WORCESTER, Mass. — Holy Cross faithful, book your flights to Grand Forks: you’re going to the Big Dance.
Thanks to a 5-2 victory over Cinderella Bentley on Saturday night, the Crusaders captured their second Atlantic Hockey championship in three years, and with it received the league’s automatic qualifier for next weekend’s NCAA tournament.
With Wisconsin beating Minnesota in the WCHA consolation game, it appears all but certain that the Gophers will take the tournament’s number-two seed and play Holy Cross next Friday at Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks.
“I want to travel,” said Holy Cross junior James Sixsmith, whose three goals and four assists in the three games of the tournament earned him the tournament MVP. “I can’t speculate for anyone else, but I’d look forward to the plane ride.”
The Crusaders captured the league title behind a four-goal effort from the power play, scoring three times on their first five chances.
“We’ve been clicking pretty good on the power play all year,” said head coach Paul Pearl, who has now captured three conference championships at the Division I level. “Most of these guys have been playing together for three years, so that helps.”
No coincidence is the fact that in Bentley’s first two wins in this tournament, it had held its opponent scoreless with the man advantage. Both of those games, including Friday night’s 3-2 win over Mercyhurst, went to double overtime. Head coach Ryan Soderquist said that the fatigue associated with overtime games seemed to catch up with his club on Saturday.
“In terms of penalty killing, there were some loose pucks that we usually get to and clear and [tonight] we were just a half a second slow,” said Soderquist. “That’s going to happen after a double overtime game like we had last night.”
Defensively, the Crusaders allowed a high number of shots (32) but kept most of them to the perimeter. When things broke down, once again — as he’s been throughout the playoffs — goaltender Tony Quesada (30 saves) was there to save things. Quesada finished the tournament with 87 saves in three games.
It didn’t take long for Bentley’s penalties to catch up with it. After killing 14 straight penalties in their first two playoff games, including 10 Friday night, the Falcons allowed power-play goals on Holy Cross’ first two chances. Tyler McGregor connected at 12:14 firing a quick shot from the slot, and James Sixsmith followed by roofing a one-timer over Bentley goaltender Ray Jean (21 saves) at 16:33.
Sandwiched in between was a Dain Prewitt marker at 12:45 to keep the Falcons within a goal through 20 minutes.
In the second, Holy Cross took control, continuing to capitalize with the man advantage. Napert-Frenette scored one of the prettier goals of the tournament, sniping a shot from the right faceoff dot just inside the crossbar at 2:07.
“I could see the goalie was down, and just wanted to put [the shot] top shelf,” admitted Napert-Frenette, who thought Jean might have been screened by his defenseman.
Bentley answered on a two-man advantage when Jeff Gumear’s shot snuck under the left arm of Quesada at 8:24.
From there, though, it was all Holy Cross. Though Sixsmith was stopped on a penalty shot at 9:44 after a Bentley player covered the puck in the crease, the Crusaders scored twice more before the end of the frame to grab a three-goal lead through two.
Jon Landry redirected a Sean Nappo pass through the five-hole of Jean on the power play at 12:31 for a 4-2 lead. Then Nappo himself was the beneficiary when a pass from behind the net accidentally hit his skate and bounded over the left shoulder of Jean and in at 18:41, giving the Crusaders the comfortable 5-2 lead through two.
In the third, the Crusaders simply played tight defense to keep shots to the outside. The Falcons mustered just nine shots in the third, with only three coming from the grade-’A’ area.
Seconds before the final buzzer, the celebration was beginning on the Crusader bench. Though excited to win the league title and advance to the national championship, Pearl and his club felt that the return trip to the Big Dance will be more about winning a hockey game and less about the “wow” factor.
“When we see the sign that says ‘Holy Cross’ on it, we won’t break out into applause like we did two years ago,” laughed Pearl. “I think we’ll go it with a little more savvy towards it and a little more comfortable in those surroundings.
“We’ll have some challenge around it, but the beauty is we’re playing next week so we’re happy about that.”