WEST POINT, N.Y. — What began as a little more than a pleasant morning skate for Sacred Heart resulted in enough to propel the fourth-seeded Pioneers to the semifinals of the inaugural Atlantic Hockey Championship.
Paced by a solid 26 save performance by goaltender Kevin LaPointe and a goal and an assist from fourth-line winger William Billinghurst, the Pioneers downed fifth-seeded Connecticut, 3-0, in a morning quarterfinal, the first of four to be played at Army’s Tate Rink on Saturday.
Sacred Heart advances to the semifinals for only the second time since the formation of the MAAC league, which began play this season under the Atlantic Hockey name. And it did so by following a game plan to do its best shutting down a UConn offense that averaged nearly 40 shots per game.
“We went in with the mindset that UConn takes an average of 37.2 shots per game,” said Hannah. “We knew we’d have to limit that and get in their faces as quickly as possible so we didn’t give them the time to get the shots to the net.”
The result was only eight grade “A” chances for the Huskies, none of which were extremely threatening to LaPointe.
Besides defense the game’s other story line was its start time. With the league playoffs held at a single site for all rounds, Saturday’s quarterfinals features four games, the first of which began at 10 a.m. For most of these players it has been a while since they’ve suited up for a game, much less of this magnitude, at such an early hour.
“The last time I played a game that early was probably in peewees,” said LaPointe. “But we were still ready to go at 10 this morning.”
The reason for that might have been the Pioneers’ preparation for the game. Knowing since last weekend that they would be playing the early game, Sacred Heart spent the entire week practicing at 9:30 a.m., with the players getting up at 6:15 each morning.
“We’ll probably never play a game [so early] again,” said LaPointe, “but we were well prepared today and that showed.”
The fact that Sacred Heart was prepared worked to its immediate advantage as it got all the scoring it would need in the game’s early minutes.
Peter Giatrelis scored his eighth goal of the year knocking home the rebound of William Billinghurst’s shot on the power play just 4:19 into the first.
“We got the puck to the point and [Bernie] Chmiel took the shot,” said Giatrelis describing the goal. “I kind of redirected it and it went right to Billinghurst. [He shot and] the puck just came right off the goalie and I was right there.”
The goal was the only scoring of the first two periods, which featured more play in the neutral zone than anywhere else. Through two, shots on goal were 19-17 in favor of Sacred Heart, but all told the clubs mustered only 13 quality chances.
The tight defensive game might have benefited the underdog most times, but in this case the tight Pioneers defense prevailed over the Huskies once the game opened up in the final period.
Also working against UConn was the fact that Tim Olsen, the club’s leading scorer and the Atlantic Hockey Player of the Year, broke his wrist late in the second and missed the remainder of the game.
“To lose [Olsen] in that situation is tough to adjust midstream in the game,” said UConn coach Bruce Marshall. “He’s the guy who can get you that goal when you need it so it affected us [when we needed that goal].”
Things especially got tight for the Huskies midway through the third when the Pioneers fourth line took advantage of an odd-man rush to take a 2-0 lead. Chris Connery plastered a hard slap shot on UConn goalie Scott Tomes (26 saves) that bounced right back to him. His second shot was again stopped but the rebound landed right on Billinghurst’s stick and consequently into the empty net.
From there it was just a case of solidifying the defense for Sacred Heart, which it had done throughout the game with amazing success.
Garrett Larson added an empty-netter for Sacred Heart with 1:43 remaining to seal the victory.
Now it is waiting time for the Pioneers, who, due to reseeding before the semifinals, won’t find out their next opponent or even Sunday’s game time until after Saturday’s play is completed.