My name is” stickers most of the season. 15 freshmen on the roster make it hard to predict success for the Black Knights.


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