This Week in the MAAC: February 26, 1999

Whoever said the MAAC isn’t exciting Division I hockey, they’re crazy.

As we end February, no other league in the country still has three teams battling for the top spot. To add to that, the MAAC has three other teams tied for the final home-ice bid in the playoffs.

If that’s not exciting, I don’t know what is.

After league leader Quinnipiac pulled out a dramatic victory over second-place Holy Cross on Friday, the Braves were within a win on Saturday of clinching the regular-season crown.

But Holy Cross had other plans, responding with a 6-0 win at home and keeping the Crusaders just four points out first place with four games remaining.

Similarly, AIC needed a weekend sweep of Iona to get some breathing room for the final home-ice spot. But the Gaels turned the table, sweeping the Yellow Jackets and forcing a three-way tie for fourth place, thanks also to Canisius’ weekend sweep of Sacred Heart.

Just in case you are wondering, the MAAC is using the following formula to break ties for playoff seeds:

1. Most MAAC points 2. Total MAAC wins 3. Comparison of games between the tied teams (head to head) 4. Record vs. top four in league 5. Goal differential in head-to-head games 6. Goals scored in MAAC games 7. Coin toss

Currently, that would give Iona the nod for fourth place with 12 MAAC wins, compared to 11 for AIC and 10 for Canisius.

The only two positions in the standings that are already clinched are seventh (Sacred Heart) and eighth (Fairfield). Those two teams face off this week for the chance to gain a bit of momentum heading into the playoffs.

As far as my predictions go, I had a kind of "ho-hum" week. I did pick a split between Quinnipiac and Holy Cross, but unfortunately picked each victory on the wrong night.

Iona was the other surprise. The Gaels found a way to beat AIC goalie Chance Thede on back-to-back nights.

MAAC Player of the Week: Erik Nates (F, Iona) recorded four goals and two assists in three games this week, including five points in the weekend sweep of AIC. Nates received league honors as rookie of the week just one week ago.

MAAC Goalie of the Week: Scott Simpson (G, Holy Cross) continued his spectacular play, allowing three goals in a 4-2 loss on Friday night versus Quinnipiac before picking up his second shutout in as many weeks, a 6-0 decision over Quinnipiac the following night. This is the second consecutive week Simpson has received this award.

MAAC Rookie of the Week: Ryan Carter (F, Iona) posted seven points this week (1g, 6a) and extended his scoring streak to 21 games. His 2.04 points-per-game average leads all Division I players in the nation.

Record in picks last week: 5-4 Season’s record in picks: 15-14 (.517)

Quinnipiac (21-5-2, 18-4-2 MAAC, 1st) at Iona (13-13-2, 12-11-1 MAAC, T-4th) Friday, 7:00 pm ET, The Ice Hutch, New Rochelle, N.Y. Iona at Quinnipiac Saturday, 7:00 pm ET, East Haven Rink, East Haven, Conn.

After carrying one of the MAAC’s most potent offenses for the first four months of the season, Quinnipiac, though still atop the MAAC standings, has been shut out three times in as many weeks.

The most recent came at the hands of Holy Cross in a game that could have clinched first place for the Braves.

Something that may be a bit deceiving, though, is the fact that though the offense hasn’t clicked in those three games, by no means has it gone to sleep.

Over the past three weeks, the Braves offense has scored 21 goals in seven games (3.0 goals per game). And that includes the three shutouts. So second-year coach Rand Pecknold agrees that there is nothing to worry about — not just yet.

"We have a very sound team on both the offensive and defensive ends of the ice," said Pecknold. "The three shutouts were a combination of running into great goaltending, of failure to finish our chances, and, most importantly, teams are gunning for us."

This past weekend the Braves played their second series against the second-place team in the MAAC in three weeks. The first was a two-game split with UConn two weeks ago, when UConn was in second.

This time, against new runner-up Holy Cross, the results were the same. Friday night, the Braves used a Mike Ruggiero goal with four minutes and 32 seconds remaining to break a 2-2 deadlock. Neil Breen added an empty-netter with 18 seconds left for the 4-2 final.

The win extended the Braves’ lead to six points over the Crusaders before Saturday’s rematch.

A win on Saturday would have given Quinnipiac an eight-point lead over both Holy Cross and UConn, which with just four games remaining in the season would have guaranteed the Braves no worse than a tie for the crown.

It wasn’t to be, though.

"It would be greedy to hope to clinch so early," said Pecknold. "Hats off to Holy Cross; they played very well."

On Saturday, the Crusaders built a 3-0 lead after one, winning 6-0, and outshooting the Braves 32-19 on the night. Quinnipiac used all three of its goaltenders in the game.

"Saturday we were flat and (Holy Cross) was sky-high," noted Pecknold. "Remember, it’s difficult to sweep a good team and even tougher to pull off the double sweep.

"Holy Cross is an excellent team and we feel fortunate to have won three of four from them."

This week, Quinnipiac takes on a tough Iona squad that is riding the conference’s longest current unbeaten streak (five games) into battle.

Iona’s latest conquest was a weekend sweep at home over AIC which catapulted the Gaels from fifth place into a tie for fourth, and more importantly the final home-ice playoff spot.

The Gaels’ offense has come to life in the late season. Between the first week in December and the second week in February, a span of 12 games, Iona’s offense only registered four or more goals twice. During that span, the Gaels won just two games.

But in their last five games (4-0-1), the Gaels have outscored their opponents 37-13, scoring nine goals twice (AIC, Fairfield) and 10 once (Fairfield).

This gives Iona coach Frank Bretti some hope.

"We weren’t fielding the same team (a few weeks ago) as we are now," said Bretti. "We had injuries to a couple of players hurt us, but we’re back to normal.

"We trimmed our bench and focused on defense, on not giving up more than three goals a game. That has allowed the offense to start taking care of itself and take advantage of opportunities."

Leading the charge has been rookie sensation Ryan Carter. Carter earned MAAC Rookie of the Week honors this week to follow up his Player of the Week award last week. It is the fifth time this season Carter has won a weekly league award.

Carter currently has a 21-game scoring streak, the longest of any player in Division I. Only two teams (Canisius, UConn) have held Carter off the scoreboard this season.

"Carter is a true finisher," Bretti said. "There aren’t many players in the league you can attach that title to.

"There are game where he’ll seem to be having a bad game, turn it around in three shifts and have a goal and an assist."

Joining Carter with league honors is fellow freshman Erik Nates. Nates followed up his Rookie of the Week award last week with the MAAC Player of the Week this week.

Nates currently has a career-high eight-game scoring streak. He has recorded 11 multiple-point games this season.

"Nates is the hottest player in the MAAC in the second half," noted Bretti. "He creates things himself. He’s developed significantly all season."

With Iona’s sweep of fourth-place AIC last week, the Gaels are in a three-way tie with AIC and Canisius for the final home playoff spot. Fortunately for Bretti and the Gaels, they currently win the tiebreaker with the most league wins among the three teams (12).

"I haven’t even booked the home ice on the calendar," Bretti said. "Canisius has a very favorable schedule.

"We’re using the remainder of our schedule to prepare for the playoffs."

Picks: Two great offenses — Iona 6-4 on Friday, and Quinnipiac 5-2 on Saturday.

AIC (12-12-3, MAAC 11-10-3, T-4th) at Holy Cross (16-9-3, 16-6-2 MAAC, 2nd) Friday, 7:00 pm ET, Hart Recreation Center, Worcester, Mass. Holy Cross at AIC Saturday, 7:00 pm ET, Olympia Ice Arena, W. Springfield, Mass.

American International may have picked the wrong point of the season to slump.

The Yellow Jackets have lost their last three games, and six of their last nine contests. Over that span they have been outscored 37-21.

One concern for AIC has to be the power play, as a unit that stood in the top three for most of the season has failed to strike in its last 14 attempts.

Last Saturday against Iona, the power play went 0-for-6 in a 4-1 loss, something that heading into the postseason may concern Yellow Jackets coach Gary Wright.

"I wouldn’t say the power play has hit the wall," said Wright. "In the past few weeks it hasn’t been as strong. We have had success on the power play for most of the season, so we account for the power play as part of our offense."

One bright light for AIC is its position in the race for home ice. Although the Yellow Jackets missed the opportunity last week to distance themselves from Canisius and Iona, they still stand tied for fourth place with both clubs.

"From our perspective, we have quite a challenge ahead of us," said Wright. "We haven’t been in the playoffs for a few years, so from that perspective we’re happy to be there. But we’d really like home ice."

Among the three teams locked in fourth, the Yellow Jackets and Iona both have home-and-home series with Quinnipiac and Holy Cross.

"It will be a real dogfight to pull a couple of wins out of that (series against Holy Cross)," added Wright. "We have a tall order in front of us."

So AIC’s quest for fourth begins right here, right now.

Across the ice, the Crusaders staved off elimination from the race for the conference regular-season crown last weekend with a split against first-place Quinnipiac.

For the second consecutive week, goaltender Scott Simpson picked up MAAC Goalie of the Week honors. On the weekend Simpson made 49 saves, including 30 in defeat on Friday. On Saturday, Simpson stopped 19 en route to his second career shutout and second in as many weeks.

"Scotty played well for us on Saturday night," said head coach Paul Pearl. "He seemed to struggle a bit on Friday but was able to bounce back on Saturday."

Pearl noted that his team, as well, didn’t post its best effort in the first game of the series.

"We had lost three games to Quinnipiac already, and had never played our best game," said Pearl. "I think that kind of caught Quinnipiac off guard on Saturday."

Pearl believes that the race to the end will be a tough one but believes that it is far from over.

"(Quinnipiac) has a four-point lead, but I believe that we’re really still in it.

"People said that our tough stretch (series against UConn and Quinnipiac) was over now, but I say that this is part of a continued stretch of hard games."

"AIC is a great team. Any team coached by Gary Wright is creative, very disciplined and difficult to play against."

After this weekend, the Crusaders will close the regular season with a series against Iona.

Picks: Simpson is as hot as can be for the Cross. A 3-1, 4-0 sweep for the Crusaders.

Connecticut (15-9-4, 14-6-4 MAAC, 3rd) at Canisius (12-11-5, 10-9-5 MAAC, T-4th) Friday, 8:00 pm ET, Dann Memorial Rink, Buffalo, N.Y. Saturday, 8:00 pm ET, Dann Memorial Rink, Buffalo, N.Y.

The University of Connecticut may not be in position to control their destiny in the race for the regular-season title, but they’re sure not going down without a fight.

Last weekend, that fight took them through a tough home-and-home series with Fairfield University. Both nights saw UConn trail the last-place Stags at one point, and Saturday night’s contest required a late comeback by the Huskies to grab a hard-fought victory.

"It’s good to get the win," said UConn head coach Bruce Marshall. "The discouraging point was the number of goals we gave up."

UConn’s defense surrendered four goals in each game last weekend. In UConn’s two previous series, against MAAC top dogs Quinnipiac and Holy Cross, the Huskies allowed only four goals total in each of the weekends, never giving up more than three in a game.

A positive for Marshall was that the team showed character on Saturday, continuing to battle back against the Stags.

"I didn’t want to put too much pressure on the guys," said Marshall. "When the game was tied at 3-3 after two, I told the guys that sometimes you have character nights and this was one of them.

"Fairfield came out and scored in the first minute of the third, but the guys didn’t panic. We just kept working and working, and finally scored the goals."

And that is the type of character that Marshall’s club will need when it travels to Canisius to play the league’s hottest team.

"Canisius is hungry because they can smell home ice," said Marshall. "They’ll play as hard as they can so they don’t have to take an eight-hour trip in the playoffs."

The Canisius Ice Griffs are, in fact, one of the hottest teams in the league, if not the country. After a 4-8-2 start, the Griffs are 8-3-3 since the break and have moved from sixth place into a three-way tie for fourth.

Last weekend, the Griffs used a balanced offense while allowing just three goals on the weekend to sweep Scared Heart, 7-1 and 4-2.

Canisius played a non-league game against independent Niagara on Tuesday night in Amherst, N.Y. Though the Griffs played Niagara tough for three period, their offense couldn’t muster a five-on-five goal and lost 3-1.

This week, the task ahead of them may be even tougher. Last time the Griffs met UConn, they played two hard games but came away without a win, though their efforts were good enough to salvage a 1-1 tie in the second game.

Seemingly, Canisius has the easiest remaining schedule of the three teams battling for home ice. While Iona and AIC both have weekend series against Holy Cross and Quinnipiac, Canisius follows this weekend with a final series at Fairfield.

Team defense has been a big difference for the Griffs between the first half of the year and the second half. In its first 14 games, Canisius averaged 4.3 goals against per game, whereas in the last 14 games, that number has dropped to 2.4.

Picks: Canisius takes Friday night, 3-2, but UConn does the job on Saturday, 2-1.

Fairfield (1-26-0, 1-23-0 MAAC, 8th) at Sacred Heart (5-20-1, 5-18-1 MAAC, 7th) Friday, 7:30 pm ET, Milford Ice Pavilion, Milford, Conn. Saturday, 7:30 pm ET, Wonderland of Ice, Bridgeport, Conn.

It’s the series that no one cares about. Two teams that have secured their spots in seventh and eighth place, a series with no playoff implications.

So it doesn’t matter, right? Wrong.

Don’t tell that to Sacred Heart coach Shaun Hannah and Fairfield coach Mike Doneghey.

"This is a chance for our club to get a couple of wins heading into the playoffs," said Hannah. "That’s how we’ve looked at the second half of the season, as a chance to prepare for the playoffs."

Doneghey agrees.

"We’re taking this as a playoff series," said Doneghey. "Especially the game on Friday night, we need to have playoff mentality."

Once they get to the playoffs, Hannah thinks his team has at least part of the formula needed to win.

"You need a hot goaltender to carry you thought the post season," said Hannah. "We have Alexis (Jutras-Binet), and he could be that goaltender."

Hannah also sees the power play as an area of concern in the playoffs.

"In league play, teams that capitalize on the power play and kill some penalties have some success," noted Hannah. "With our power play not as successful, staying out of the box and capitalizing on our chances will be the key."

Doneghey believes that the MAAC’s unique formula — a one-game quarterfinal, rather than the best-of-three favored by most leagues — makes just about anything possible.

"I just look at what Merrimack did to BU last season in a best two-of-three series. This is one game; anything can happen."

Doneghey will have to play the rest of the season with only one goaltender, as sophomore netminder Derek Saunders suffered a season-ending injury on Saturday against UConn.

So senior John True will get the call the rest of the way. True is about to make a permanent mark in the Fairfield record books as he stands just 95 saves away from becoming the all-time leader in that category at Fairfield.

"John has played well for us all season," said Doneghey. "The problem is that the defense seems to know he’ll makes the big save so they don’t play as tight in front of him. It seems True has faced a lot more quality scoring chances."

So while some may write this weekend series off, there are two coaches in southern Connecticut that can’t wait to get on the ice weekend with the playoffs in mind.

Picks: Sacred Heart gets two much-needed wins, 4-1 and 3-2.