This Week in the MAAC: December 27, 1999

The MAAC Midseason Report

Here we are at the halfway point of the college hockey season, and already in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference we’ve seen some eye-opening events.

The team that I innocently referred to as the X-factor before the beginning of the season, Mercyhurst, has silently crept its way to the top of the standings as the only MAAC team without a conference loss. The Lakers are only one point behind frontrunner Quinnipiac with two games in hand on the Braves.

Sacred Heart has opened plenty of eyes, turning around last year’s disappointing season to stand in third place at the break thanks to a commitment to team defense. At this point last season, Sacred Heart was winless in its first 11 games, allowing an average of 6.00 goals per game. This year, Shaun Hannah’s Pioneers have rebounded to a 5-4-2 record while giving up only 2.64 goals per game.

So here, for your reading enjoyment, is our midseason report card on the MAAC. Remember, this is only the halfway point, and that every team has time to turn the season around, whether for the good or the bad.

Midseason Hardware

Best Overall Team: Mercyhurst. The Lakers, simply put, balance a solid scoring effort, with two strong lines that can produce every night, with a defense that is good and borders on excellent. The team has proven to have plenty of character, including the ability to play with a one-goal lead as well as the ability to come back from late-game deficits. That never-say-die attitude will go a long way in the postseason.

Best Offense: Quinnipiac. The Braves have by far the most explosive offense in the MAAC; averaging 5.65 goals per game, Quinnipiac has outscored its opponents, 96-61. This powerhouse of an offense has scored at least four goals in every contest this year, including losses to defending national champion Maine (7-4), RPI (6-4), and Niagara (5-4). The Braves have proven they can start quickly, holding a 33-17 scoring advantage over opponents in the first period alone. Of course, it helps plenty that four of the top five scorers in the MAAC are from Quinnipiac, paced by Chris Cerrella, who has 27 points (15 goals, 12 assist) in 17 games. And in case you’re still not impressed, Quinnipiac has produced all of this without preseason All-MAAC pick Chad Poliquin, who was injured early in the year and will redshirt the remainder of the season.

Best Defense: As alluded to earlier, the MAAC’s best defense, both on paper and on the ice, is that of the Sacred Heart Pioneers. Backboned by the final line of defense, goaltender Alexi Jutras-Binet, the Pioneers have allowed only 29 goals in 11 games. Jutras-Binet himself has played all but eight minutes and 23 seconds this season while posting a 2.62 goals-against average and a .905 save percentage. Since surrendering five goals to Quinnipiac on opening night (a 5-3 loss), the Pioneers have only allowed more than three goals once, a recent 5-2 loss to UConn. The only thing holding Sacred Heart back from being a first-place contender is the fact that their offense mirrors the defense, having actually scored one goal fewer than the defense has allowed. Likewise, Sacred Heart has only scored more than three goals twice.

Most Impressive Player: Ryan Soderquist, Bentley College. You’d be hard-pressed to find another player in the MAAC with as much natural talent coupled with the heart and desire that Soderquist possesses. He recently became the all-time leading scorer in Bentley history when he recorded a goal and three assists against Iona, and with 26 points (10 goals, 16 assists) in 13 games, Soderquist leads the MAAC with 2.00 points per game. That same total would be tops in the nation among Division I scorers, but Bentley is still not a full-fledged Division I member.

Biggest Upset of the Year: This one is a tie…

Iona Rallies Twice to Tie Quinnipiac in Q-Cup, 7-7 — Trailing by three goals twice, the second time with less than 10 minutes to play, the Iona Gaels rallied to tie preseason favorite Quinnipiac in the opening round of the Q Cup tournament in October. To complete the comeback, the Gaels beat the Braves, 3-0, in a shootout to advance to the championship game, where they went on to beat Army, 3-0, to win the third annual installment of the tournament.

Fairfield Gets First MAAC Point, Tying Sacred Heart in Home Opener — After playing the first month of the season on the road, the winless Stags of Fairfield met a streaking Sacred Heart team in late November and nearly pulled off an even bigger shocker. Tied at two late in the third, James Lubinski scored to give Fairfield a 3-2 lead with less than three minutes remaining. But the pesky Pioneers scored with 1:36 remaining to force a stalemate between the two clubs.

Comeback of the Season: Though Iona’s comeback against Quinnipiac was pretty impressive, it only seems fitting that the comeback kids of Mercyhurst claim this award. Opening night for Bentley College seemed to be going exactly as planned, leading 4-0 in the second period. But the Mercyhurst Lakers, not yet known for their comebacks, scored the next six goals of the game, rallying to a 6-4 win and spoiling Bentley’s initiation to the MAAC. The finish started a six-game winning streak for the Lakers, with four of those six of the come-from-behind nature.

What to Look for In 2000

Possibly the biggest series of the season will take place in the first weekend of 2000 when Mercyhurst and Quinnipiac square off on in Erie, Penn., on January 7 and 8. Due to scheduling problems within the MAAC, all three of the games in this series are being played in Erie. Mercyhurst rallied from a 4-1 deficit to win, 6-4, in the first meeting between these heavyweights.

That weekend will probably be a good preview for the battle for the regular-season championship, but there is still plenty of other action to talk about — namely, what I call the battle of the three-through-eights.

Anyone who can correctly predict how this league is going to finish this season, especially between slots three and eight, is a miracle worker. There are six legitimate candidates for home ice, excluding Mercyhurst and Quinnipiac, who are almost locks, and Fairfield and AIC, who will probably have a tough enough time battling for any playoff spot.

So the six remaining teams, Canisius, Sacred Heart, Holy Cross, Bentley, UConn and Iona, will have the dogfight to decide who hosts a playoff game on March 11. Sacred Heart and Canisius have put themselves in good positions with plus-.500 records at the break, but you have to give the advantage to Canisius, which plays its final four games at home against Bentley and Fairfield, by no means the two toughest opponents in the league.

Holy Cross, not far behind, has the advantage of a few players with championship experience. Similarly, UConn’s squad was part of the fight to last season, within a goal of advancing to the championship game. That leaves Bentley, a young team with a lot of heart but a bit short on talent, and Iona, the league’s biggest underachiever.

This writer’s pick: Holy Cross will make its move in late January, and join Canisius for the final two home ice positions. Sorry to AIC and Fairfield, but the postseason might be another year away.

MAAC Players Among the NCAA Leaders

Points per game:

8. Chris Cerrella, Quinnipiac 1.59 9. Shawn Mansoff, Quinnipiac 1.56 12. Brian Herbert, Quinnipiac 1.50 14. Neil Breen, Quinnipiac 1.38 18. Chris Fattey, Holy Cross 1.31

Goals Per Game:

2. Chris Cerrella, Quinnipiac 0.88 4. Brian Herbert, Quinnipiac 0.81 Shawn Mansoff 0.81 6. Ryan Manitowich, Iona 0.79 18. Martin Paquet, Sacred Heart 0.64 20. Neil Breen, Quinnipiac 0.63 Ryan Olsen, Quinnipiac 0.63

Assists Per Game:

4. Chris Fattey, Holy Cross 1.08 13. Dan Ennis, Quinnipiac 0.93

Power-Play Goals:

4. Neil Breen, Quinnipiac 6 Shorthanded Goals

2. Steve Birch, Canisius 3

Game-Winning Goals

4. Corey Lucas, Canisius 3 Chris Cerrella, Quinnipiac 3

Goaltender Winning Percentage

3. Stephen Fabiilli, Canisius .833