The top four seeds — Quinnipiac, Holy Cross, Connecticut and Canisius — have all advanced to the MAAC Final Four, to be played this weekend at the Hart Center on the campus of Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.
Each of the four seeds advanced in their own unique ways. There were blowout and nail-biters, hard-fought games and breezes in the first round. But most importantly, there were no surprises. The playoff gods wrote the first chapter exactly as we would expect.
So now the preparation continues, and one team stands within two wins of making history as the first-ever MAAC tournament champion.
There were no weekly awards handed out for the first weekend of the playoffs, but the league will name an all-tournament team at the conclusion of the tournament.
Record in picks last week: 3-1 Season record in picks: 30-19 (.612)
Semifinal No. 1 No. 2 Holy Cross (20-9-4) vs. No. 3 Connecticut (20-9-4) Friday, 4:00 PM ET, Hart Recreation Center, Worcester, Mass.
Season Series: 11/20/98 Connecticut 2 at Holy Cross 1 11/21/98 Holy Cross 4 at Connecticut 2 2/12/99 Holy Cross 1 at Connecticut 0 2/13/99 at Holy Cross 3 Connecticut 2
Holy Cross advanced to the final four by virtue of a 3-1 victory over a very pesky Sacred Heart club last Saturday night. The Crusaders did what they do best — score power-play goals — to key the victory.
In this case, Holy Cross scored two power-play tallies one minute and 27 seconds apart to take a 2-0 lead that they never relinquished.
To add to their exceptional power play, the Crusaders’ penalty-killing unit fought off six Sacred Heart power plays, including one in the closing minutes of the game to help preserve the win.
Goaltender Scott Simpson continued to play magnificently between the pipes. He made 34 saves in the victory, lowered his goals-against average to 2.10, and raised his save percentage to .915. Both rank him third in the nation. His overall record improved to 14-5-2.
Looking back at the season to date, coach Paul Pearl displayed excitement, especially when referring to the last third of the season.
"We’re 9-1-1 in our last 11 games, which is a pretty good way to end the season," said Pearl.
His team will have the biggest advantage during this weekend’s Final Four — home ice. This year’s Final Four is hosted by Holy Cross and played at the Hart Center, right on campus.
"Home ice is a benefit," Pearl said. "It can be overdone a little bit when talking about the advantage. But having, say, 1,500 people in the building and 800 of them (Holy Cross) students, that’s something that’s an advantage."
Pearl feels his team matches up very well against UConn, its semifinal opponent. Holy Cross won the season series, 3-1, with all of the games decided by one goal, or two with an empty-netter.
"With UConn, we go back as far as forever," Pearl said after his victory on Saturday. "I used to work there, their assistant coach used to work here. We’re all buddies.
"The two teams have a general respect for each other, but I think there is a high amount of competitiveness also."
For the University of Connecticut, it was kind of like their life flashed in front of them, but they didn’t die.
After holding leads of 4-1 and 5-2 in their quarterfinal game against Iona, they allowed the Gaels to come back and tie the game before winning it in overtime.
With the game 5-2 and less than eight minutes to play, Holy Cross gave up two goals at the end of power plays, closing the gap to 5-4. Iona then pulled goaltender Dan Maguire and won the draw cleanly in the offensive zone. A shot from the point was deflected past UConn goalie Marc Senerchia to tie the game at five.
But on the third shift of the overtime session, Kevin Connell buried the game-winning goal in what UConn coach Bruce Marshall called a "character-building" win.
"It seems lately our team has realized they’ve gotta find a way to win," Marshall said. "Up in Buffalo (against Canisius) we found ways to hold the lead — a game against Holy Cross, we had to come back in the third period.
"And last Saturday we found a way to win in overtime. Because it was the playoffs, they had to cut a new sheet of ice, so we had the time to regain our composure. That was a big advantage."
Marshall downplayed the fact that his club has to play the semifinals in a hostile environment.
"It’s great to play at Holy Cross. We’ve played some great games there this year. We’re very excited to be there, especially because myself and two of our players are from the area."
Marshall grew up in West Boylston, Mass., defenseman Andy Huggins in Holden, Mass., and Mark Busenberg in Shrewsbury, Mass. All three are within about 20 minutes of Holy Cross.
The UConn Huskies, according to Marshall, have played well for what has been a long first season in the MAAC.
"There were a lot of highs and lows," Marshall noted. "But it’s taught our kids that they have to focus, and they’ve done that well at the end of the season here."
That’s the same focus his players will need as they face a tough opponent in Holy Cross the Friday night.
Picks: Holy Cross has played well against Connecticut all season, and on home ice will be too tough. Crusaders, 4-2.
Semifinal No. 2: No. 1 Quinnipiac (26-5-2) vs. No. 4 Canisius (15-14-5) Friday, 7:00 PM ET, Hart Recreation Center, Worcester, Mass.
Season Series: 10/30/98 at Quinnipiac 6 Canisius 3 10/31/98 at Quinnipiac 2 Canisius 1 (OT) 1/23/99 at Canisius 3 Quinnipiac 3 (OT) 1/24/99 at Canisius 3 Quinnipiac 3 (OT)
For the Quinnipiac Braves, their entire first season in the MAAC has been filled with overachievements.
Picked to finish fourth in the preseason coaches’ poll, Quinnipiac surprised the skeptics and won the league title by five points over preseason number one, Holy Cross.
Last weekend’s quarterfinal continued the team’s long list of accomplishments. With two of the Braves’ top players, Neil Breen and Mike Ruggiero, sidelined with injuries, you might expect Fairfield, regardless of its record, to possibly make a game of it.
But the most unlikely of lines, Quinnipiac’s fourth, stepped up and notched six goals en route to a 13-2 victory.
"We’ve overachieved for our age," Pecknold said. "The reason we’ve done so well is because we’ve got players who compete. My kids have shown up to play just about every game. Only a couple of times have we come out flat."
Much of that has come from the underclassmen. The top nine scores for the Braves are freshmen, and the starting and backup goaltenders, both of whom have played very well this year, are sophomores.
As far as the semifinal opponent, Canisius College, is concerned, Pecknold offers caution.
"The first two games we played against them this year were in the first weekend of the year," Pecknold noted, "so you can throw those out. We played them twice in January and those were 3-3 ties.
"Canisius is a very strong club. If you remember the preseason poll, Canisius was ranked second. So people knew that they were and are a good team. They are a physical team with good goaltending, and they have a couple of scorers."
Pecknold also noted that his team doesn’t really feel much pressure as the number-one seed.
"Again, no one expected much from us this year, so there hasn’t been much pressure. I think Holy Cross has a little more pressure playing in front of their home fans.
"I think any of the four teams left could win. It will come down to goaltending and special teams."
For Brian Cavanaugh and his Canisius College squad, a few months ago, his team wasn’t sure if they’d still be playing hockey this weekend.
"We got off to a slow start," Cavanaugh said. "At one point in the season we were winless in 10 games and we wondered if fate would even carry us to the final four.
"I give a lot of credit to the kids on the team. They understood what it took to be successful, and around Christmastime we were able to turn things around. We’re very excited to be a part of all this now."
When asked about what it will take to beat Quinnipiac, Cavanaugh had a tongue-and-cheek response.
"You’re asking the wrong coach," Cavanaugh joked. "We’re 0-2-2 against them this year. You should ask Bruce Marshall at UConn or Paul Pearl at Holy Cross; both of their teams have beaten (Quinnipiac).
"Quinnipiac has only lost eight games in their last two years, so we better be at the top of our game if we want to win."
Last weekend, Canisius hosted its first playoff game in the school’s hockey history. The opponent, AIC, entered the playoffs winless in eight games, but though the Yellow Jackets were coming off two losses to Quinnipiac, both were decided in overtime.
So Canisius knew that AIC had no intentions of rolling over and playing dead — especially after the six-hour bus ride to Buffalo.
Canisius had the quicker legs out of the gate, scoring twice to hold an early lead. With the lead at 3-1 in the second period, Canisius not only allowed AIC into the game but lost hold completely, and trailed 4-3 at one point.
But Canisius reeled off the last four goals of the game, two at the end of the second and two late in the third, to take the 7-4 victory.
Senior goaltender Bob Janosz took home the victory, proving that Cavanaugh’s decision to play him was a good one.
In the week leading up to the game, Cavanaugh joked that "they don’t pay him enough" to make such tough decisions. He was talking about which goaltender, Janosz or sophomore Stephen Fabiilli, would play in the quarterfinals.
When asked about the school’s first season in the MAAC, Cavanaugh said that it has helped his team immensely.
"(The move to the MAAC) has added more games to our schedule, each of which gives us a chance to gain visibility. It has gotten our name out there and helps the team with recruiting.
"The further we go in the tournament, the more visibility we will get."
But Cavanaugh and his club will have to climb a pretty big mountain to continue their postseason run.
Pick: Quinnipiac has a destiny, and Canisius is in the way right now. Canisius plays well, but just not well enough. Quinnipiac, 6-3.
Championship Game Winner of Semifinal No. 1 vs. Winner of Semifinal No. 2 Saturday, 7:00 PM ET, Hart Recreation Center, Worcester, Mass.
Pick: The best game of the tournament, based on my predictions. Holy Cross has home ice, but Quinnipiac has what it takes to be champions. The Braves win the MAAC’s inaugural tournament, 3-2 in overtime.