This Week In The MAAC: March 14, 2001

MAAC Conference Call

Six months comes down to 60 minutes. Well, 120 if you’re lucky.

Six months of lacing skates, putting on the gear, lifting weights and riding the bike will all culminate for four teams — Mercyhurst, Quinnipiac, Iona and Canisius — this Thursday afternoon when the MAAC tournament get underway. The goal simply will be survival, as both semifinal match-ups are true grudge matches.

Longtime ECAC West rivals Canisius College and Mercyhurst will play the early game (Thursday, 4:00 PM ET, UConn Ice Arena, Storrs, Conn.), while Quinnipiac and Iona will play in the late game (Thursday, 7:00 ET) in a rematch of last year’s semifinals.

The winners match up in the championship tilt on Saturday at noon ET (TV: Empire Sports MSG, live; NESN, 3:00 P.M. ET, tape delay).

For three teams, the season ends here. But to the champion certainly go the spoils — a ticket to the NCAA championships, and most likely a trip to Grand Rapids, Mich, for the West Regional.

NCAA Bid is Pot o’ Gold on St. Patty’s Day

Maybe the Mercyhurst Lakers have the biggest advantage playing in their green and white sweaters over the St. Patrick’s Day weekend. They probably hope that they have a little leprechaun on their side, but most importantly, they hope to see the Pot o’ Gold at the end of the rainbow.

Whereas Holy Cross and UConn were very happy to take their MAAC tournament trophies home (and seeing as both teams were hosts for the respective tournaments, they didn’t have to go far), for this year’s winner there’s a lot more at stake.

The Pot o’ Gold, known better as an NCAA tournament berth, is the ultimate reward for the players, coaches, staff and fans. And even though the winner will be the biggest underdog in the history of the NCAA tournament, the chance to play is more than enough reward.

“Coming into this year, once we got the news of the bid, there was a sense around the league of validation to our conference,” said Iona head coach Frank Bretti. “To think about how quickly our league has grown is great, and I just think this is going to be an unbelievable weekend.

“For the four teams to be thinking of [making the NCAA tourney] right now is truly something that everyone should be really proud of. There isn’t an hour that goes by when you’re not thinking, ‘Holy smokes, we can do this.'”

Canisius coach Brian Cavanaugh was a little more reminiscent of the past.

“I can remember there were times [when Canisius was in the ECAC] when, at the coaches convention in Florida, we’d talk about that we could get into a league that we could play in the NCAA tournament,” said Cavanaugh. “We’d watch teams like Elmira and RIT go on.

“I think back to all the players that wanted that situation and thanks to the MAAC and its members, I’m almost nostalgic about it. This is a great period of time for the MAAC league. It’s exciting and it will bring a lot of attention to our league.”

So everyone wants to find the Pot o’ Gold. It seems almost fitting that the semifinals are played on March 15. So in the words of William Shakespeare, “Beware the Ides of March!”

Semifinal No. 1
No. 4 Canisius (17-11-4, 13-9-4 MAAC) vs. No. 1 Mercyhurst (20-11-2, 19-6-1 MAAC)
Thursday, March 15, 2001 UConn Ice Arena, 4:00 P.M. ET

Season Series: Mercyhurst leads, 2-1-0
@ Mercyhurst 4, Canisius 0
Mercyhurst 6, @ Canisius 2
Canisius 3, @ Mercyhurst 1

With the MAAC such a young league, with teams comprised from so many different Division II and III conferences, the word “rivalry” becomes a light term. Certainly Army and UConn, for example, have never battled for anything of substance, like a league championship. So beyond what has developed in the three years of the MAAC, rivalries are few and far between.

Unless, that is, you go to the furthest points north and west in the conference — Buffalo, N.Y. and Erie, Penn — to find Canisius and Mercyhurst. Both longtime members of the ECAC West, each school enjoyed great success as Division II and III institutions. And with their geographic proximity (only about an hour apart), they have long been true rivals.

The rivalry, though, is not the typical love-hate relationship you might find between Michigan and Michigan State or Boston College and Boston University.

“Rick’s a real good friend of mine,” said Canisius head coach Brian Cavanaugh of Mercyhurst hockey dean Rick Gotkin. “I actually recruited him to go to Brockport when he was an undergrad and we’ve been coaching against each other for a while.”

Said Gotkin: “We have a great deal of respect for not only Canisius’ hockey team but also for Brian’s coaching. We’ve played some great games against Canisius over the years and look forward to another one [on Thursday].”

Since moving to the MAAC (Canisius in the 1998-99 season, Mercyhurst in 1999-00), each team has visited the final four once. Canisius surprised then-favorite Quinnipiac with a 5-2 win in the 1999 tournament before falling to host Holy Cross, 4-3, in the championship game. Mercyhurst’s fortunes weren’t as good last year, losing to host Connecticut in the semifinals. The Huskies went on to capture the title with a 6-1 win over Iona.

Now, in relation to the second semifinal featuring Quinnipiac and Iona, both of which needed overtime to advance to the final four, the qualifying round for Canisius and Mercuhurst seems like a cakewalk. Don’t tell that to Cavanaugh.

“We’re all tired and beat up and we’re hoping Coach Gotkin will take it easy on us,” Cavanaugh, whose Griffs knocked out defending champion UConn, 4-1, joked.

Mercyhurst, though known for its defensive aptitude, didn’t impress many allowing five goals to eighth-seeded Fairfield in the quarterfinals. The Lakers, though, did prove why they are so dangerous, lighting the lamp 10 times, including seven goals in a 17-minute span of the second period.

Gotkin admits that his club was a little bit nervous last weekend but thinks that has subsided heading into the semis.

“I felt tons more pressure last weekend playing a very good Fairfield team,” said Gotkin. “We believe right now that the top four teams in the MAAC are in the final four. The only advantage we have is packing only one set of sweaters. If we win Thursday, we’ll get to wear the same white jerseys on Saturday.”

As far as what Gotkin expects to face in the semifinals, he’s not so sure. Though he has had ample opportunity to scout Canisius, the Lakers coach believes the Griffs have a little something up their sleeve.

“He (Cavanaugh) has a few things planned for us, I’m sure, and we’re just trying to figure out what they are,” said Gotkin. “[Canisius is a] very hard working team. They have very good depth and they’re solid in goal. They have a lot of guys that if you don’t keep track of them they’ll put the puck in the net.”

Cavanaugh believes, maybe, that there will be less trickery from Gotkin. But the Mercyhurst team that he knows too well, is frightening.

“I think the most interesting thing about Mercyhurst is how strong they’ve been defensively. In the past, they were always a team that was explosive offensively. They have that fire power and have added the element of a strong goaltender and a strong defense. That’s a real tough formula to compete against.”

Pick: The number-one seed will finally make it to the championship game. Mercyhurst, 3-2.

Semifinal No. 2
No. 3 Iona (18-12-4, 16-6-4 MAAC) vs. No. 2 Quinnipiac (21-10-4, 17-7-2 MAAC)
Thursday, March 15, 2001 UConn Ice Arena, 7:30 P.M. ET

Season Series: Quinnipiac leads, 1-0-1
@Iona 5, Quinnipiac 5 (OT)
@Quinnipiac 3, Iona 1

Both Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold and Iona coach Frank Bretti added something to their repertoire last weekend — gray hair.

The number-two and -three seeds, respectively, Quinnipiac and Iona both needed overtime to dispose of their quarterfinal opponents. Quinnipiac was forced to hold on by a thread after letting a two-goal third period lead slip away against Army, while Iona needed a third-period rally to force overtime against Sacred Heart.

“We all know it’s been a long season and with a one-game elimination it gets a little scary,” said Bretti, whose Gaels trailed 2-1 in the third to Sacred Heart before Nathan Lutz scored in the final four minutes to tie it. “We were on that edge on Saturday night and I’m proud of my guys for prevailing.

“We came out and kind of felt the pressure in the building after what had happened last year (pulling off upsets in the first two rounds to advance to the finals). Anything but getting back to the final four would have been disappointing.”

Even though Iona scored first and looked like they would take a 1-0 lead into the first, the Pioneers responded with a late goal to send the teams into the looker rooms tied.

“When Sacred Heart scored late in the first, we got the feeling that we could let it slip away,” Bretti said.

And when Sacred Heart scored midway through the second, the game had all but slipped away.

“We wondered how our guys would respond with their backs against the wall,” said Bretti, “and we’re glad they responded well.”

With one round out of the way, Bretti’s club now must face Quinnipiac, the preseason favorite, in a rematch of last year’s MAAC semifinals. Similar to what Canisius accomplished two years ago, Iona upset Quinnipiac last year, giving the top seed an early exit once again.

That fact alone makes Bretti think that the beast he will face in the Braves might be a little hungrier.

“Last year created a little bit of a rivalry,” Bretti said. “This game is going to be tremendous and the Quinnipiac guys will be real fired up for us.

“The fact that we got over the hump in this game last year, I’m hoping that will relax our team a little.”

Quinnipiac hopes differently. As a top seed that has been upset in the last two MAAC semifinals, a trip to the finals probably seems well overdue. But Pecknold’s team hasn’t had the consistency of the last few years, something the young coach isn’t afraid to admit.

“Our year has been interesting. We’ve been through a lot of peaks and valleys,” Pecknold said. “The low point was in January was when we lost five out of six. But we’ve rebounded from that a little.

“We’ve gone through a tremendous amount of ups and downs. We have a lot of seniors and I’m hoping that our seniors will be able to step up and give us some success in the finals.”

Not exactly a vote of confidence. As Pecknold continues, you almost think he’s trying to make his team the underdog.

“I think there’s just a lot of uncertainty for the whole team in general. We’ve had such an up-and-down year. Army gave us a huge scare, but it’s hard to predict what my kids are thinking. I think all four teams are capable of winning it, and I can’t tell you what our mindset is right now.”

Is that the endorsement of the year, or what?

So with Frank Bretti telling us that Quinnipiac will be hungry for revenge, and Rand Pecknold telling us he’s unsure if his team will bring its Tiger Woods A-game, what can we really expect?

For one thing, just be glad this isn’t boxing, because there’s so little hype we wouldn’t get through the first round.

Truly, I think this will be the better of the two semifinals. Both teams will be hungry, because, heck, if you can’t get up for this game, do you deserve to play for a shot at the NCAA championship?

Pick: If both teams show up, this battle should go to Quinnipiac. But they’ve never gone as predicted in the past, so I can’t pick the Braves this year. Iona, 4-3 in overtime.

MAAC Championship Game
Saturday, March 17, 2001 UConn Ice Arena, Noon ET
TV: Empire Sports Network, MSG — Live; NESN — Tape Delay (3:00 P.M. ET)

Time for someone to take home the Pot o’ Gold — and see what lies ahead on Selection Sunday. Last year’s final was a blowout, something that, regardless of the two teams involved, we will not see again.

Picks: So as to cover all the bases…

If Mercyhurst faces Iona: Mercyhurst, 5-3.
If Mercyhurst faces Quinnipiac: Mercyhurst, 3-2.
If Canisius faces Iona: Iona, 5-4.
If Canisius faces Quinnipiac: Quinnipiac, 3-2

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