It’s that time of year again — the time when you sit back, relax, watch football (well, in my case, extra hockey), eat lots of food, and don’t feel guilty for being a pig.
No, I’m not talking about Super Bowl Sunday: I’m referring to the mouth-stuffing festival known to me and my fellow Americans as Thanksgiving.
And because it’s Thanksgiving, that means one thing for my faithful readers — a week off from the regular MAAC column, so that we can all reflect on what those associated with the MAAC have to be thankful for!
What better place to start than beautiful Storrs, Conn., and UConn coach Bruce Marshall? I’m sure Marshall was proud to raise the school’s first MAAC championship banner this fall, even though the team was licking its wounds from three losses to Hockey East teams Merrimack and Lowell. But alas, Bruce, you can find solace in the fact that your mighty Huskies walked into UMass-Amherst last week a earn a well-respected tie with the Minutemen.
So as Bruce Marshall sits down this Thanksgiving, I think that he’ll give a prayer of thanks to whoever it was who put Artie Imbriano in a UConn sweater. After losing Marc Senerchia, the goalie who carried UConn to the postseason title, last year, Marshall’s heart rate probably was a little unstable until the mighty Imbriano shined rays of hope onto the UConn season. Let’s hope it lasts, coach!
As we travel west this Thanksgiving holiday, we stop in Erie, Penn., to visit the Thanksgiving table of Rick Gotkin, one of the humblest coaches in the MAAC. Right now, I suspect he is very thankful for the fact that Fairfield University hired coach Jim Hunt, who last weekend led the Stags past Quinnipiac, leaving Gotkin’s Lakers the only undefeated team in MAAC play. With 11 points, the Lakers are two points behind Quinnipiac with two games in hand.
But Mercyhurst isn’t alone in that second position. As we travel a bit southeast from Erie, and arrive in beautiful New Rochelle, N.Y., to Frank Bretti’s Thanksgiving table, we find a very happy coach celebrating his Thanksgiving dinner. Not only does Bretti have a trip to the MAAC Championship game to be thankful for, but he also can reflect on the balance of power his Gaels have attained.
That balance is twofold. For one, the Gaels have made a pretty clear statement to the league that this will not be a two-team race by catching Mercyhurst for second place this past weekend. Balance continues as one looks at Bretti’s offense. No fewer than six players are averaging a point per game in MAAC play, with 21 players registering at least one point thus far.
Now Bretti and the Gaels just have to figure out what to do about the second period, in which the team has been outscored 18-9 (13-8 in league games) this season. Iona has been a strong starter (+8 in league games, +7 overall) and finisher (+10 in league games, +9 overall). Maybe Bretti can ask Santa Claus to take away the middle period.
A week ago, if I was writing this, I would have noted that the aforementioned Jim Hunt would be thankful to never have to play Quinnipiac University again. After an atrocious 10-0 spanking 11 days ago at the hands of the Braves, you’d think that another matchup, no matter when, would be too soon. But not so. As I already mentioned, Fairfield was able to pull off the upset of upsets last weekend, beating Quinnipiac, 1-0, while holding the offense to only 17 shots. For the record, that is 10 goals and 25 shots less, just one week later.
So I guess if Jim Hunt has something to be thankful for, it’s the old cliche, “On any given night, any team can beat any other team.” To recycle another, I guess that’s why they play the games…
As thanks a-plenty abound this season, another coach who has more than enough is Sacred Heart’s Shaun Hannah. Though a 5-4-1 record at Thanksgiving probably isn’t what Hannah was looking for, especially seeing that his club was riding a three-game losing streak before Tuesday’s win over AIC, it will be many Thanksgivings from now before Hannah will forget his team’s accomplishments of Saturday, November 4.
When the buzzer sounded at Cornell’s Lynah Rink that night, Hannah was on the winning side, a scene familiar to him during the four years he played at Cornell. But this time, coaching Sacred Heart, Hannah and his Pioneers pulled off the biggest upset in MAAC history, beating Cornell, 5-3. On that night Hannah’s Pioneers became the first MAAC team to beat a member of the “Big Four” conferences. Surely more than just Hannah will give thanks for that win.
At Quinnipiac University, you’d think that there would be plenty to be thankful for. The team is currently sitting in first place, but because of the loss of defenseman Dan Ennis for what probably will be the entire season, a climb to the MAAC championship and the NCAA tournament may be a little uphill.
And though the Braves nicely handled Holy Cross on Tuesday night, it was just two nights after a no-show performance against Fairfield that resulted in Quinnipiac’s first regular-season MAAC loss in more than a year. But worry not, Braves fans, there’s plenty of hockey left, and in the end, you can expect to see the Braves on top.
The newest member at the MAAC Thanksgiving table, Army coach Rob Riley, is thankful that his Black Knights found the winning track. After starting out the MAAC season with tough losses to Quinnipiac and Iona, Riley’s squad claimed three solid wins that started at Bentley College three weeks ago. That gives Army a .500 record (3-3-0) at this point, maybe a little below prognosticators’ expectations, but nonetheless a solid start to Army’s MAAC history.
Speaking of Bentley, head coach Jim McAdam surely isn’t the happiest of MAAC coaches. With nothing to show except a tie against Canisius in the first weekend of the season, McAdam’s squad has struggled defensively — allowing 200 more shots than they have taken in the club’s first 10 games — and has been outscored 63-17 thus far.
The loss of forward Ryan Soderquist to graduation has hurt the Bentley offense, as the only player to pick up the slack has been sophomore defenseman Steve Tobio (seven points). But with that in mind, senior goaltender Ray DeVincent is seeing plenty of rubber. The brightest light for McAdam is the play of freshman Mike Mulligan, who has scored six goals in 10 games.
The biggest surprise this season has to be Gary Wright’s American International squad. The Yellow Jackets’ coach has plenty to be thankful for, including goaltender Chance Thede. The senior from Littleton, Colo., has been hot and cold over his four years at AIC. But solid performances, including a shutout against Fairfield and a 44-save performance in a 1-1 draw on the road with Mercyhurst, have given Wright plenty to smile about this Thanksgiving. A 3-4-1 league record has AIC atop the four-through-nine pack of teams separated by just two points in the standings.
Included in those four-through-nine are the first two combatants in the inaugural MAAC championship game, which today seems so long ago. Holy Cross and Canisius may not be the same caliber of teams that fought to a dramatic conclusion to the MAAC season two years ago, but don’t count either of them down for the count.
Paul Pearl’s Crusaders have shown signs of brilliance this season, especially in the area where they struggled so badly last year: goaltending.
Junior Derek Cunha and rookie Rick Massey have split time in net, and have suffered some tough-luck losses. Over a five-game stretch from November 3 to 17, all five Holy Cross games were decided by one goal, including a loss to AIC in overtime. There will be plenty more one-goal games for the Crusaders, and their success in those games will be the difference between a ninth-place and a fourth-place finish come March.
Our Thanksgiving trip ends in the snowcapped mountains of Switzerland, er, Buffalo. I guess with 25 inches of snow on the ground, it’s hard to tell the difference.
Canisius coach Brian Cavanaugh is thankful for one thing: the fact that games are not played entirely by special teams. The perennial powerhouse Ice Griffs have struggled this season both on the power play (13.2%) and the penalty kill (74.6%). More importantly, the Griffs have had trouble getting the lead, having played nearly half of their minutes this season trying to come from behind. That is mostly due to the fact that Canisius has scored the first goal in just one of its 10 games.
The brightest note for the Griffs continues to be the play of goaltender Sean Weaver. A rookie standout a year ago, Weaver has posted a 3-3-0 record and looks to be claiming the starting job.
And so we end our Thanksgiving journey. I guess it’s only fitting to close with a broader thanksgiving for the league this year, one that everyone knew about long before Halloween pumpkins began to rot — the MAAC’s new automatic berth in the NCAA championship.
For that, the thanks will resound well past Thanksgiving dinner, all the way to late March, when one representative from the MAAC will skate to Grand Rapids, Mich., for the chance to broaden the MAAC legacy, this time in the national championship.