With the second season in MAAC history in the books, it’s time to reflect a little on the season that was.
And what a season it was!
When you look at the standings, and see six of ten teams above .500, immediately you think of one word — parity. Now maybe that’s not all that true in the MAAC, as for the second straight year Quinnipiac ran away with the regular-season title, this year more impressively than last: losing only once and finishing the season with a 22-game league unbeaten streak. But once you look past the top team, to pick the next five seeds, you may as well have held a lottery.
First-year Mercyhurst surprised many by finishing in second place, holding on to first for half of the season before losing back-to-back games to Quinnipiac in January. From there, the fact that Quinnipiac never faltered cemented the Lakers’ second seed.
The final weekend of the season provided excitement for the teams in third through sixth place, as all four had a chance at the final two home-ice spots. UConn and Canisius held on in the end, which makes their playoff games against Sacred Heart and Iona, respectively, tough challenges.
Non-league play provided some excitement throughout the year as well, staring right from the beginning when Fairfield, coming off a dismal 1-31-0 season, opened their campaign with a 2-2 tie against future MAAC member Army. Though the Stags would go on to another last-place finish in the MAAC, the team greatly improved over the course of the season and will surely be a force in years to come.
Before that, Quinnipiac had played two barnburners with Niagara and RPI, losing 5-4 in overtime and 6-4, respectively. And in mid-December, the MAAC front-runners put the scare of a lifetime into defending national champion Maine. With less than 10 minutes remaining in the third period, Quinnipiac held a 4-3 lead, only to watch the nationally-ranked Black Bears storm back for four tallies en route to a 7-4 win.
And let us not forget the MAAC’s version of the Miracle on Ice — when 20 years to the day after the 1980 U.S. Olympic Team upset the Soviets, the Canisius College Ice Griffs shocked national contender Niagara, 2-1, behind the 58-save performance of Sean Weaver. The performance earned Weaver the USCHO Defensive Player of the Week Award.
So as we enter the tournament, once again a single-elimination affair, eight teams remain. AIC and Fairfield bid adieu after their playoff runs fell short. This week, my column takes a look at each series, with insight from all of the coaches, and my predictions for who will remain when the dust clears — the select four to take the trip to Storrs, Conn., and compete for the MAAC Championship. I’ll also peer into my crystal ball and take a crack at handing out the MAAC’s postseason awards.
Strap your seatbelts on, fans, the MAAC playoff express is about to take off. Those who don’t hold on tight may fall off and have to wait until next year!
#8 Bentley College (7-22-2, 7-18-2 MAAC) at #1 Quinnipiac College (26-5-3, 23-1-3 MAAC) Friday, March 11, 2000, 7:00 ET Northford Ice Pavilion, Northford, Conn.
For the second consecutive year, the Quinnipiac Braves ride into the MAAC playoffs on top, having captured the regular season title three weeks ago. Last season, the Braves hammered an inferior Fairfield club, 13-2, in the first round, only to be upset by Canisius the following weekend in the semifinals, 5-2.
If last weekend is any indication, at least the results of the first round will be quite similar. Facing first-round opponent Bentley in the last week of the regular season, the Quinnipiac offense came to life, scoring 18 goals to the Falcons’ two.
But Quinnipiac head coach Rand Pecknold, though confident in his team’s ability, doesn’t foresee similar results this weekend.
"Honestly, I thought the two games [against Bentley] early in the year were real close," said Pecknold. "The first game was 5-2 with an empty-netter and second game [a 5-4 overtime win] went to overtime before we won it.
"This past weekend, I don’t know exactly what happened. We just came out firing. We scored 18 goals in two games and missed a lot of opportunities, too."
Pecknold, though believes that this weekend will be much tougher.
"Bentley will be more prepared for us," he said. "I don’t expect to see a game like [the two] last weekend."
When asked if his team could feel too comfortable, given the blowouts last weekend, Pecknold gave a resounding, "No."
"I think if we fall apart in the playoffs, it wouldn’t have anything to do with last weekend," Pecknold said. "I don’t think our guys are complacent.
"The thing that worries me the most, is, if we can make it to the semis, we haven’t played a close game in a while. We had enough [close] games early in the year, though, that should help us."
One area that Pecknold will focus on this weekend is discipline. Bentley is the most-penalized team in the league, but also has one of the top power plays. So if the Braves are heading to the penalty box, Pecknold wants to make sure the Falcons keep them company.
"They do have a good power play and we are focused on trying to limit their power play chances," Pecknold said. "Last weekend there were a lot of four-on-four situations, which benefits us. When the score got out of hand, things got chippy, which doesn’t reflect well on us or the game. We want to try to stay out of that."
For Bentley, coach Jim McAdam is using a simple formula which he hangs on his bulletin board for the players to read: "Work Hard!"
"[AIC coach] Gary Wright said that the most important thing is that the kids don’t quit on you and they keep working hard," said McAdam. "And he’s absolutely right. The one thing we having going is that our kids have never quit on us."
Even though the opponent is Quinnipiac, McAdam feels his team can have playoff success. After losing the two games by lopsided scores last weekend, McAdam joked, "We’ve got them right where we want them!"
The key for Bentley to survive against the Braves will be staying disciplined and staying out of the penalty box.
"Five-on-five we can hang in there, but when they go up one, they move the puck so well," McAdam said. "They’re a good team and can compete with Hockey East teams. We couldn’t even sniff with [Hockey East teams]. That’s the difference."
McAdam’s closing comment? "We haven’t given up, and there’s still a lot of fight left in our guys."
That’s a message that must be resounding around the Bentley locker room to keep the playoff hopes alive.
Pick: You won’t see the scores of last weekend, but you will see the Braves on top. Quinnipiac wins, 5-3, to advance.
#7 College of the Holy Cross (8-23-3, 8-16-3 MAAC) at #2 Mercyhurst College (21-9-4, 19-6-2 MAAC) Saturday, March 11, 2000, 7:30 ET Mercyhurst Ice Center, Erie, Penn.
The second of two rematches from the final week of the regular season, the Holy Cross-Mercyhurst game is easily the more viable for a major upset. Last weekend, the Crusaders previewed that upset, shutting down the Laker offense in the first game, 1-0, behind a solid performance by rookie goaltender Dan Bennett.
In Saturday’s rematch, Mercyhurst used the power of the penalty kill, scoring four shorthanded goals in a 6-1 victory.
"I don’t know who looked more shocked, us or Holy Cross," said Mercyhurst head coach Rick Gotkin. "We’re very aggressive shorthanded. We like to go at people and force them to make big plays."
Big plays that Holy Cross coach Paul Pearl admits his team just couldn’t make.
"Saturday was just a joke on our power play," said Pearl. "They’re a good team and I think we are too, but they’re very aggressive on the penalty kill."
Regarding Friday’s loss, Gotkin realized something had to be done.
"I think the old adage is that you can’t take anybody lightly," Gotkin said. "So we maybe learned something that we already knew — any of these teams are good enough to beat you.
"I think on Friday our guys were sitting back. We addressed that, telling them that momentum was a big thing.
"I’ve got a great deal of respect for Holy Cross. I thought when we played them in October they played well. Friday and Saturday they played well, but Saturday we got some goals and some momentum."
Regardless of momentum, Gotkin, though playing in his first MAAC tournament, knows well that to get to the final four, his Lakers will have to unseat the defending champion.
"I think experience has to help them," Gotkin said. "They’re the defending MAAC champs and they know what it takes….We’ve played some great playoff games in the past [in the ECAC West], though, and that should help us."
For Pearl, the story continues to change. For the first time in weeks, he will put a healthy team of skaters onto the ice. Senior captain Chris Fattey, who played in only 24 games this season, and has battled the last few weeks with a wrist injury, is back to 100 percent, something that gives Pearl optimism.
"I’ve been saying it all year, we’re a good team," said Pearl. "We’re excited about the playoffs no matter where we ended in the standings."
When asked if his team learned anything from this past weekend’s matchup, Pearl said, half-jokingly, "Yeah, don’t give up shorthanded goals. They do a good job on their penalty kill and we’re going to have to be a little more careful with the puck.
"I think [Mercyhurst has] a good team and a good coach. I don’t think we’re going to sneak up on these guys, especially after last weekend."
Pearl, who last year as the second seed, was extremely vocal in opposition of a single-game quarterfinal, hasn’t changed his position even though his team may benefit.
"[The playoffs] are too haphazard," Pearl said. "Getting hot for 60 minutes is something that could happen for anybody."
Pearl also addressed the likely appearance of the MAAC in next year’s NCAA championships, as the league is expecting an automatic bid.
"Next year, when we’re sending our first representative to the NCAA tournament, we need to push for our best team to be there. What we’ll want to do as a league is to send a team that shows its best and show it is the best. This year, the first round doesn’t do that.
"Hey, we’re reaping the rewards. I’m seeing the other side of it, and I think we’re pretty good and probably better than a seventh-place team. But it’s tough on the higher seed."
Pearl will have seven players in his lineup from last year’s inaugural MAAC championship, and hopes that experience can help.
"[Benefiting from our experience] would be nice, but it still comes down to the fact that last season has nothing to do with these sixty minutes," Pearl said. "We played 27 league games to have to come up only with a 60-minute game here. We’ve get a great shot here to atone for our sins. Bentley got blown out last weekend but they can play one game and move on. Same thing for us."
Pick: This is the hardest game to pick, by far. But Mercyhurst has played very well on home ice this season, so you have to go with that advantage. Lakers advance, as the defending champs fall, 3-1.
#6 Iona College (15-16-3, 13-12-2 MAAC) at #3 Canisius College (21-9-4, 16-8-3 MAAC) Saturday, March 11, 2000, 2:00 ET Buffalo State Sports Arena, Buffalo, N.Y.
Staying at home in the playoffs is always nice. But for Canisius College, it’s a luxury. The Ice Griffs, for the second consecutive season, battled tooth and nail until the final weekend of the season to gain home ice and avoid a minimum 10-hour bus ride in the first round of the playoffs.
Unfortunately for Canisius, that bus ride is about the only thing that will make the game feel like a home game. As many schools experience this time of year, Canisius’ students are on spring break, making it difficult to gather much of a crowd on Saturday afternoon.
"You work all year to be here, and you have a chance to play the sport you love — that’s the positive," said Canisius head coach Brian Cavanaugh. "But it’s a shame that the students don’t get a chance to come out and support us."
All of that aside, Cavanaugh is upbeat about his playoff matchup with the Iona Gaels. This is the only matchup in which the favorite did not win the season series, as the Gaels won two of the three games this season. But that is where home ice comes into play.
"Due to the MAAC schedule, we played all three games at the Ice Hutch," said Cavanaugh. "We won the first one 3-2, lost the second, 3-1, and then lost the last game, 3-2. All of the games were very close and that’s what I expect again."
One of the tough decisions that Cavanaugh will face this weekend is which of his two goaltenders to play. Though it’s a luxury to have two, that doesn’t make the decision any easier. Sean Weaver, a favorite for the MAAC Goaltender of the Year award, posted an 11-6-4 record in 21 starts with a 2.30 goals-against average. Stephen Fabiilli’s numbers, though impressive, are slightly below Weaver’s. Fabiilli has a 10-3-0 record with a 3.09 goals-against average.
"It’s a difficult decision to decide who to play," said Cavanaugh. "Weaver won 11 games and Fabiilli won 10 games. It was a difficult decision to decide which player, but right now I’m leaning towards Sean."
The Iona Gaels are hoping that New York state can continue to be kind to the athletic program. On Monday, the Gael basketball team captured the MAAC championship with a win over Siena, giving the Gaels a bid to the NCAA basketball tournament. Gaels coach Frank Bretti, who was present in Albany for the hoop victory on Monday, hopes that Buffalo can be the same.
"I’m hoping that we can have the success like our basketball team," Bretti said. "I think we have a very good chance of winning based on the fact that we proved that we can compete with the upper echelon of the league.
"Considering where our program was and where we’re trying to go, I feel real good about our chance of winning."
Similar to the Griffs, Bretti has two goaltenders who have proven they can play night in and night out. Junior Ben Brady has made 11 starts, posting a 3-5-3 record, while his counterpart, rookie Mike Fraser, has posted a 12-11-0 record in his 24 starts.
"Mike Fraser is the expected starter," said Bretti. "He and Ben Brady have improved in that position all year. Last year when we entered the playoffs, we knew that [goaltending] would be a questionable area. This year, even though we could be going against the best goaltending in the league, I don’t expect that to be a weakness for us."
One area of concern for Bretti is special teams. The Gael power play ranks last among playoff teams, scoring only 22 times in 124 opportunities (17.7 percent) throughout the MAAC season. The Iona penalty kill is a little bit better, ranking fifth in the league at 80.3 percent, just behind Canisius at 80.9 percent.
"Our power play hasn’t lived up to where we’d want it to be," said Bretti. "Our penalty kill has played well. With the power play, it’s not a matter of not generating time in the offensive zone. It’s just we need to take better shots and score goals."
Regardless, Bretti is excited about his team’s chances. He knows that as a number-six seed, the Gaels finished only three and a half games behind third-place Canisius.
"We’re not going into this as a strong underdog," said Bretti, "I take nothing away from the other programs, but we consider ourselves as good as a third- or fourth-place team.
"I think if you look back at our own accomplishments as a program, we did well this season. We won the Quinnipiac Cup early in the year, we took three of four [points] out at Air Force, and we beat Army for the first time ever.
Bretti hopes that at the end of the weekend he can add an appearance in the league’s final four to that resume.
Pick: Home ice has been good to the Griffs all year long, so you can’t bet against them in the playoffs. Canisius wins, 4-3.
#5 Sacred Heart University (16-14-3, 14-10-3 MAAC) at #4 University of Connecticut (16-16-1, 15-11-1 MAAC) Saturday, March 11, 2000, 7:30 ET UConn Ice Arena, Storrs, Conn.
In the 1999-2000 season, their home state of Connecticut has been anything but generous to the Sacred Heart Pioneers. Against in the Connecticut schools of Quinnipiac, Fairfield, and UConn, Sacred Heart compiled a 3-5-2 record, and a dismal 0-3-2 record against those clubs on the road. So drawing UConn on the road in the first round of the MAAC playoffs may not be exactly what head coach Shaun Hannah was looking for. But don’t tell him that.
"We’re pretty pumped about going to UConn," said the youthful Hannah. "I think the style of play that each team plays creates a fast paced, physical-style hockey game. We’re gearing up for a real battle."
And a battle it should be. These two clubs combined for three exciting, action-packed games around the New Year. All three contests were won by UConn, with two of them come-from-behind efforts to secure the victory. Sacred Heart won the only other matchup, a 2-1 overtime decision in early November.
Hannah’s club is fortunate to posses a lot of what it takes to win in the playoffs. Excellent goaltending in Alexis Jutras-Binet, coupled with some strong special-teams work, will help the Pioneers. Regardless, the Pioneers do not posses strong playoff experience like their UConn counterparts.
"As far experience at the college level, there’s a hole," said Hannah. "But these guys have played for successful playoff teams at the junior level, so I don’t think our experience will be much of a factor."
For the second straight year, Sacred Heart’s first-round opponent is also the school that will host the league championships the following weekend. Last season, Sacred Heart fell, 3-1, to the eventual champions from Holy Cross. Hannah knows that UConn has that added incentive to want to win the first round.
"We know that the tournament is at their place, so they’re going to be fired up to stay at home," Hannah said. "That will be a factor on how they come out. But we’re ready for that. We’re going to have to want to be in the [final four] more than Connecticut does. It’s that simple."
For the Pioneers, Hannah says, "tight defense is a big key." He added that "the power play has been hot of late, so discipline and composure are [critical] areas if we’re going to be successful in the playoffs."
UConn coach Bruce Marshall, whose club split its final series of the season with Iona to gain home ice, knows that Sacred Heart is one difficult task.
"I think it’s probably going to one of the tighter games in the first round," Marshall said. "[Sacred Heart has] some solid goaltending. We’re going to have to play mistake free because they tend to be a little explosive offensively."
Going back to last weekend’s series, Marshall felt his team played very much like a playoff team to clinch home ice on Saturday night.
"I thought we were playing pretty well on Friday night," said Marshall, "but it was a game that got away from us. The kids were pretty frustrated about that and showed a lot of character to come back and win Saturday. I’d have rather seen us win on Friday, but Saturday’s win helped tremendouly.
Pick: It’s hard to pick against Sacred Heart, but home ice will probably be the difference in this one. UConn wins, 4-3, in overtime.
The MAAC will present postseason awards at its annual banquet, to be held on the UConn Campus on Wednesday, March 15, one night before the MAAC final four kicks off. In preparation, here are my selections for those awards. Of course, the common disclaimer that my vote means nothing applies.
MAAC Offensive Player of the Year: Shawn Mansoff, Quinnipiac College.
When Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold signed a transfer student two seasons ago, not many people may have known the impact. The player was Shawn Mansoff, from the University of Maine, and he decided to part ways with the Black Bears knowing that he would have to sit out the 1998-99 season by NCAA rules. His return to hockey, though, came with a monumental explosion.
In his first season with the Braves, Mansoff registered 52 points (27 goals, 25 assists) to capture the league scoring title. Going into the final weekend of the season, Mansoff was deadlocked with Bentley’s Ryan Soderquist, with a head-to-head series with the Falcons to decide the title. Responding as a player of his caliber would, Mansoff notched eight points (three goals, five assists), to win going away.
"I think Shawn is the best player in our league," said Pecknold. "The greatest thing about him is he’s the best defensive forward in our league. He does it all, and on the flip side he led the league in scoring.
"His work ethic is just phenomenal. He might not have the most pure talent in the league, but he’s the best all-around player."
MAAC Offensive Rookie of the Year: Martin Paquet, Sacred Heart University
One of the most impressive freshmen to watch this season had to be Sacred Heart’s Martin Paquet. In his first season, Paquet posted a team-best 39 points (18 goals, 21 assists), and crucial to the Sacred Heart success this season is the fact that Paquet’s best games have come against the top teams in the league.
He has posted 10 multiple point games this season, with one against Quinnpiac, one against Canisius and two against each of Mercyhurst and Connecticut. His best performance was a four-point (two goals, two assists) game early in the season against Canisius.
"Marty is the type of kid that rises to the occasion when there’s a challenge ahead of him," said Hannah. "As the year has progressed, he’s really started to do a lot on the ice. It’s something that we need him to do this weekend and from what I’ve seen, he’s prepared."
MAAC Defensive Player of the Year and Defensive Rookie of the Year: Matt Erhart, Quinnipiac College
After posting a very impressive rookie campaign on defense, Quinnipiac’s Matt Erhart earns my vote for both MAAC Defensive Player and Defensive Rookie of the Year. Erhart quietly scored 31 points (three goals, 28 assists) for the Braves this season, including a career-best five-assist game last weekend against Bentley.
But more important than his offensive contributions was the solid defense for which Erhart could be relied upon. Of the many high-scoring candidates for this award, Erhart was easily the hardest-working defensive player. Quinnipiac head coach Rand Pecknold agrees.
"Matt is a full-package — he’s great offensively, but he’s the best defensive defenseman I have," Pecknold said. "He has the ability to break the puck out of the zone, whether is be by a solid pass or simply skating the puck himself. He’s a great all-around hockey player who could play anywhere in the country. We’re extremely fortunate to have him at Quinnipiac."
MAAC Goaltender of the Year: Sean Weaver, Canisius College
No player surprised MAAC fans, coaches and players as much as Canisius College goaltender Sean Weaver. After seeing limited action his freshman year, Weaver split time with Stephen Fabiilli in the Canisius net this season, creating one of the best one-two goaltending punches in college hockey.
This season, Weaver made 21 starts and posted an 11-6-4 record, with a 2.30 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage. Weaver had two record-setting performances in net for the Ice Griffs, making a school-record 58 saves in both starts. The first time was a 3-1 loss to league champion Quinnipiac in which Weaver stopped 58 of 60 shots. The second, just three weeks ago, was a 2-1 upset victory over crosstown rival Niagara. In that game, the Griffs were outshot 59-19, but thanks to Weaver’s efforts held on for a 2-1 victory.
"Sean is both talented on the ice and in the classroom," said Canisius coach Brian Cavanaugh. "He’s a 3.8 student. He carries that knowledge onto the ice as he has a keen insight into the game. He’s very much a leader on and off the ice."
MAAC Coach of the Year: Shaun Hannah, Sacred Heart University
One of the easiest awards to pick this season has to be the MAAC Coach of the Year. Sacred Heart University has and that is done a 180 with its hockey program in less than a year, thanks in no small part to head coach Shaun Hannah.
Now in his fourth year, Hannah has transformed the program from a second-to-last finish one year ago to a tie for fourth place this season. Thanks to solid recruiting efforts during his tenure, Hannah has built one of the strongest walls on defense, led by goaltender Alexis Jutras-Binet. In one season, Hannah improved his club’s record from 7-23-1 to this year’s overall record of 16-14-3.
First-Team MAAC All-Stars
Forwards: Shawn Mansoff, Quinnipiac Ryan Soderquist, Bentley Chris Cerrella, Quinnipiac
Defensemen: Matt Erhart, Quinnipiac Jim Whelan, Holy Cross
Goaltender: Sean Weaver, Canisius
Second-Team MAAC All-Stars
Forwards: Martin Paquet, Sacred Heart Louis Goulet, Mercyhurst Ryan Carter, Iona
Defensemen: Jody Robinson, Mercyhurst Anthony DiPalma, Quinnipiac
Goaltender: Ashley Stevens, Mercyhurst
MAAC All-Rookie Team
Forwards: Rae Metz, Fairfield Martin Paquet, Sacred Heart Brian Herbert, Quinnipiac
Defensemen: Matt Erhart, Quinnipiac Les Hrapchak, Sacred Heart
Goaltender: Mike Fraser, Iona