This Week in the MAAC: December 4, 1998

The email came first in a trickle, then in waves.

“What do you have against UConn?” demanded angry Huskies fans. “Why do you keep picking them to lose?” Several pointed out that I had picked UConn to be swept three weekends in a row.

And for the record, the stretch in which I predicted UConn to go 0-6 actually saw the Huskies take a win and a tie from AIC; a split with Quinnipiac (sending the Braves to their only loss of the season); and a split with Holy Cross.

Why did I predict gloom and doom for the Huskies? The AIC thing was just a hunch. With Quinnipiac and the Cross, UConn looked to be just a bit less talented on paper than their league counterparts.

But no matter the talent level, you just can’t replace heart, and UConn might be the hardest-working team in the MAAC. While Bruce Marshall’s club may not have any true snipers, they’re willing to skate a stride quicker and hit a bit harder than their foes. And they have one of the MAAC’s best netminders in senior Marc Senerchia (2.20 GAA).

As a result UConn is right where it should be, three points behind first-place Quinnipiac. And if the Huskies keep playing they way they have been, they will be playing in the Hart Center at Holy Cross March 19-20 with as good a chance as any of taking the MAAC crown. With that out of the way, its on to this weekend’s matchups, the last full weekend of MAAC play before the semester break. The marquee matchup, both of the weekend and on the season to date, is the home-and-home series between first-place Quinnipiac and second-place Holy Cross, as just one point separates the Braves from the Crusaders in the standings.

The weekend’s most intruiging series, however, just may be that between AIC and Iona, two teams currently tied for third, neither supposed to be there. Then there’s Canisius and Sacred Heart, a series the Ice Griffs must have if they are to salvage their season, and what looks to be a mismatch with UConn and Fairfield.

Iona (7-4-0; 6-3-0 MAAC) at American International (5-1-2; 5-1-2 MAAC) Friday-Saturday, 7 pm, Olympia Ice Center, W. Springfield, MA

This matchup is a simple one to figure, a storyline that’s as old as the game of hockey itself — a hot team on offense taking on the hottest defense in the conference. In a league characterized by teams with good goalies but shaky defenders in front of them, AIC seems to be one of the few with both assets, as evidenced by their league-leading 1.75 goalsper game allowed.

That’s largely due to sophomore goalie Chance Thede, who boasts a league-leading goals-against of 1.72 and save percentage of .941.

Iona, meanwhile, just keeps rolling on offense. Last we saw of the Gaels, two weeks ago, they drubbed Fairfield to the tune of 17-4 over two games.

So it’s safe to say there’s one simple key to these games — which force is stronger? How tight is AIC’s defense? Is it enough to withstand the force the league-leading Rob Kellogg-Ryan Cater-Erik Nates line? Can AIC muster some offense of their own?

Picks: The scary thing is, these Iona gunslingers are mostly freshmen. If they stick together the full four years, its not too tough to envision a MAAC crown in three years. Iona rolls, 6-3 and 8-2.

Canisius (2-8-2; 0-6-2 MAAC) at Sacred Heart (0-9-0; 0-8-0 MAAC) Friday, 7:30 pm, Milford Ice Arena, Milford, Conn. Saturday, 3 pm, Milford Ice Arena, Milford, Conn.

Make no mistake about it: Canisius’s season is on the verge of becoming an unmitigated disaster. The preseason pick to finish second in the MAAC, the Griffs are now 0-8-2 in their last ten games. If they lose or tie Friday, Canisius will set a new school record for a winless streak.

Every week it seems it seems the Griffs are on the verge of getting over the hump; every week they come up just short. Their last eight games have seen two ties, three one-goal losses and two two-goal losses. Part of the problem is slow starts — the Griffs had to come back from two-goal third-period deficits to earn both of those ties.

Sacred Heart, meanwhile was expected to have trouble adjusting this year, but it’s been worse than expected. The Pioneers have dropped their first nine games and 13 of their last 15 dating to the end of the 1997-98 season.

Keys to the game:

Sacred Heart needs bigtime help on defense. Don’t let Alexis Jutras-Binet’s 6.12 goals-against average fool you; he’s one of the best young goalies in the league. But he’s been getting subpar efforts in front of him. Tuesday, he saved 40 shots to keep the Pioneers’ 6-3 loss to Army respectable.

Canisius needs someone to step up in the clutch, like Rob Othmann or Aaron Kemp, who are tied for seventh in the MAAC in scoring with seven points each. The Griffs are getting to the point where the close losses are piling up, and need someone to come through and stem the pyhschological effect.

Picks: Sacred Heart prolongs the Griffs’ agony with a 4-3 overtime win Friday, but Canisius finally breaks loose Saturday with a 7-2 win.

Quinnipiac (8-1-0; 7-1-0 MAAC) at Holy Cross (6-3-2; 6-1-1 MAAC) Friday, 7 pm, Hart Center, Worcester, MA Holy Cross at Quinnipiac Saturday, 7 pm, East Haven Rink, E. Haven, Conn.

Coaches will mumble cliches that it doesn’t matter who’s in first in December, it’s who’s in first come March. And there’s a degree of truth to that, but don’t let anyone fool you — both of these teams badly want to go into the break atop the MAAC.

The Braves look to be the stronger of the two at this point. Although they dropped their first decision of the season to UConn, a one-goal road loss two weeks ago, they responded with an 8-3 thumping the next night and appear to be in high gear.

Holy Cross, meanwhile, has stumbled a bit, going 1-2 over their last three to drop out of the top spot, including a one-sided 6-1 loss at Army last Friday.

Keys to the games:

For Holy Cross, it’s a simple matter of slowing down the high-powered Brave offense. Quinnipiac leads the league in goals per game (5.20, edging Iona’s 5.16), and the Crusaders will need to slow down preseason player of the year Chris Cerella and freshman sensation Neil Breen.

Not that the Crusaders can’t score themselves. The Braves need to keep a lid on Chris Fattey (2-6-8) and Joe Cavanugh (6-1-7) in order to win this weekend.

Picks: Holy Cross dictates the pace in their own building and takes a 3-2 decision. Saturday, the Braves bounce back and play their style in their house, where they are 7-0 on the season, taking the win 8-4. Fairfield (0-9-0; 0-7-0 MAAC) at UConn (6-4-1; 5-2-1 MAAC) Friday, 7:30 pm, UConn Ice Arena, Storrs, Conn. UConn at Fairfield Saturday, 7:30 pm, Wonderland of Ice, Bridgeport, Conn.

Quite frankly, the less said about this one, the better. Although Fairfield and Sacred Heart are both winless at the bottom of the MAAC, the question of which team is the league’s worst seems pretty clear-cut. Sacred Heart at least seems to put in a solid effort every night; Fairfield has simply been getting hammered every time out, and haven’t been comptetitive since a 3-2 loss to AIC on Oct. 30.

And it’s not really the fault of coach Mike Doneghy, a coach known for sound fundamentals, either; rumblings out of the Gold Coast are that the administration just doesn’t have their heart into supporting Division I hockey.

Take a program in disarray and match them with a disciplined, veteran UConn crew (a team coming off a tough set with MSU-Mankato at that), and you have the makings of another long weekend for the Stags.

Picks: Resisting the urge to pick UConn to get swept anyways, look for the Huskies to take 5-2 and 3-1 decisions. Other games: After this weekend, AIC and Fairfield are both involved in nonconference games before hanging up the skates for a couple weeks. AIC takes on a pair of Division III foes, hosting Williams on Dec. 8, then taking on defending NCAA Division III champion Middlebury in a game on Dec. 12 that could serve as a statement on the MAAC’s legitimacy in Division I at this point. Also on Dec. 8, Fairfield travels to Army, a team that’s 2-1 against MAAC teams, having beaten Holy Cross and Sacred Heart and lost to UConn.