Simply put, the MAAC season has come down to three weeks. Six games for each team to position themselves for the playoffs.
And last weekend’s action is what set up the whole ball of wax.
With first-place Quinnipiac taking the weekend off from conference play, the two teams sitting on the doorstep had the privilege of battling amongst themselves.
Holy Cross came out the victor of both matches and pulled within two points of the first-place Braves at the end of the weekend.
If this was scripted, it would figure that Holy Cross and Quinnipiac would face off this week. And look what we have here, a home-and-home series between those two clubs. Now even the best sportswriters in the country couldn’t pen a script as exciting as this.
But that’s not the only excitement. Both Iona and Canisius could be tied with AIC by the end of this weekend (sorry, I haven’t figured out the system for breaking three-way ties yet).
Enough with that, on to the awards:
MAAC Player of the Week: Ryan Carter (F, Iona) notched hat tricks in back-to-back games against Fairfield. He leads the MAAC in scoring (50 points) and goals (30). Carter currently has an 18-game scoring streak, dating back to Nov. 14, 1998.
MAAC Goalie of the Week: Scott Simpson (G, Holy Cross) recorded his first career shutout, a 1-0 victory over UConn on Friday. He stopped 50 of 52 shots in a weekend sweep of the Huskies.
MAAC Rookie of the Week: Erik Nates (F, Iona) posted a career-high five points (1g, 4a) in Friday night’s 10-3 win against Fairfield.
Record in picks last week: 7-3 Season’s record in picks: 10-8 (.555)
Holy Cross (15-8-3, 15-5-2 MAAC, 2nd) at Quinnipiac (20-4-2, 17-3-2 MAAC, 1st) Friday, 7:00 pm ET, East Haven Rink, East Haven, Conn. Quinnipiac at Holy Cross Saturday, 7:00 pm ET, Hart Recreation Center, Worcester, Mass.
Holy Cross has put itself in position. Now the key is to execute.
The Crusaders have hung around the top of the MAAC all year, and this weekend, they have the chance to launch themselves into the top spot. But for Holy Cross coach Paul Pearl, this is just business as usual.
"We play a 28-game league schedule," said Pearl. "We go into every weekend looking to get the four possible points.
"This weekend is no different. To put too much emphasis on it would be foolish."
Regardless, getting four points this weekend against first-place Quinnipiac will enable Holy Cross to grab a share of first place.
One key to this weekend will be the play of senior goaltender Scott Simpson. After spending three years as a backup, Simpson was called to duty 11 games ago when the Crusaders’ top goaltender, Tom Ormondroyd, ended his career due to post-concussion syndrome.
Since arriving in the lead role between the pipes, Simpson has posted a 7-3-1 record with a .904 save percentage and a 2.36 goals against average.
Simpson ranks third in the league in both save percentage and goals against.
Pearl credits Simpson for the Crusaders win last Saturday night against third-place UConn.
"In the last five minutes of the game (Saturday night), Simpson was unbelievable, " said Pearl. "UConn was fabulous on Saturday and Simpson stole the game from them."
The win came one night after Simpson posted his first career shutout, a 1-0 win at UConn.
Pearl hopes that Simpson and his Crusaders will continue its "business as usual" practice this weekend against the Quinnipiac.
Quinnipiac accomplished something only four other schools — UMass-Amherst, Denver, MSU-Mankato, and Bentley — have done this season. They beat Air Force on the Cadets’ home ice.
Now, if you look at the other teams that have played Air Force at home this season (Niagara and Holy Cross are probably the toughest), that doesn’t seem like as much of an accomplishment.
But to second-year coach Rand Pecknold, any win against an established Division I school is something to talk about.
"We are very excited to beat Air Force," said Pecknold. "They are a very solid team. I see why they swept Niagara a couple of weeks ago."
Although the Braves pulled off the win against Air Force on Saturday night, it was only 24 hours after Quinnipiac had blemished its perfect non-league record against the same Cadets.
"The difference (in the two games) was that we finished our chances on Saturday," Pecknold said. "On Friday we had more scoring chances, but couldn’t finish."
But more important than the series at Air Force was that the Braves were idle for the weekend from MAAC play. That allowed Holy Cross to sneak within two points of the Braves before Quinnipiac extended the lead to four with a win Tuesday night over Sacred Heart, 8-5.
That sets up this weekend’s series.
The Braves were in a similar position two weeks ago, playing now third-place UConn and holding a four-point lead. Two wins would have distanced them and two losses would have meant a tie. The split kept a bit of distance but allowed Holy Cross to sneak in the back door.
Picks: Another big series, another split. This time I’ll call the reverse — Holy Cross wins Friday, 4-2, and Quinnipiac on Saturday, 5-4.
Sacred Heart (5-18-1, 5-16-1 MAAC, 7th) at Canisius (10-11-5, 8-9-5 MAAC, T-5th) Friday, 7:45 pm ET, Dann Memorial Rink, Buffalo, N.Y. Saturday, 2:00 pm ET, Dann Memorial Rink, Buffalo, N.Y. Canisius vs. Niagara (12-10-3) Tuesday, 7:30 pm ET, Amherst Pepsi Arena, Buffalo, N.Y.
Sacred Heart was idle over the weekend but met first-place Quinnipiac on Tuesday night in a battle of southern Connecticut rivals.
The game was the second of two Tuesday night games in a home-and-home series with the Braves. Quinnipiac won the first game, 6-1.
Unfortunately for the Pioneers, the result was the same this time, an 8-5 loss. But for Shaun Hannah, head coach at Sacred Heart, there are a lot of positive signs.
"We came out with a bang," said Hannah. "We grabbed a 2-0 lead but then the bounces didn’t exactly go our way.
Quinnipiac scored a fluke goal in the first period that turned the game a bit. As the Braves attempted to dump the puck into the zone, it hit a stanchion in the glass. With Pioneers’ goalie Alexis Jutras-Binet behind the net to play the puck, the puck bounced off the stanchion and right into the net.
"We also had a couple of defensive breakdowns, and (Quinnipiac) being such a creative team, they took advantage.
"But more important is that the team played hard and didn’t quit. Right now that’s all I can ask."
As far as this weekend’s opponent, Canisius, is concerned, Hannah and his team are excited.
"It’s the only overnight trip of the season for the club, so the guys are fired up for it," said Hannah. "I know they have a small rink up there, so I expect a real physical match.
"Canisius is a good team and it was just a matter of time before they found their rhythm."
That rhythm is what has made the second half of the season very exciting for the fifth-place Ice Griffs.
Canisius completed the weekend with a split against a tough AIC squad on enemy ice, leaving the Griffs four points behind AIC in the battle for the final home-ice playoff position. The Griffs are also tied with Iona, which swept Fairfield last weekend.
"It was a great two-game series," noted head coach Brian Cavanaugh of the AIC pair. "AIC is very well-coached and they got strong goaltending from Chance Thede last weekend."
Cavanaugh said that it was missed opportunities that led to a 3-2 loss in Friday night’s contest.
"If we capitalized on our opportunities, we could have won the first game," said Cavanaugh. "We capitalized on Saturday night and that was the difference."
Looking ahead, the Ice Griffs play three games in four days in the upcoming week, beginning by hosting a pesky Sacred Heart squad this weekend.
"Sacred Heart is a very dangerous team," said Cavanaugh. "Like AIC, they are very well coached by Shaun Hannah, who played Division I college hockey himself for Brian McCutcheon at Cornell.
"They are a vastly improved team from the beginning of the year to this point. We have to play well and not take anyone for granted."
On Tuesday night, Canisius will face upstate rival Niagara, only the second game that Niagara plays this season against an MAAC opponent. Niagara defeated Holy Cross, 3-0, earlier this season.
"Niagara is a big story here in the Buffalo area this season," said Cavanaugh. "They have been a traditional rival of Canisius in all sports for 145 years.
"They are also a well-coached team with the best power play in the country. They will be very tough to play."
Niagara, under Coach Blaise MacDonald, have impressed many across college hockey in only their second year of existence. The Purple Eagles have played a competitive Division I schedule and fared pretty well.
The Purple Eagles gained early season respect by knocking off defending national champion Michigan, then following that up with wins over Ohio State, RPI, St. Lawrence, Colgate, and Brown.
Cavanaugh added that the game is expected to be sold out at the Amherst Pepsi Arena, which is located almost halfway between the two campuses.
For a more detailed look at Niagara, see Jayson Moy’s
Picks: Canisius proves why they’re the best second-half team in the league. A 5-3, 4-1 sweep of the Pioneers, and a 3-2 upset win over Niagara.
American Int’l (12-10-3, 11-8-3 MAAC, 4th) at Iona (11-13-2, 10-11-1 MAAC, T-5th) Friday, 7:00 pm ET, The Ice Hutch, New Rochelle, N.Y. Saturday, 7:00 pm ET, The Ice Hutch, New Rochelle, N.Y.
AIC is coming off of a weekend split with Canisius — a series that carried with it some serious playoff overtones.
To set the stage, AIC holds fourth place in the MAAC with both Canisius and Iona breathing down its neck. With 25 points, AIC leads both teams by four points for the final home ice spot.
Friday’s 3-2 victory over Canisius was keyed by good goaltending.
"Goaltender Chance Thede has been, to date, this team’s MVP," said Yellow Jackets coach Gary Wright. "Chance has excelled all expectations this season….Friday night it was our better effort and goaltending that saved the game."
Saturday, though, was a much different story for AIC as the Griffs outshoot the Yellow Jackets, 42-18.
"Saturday night, (Canisius) was clearly the hungrier team," said Wright.
Canisius was able to score four goals in a span of eight minutes and 23 seconds to account for all of the offense in the 4-0 shutout.
Wright understands the importance of this weekend’s games against Iona as it pertains to home ice. Even so, he doesn’t want to make to big of a deal.
"No one weekend is a ‘must’ weekend," said Wright, "but this one is definitely significant. We really need to contain (Iona’s) offense."
And that offense was firing on all pistons last weekend. Iona must wish all of its games were played against Fairfield. The Gaels completed their season series against the Stags with a perfect 5-0 record, and that’s only half the story.
In the five contests against Fairfield, Iona scored 48 goals while yielding only 12. The 48 goals represent 41 percent of Iona’s offense this season.
The 19-goal output last weekend (10-3, 9-1 victories) produced two individual league awards for the Gaels.
Freshman sensation Ryan Carter notched not one, but two hat tricks on the weekend to finish with seven points (6g, 1a) and the MAAC Player of the Week award. Like his team, Carter has enjoyed big offensive games against Fairfield this season, registering 12 goals and five assists for 17 points in the five games.
Another rookie, Erik Nates, tallied a career-high five points (1g, 4a) in Friday’s contest to earn him the MAAC Rookie of the Week award.
The sweep leaves Iona with 21 points and tied for fifth place with Canisius. Hence, this could be a make-or-break weekend for the Gaels in the race for home ice. Two wins over AIC would guarantee a tie for fourth place after the weekend. But two losses could put them eight points out with only four games to play.
Iona also played a non-league game with Army on Tuesday night, skating to a 5-5 tie — the Gaels’ first-ever — with the Cadets on enemy ice.
Picks: AIC takes Friday’s game, 4-3, but can’t contain the Iona offense twice. The Gaels prevail on Saturday, 6-4.
Connecticut (13-9-4, 12-6-4 MAAC, 3rd) at Fairfield (1-24-0, 1-21-0 MAAC, 8th) Friday, 7:30 pm ET, Wonderland of Ice, Bridgeport, Conn. Fairfield at Connecticut Saturday, 7:30 pm ET, UConn Ice Arena, Storrs, Conn.
For the UConn Huskies, the worst may be over.
Two weeks ago, UConn was in somewhat of an enviable position. They were four points out of first place with two home-and-home series against first place Quinnipiac and third place Holy Cross straight ahead.
Unfortunately for the Huskies, over the four games they registered only one win. But to look on the bright side, they are still only six points out of first place with six games left in the season.
More good news for UConn is that the six remaining games are against the bottom three teams in the league.
"Playing six games against the bottom of the league looks appealing," said UConn coach Bruce Marshall, "but when you have teams like Sacred Heart who took three of four [points] against us last time we played, you can’t worry about who you’re playing."
Last weekend was one of the hardest-fought of the season for UConn. Friday night’s game saw the Huskies outshot 31-20 by Holy Cross, but the goaltending of Marc Senerchia (30 saves) kept UConn in the game.
The only blemish for either team’s defense was a power-play tally by Holy Cross freshman Pat Rismiller at 11:04 of the first period.
"Friday night was a great hockey game. It was a one-goal game the whole way," said Marshall. "We played hard and competed. Our discipline was good. We just didn’t generate any goals."
Saturday was a much different game, as UConn outshot Holy Cross, 34-25, but still found themselves on the losing end of a 3-2 score.
Holy Cross senior netminder Scott Simpson proved to be the difference in the game. His countless key stops, many coming late in the game, propelled the Crusaders to the win.
About Simpson, Marshall said, "He played great. When you’re struggling offensively sometimes you aren’t thinking about burying the puck. You shot hoping to score. But we didn’t bury the puck and that gave Simpson time to see the shots or get into position."
So their fate may no longer be in the Huskies hands, but that won’t stop Bruce Marshall’s club.
"I don’t care if we’re playing the Olympic team, we just need to work hard and find a way to win."
Fairfield must be glad to have finished the season series with Iona. Counting a non-league contest between the two club in the Quinnipiac Cup consolation game, Fairfield faced Iona a total of five times this season, all resulting in defeat.
The Stags defense surrendered a generous 9.6 goals per game to the Gaels while the offense scored an average of only 2.4 goals per game. Not something that makes second-year coach Mike Doneghey too happy.
The Stags are one loss away from clinching last place in the league, which could serve as a positive for the team.
Instead of spending the last two weeks of the season fighting for a seed, the Stags can concentrate more on getting ready for the playoffs and a first-round single game against one of the three teams competing for the top spot.
On a positive note, Fairfield senior goaltender John True, who has probably seen more than his share of rubber this season, is closing in on the school record for career saves. With 2,225, True is 159 saves away from surpassing Tim McDevitt (’92) on the all-time Fairfield list.
True is averaging 38 saves per game this season for the Stags, meaning it should take him a little more than four games to break the record.
Picks: UConn dusts itself off and gets back to winning ways. 5-2, 6-2 sweep.